Education Opinion


March 24, 2004 13 min read
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Good Research Has More Than One ‘Voice’

As I was preparing a response to your article on the soon-to-be-released book The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research, I was struck for the first time by the wording of its title (“Book on ‘Scientifically Based’ Reading Research to Debut,” March 10, 2004). In fact, originally I mistakenly wrote it as “Voices"—plural—rather than “Voice,” singular.

How telling that we have a group of government-approved researchers proclaiming, One voice, the voice,one truth, one way, one world-view for all of us. Apparently the authors failed to see the irony of their choice of words.

Such a singular approach to research is in fact the very antithesis of scientific inquiry, for doesn’t truly objective research not only tolerate, but actually invite, alternative views and legitimate critiques?

Thus, we have an oxymoron. In the name of science, we have a single authoritative voice proselytizing one absolute truth. What’s even more frightening is that our own federal government is policing the acceptance of that “truth.”

At the very heart of a democracy, there must exist an openness to many voices, for it is that plurality and receptiveness to alternative views that distinguishes a democracy from a totalitarian regime.

What we see, then, in the title of this book is a reflection of the narrow, restrictive, undemocratic, and ultimately nonscientific world view that is the defining characteristic of the National Institute for Child Health and Development and the administration that created the No Child Left Behind Act.

Elaine Garan
California State University-Fresno
Fresno, Calif.

To the Editor:

Since I haven’t yet read the National Institute for Child Health and Development’s new book, The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research, I can’t make any judgments about the quality or veracity of its contents. However, the title alone makes me a little queasy. How can there be just one “voice” of scientific evidence in any field? The medical model of research, so revered by the NICHD and several of the book’s contributors, does not produce only one treatment for an illness, or one recommendation for healthy living. Why then, should we accept one prescription for children’s reading instruction, especially when that prescription, as laid out in the National Reading Panel’s report, grew out of a deliberately narrow examination of selected evidence?

Joanne Yatvin
National Reading Panel Member
Portland, Ore.

The ‘Terrorist’ Remark: Another Perspective

To the Editor:

As the president of the Houston Classroom Teachers Association, I have had the opportunity to observe for nearly a decade both U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, our district’s former superintendent, and Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (“Furor Lingers Over Paige’s Union Remark,” March 3, 2004).

In politics, there are no such things as permanent enemies or permanent friends, only permanent interests. I have watched Ms. Fallon and Mr. Paige develop mutually beneficial interests. They make fascinating character studies, and I am an ardent student of both of them.

So, I must disagree with Ms. Fallon’s interpretation of Secretary Paige’s “terrorist” comment. I don’t think there has ever been a time when he did not mean whatever he said, and say what he meant. But as for sense of humor, Ms. Fallon’s comments are nearly always funny to me, and never more so than when she is being sincere in her defense of Secretary Paige.

Coletta Sayer
Houston Classroom Teachers Association
Houston, Texas

Economic Metaphor Goes Beyond Schools

To the Editor:

I enjoyed the economic metaphor developed by Ronald Thorpe (“Too Much Talent Chasing Too Few Opportunities,” Commentary, March 3, 2004). But I was surprised that someone writing from the point of view of a public-television executive would couch his argument so fully in the schools.

Contrary to what Mr. Thorpe posits, all 5-year-olds do not come to kindergarten with the same amount of “money” to spend. As is well-documented, poor children enter kindergarten with smaller vocabularies than their higher-socioeconomic counterparts, and preschool vocabulary is one of the best predictors of school success. Couple that with a dearth of enrichment activities in poor neighborhood schools and, as Mr. Thorpe would point out, the rich get richer.

I am writing because I agree so strongly with him on the importance of early investment in opportunities for young children, the role of engagement in learning, and the need for a “change in basic expectations.” But these needs resonate all the more for families and their infants and toddlers.

Public television leads the way with quality adult-education and early-childhood programming. It is time for schools and educators to take, if not ownership, then at least consideration of adult learning, prenatal care, early brain development, and all the language growth that happens before the age of 5. The more opinion influencers like Mr. Thorpe keep framing the debate as a school-age issue, the less “community sports, cultural, and service organizations,” as well as health and child-care providers and parents themselves, will feel as if they can enter the debate.

