Education Letter to the Editor


January 23, 2002 9 min read
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Schools Need to ‘Get Fully Child-Centered’

To the Editor:

Applause to Tony Wagner for his assertions about the benefits of smaller schools (“The Case for ‘New Village’ Schools,” Commentary, Dec. 5, 2001.) Any continued enthusiasm toward the economies of scale or the more comprehensive programs in larger schools is an indication that we still don’t have our eyes up front on the board. Schools, especially in today’s overdue move to “leave no child behind,” need to refocus on the individual student and humbly learn lessons from those programs that are achieving success.

This national wake-up cannot be about which superintendent can run the largest district or which principals can juggle the most students or manage the largest number of teachers. We need to get fully child-centered and more decentralized in building, staffing, and funding our schools. We need to abandon the factory model of education.

It is well past time to move aggressively as a nation on this—it has been two decades since “a rising tide of mediocrity” slapped us on our knuckles—and we need Washington to take leadership. When a principal or headmaster wants to send his teachers out to learn about the best practices in, say, integrating technology into a 4th grade social studies curriculum, there ought to be a central database of teachers and schools—public, private, charter, religious—that are doing it well and might have some lessons for their brethren. We need to benchmark not only entire schools, but also specific programs and instructors within our schools. We need to create a national method for individual teachers to be powerful beacons of success even within struggling schools.

Washington needs to ask a range of school leaders to create a nonpartisan information system for our nation’s best teachers and best schools to lock arms and move forward together, pulling everyone along behind them in their slipstream of excellence.

Our pedagogical discussions nationally and locally should be about the students and only about the students. People protecting their administrative or classroom turf shouldn’t be allowed to sit at the table of educational conversation, or we risk having our schools become places where young people go to watch old people work.

John D. Fixx
The Lexington School
Lexington, Ky.

Two Ways to Close’Preparation Gap’

To the Editor:

In his recent Commentary (“The Preparation Gap,” Nov. 28, 2001) , National Urban League President Hugh B. Price suggests that to eliminate the achievement gap for poor and minority students, we must first deal effectively with what he calls “the preparation gap.” To him, “job one” is to see that every child learns to read on grade level by the 4th grade or earlier.

Most educators would agree. But this raises a most important question that we must deal with first: What specifically does every child need to know and be able to do to read on grade level (and not slide back)?

For the past eight years, I have struggled with this question and have come to the following conclusions. First, we must all make this closing of the preparation gap our No. 1 priority. Second, we must understand that most reading programs (and schools) do not teach students enough about our language. This is especially true of advanced phonetic decoding and spelling skills, and what students need to do to apply these skills to become independent readers.

Students must learn, among other things, how the mouth works to make and blend sounds, when letters in words are silent, and when they take another letter’s sounds. They must develop rich vocabularies and know how to deal with derived forms of words. They must be taught how to read (and understand) a wide range of written materials.

We have discovered only a couple of programs that deal with language processing to the extent needed (neither of which is widely used). We’ve also discovered that most teachers have not had the kind of in-depth training they need to accomplish what is required.

Mr. Price is right: We have to deal first deal with the preparation gap. We must start early and provide in-depth training not only for our students, but also for all of their teachers in how our language works. We must do this because language is the tool of thinking that can unlock the doors of opportunity.

John W. Massey
South Scotland Elementary School
Laurinburg, N.C.

‘Learning Styles': Unsupported Fad

To the Editor:

I must give credit to the writers of your “Learning Styles,” Commentary (Nov. 28, 2001) for correctly pointing out that the learning-styles paradigm has yet to be supported by scientific research. Nonetheless, I must criticize the essay for its naive assumption that there is no harm in having teachers pursue the idea.

Let me illustrate, using the subject of reading instruction. For students who are not deaf, reading is both a verbal and visual activity. According to credible scientific research, children initially learn to read most effectively through the use of comprehensive and systematic phonics, which teaches them to associate written visual patterns with the vast storehouse of verbal information they already possess. This is no longer a matter worth arguing; it has been established firmly in hundreds of independent, objectively conducted experiments over many decades.

One of the fallacies promoted by the “learning styles” community is that phonics works well only for children who have an “auditory learning style.” With other students, those who supposedly learn “visually,” they say, it is best to avoid phonics and rely more heavily on the memorization of sight words.

