Education Letter to the Editor


April 10, 2002 9 min read
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Mexican Education And Property Taxes

To the Editor:

President Vicente Fox of Mexico should be commended for his attempt at improving public education in Mexico (“Educating Mexico,” March 20, 2002). But while his heart is in the right place, with the children of Mexico, public education in his country, or for that matter in most of Latin America, will continue to lag far behind the rest of the industrialized world until local property-tax laws are enforced.

In Mexico as elsewhere in Latin America, it is the central government that delegates public education to a budget-line item. Thus, the local population has little power in local school politics, educational choices, or school activities. The public school system is just a place to send the child when a family or single parent cannot pay for a private school. Historically, only Costa Rica, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and now Mexico have given public education the high expenditures and the attention it deserves.

The rich and the upper middle class of Latin America, having to pay little or no property taxes, have ample funds to send their children to private schools, which cater to these groups. Whatever property taxes are enforced are minuscule in relation to real property values. The middle classes and the less economically fortunate are in a constant struggle to have sufficient money left every month to afford a decent education for their children. Public schools are overcrowded, woefully funded, and offer few if any electives or activities.

The system advantages a privately educated wealthy class, which is able to go to the national universities or well-funded private colleges. For public school graduates, there are few if any opportunities except to work for the powerful elite educated in private schools.

Our own country has seen the cost, in California’s tax revolt of the 1980s, of eliminating or greatly reducing property taxes that fund education. Not too long ago, California’s public schools were the envy of the world. Now they are near the bottom of our public school systems on many measures.

America’s great system of public education, while continually criticized even by citizens who gain from it, is the envy of the world and, specifically, of Latin America. This is so because we serve all comers, no matter where they are born, no matter what their disabilities, with much of the funding burden shared by property owners paying local property taxes.

Edward P. Pita
Houston, Texas

Guides Produced for Play About Violence

To the Editor:

Your article about William Mastrosimone’s play “Bang Bang You’re Dead” (“Acting on Impulse,” March 13, 2002) was quite informative. But it lacked one important piece of information.

In addition to the Showtime television special of the same name to air in October 2002, based on the play, KIDSNET is developing a companion guide targeted to educators, community officials, helping professionals, clergy, and teenagers in grades 7-12. The guide includes a workshop outline that uses the program, and generous off-air taping allowances, to address issues of violence and teenage suicide. Extensive print and electronic resources are also provided.

Free print copies of the guide will be mailed during the summer and an online version will be available on the KIDSNET Web site at www.KIDSNET.org.

Karen Jaffe
Executive Director
Washington, D.C.

‘Unscientific Nature’ Of ADHD Diagnosis

To the Editor:

I read with amusement the headline on one of your March 27, 2002, news items: “Study: Minimum ADHD Incidence Is 7.5 Percent.” The article reports on Mayo Clinic research that attempts to put a fine point on the number of children to whom teachers and medical professionals have given the subjective label “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” or ADHD.

The determination as to whether a child has ADHD depends a great deal on the characteristics of those who diagnose. A published 1993 double-blind study tested the level of agreement among raters as to whether an ADHD child seemed “better, the same, or worse” on medication. Raters included parents, teachers, and professionals who diagnose and treat ADHD. The study found that raters “were more likely to disagree than to agree.”

Almost any child could be diagnosed as “often loses things necessary for tasks or activities,” “often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities,” “often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities,” and so on. Yet these and similar criteria form the checklist used to determine if a child has a supposed brain disease called “ADHD.”

Adding a decimal point to the percentage of children who have been judged to have ADHD does not make the diagnosis any more scientific. Nor is it a terribly useful addition to our knowledge—unless one is really, really interested in just how many kids out there are totally bored or distracted. The unscientific nature of the ADHD diagnosis is particularly unfortunate because the “treatment,” Ritalin, improves neither academic nor social performance. That’s according to a 1998 report of the National Institutes of Health.

When you take the fancy words away, the bottom line is that we’re zonking bored kids into compliance with teachers by dosing them with Ritalin. This situation cries out for research by the Mayo Clinic, but research that looks into the success rates of the many alternatives to the ADHD diagnosis and Ritalin.

Alexandra Hopkins
Curriculum Writer
North Hollywood, Calif.

Willingness to Learn Eludes Some of Us

To the Editor:

While Michael A. Dishnow’s letter (“‘It Simply Does Not Calculate’,” Letters, March 20, 2002) contains a number of interesting observations, its essential fallacy is that it does not take into consideration the annual influx of half a million immigrants into the United States.