It is not just a fixation on test scores that limits the “goods” that are available to children; it is the fixation on schools. Deploring the achievement gap doesn’t open the discussion about the preparation gap and the ways all members of a community can contribute to children’s eventual school success.

Kimberly Suttell
Program Director
Literacy Inc. (LINC)
New York, N.Y.

Boards Should Protect The Few From the ‘Folks’

To the Editor:

The disputed issue in California’s Elk Grove school district is whether the teacher-led recital of the Pledge of Allegiance should include the words “under God” (“Pledge Debate Taken to Heart in Calif. District,” March 3, 2004). Regardless of what one thinks of this issue, the reason for any action should not be, as Elk Grove school board member Brian D. Myers put it, that “our district is 99.9 percent in support of our board.”

If Mr. Myers were talking about the school prom or the football team’s receiving funds, I might agree. But majorities in our country—or in large sections of it—once favored slavery, males-only suffrage, burning witches at the stake, and maintaining separate facilities for blacks and whites, including segregated schools.

Talk show host Bill O’Reilly always uses the argument that the “folks” are against all this secularism. He may be right, but the courts have to protect the groups that could be victimized by policies other folks endorse.

Elliot Kotler
Ossining, N.Y.

Yesterday’s Education Should Be ‘Left Behind’

To the Editor:

Many across the political spectrum have called on the Bush administration to modify or even withdraw portions of the No Child Left Behind Act, regarding the law as poorly constructed, underfunded, or unconstitutional (“Federal Overreaching?” Letters, March 3, 2004). But the best course of action would be for the states to be masters of their fate and simply withdraw from compliance with the federal legislation.

Success for any organization requires clarity of purpose and a shared vision to guide and energize its people. The failure of states to act more forcefully is a clear sign that they see schooling as a problem to be solved, rather than a vision to be fulfilled. Compared with every state’s ennobling vision of education, the federal program would seem utterly uninspiring and totally unacceptable.

We need a new education system to replace the Industrial Age model, and it is not represented in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law, which is “more of the same"—more tests and more control over students and educators.

Instead of treating students as passive objects on an assembly line and subjecting them to year-end tests that limit the scope of their learning, schools should allow students to be self-directed, to demonstrate their capabilities when they are ready, and to be free to develop their full potential.

Self-directed learners would learn democracy by living it, participating in all decisions that affect them, and through operating their own judicial system to preserve discipline. Traditional classrooms would be abolished and replaced by one large room, housing 150 multiage, self-directed “learners” and five teachers who work with them continuously.

Students would participate in a variety of internships and be exposed to several mentors and career possibilities. This new, self-paced system would allow every child to succeed and would cost 20 percent less, saving the nation $75 billion annually. Seventeen states would save more than $1 billion annually, ranging up to $14 billion for New York state.

The failure to propose a sound vision for education rests with the states and the American people. The federal government’s efforts merely fill the vacuum created at the state and local levels and reinforce the irrelevant, obsolete system. Yesterday’s school system should be “left behind,” and states and localities should take back their roles and exercise their exclusive power to design a new system for the modern era.

Morton Egol
Chief Executive Officer
Wisdom Dynamics
Tenafly, N.J.

School Sexual Abuse

As someone interested in using high-quality education research to improve the conditions in our schools, both academic and societal, I was very disappointed by your article “Sexual Abuse by Educators Is Scrutinized,” (March 10, 2004) and by your decision to publish it. My concern stems not from reporting on the topic of the sexual abuse of students in our schools, which is critically important, but from the journalistic decisions that resulted in reporting on a draft study that has not been subjected to any type of peer review and is not publicly available for examination.

Even a cursory examination of the highlights shows that the research was based on such weak data as to be virtually valueless from a policy perspective. Yet, because the article includes phrases such as “millions of children,” “the scope of the problem appears to far exceed the priest abuse scandal,” and “rape,” we are distracted from the fact that the headline and initial pronouncements of extensive abuse reflect, at best, an educated guess, and at worst, an inaccurate exaggeration. The content of this article could just as easily have been—and should have been—offered in language designed to inform, not incite.

