Education Letter to the Editor


May 22, 2002 11 min read
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Districts Are Losing E-rate Money, Too

To the Editor:

A recent article reported that as much as $1.5 billion to $2.4 billion in annual funding goes unclaimed by school districts that fail to collect Medicaid reimbursements they would otherwise deserve (“Medicaid Money Goes Untapped by Many Schools,” May 8, 2002).

Sadly, a similar situation exists in the federal E-rate program. Although the Universal Service Administrative Co. approved $5.942 billion worth of discounts to help schools and libraries purchase telecommunications services, Internet access, and networking equipment in the program’s first three years, applicants failed to use $1.39 billion of that amount. Furthermore, this “disbursement gap” has grown larger since the program’s start, widening from 18.1 percent of approved funding in the program’s first year to 26.1 percent in the third year (2000-01), according to a recent USAC report.

There are a number of reasons why this situation has arisen, and it was one of several issues under consideration in a recent rulemaking proceeding that the Federal Communications Commission launched. Unfortunately, under current program rules, to the extent that a school district fails to use its approved commitments, a district that might have been able to use the funding misses out. As specialists with this program, we argued to the FCC that more information on which districts actually made use of their discounts and which did not would help police the system more effectively for everyone.

Sara Fitzgerald
Vice President, Communications
Funds For Learning, LLC
Arlington, Va.

Textbooks as Tools, Not Teacher Guides

To the Editor:

A comment on your article noting USA Today‘s entry into the area of providing textbook graphics and online materials in mathematics (“‘Nation’s Newspaper’ Moves Into Math Texts,” May 8, 2002):

Textbook publishers can put “real world” applications into textbooks until the proverbial cows come home, but until teachers take it upon themselves to seek out applications of their particular content and construct viable activities for their students, teachers will continue to rely upon the textbook. And then we have ourselves one vicious circle.

The teacher makes the course, not the textbook!

Paul Rutherford
Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Reading Report’s Unending Debate

To the Editor:

Recently, you have published a spate of letters and a Commentary essay on the National Reading Panel findings concerning the role that free or independent reading plays in reading development (“‘Free Reading’ Promotes Literacy,” Letters, April 10, 2002; “Reading and the Limits of Science,” Commentary, April 24, 2002; “‘Guided Oral’ Vs. ‘Free Silent’ Reading,” Letters, May 1, 2002). It is not surprising that this part of the NRP report is creating such a stir, given the widespread practice of assigning independent reading during the school day.

What is surprising is that much of the discussion is based on an evident misunderstanding of what the National Reading Panel actually did in this area. For example, Stephen Krashen claims in a letter that the NRP found “that there is no clear evidence that getting children to read more actually improves reading achievement,” and Thomas Newkirk asserts in his Commentary that the “report stunningly fails to find any solid evidence in support of independent reading.” These are fascinating claims, given that the NRP did not study independent reading.

What the panel did study was the efficacy of various procedures and programs used to encourage children to read more. The issue that the NRP studied was not whether independent reading had value, but what school efforts lead children to increase their amount of reading. The NRP examined the research on procedures like SSR (sustained silent reading) and DEAR (drop everything and read), which set aside time within the school day for free reading, commercial programs aimed at encouraging more reading, and various incentive plans.

The conclusion: None of these programs or procedures has proven that it effectively gets students to read more and, consequently, to read better. The NRP did not reject the possibility that some procedures might succeed in encouraging reading, and it called for more research on the issue.

Nutritionists widely agree that balanced diets promote health and fitness. That does not mean that all schemes aimed at encouraging children to eat better will have that result. Likewise, no matter what the benefits of reading—and they appear to be extensive—not all plans for encouraging kids to read more are likely to work. Schools should be cautious about adopting such uncharted schemes on a large scale, especially if they lead to less instructional time for children.

In any event, schools will be better served by frank information of this type than by slippery arguments and overblown claims.

Timothy Shanahan
Executive Director
Chicago Reading Initiative
Chicago Public Schools
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

The writer was a member of the National Reading Panel.

Mold in Schools: A Teacher’s Story

To the Editor:

I wanted to add my story to your recent reporting on poor indoor-air quality in schools (“EPA Pushing Improved Air Quality in Schools,” May 1, 2002).

Four years ago, I moved, in August, into a new room in my school building. By the fall break, I was feeling very ill. I was fatigued and had a constant mild fever. By Thanksgiving, I had developed a cough and night sweats. My doctors could not find a cause for these problems. I tried many medicines and had multiple tests. By February, I could barely walk down the hall. My cough was so severe I could hardly talk.

One day, I coughed so hard that I dislocated a rib I had broken many years before. The emergency room doctor who saw me sent me to a specialist. I was diagnosed with environmental asthma.

As a cost-cutting procedure, the backside of the wallboard in my classroom had been glued directly to the concrete blocks in my classroom. The site of connection was covered with large circles of mold that looked liked bunches of black spaghetti about 10 to 12 inches long. And the circles had done a number on me: Once an outdoor, camper girl, I was now confined to the indoors.

I transferred to a new school. My old school undertook renovations, but those were not done properly. The mold returned. Many of the teachers there now have health concerns of their own. Because there are no applicable air-quality laws in Indiana, the problem is not being corrected.

While I am doing better at my new school, I have had to change my life dramatically. I am often worn out because I cannot breathe well. Please continue to report on this problem. Our children and our teachers are being permanently harmed by “concern for budgets” and a lack of adequate air-quality regulations.

