Education Letter to the Editor


November 12, 2003 15 min read
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Put Patriotism to Work Learning About History

Respect for country and government cannot be manufactured through rote recitation (“Pledge Stands for Civics and Dissent in Schools,” Oct. 29, 2003). Teaching how liberty and justice “for all” have been variously defined—and by whom—over the history of our country will help our young people understand how vulnerable such definitions really are, and may do more to help instill the sense of civic pride and duty than our frankly vacuous pledge appears to have done.

Many flag-waving, “patriotic” Americans evade jury duty, voting opportunities, and tax liabilities because they have no real sense of civic responsibility. I suspect we have been teaching kids that it is highly important to be obedient to “the flag” (a mere symbol of authority), while neglecting to build anything approaching informed, principled commitment to our most remarkable and precious form of government.

If we spent the time usually reserved for reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on a 10-minute talk/quiz about our Constitution and Bill of Rights once a week, we’d be far closer to achieving what should be a critical goal for the sustenance of our democracy: the creation of an informed and thinking public.

Annette Heinemeyer
Phoenix, Ariz.

Why Do College Costs Continue to Rise?

To the Editor:

Your two articles on “rising college costs” (“Rising College Costs Spark Responses” and “Tax Credit Fails to Help Needy Reach College, Report Says,” Oct. 22, 2003) talk about student fees (prices) and legislative subsidies (revenue or income), but never deal with the cost of offering education to high school graduates at American colleges and universities.

In assessing the recent price inflation, it would be helpful to find out why costs keep rising. Have teachers, specialists, and/or administrators increased in number? Have their wages and benefits gone up? Is declining investment income to blame? Have legislative cuts been irresponsible? Are there ways to hedge against such forces in advance? Are there operational savings to be made?

By analogy, drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge will not solve America’s energy problems. Conservation is a better way.

In higher education, accepting costs as a given (and simply rearranging the deck chairs) may not be the best place to start.

Alan O. Dann
Marlboro, Vt.

Homework Critics Got ‘Carried Away’

To the Editor:

I’m not a big proponent of daily homework in every subject either, but I believe John Buell and Etta Kralovec have gotten a little carried away with their concern that, by assigning homework, we are overstressing the poor children in our public schools (“Lazy Children or Misplaced Priorities?,” Oct. 29, 2003).

They worry that “there are other answers that could help our children without further burdening already-stretched families.” Strangely, I have always thought that education of their young was one of the first responsibilities of parents and families, rather than some “extra” that might interfere with other, higher priorities. The fact that there may be “other answers” doesn’t preclude homework from consideration also.

Mr. Buell and Ms. Kralovec must be aware that a 40-hour week for adults is much different from a 40-hour week for students, and that that time frame does not always allow students to “do all they need to do” any more than it allows adults to do all they need to do.

They go on to suggest that the amount and quality of leisure time in a child’s life might have an impact on that child’s academic performance. That makes sense to me. But Mr. Buell and Ms. Kralovec have apparently failed to consider that students only attend school about 180 days out of a 365-day year. That is considerably less than the total number of days most adults work in one year, and provides an abundance (or overabundance) of time to engage in leisure activities.

Of course, another “answer” might be to have year-round schooling. I can certainly support that, but again, it doesn’t indicate to me that homework should be done away with.

Finally, I want to explore Mr. Buell and Ms. Kralovec’s contention that American families are being damaged due to “American corporations and the Bush administration are making it harder to take time away from the workplace.”

How can ... excuse me just a second ... I’m sorry, but I will have to finish this later. “W” just called and said to get back to work.

David Brothers
Chattanooga, Tenn.

Basic Skills Will Remain Essential to Curriculum

To the Editor:

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Howard Gardner say in their Commentary (“Educating Billy Wang for the World of Tomorrow,” Oct. 22, 2003) that “human beings are moving from one nation to another ... at an unparalleled rate.” It is good to remember that, from 1892 to 1924, more than 22 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island. They came here and worked, learned the English language, and became productive citizens. They did not ask the government to take care of them.

As for students today needing to be educated far differently from the way their grandparents were, we need to remember that the fundamentals of math, reading, science, and writing are the same as they were when grandpa and grandma went to school. The problem in education today is that educators are too busy reinventing the wheel. And our public schools are consequently producing graduates who lack the basic skills they need to be productive citizens.

Ken Reese
Lehigh, Fla.

Making Testing Fair For Those With Disabilities

Maybe now we can finally get some honest answers to our questions about the validity of the scores of students with disabilities on the Maryland School Assessment and the Maryland High School Assessments (“Testing Aid for Some Students Leads to Scoring Flap in Md.,” Oct 22, 2003).