Sexual abuse anywhere—in schools, churches, or homes—is unacceptable and should be addressed in a thoughtful and careful manner that protects both the abused and the accused, as well as punishing the guilty. It should not be the result of inaccurate, unavailable, and incomplete research, or reporting that uses emotion-laden language to raise cries of crisis.

Dan Laitsch
Senior Policy Analyst
Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development
Alexandria, Va.

To the Editor:

Sexual misconduct of varying degrees by school employees with students is a reality in our public schools. I am a teacher representative on the licensure commission of my state, and some of these cases are of a level that calls for the revocation of an educator’s license or for an educator’s suspension. Local school boards also deal with these cases on a too-frequent basis. In some instances, the school employee pleads guilty, in others, a trial takes place and the educator may be found guilty in a court of law. Of course, there are cases in which the misconduct charges made by students are not proven.

While I have no figures on the extent of this problem, the fact that it does occur should be reason enough for concern. I believe we should all be more vigilant, especially at the building level.

Renee Moore
National Board-Certified Teacher
Broad Street High School
Shelby, Miss.

To the Editor:

The comments by Kathleen Lyons, the National Education Association’s spokeswoman, were extremely disappointing. Sexual abuse within the public school system is a real problem. It would have been proper for her to acknowledge that fact. Ms. Lyons should have explained how her organization plans to address this problem. Unfortunately, she took “great umbrage” at a “misuse of data.”

The failure to affirm the pain that even one abused child suffers (let alone thousands) because of predators working within our nation’s schools makes me think that, to some educators and their union representatives, it’s not really about the kids.

Susan Ryan
Farmer City, Ill.

To the Editor:

As an urban educator for almost a decade, I can say without exaggeration that I was personally aware of over a dozen school personnel who had sexual relations with students, and dozens more who sexually harassed and pursued students for sex. Only a few of my attempts to rectify the situation resulted in prosecution; most were purposely covered up by the school system.

While your article states that there is currently no reliable or valid research to identify prevalence, this doesn’t mean that abuse does not exist. Any case of sexual abuse is a permanent, life-altering crime. The actual prevalence of sexual abuse in America’s schools, albeit unknown, is the country’s best-ignored social ill.

We need to throw the same level of intensity and resources into solving this horrific problem that we would to cure an outbreak of smallpox.

M.J. Basso
Atlanta, Ga.

To the Editor:

First U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige calls the National Education Association a “terrorist organization” (“Furor Lingers Over Paige’s Union Remark,” March 3, 2004). Then a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education suggests that teachers are sexually abusing students in vast numbers. No wonder 31 percent of school superintendents surveyed by Public Agenda called the No Child Left Behind Act “a disguised effort to attack and destroy public education.”

One provision of that legislation requires the completion of a “study regarding the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools.” Researcher Charol Shakeshaft relied heavily on a 2000 survey of 2,064 public school students in grades 8-11, “Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School.” From that small sample of behaviors, she concludes that “nearly 10 percent of American students are targets of unwanted sexual attention by public school employees.”

During my 20-year career as a secondary school teacher, a school board member, and a mother of adolescent schoolchildren, I have interacted with about 5,000 secondary students. The study you reported on suggests that 500 of these 5,000 students have experienced unwanted sexual attention by educators. I find those numbers to be unfathomable.

Imagine typical teenagers being asked to rate teacher conduct that might be considered unwanted sexual attention. How would they define harassment? Where is the line between teasing and abusing? How did the students surveyed relate to their teachers beforehand? Was there mutual respect or dislike? Were these successful or struggling students? How perceptive were they to the nuances of social interaction?

Some teachers do tell jokes that make students uncomfortable; is that sexual abuse? Teachers are warned against touching students, but I am guilty of giving or receiving hugs. I know of teachers “flirting” with students, which is clearly inappropriate. Colleagues have shared concerns about girls dressed in miniskirts exposing their bodies. On rare occasions teachers do cross the line; what profession is perfect? But I would surely have noticed 500 instances of sexual abuse by educators.

In light of the rising challenges facing educators and the looming shortages of teachers, stealth attacks against them are unconscionable.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Willard, Ohio


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