Nancy Butcher
Pendleton, Ind.

Principals’ Time: Make Room for Networking, Life-Enhancing Activities

To the Editor:

In sharing the stories of six administrators, your article “Principals: So Much to Do, So Little Time,” (April 17, 2002) highlighted the changes that have taken place in education in recent years. Today, the job of school leader can seem overwhelming at times. But as the principals you spoke to would attest, the rewards, when they come, far outweigh the difficulties.

How do leaders sustain their love for what they do when faced daily with the challenge of what one principal in your article rightly calls “doing more and more with less and less”? First, they can never forget that they are human, like everyone else. They have feelings and experience mood swings, yet still are expected to be “on” and “up” 24-7—and for 365 days a year. This can be emotionally and physically draining.

Principals need to take care of themselves. No one else is going to do that for them. They should remember that when the principal projects balance, health, and fulfillment in his or her life, others will be more willing to consider the job themselves down the road.

Maybe those organizing next year’s national conventions for administrators’ groups need to focus on topics like time and stress management, how to have a healthy lifestyle on and off the job, how to eat healthy foods that benefit mood and functioning, and the total effects of regular exercise. When I make time for these things in my personal life, my school day goes smoothly.

Your article concludes with the observation that these six principals “did not regret their decisions to become school leaders.” Of course they didn’t, and the reason is their contact with students. This should be enough motivation for us to take good care of ourselves. The kids need us.

R. J. Vercruysse
San Francisco, Calif.

To the Editor:

Your article on principals (April 17, 2002) clearly defines a major crisis facing the schools: Burnout, and the resulting disappearance from public education of competent and dedicated people, are now combined with teachers’ reluctance to take on management and leadership roles.

What to do? We have used a number of approaches that seem to help. One is to determine, by an “organizational audit,” whether delegation is effectively used in a school. Of course, there are limitations—for example, having no one to delegate to, or a principal’s sense that she is responsible and accountable and must therefore do it all.

Another approach is well illustrated in your article in the following comment by Paul Young, the president-elect of the National Association of Elementary School Principals: “With no one else in the building doing the same job, principals need the chance to talk with and learn from other principals grappling with similar issues.”

We invite principals from a concentrated geographical area to a series of workshops on leadership and management issues. By using focus groups, we determine what issues are on these leaders’ minds. A curriculum and bibliography follow, based on the focus-group findings. Our role is as facilitators—the principals learn from one another.

One of the key results of such activities is the development of exactly what Mr. Young describes: networking by a group of people who have established trust and confidence in one another and continue to “talk with and learn from” their colleagues long after the formal sessions end.

An independent evaluator for a 1993 workshop series, which we ran for high school principals in New York City, made the following comment:

“I got a strong image of a group of people who are isolated, professionally lonely, under siege, and hungry for meaningful contact. They loved the respect you showed them and loved the time and attention to critical thinking. They were like elementary school children who have discovered the joy of learning and being together with people they like and trust. It was in some way sad because they are so needy for what this seminar did. It was also a helluva indictment about the dearth of educational leadership support and education.”

That was in 1993. Has anything changed?

Gerald D. Levy
Education Group
National Executive Service Corps
New York, N.Y.

‘Being Smart': IQ and Talents

To the Editor:

In his May 1, 2002, Commentary “Justin’s Genius,” professor of education James R. Delisle shows what is tragic about some schools of education: professors who instruct our future teachers on the basis of “personal views,” rather than research or even simple observation.

IQ tests, despite some expansion and improvement in the last five years, measure primarily verbal and numerical intelligence or “talent.” If we accept the definition of intelligence as the ability to solve problems and create useful solutions or products (Mr. Delisle does not disclose his definition—perhaps the ability to score well on a standard IQ test?), then I would much rather be sure that the air-traffic controller directing an airplane in which I was riding had high spatial/visual intelligence (or talent) than a great ability to memorize answers to the Stanford-Binet.

As a superintendent of schools, it scares me to find professors of education who are not ready to help teachers-to-be grow and celebrate different talents and intelligences. There are different components to intelligence, components that work together rather than separately. Effective teachers must teach students who have different levels and combinations of “talents” or “intelligences” (the difference between the two terms being at best a good ivory-tower topic). They should help each student expand each type of intelligence. They should recognize all students as “real,” because “giftedness” comes in many forms.

In business and industry as well as in schools, talented instructors are showing that giving students opportunities to learn and demonstrate achievement and problem-solving abilities in different ways leads to higher student achievement on both standardized and performance-competency tests.

I recommend that Mr. Delisle and others with a narrow, IQ-focused view of “being smart” visit schools using both learning-style and multiple-intelligence theories. They should see why, for example, certain learners two or more years below grade level in reading ability grow an average of 2.35 grade levels in one school year when allowed to exercise different intelligences (especially visual) in learning. Have these students suddenly changed from being “not smart” to being “smart”? Or have they previously been the victims of teachers taught that IQ scores are the measure of being smart?

It is time that all, and not just some, schools of education start using real-world information on learning. Books like The Learning Revolution by Gordon Dryden and Jeannette Vos, or The Accelerated Handbook by David Meier, or Classroom Instruction That Works by Robert J. Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane E. Pollack, could form the basis for a teacher-preparation course that uses researched theories of intelligence to grow the many kinds of talent among students, including, but not limited to, IQ giftedness.

Ronald Fitzgerald
Superintendent of Schools
Minuteman Regional High School
Lexington, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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