Education Letter to the Editor


March 07, 2001 13 min read
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Offer More Training, Not Bigger Paychecks

To the Editor:

Your series on educational leadership really hit a nerve with the article “Districts Said To Lack ‘Enlightened’ Leaders,” (Feb. 14, 2001). While I wholeheartedly agree with the Institute for Educational Leadership report’s recommendations to “rethink the way superintendents and school boards do their jobs,” and that “the critical need for strong, responsible, and enlightened leadership should be at or near the top” of issues facing school districts, I feel strongly that the proposed solution—increasing superintendents’ salaries to be commensurate with those of CEOs in the business community—was extremely irresponsible.

This is just another example of would-be policymakers who are not in touch with what’s happening daily in schools and do not fully realize the state of education (from a teacher’s or student’s perspective). They are looking to pay the guy at the top the big bucks, with the notion that that will solve the ills of our schools today. What a shame that superintendents on average are making only $106,000 yearly (although your article failed to mention the benefits packages that accompany that amount).

How do you explain yet another administrator’s salary increase when teachers are still teaching in overcrowded conditions, when teachers have to bring their own Xerox paper to school or get permission to take extra paper out of the closet, when a 25-year veteran teacher with a Ph.D. can only hope to “top out” at maybe $70,000, or when 6- to 10-year-old special education students are sitting in chairs and at desks with their feet dangling a foot off the floor?

While it is essential that today’s leaders and leaders of tomorrow receive better training and are more prepared to handle the varied problems in schools, any additional salary increase should be a performance incentive at the very least.

First and foremost, the many years of underfunding education, specifically teachers’ salaries and classrooms, should be addressed in any discussion with respect to increasing salaries.

When all schools can provide an equitable education to all children, and when school administrators finally do become the “leaders” we so desperately need, then let’s talk about paying administrators more.

Gwynne Schapiro
Mount Prospect, Ill.

A State’s Experience With Accountability

To the Editor:

With the Bush administration’s strong endorsement, accountability is in the air. But it is much easier to enact accountability measures than to enforce them. If the experience of the Indiana Department of Education is any guide, the states may embrace accountability on paper while acting to undermine the rules in practice.

The Indiana case study begins in 1988, when the state adopted accountability provisions based on new assessment exams and “expected” performance levels. These expected levels were determined by evaluating each school’s performance against the performance of schools in similar socioeconomic circumstances and having students with similar cognitive skills (based on a separate instrument).

The whole process, which included generous margins for adverse fluctuations, was exceedingly complex (canonical correlations, standard deviations, and so forth). Few in or out of the school system understood where these “expected performance” levels came from, and while they were technically public information, they were never published.

There were two types of accreditation reviews. From the beginning, schools were reviewed against expected performance every five years. In these reviews, the regulation said that schools had to meet “expected performance” in four separate areas in order to be accredited, though state officials were allowed to use their discretion in exceptional circumstances. In 1997, a rule was added that required accredited schools that had failed to meet “expected performance” levels for two consecutive years to be reviewed immediately.

How did Indiana school officials administer this process? It was their practice to routinely substitute subjective judgment for the complex formula. An independent review found that 80 percent of schools that failed the standard had the requirements waived, presumably because of exceptional circumstances. Each five-year cycle, about one-fourth of the schools that received the state’s highest accreditation level were actually below the minimum to be accredited at all.

The 1997 two-year rule did not fare any better. It was totally ignored in 1998 and 1999, and would have been ignored again in 2000, had it not been for external pressure. In 2000, the state minimized the number of schools to which the rule applied. Still, 208 schools were identified by the state for review. These were schools with a clear history of substandard performance, as determined by the state’s own procedures. Despite this, 96 percent of the schools reviewed had no reduction in accreditation status.

As Indiana and the nation consider new accountability provisions, there are lessons to be gleaned from the state’s experience: The state regulators come from the schools and tend to consider accountability from the schools’ perspective. Where processes are not clear to the public, and when there is any opportunity for subjective judgment, state officials will stretch the limits of credulity. An effective system must be transparent and objective. A standard that exists only on paper will not spur improvement.

Tim Zukas
Clarksville, Ind.

