Education Letter to the Editor


March 21, 2001 10 min read
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GAO Report Shows Bilingual Pressure

To the Editor:

To say that a recent General Accounting Office report “vindicates” the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights from accusations that it aggressively pushes bilingual education programs on school districts is not merely inaccurate, it is irresponsible (“OCR Seen as Unbiased on Bilingual Ed. Issue,”,” March 7, 2001).

The February 2001 report concludes that in nearly one in five cases examined, the OCR abandoned its official neutrality and attempted to influence districts in favor of bilingual education. For districts in the office’s Region 11, headquartered in San Francisco, the number was an astonishing 35 percent. What’s worse, that important region is home to 41 percent of the nation’s English-language learners.

These problematic findings fly in the face of former OCR Assistant Secretary Norma V. Cantu’s 1999 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, in which she stated that her agency “does not enforce any ... policy that encourages the use of bilingual education programs as opposed to other educational approaches to meet the needs of [limited-English- proficient] students.”

As policymakers at every level throughout the nation continue to move toward more effective English-immersion programs, this new GAO report raises critical questions about the role of the federal Education Department in impeding bilingual education reform. The office for civil rights must be called to account for its actions.

Don Soifer
Executive Vice President
Lexington Institute
Arlington, Va.

Voucher-Study Data Are Already Available

To the Editor:

The Commentary by Martin Carnoy (“Achievement Gains in Voucher Research,” Feb. 28, 2001) discusses Mathematica Policy Research’s evaluation of school choice in New York City, for which Harvard University’s Paul E. Peterson and Mathematica’s David Myers are principal investigators. These data were also used by Mr. Peterson and his colleagues William Howell, Patrick Wolf, and David Campbell in another analysis that compared students from New York as well as Dayton, Ohio, and Washington.

Mr. Carnoy suggests that many of the questions surrounding the impacts of school choice could be answered through further analysis and release of the data to other researchers. Mathematica’s data from our New York study are available for this purpose; inquiries should be directed to Jackie Allen, Mathematica Publications, (609) 275-2350.

Joanne Pfleiderer
Director of Communications
Mathematica Policy Research
Princeton, N.J.

Turning Back Clock In Special Education

To the Editor:

Concerning Laurence M. Lieberman’s essay “The Death of Special Education,” (Commentary, Jan. 17, 2001): The “new” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is not new at all. It is a device to help school districts save a lot of money. We had “mainstreaming” a while back, now it’s inclusion.

While it is true that many parents of children with disabilities want their kids to be treated like other students, they generally come to the recognition that their sons and daughters need all the special help they can get in school. Unfortunately, without strong federal laws and means to evaluate the programs, districts are apt to regress and look for ways to cut expenses.

The original legislation, PL 94-142, came into being 25 years ago because states and local governments were not dealing adequately with special-needs children. In education, we are certainly not the United States. Each state and local school board does its own thing educationally. Washington had to step in to assist the many children who were falling through the cracks.

Now, I see a trend of returning to the days before the 1970s. Are we really interested in doing that?

John K. Spitzberg
Deerfield Beach, Fla.

‘Freak Dancing': The Light Cure

To the Editor:

Concerning the problems associated with “freak dancing” (“‘Freak Dancing’ Craze Generates Friction, Fears,” Feb. 28, 2001), we found a very easy way of eliminating the problem at our dances. Following repeated attempts to make rules, break up dancers, and so forth, we purchased some heavy-duty flashlights for our chaperones. One bright light shining in their direction, and the participants quickly separated. It worked every time, and repeaters soon got tired of fighting. In a short time, we no longer needed the lights—the students had simply stopped trying. (Good nonverbal intervention!)

George Stone
Delmar, Del.

Phonics ‘Gibberish’ Went Out in the ‘70s

To the Editor:

I read with dismay “The Story of Phonics,” by Helen Bardeen Andrejevic (Commentary, Feb. 14, 2001). She objects to public figures such as President Bush (in his 2000 campaign) advocating spending substantial sums of money to promote a reading initiative that would stress the teaching of phonics. Ms. Andrejevic offers three major arguments against this method: skill practice in meaningless text that she refers to as “gibberish,” memorization of rules that frequently do not apply, and teaching phonics without attention to normal syntax and usage, the subject of the story, and the meaning of the sentence.

Frankly, I have not encountered the “gibberish” practice sentences she cites (Will a throne shave?) since the 1970s. Books that contain them met the dumpsters decades ago, although a few are stored by incurable pack rats in dusty storerooms.

A decade ago, I wrote an article entitled “Using Children’s Literature To Enhance Phonics Instruction” (The Reading Teacher, May 1990). It contained an appendix listing trade books that repeat phonic elements. This article and list have been referenced in 10 preservice textbooks. Children’s book publishers are keenly aware of the need for authentic literature to support phonics instruction. Just check out the major publishers’ offerings in the last 10 years.