This sounds plausible, but it contradicts the scientific research, which says that phonics works best with virtually all children. This particular “learning styles” idea, then, is dead wrong. But since it sounds so reasonable, a lot of teachers are buying in to it. Which means that despite the total absence of any objective method of determining whether a student is “visually oriented,” or whether such an orientation indicates a preference for any particular teaching style, teachers are denying certain students access to the most effective instructional methods based on vague ideas that somebody impressed upon them in some workshop.

The belief in “learning styles” is thus not harmless. As with all scientifically unsupported paradigms, the learning- styles community produces its own folklore, some of it innocuous, but much of it blatantly wrong and therefore destructive.

It is a shame that we use the relatively opaque term “research supported” when describing educational philosophies. What “research supported” actually means is this: “that which has been demonstrated conclusively to work.” That does not apply here.

“Learning styles” is merely one of the latest in a long string of unsupported fads that have plagued the teaching profession throughout the past century. In a decade, it will be forgotten and replaced by whatever the curriculum publishers and consultants want our school districts to buy next. So long as these mercenaries are free to churn the teaching profession at will, with essentially no consequences for failing to properly serve parents and students, teachers will continue to stumble around in the darkness under their influence.

David Ziffer
Batavia, Ill.

Free Software and Tech-Budget Cuts

To the Editor:

In reference to your article “School Efforts In Technology Stalled by Cuts,” (Nov. 14, 2001): Information-technology organizations across the spectrum of environments—education, business, and government—are facing the same budget problems. Too often, software and hardware upgrades are released to meet the suppliers’ revenue targets, rather than because of users’ requirements. Increasingly, these IT organizations are turning to free software to adapt to their new lower budgets.

Open-source-software or free-software programs, known in the field as OSS/FS programs, are those whose licenses permit users the freedom to run the program for any purpose, without payment or restriction on redistribution. If a school’s budget includes costs for upgrades for existing operating systems, new operating systems, office-productivity software, and the required hardware upgrades, these costs can be lowered with OSS/FS programs.

In the article, you say of a school official, “someone recently asked him if there was a light at the end of the economic tunnel for educational technology.” OSS/FS can be that light.

Scott Jung
Framingham Mass.

Letter Writer Amends Affiliation

To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing my letter to the editor about the Gender Equity Expert Panel advising the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement (“Gender-Equity Panel Slighted in Report,” Letters, Jan. 9, 2002).

I would like, however, to correct my affiliation. While I serve on the department’s panel, I am not employed by the Department of Education, but by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Marylin A. Hulme
Senior Project Associate
Equity Assistance Center
Rutgers University
Piscataway, N.J.

Left Below Par: Sorting Students and Democratic Ideals

To the Editor:

Sara Matthews in “Leave No Child Unsuccessful?,” (Commentary, Jan. 9, 2002) provides a wonderful, realistic portrayal of the dilemmas in education that present themselves most clearly in the new federal legislation, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. She asks tough questions that few have dared to speak aloud.

Ms. Matthew struggles with the very democratic ideals of our country. Democracy is based upon the principle of an educated citizenry, one in which all children have equal opportunities. While such democratic ideals pervade our political and educational rhetoric, in reality our capitalistic economic system runs contrary to these ideals. Our economy could not support a well-educated populace. An education, specifically a college degree, is almost a guarantee of middle-class status. Factories and the service industries are based on a low-wage workforce, which would dwindle with higher numbers of educated persons.

Quality education for some and poor educational opportunities for others thus perform a sorting function of those destined to low-wage positions, those destined for middle-class status, and those who will become the doctors, lawyers, corporate presidents, and leaders of our country. Poor grades for some and higher grades for others allows for the same sorting. Schools have developed all kinds of mechanisms to sort children: tracking, Advanced Placement programs, special education, bell-curve grading systems, high-stakes testing, and others.

And if we believe access to good nutrition and health care during the earliest years of life also affect learning, the lack of such systems for many poor families may also sort children into the haves and the have-nots.

In spite of it all, the correct answer to Sara Matthews’ question is that no child should be left behind, and all are worthy of honors. Most of us became teachers because we loved to learn and wanted to show children of all backgrounds the power of education. Unfortunately, poor children and children of color are those most likely to be left behind.

I must believe, however, that our collective work to advocate for all children brings us ever so much closer to realizing the democratic ideals on which our country was based. Though perhaps optimistic, these hopes allow me to continue to try to make things better for all children.

Margaret Adams
Dedham, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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