As parents and advocates, we questioned state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Carol Ann Baglin, the assistant superintendent for special education and rehabilitative services, about the automatic zeros given to students with disabilities taking the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program over the past 10 years because these students received accommodations, as per their individual education plans.

For more than eight years, we tried to get an answer to our question. But when we requested to see our children’s scored answer booklets, we were denied access and told that these assessments and answer booklets were “protected” by the Maryland Annotated Code Section 10-617 as psychological/medical records. For years, our children and other Maryland students were forced to go through the tortuous process of taking the now- defunct MSPAP, and then were automatically assigned a zero for their efforts, unbeknownst to their parents. All the while, these children were denied their special-education-related services during MSPAP preparation and implementation (anywhere from three to six months) each school year.

Now we see the same problem occurring with the MSA, and we’re willing to bet the farm it will hold true for the HSA as well.

Parents have been blamed by school officials, board members, teachers, and county and state officials for not being involved, not doing our part to promote the education of our children. Well, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, because nowhere else in public education will you find more involved parents than in special education. It’s time we take this issue directly to Maryland legislators and tell them they should clean house at the state department of education and the state board of education.

The department has known all along what was stated in the contract for the MSA and HSA. It negotiated that contract, and then turned around and said, “Oh, we’re sorry you found out about those zeros. That was supposed to remain a secret, please don’t blame us,” all the while trying to hide behind the Comer Process, no-fault theory, and blame-the-No-Child-Left- Behind-Act excuses. There’s not an excuse in this world that is acceptable, Comer Process be damned.

Under the federal legislation, accountability is the No. 1 priority. In fact, it was a mandate in that law that requires that all students’ scores be presented to the parents that uncovered this scam. If our state school officials are not held accountable for their actions, why should our children suffer the consequences?

Naznin R. Adams
Executive Director
Parent Advocacy Network for the Differently-Abled (PANDA)
Marylanders Against High-Stakes Testing
Fort Washington, Md.

Patricia Brady Dennis
Assistant Director
Parent Advocacy Network for the Differently-Abled (PANDA)
Marylanders Against High-Stakes Testing
Chesapeake Beach, Md.

To the Editor:

I am a 6th grade special education teacher, and I have questions concerning the No Child Left Behind Act. I think there are some really good points to the legislation, but I am not sure about the whole plan.

Special education students at my school make up a “subgroup” and therefore are required to make adequate yearly progress. I don’t have a problem with holding special education teachers, assistants, administrators, and students accountable for improving. I think that is a good thing. But what I don’t understand is why the U.S. Department of Education expects the whole school to perform at the same high level, when we have special education students with IQ scores of 55 or lower, who are not going to make the same progress as a student with a 90 IQ score, or one with a 75 IQ score, for that matter.

If we give special education students an alternate test (in North Carolina, we call it the Alternate Assessment Academic Inventory), the best they can score is a 2. If we make those students take the regular end-of-grade tests, that also is not a fair way to measure their progress.

We special education teachers seem to be damned no matter what we do to improve. Is there not something we can do to show the progress of our students, and yet have it not hurt our school’s numbers? Is there a state that has come up with a better test, or some type of program that addresses this issue?

Special education teachers want to do everything possible to teach their students. We agree that every child should know how to read and do math, but we know also that some special education kids cannot read at the same level as others. For them, reading at their own level may be a victory in and of itself.

So what do we do now?

Lori Jenkins
Marion, N.C.

The Spanish-Free Classroom

Regarding the Arizona teacher who forbids the speaking of Spanish in her class because of what she sees as related disciplinary concerns (“Classroom Ban on Spanish Protested,” Oct. 29, 2003):

Cursing others, throwing paper, engaging in loud outbursts, and interrupting the lecture are all unsociable, disruptive acts. Whether they are performed in English, Chinese, Tagalog, Punjabi, Spanish, or any other language, they need to be dealt with. But these disruptions have one thing in common: a lack of proper classroom management.

Eliminating Spanish is just a form of scapegoating. The grouping of students who speak a similar language is a well- known instructional and discipline strategy.

Moreover, by not allowing a Spanish speaker to collaborate with another Spanish speaker in order to comprehend the material, a teacher is depriving that person of an equitable education. Why? Because we allow it of our English speakers. When appropriate, they can ask other students for assistance and clarification.

What I keep hearing is that Spanish should not be allowed because it is disruptive. Normally, a disruption follows from a distraction. In that case, let’s not allow Muslim girls to wear their head coverings. And I’ll make sure to tell my student with muscular dystrophy to keep his electric wheelchair outside; talk about a distraction! It beeps all the time.

Most monolinguals fail to understand that we bilinguals have a need to communicate in our native language—just as much as the Muslim student needs her head covering and the student with disabilities needs the wheelchair. If any of these students purposely uses that necessity to cause a distraction, then let’s discipline him. But let’s not withhold what may be the only tool at his disposal to understand what you are teaching him.