Foreign Teachers Have Much To Offer

To the Editor:

Your story on school systems’ recruitment of teachers from around the world (“Recruitment Pinch Fuels Global Trade in K-12 Teachers,”International, Feb. 14, 2001) showed that many of us have a narrow view of the role that international educators can—and should—play in preparing today’s students.

Instead of merely filling vacant positions, properly selected teachers from other countries expose our students to the world beyond our borders, thus preparing them to thrive both professionally and personally in our increasingly diverse and interconnected society. We believe that every student and every school should have the opportunity to know and learn from an international teacher.

Since 1989, we have brought thousands of visiting educators to teach and provide cultural enrichment in U.S. elementary and secondary schools. Their success, both as teachers and as ambassadors of their home countries, has led many districts to embrace our vision of transforming lives through cultural exchange. Today’s acute teacher shortages will some day recede; however, the need for international teachers will remain.

Alan J. Young
David B. Young
Executive Directors
Visiting International Faculty Program
Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Story of Phonics

To the Editor:

I completely agree with Helen Bardeen Andrejevic that lockstep, unimaginative phonics programs that ignore the very purpose of reading, drawing meaning, do more harm than good (“The Story of Phonics,”Commentary, Feb. 14, 2001). But it’s disturbing to me, as one who works with learning-disabled children, that this opinion leads to her conclusion that reading should be taught solely by emphasizing meaning. Beyond my certainty that one size does not fit all, surely all of us can agree that in order to understand what is on the page, the reader must first be able to break the code—to decode.

To deny children any opportunity to develop and strengthen phonemic awareness, phonetic processing, and word recognition is just as unfair as implying that the act of reading is mechanical and unrelated to meaning. Teaching consonant sounds is not enough for some, perhaps many, students to understand sound-to- symbol relationships and how to sequence and blend these sounds.

Relying only on context may have enabled Ms. Andrejevic’s Stephen to realize that he misread “forgotten” as “frogtank,” but he still would not have had the advantage that a good reader has: the ability to quickly decode the word in isolation as well as in context. To dismiss attempts to teach a logical structure for English spelling, which has many consistent patterns (including ones that signal vowel pronunciation), as useless, is irresponsible and will produce weak readers.

With all the research that’s been done on reading, it’s surprising that a teacher is advocating this all-or-nothing approach. Ms. Andrejevic tells us with great assurance that phonics has left “40 percent of our students unable to read at even a basic level.” I know those who have carried the battle against whole language have been just as guilty of citing baseless evidence. Isn’t it time to stop making these undocumented generalizations? Isn’t it time to stop touting one “teaching system” as superior to all others? Isn’t it time to recognize that it is good teachers using all the tools at their disposal who will help students become good readers?

Lars Guthrie
San Francisco, Calif.

To the Editor:

The ranting against phonics in “The Story of Phonics” doesn’t concern itself with facts. Hundreds of research studies over the last 40 years (funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development) have found that phonics works better than look-say or whole-language instruction. We reading teachers could return to spouting doctrine, but I’d rather stick to facts.

The author bases her rantings on a perfectly true complaint: "[T]here is no way to teach a beginning reader of English to identify written words in normal reading by pronouncing them letter by letter.” This is because “normal” English text follows phonetic rules only about 80 percent of the time. So, phonics is taught with special readers that restrict vocabulary to words that are spelled phonetically.

While the author thinks it’s part of phonics to ask kids to read garbage like “Will a throne shave?,” I don’t. Unfortunately, few phonics readers are of the caliber of The Cat in the Hat and Hop on Pop; but there are several series that are acceptable.

I have personally experienced wonderful successes in teaching phonics to both kids and adults. And there are many successful phonics programs available that follow well- researched principles, as documented in Beginning to Read, by Marilyn Adams.

One can rant against the irregularity of English spelling and the theoretical “impossibility” of successfully teaching phonics. Or one can face the research facts that phonics works better and find out how other teachers are doing it successfully.

Alexandra Hopkins
North Hollywood, Calif.

To the Editor:

I wholeheartedly concur with Helen Bardeen Andrejevic’s basic conclusion, but find her premise and her complete dismissal of the phonics system frustrating. Certainly, if phonics was taught in isolation, it could easily be doomed to failure.