What about the rules that don’t apply? Ms. Andrejevic states that students are rendered helpless when they learn the 10 major vowel sounds—five short and five long. In her example, the child states, “That can’t be bushes because b-u is ‘buh’.” Patrick Groff of San Diego State University refuted this so well in The Reading Teacher of May 1986. In his study, 100 percent of 2nd graders could infer and produce the o of “from” as /u/ after first hearing themselves say it as short o. The mispronunciation was close enough to the correct pronunciation for these young pupils to infer its correct pronunciation.

What about those infamous two vowels that never cease to go out walking with the first one doing all the talking? Sure, it doesn’t apply in an overwhelming number of cases. However, enlightened teachers limit the rule to three combinations where it applies quite frequently: ai (sail), oa (boat), ea (sea). The Lindamood group suggests a chalkboard visual of these examples for easy recall.

The third objection—phonics devoid of syntax, usage, and meaning—is negated, also, when children’s literature is used as practice material. Link music to literature and double the success factor. Can you imagine a child miscuing on the word “picnic” while reading/singing, “Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic”?

Apprise those who control public funds that the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the International Reading Association advocate the teaching of phonics as one important component of beginning-reading instruction. With luck, the funds will ensure that those in the field have a current knowledge of procedures and materials that have proved effective.

Phyllis Trachtenburg
Moorestown Township Public Schools
Moorestown, N.J.

Charter Schools Face A Double Standard

To the Editor:

Your article on recent charter school closings (“Charter Closings Come Under Scrutiny,” Feb. 28, 2001) highlighted the hypocrisy of teachers’ union opposition to school choice.

If it is true that, as the spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers put it, “we would expect to see some [charter] schools that aren’t [improving student achievement] ... being closed down,” why does the same not occur in regular public schools, which are, after all, also charged with improving the education of our young people?

In fact, as your article acknowledged, “regular public schools ... generally face little threat of being shut down” for poor academic performance. Which is precisely why in Washington, where the school system is plagued by decrepit buildings and poor standardized test scores, more than 10,000 students—more than 10 percent of the public school system’s pupils—have already been enrolled in charter schools by their parents.

This comes at a time when the District of Columbia’s school board president has declared half of all public school teachers in the city “weak” (a declaration to which neither the AFT nor the National Education Association responded in their members’ defense), and when Washington’s mayor, Anthony Williams, proclaimed in his recent State of the District speech that “the right way [to education reform] is giving parents more choices among public schools, including charter schools.”

In short, allowing parents to decide which schools are capable—through more charter schools, more scholarships, and yes, more vouchers—is the best way to weed out the bad, reward the good, and enforce the “accountability” in education.

Larry Parker
Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
Arlington, Va.

District 2: Failure Is in the Eye of the Beholder

First, let me thank Louisa C. Spencer for volunteering her time to tutor children in New York City schools (“Two Views of District 2: Progressivism’s Hidden Failure,” Commentary, Feb. 28, 2001). We need more folks who are willing to assist our work in making public schools the best they can be.

But let me also say that I am concerned that Ms. Spencer seems to think her volunteer status gives her the knowledge and authority to critique the school in which she works. Everyone who’s gone to school seems to think they have expertise about schooling. They don’t. This can be seen in Ms. Spencer’s arguments against progressive/constructivist approaches to literacy education. They lack evidence, other than the vague references she provides to “rigorous experimental research.” And I wonder what the ellipses she inserts in her long quotation from Howard Gardner’s work would reveal if the excerpt had been quoted in its entirety.

I am much more troubled, however, by the language she uses to describe the children she is supposedly helping: “deprived,” “disadvantaged,” and “underprivileged.” This language reveals much about what she knows and does not know and what she believes:

•All of these words blame students for who they are.

•None of them value what students know and can do.

•None shows any knowledge and awareness of critical and/or political understandings of educating.

•All hide an invidious comparison to the dominant (read white, middle-class) cultural model of school and learning.

•None gives evidence of taking any responsibility for creating school contexts that are characterized by institutional racism and classism.

Before anyone takes on the role of critic, they would be wise to educate themselves to better understand not only what is going on in schools, but why.

Nancy Lester
Associate Professor
Literacy Education
Medgar Evers College
City University of New York
Brooklyn, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Louisa C. Spencer, whose Commentary criticized the so- called “progressive” educational policies of Manhattan’s District 2, was identified as a member of Learning Leaders, a citywide school volunteer organization in New York City. Ms. Spencer is a volunteer, not a member of our board of directors.

There are 9,500 Learning Leaders volunteers throughout the city, and it is a fair bet that each one of them has a distinct opinion about which educational strategies work best. We respect Ms. Spencer’s right to express her views, but wish to note that they are not those of our organization, and that there are many volunteers in District 2 who would strongly disagree.

Carol Kellermann
Executive Director
Learning Leaders
New York, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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