Roughly one-third of the technical workforce in California’s Silicon Valley, for example, is foreign-born. About 25 percent of the companies started there were launched by foreign-born entrepreneurs. The number of American-born students in science and engineering at our universities is dropping to the point where nearly 50 percent of the advanced degrees at some institutions are awarded to foreign students. Our hospitals are strained by the lack of adequate supplies of nursing and other health-care professionals, while 20 percent of the medical doctors in the United States are immigrants.

If we were to stop the flow of brainpower into this country, we might quickly find that perhaps we are no longer “first among nations,” as Mr. Dishnow writes.

The tragedy is that Mr. Dishnow is not alone in failing to understand that American-born students are losing out to those who have demonstrated their willingness to learn—no matter where in the world they were born. The answer is not, of course, to stop the flow of immigration, but rather to establish a system of education that enables all those born here to have access to the skilled jobs necessary for today’s global marketplace.

Paul G. Preuss
Frankfort, N.Y.

‘Why Must I Learn This?’ ‘Because!’

To the Editor:

I found Marcus L. Herzberg’s Commentary (“Why Must They Learn That?,” March 27, 2002) to be both amusing and sad.

After spending 40 years in teaching (30 of which were in schools of education teaching teachers), I find this new trend towards “feel good” education to be insulting and preposterous. Mr. Herzberg’s taking time to answer a student question in his social foundation’s class (not a method’s class, mind you!) by a future teacher who wonders how to respond to a student who asks, “Why do I have to learn this?” is a perfect example of the generation of new teachers we are preparing for tomorrow’s classrooms in this new climate. Everyone must have a good self-image and feel good to learn.

The fact that Mr. Herzberg had to take a good amount of his time to explain an answer, and then write this “feel good” essay with its many “becauses” is a perfect example of what is wrong in schools of education today. What has happened to the prestige and influence that a teacher should be able to have established with a class? There are many things in life that have to be learned but that have no immediate gratification to a person.

A simple answer of “Because I want you to learn this ... trust me!” should have sufficed. For any good teacher, this would have been enough, rather than going into a long “feel good” narrative of “becauses.” The bombastic responses given by Mr. Herzberg lend credibility to E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s core-curriculum philosophy of what every student should know. Can you imagine an employee in a business asking his employer, “Why should I do this?” Can you imagine a college student in a large, lecture-hall class attempting to ask the same question?

If a teacher hasn’t established enough rapport with a class or a student not to get such a question, then he or she deserves it. As a neophyte to the teaching-teachers profession, Mr. Herzberg only adds credibility to the old cliché, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” Social-foundations classes are ridiculed enough by other educators. Mr. Herzberg only adds credibility to those criticisms. Why? Because!

Alfred Lightfoot
Professor Emeritus of Education
School of Education
Loyola Marymount University
Los Angeles, Calif.

‘Free Reading’ Promotes Literacy

To the Editor:

In an earlier letter, I claimed that students who read better also write better, have larger vocabularies, and better grammar (“Science Supports Whole Language,” Letters, March 13, 2002). Patrick Groff says in response (“Whole Language and Its Platitudes,” Letters, March 27, 2002) that I “falsely complain” that the National Reading Panel disagreed. But they did.

In its section on “Fluency,” the panel reached the startling conclusion that there is no clear evidence that getting children to read more actually improves reading achievement. In its review of sustained silent reading, or SSR, research, the NRP found only 14 comparisons in which those in SSR were compared with those in traditional instruction. None were long-term. Readers did better in four cases and there was no difference in 10. The panel concluded that this “handful” of studies raises “serious questions” about the efficacy of sustained silent reading.

Mr. Groff accuses whole- language supporters of ignoring the “scientific study of literacy development.” He should be interested to know that I, an unrepentant supporter of whole language, have reviewed the experimental literature and have concluded that the NRP’s conclusion is incorrect. In a paper in the Phi Delta Kappan (October, 2001), I reported that students who participated in sustained-silent- reading programs read as well as or better than those in comparison groups in 51 out of 54 comparisons. In studies lasting longer than an academic year, those in SSR outperformed comparison students in eight out of 10 comparisons, with two comparisons showing no difference.

(Note that a finding of “no difference” suggests that free reading is just as effective as traditional instruction. Because it is so much more pleasant than traditional instruction and also provides students with valuable information and insights, a finding of no difference supports the use of sustained silent reading. It also confirms that free reading does indeed result in literacy growth.)

The case for free voluntary reading does not rest entirely on studies of sustained silent reading. There are numerous case histories, correlational studies, and other experimental studies that support recreational reading, as well as studies showing that those with more access to books (for example, those who attend schools with better school libraries) do better on tests of reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel, in addition to missing most of the research on sustained silent reading, disregarded this research as well.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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