She also questions whether a class of learning- disabled students who are studying a phonics program are indeed learning- disabled, or perhaps demonstrating “a bright student’s reaction” to years of phonics training. Any teacher of students, whatever their abilities or disabilities may be, must, of course, assess what teaching tools are most appropriate in a given situation. But to question whether a disability even exists, based solely on a reaction to a phonics lesson, seems questionable.

Finally, Ms. Andrejevic points out that in a phonics program, “taught letter sounds must be separated from meaningful reading and must be practiced in words or lists or nonsense sentences and stories.” In short, “students learn that reading doesn’t have to make sense.” I would argue that the purpose of phonics in and of itself is not reading. The purpose of phonics is to teach a strategy for reading. Hence, sounds are taught in word and sentence contexts, to familiarize a student with how to identify the sounds that make up a word in order to read the word. Reading cannot make sense without phonics.

Phonics is not so much sounding out words “letter by letter,” but sound by sound. As the author correctly points out, there is immense variety in the English language when it comes to vowel sounds, and nobody could ever learn the language by simply sounding words out letter by letter. My frustration comes with the implication that that is all there is to phonics.

Not every student will find phonics helpful. Not every student will be doomed to failure without it. Rather, phonics is one player in a cast of strategies that can be very successful if used in the proper context. Phonics is not breaking down words letter by letter. It is the breaking down of language sound by sound in order to create meaning from chaos.

Laurie Gruhn
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

It was with great distress that I read Helen Bardeen Andrejevic’s anti-phonics Commentary. Teachers who swallow its misinformation will do irreparable harm to their young students by withholding vital information from them.

Ms. Andrejevic correctly points out that the decoding of vowels in English is a nontrivial task. However, she arbitrarily confines herself to the false notion that phonics students learn to read by looking at only one letter at a time. If this were true, then she would be at least partially correct in claiming that students cannot be taught how to pronounce vowels properly, since vowels sometimes change their sounds when used in combination.

But anyone even remotely familiar with phonics knows that students are taught to recognize complete combinations of vowels, and that students most certainly can determine their correct pronunciations, whether used in combination or not.

Strangely, Ms. Andrejevic endorses the teaching of consonant sounds, even though many consonants also change their pronunciations when appearing in combination.

Even more mysterious is Ms. Andrejevic’s claim that “phonics has not served our schools well,” based on her assertion that, “during the 2½ decades between 1955 and the early 1980s, it was the major method of teaching reading in American schools.” If she had researched her subject even modestly, she might have noted that systematic phonics instruction has been systematically and almost continuously purged from our schools since about 1930, and it almost certainly hasn’t been “dominant” since the 1960s.

After her painstaking analysis of the difficulties of decoding vowels, Ms. Andrejevic abruptly abandons even the pretense of logical analysis by exclaiming, “The truth is that the only way [the student] can learn to read is by ... paying attention to the meaning of the sentence along with the consonant sounds,” while offering no accompanying evidence. She further generalizes this notion to suggest that most or all of phonics instruction is “demonstrably useless.”

“The truth is” that Ms. Andrejevic’s analysis of the difficulties of decoding tells us absolutely nothing about whether decoding, despite its difficulties, actually outperforms semantic analysis. If she had had any training in information theory (upon which the entire concept of alphabetic encoding is based), she would know that semantic analysis is several orders of magnitude more complex and unreliable than decoding. That is why computer programmers, who often write programs that perform functions analogous to reading (and who, unlike teachers, generally lose their jobs when they fail), never resort to semantic analysis until every possible effort has been made to accurately decode incoming data.

Apparently, Ms. Andrejevic is unaware that phonics was the subject of exhaustive research throughout the 20th century, and that in four separate summaries of research (Chall 1967, 1983, 1996; Adams 1990; American Institutes of Research 1999; National Reading Panel 2000) involving both contrived experiments and real school reform models, systematic, comprehensive phonics dramatically and consistently outperformed all competing forms of reading instruction.

I suspect that her “simple truths” are based more on a personal affinity for the aesthetics of reading programs that omit skills instruction (comfy circle with teacher reading out of big picture books to students on rug), together with a personal abhorrence of anything systematic or comprehensive. But I guess we should not be surprised; with so many national teachers’ organizations waging continuous, all-out war against essentially all forms of systematic, research-based instruction, we should expect a lot of casualties among both teachers and children.

David Ziffer
Batavia, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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