Hector Murrieta

Chula Vista, Calif.

To the Editor:

Fifty years of research on bilingual education has shown fairly convincingly that immersion is the key to second-language acquisition. However, the huge influx of Spanish-speakers into this country, primarily from Mexico, has made immersion difficult.

The U.S. Hispanic community now has its own infrastructure of TV networks, radio stations, and newspapers. Numerous school districts throughout the Southwest now are majority Hispanic, with many being close to 100 percent native Spanish-speaking. In this context, the only opportunity for children to practice English may be in the classroom. During breaks, such as recess and lunch, they speak Spanish (or Korean or Chinese, depending on the school); when they go home, they rarely encounter English.

Given these realities, a ban on the use of the nonnative home language in the classroom makes sense pedagogically and socially.

James D. Williams
Aliso Viejo, Calif.

To the Editor:

Your language gives you your identity. It is very sad that we Americans do not celebrate languages. We are made richer by becoming bilingual or multilingual. If teachers think that someone’s speaking another language is an imposition, perhaps they should learn the other language.

I am Navajo Native American, and I was forced to learn English in the 1950s. Later, in high school, I also took some Spanish, a beautiful, musical language. I enjoy hearing different languages and do not find it disruptive. Teachers need to stop thinking in terms of exclusion and learn to curb this attitude of language superiority. So many languages are threatened with extinction.

Upper-class white people often learn many languages and think that this is good for their education and future learning, for global connection, and for sophistication and skill. Why then should some teachers be offended?

Glojean Todacheene
Shiprock, N.M.

To the Editor:

The question of what language is used for different school functions should be clarified by asking: (1) How effective are our classroom- management techniques, and (2) what are the results of the instructional techniques we are using?

Without knowing the specifics of the teacher in Arizona who finds that “banning” the use of Spanish helps her manage her classroom better, I would ask if she knows how much English her students can actually use, and what strategies she is implementing to help them know English better.

The use of a particular language should not be confused with the function of language. Exactly what are the Arizona teacher’s students saying in Spanish? Are they talking about the class or its content? Are they clarifying instructions, or perhaps explaining information to each other? Or are they avoiding work and losing valuable instruction time?

The question of what language is used to communicate in schools should not provoke an antagonistic debate. It should raise questions about how to support, engage, and challenge students to learn both English and the subject matter at hand. Empirical evidence strongly supports the use of interventions such as peer- assisted activities that build on meaningful language use, in any language, to effectively teach academic content.

The answers to these kinds of questions are important if they keep us focused on how we are teaching.

Donna Villareal
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio

To the Editor:

Denying children and their parents the right and opportunity to speak in their native language sends a message that their culture is not valued or important. How can a school possibly build a community of trust and cooperation with that kind of message to the families it serves? English-only classrooms are not meeting the needs of every child, and ignore the changing population we are educating in this country.

Our charter elementary school in California’s San Fernando Valley tries to bridge the language gaps that exist in our diverse community. All of our students— whether they speak English or Spanish at home—learn in both languages. By the 5th grade, they will be able to read, write, and speak in two languages. Not only does this provide our Spanish-dominant students with a better chance of learning English and not falling behind in subject areas, but it also gives our English-dominant students a chance to learn a second language while the “window of opportunity” is open.

Gayle Nadler
Multicultural Learning Center
Canoga Park, Calif.

To the Editor:

My questions to the people who agree on English-only policies are: Who are you to say what language to speak? Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say we speak English only? This situation makes me feel, sadly, that we are living under some form of Communism. I thought this was a free country.

To the teacher who banned the speaking of Spanish in her class, I would say this: You are in the wrong profession! Never would I dream of telling my students not to speak any language they are comfortable in. They should be encouraged to use English, but they should not be barred from speaking Spanish.

Holly Ann Garza Ortega
Joliet, Ill.

To the Editor:

Public schools are the towers of Babel of the 21st century. It is an absurd proposition to believe we can approach each child educationally from his or her home language—even if that language is a prominent component of our diverse demography. To suggest an immersion program for teachers and staff members is equally unrealistic, given the critical funding environment in which our public schools exist.

To study in Mexico City, San Juan, or Caracas, one needs to be at least survival-fluent in Spanish. This expectation is no more demanding for students who come to schools in the United States. Our altruism towards English-as-a-second- language students and their families must be tempered with a healthy regard for the dangers of entitlement in the name of diversity.

America’s English- derived culture and language was the choice of these immigrating families. We owe them a solid educational foundation to support that choice.

Larry Morwick
High School Administrator
Indianapolis, Ind.


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