Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

April 18, 1990 9 min read

To the Editor:

It angered me to see that you found it necessary to focus on a college student working through her spring break in a black community (“A Different Kind of Spring Break,” March 21, 1990).

What was the motive behind running this picture and caption? Does this student deserve a gold medal for giving up her spring break or for going into Chicago’s South Side?

As I recall from my college years, every student-teacher had to give up a holiday to complete graduation requirements. I don’t see anyone giving black teachers a pat on the back or photo coverage for working in a tough black community.

As principal of a Catholic school in Miami’s “Overtown” area, I know we have both black and Anglo friends who help the school. Never has there been a gesture of favoritism given to our Anglo friends, but all are friends alike who have spent unselfish time at our school.

Leslie H. Cooper Principal St. Francis Xavier School Miami, Fla.

To the Editor:

A voice of hope--Wisconsin state legislator Annette Williams"--has finally emerged in the struggle for improved public education (“Voucher System for 1,000 Pupils Adopted in Wis.,” March 28, 1990).

Ms. Williams, a former welfare mother, has experienced firsthand the very worst that American public education has to offer.

As a single, black mother of four, she labored to provide her children with the best possible education within her means, but much to her chagrin, that meant the local public school.

Conditions were so bad in her children’s district that Ms. Williams enrolled them in a private school, even though that required her to spend long hours at the school engaged in menial labor in lieu of tuition payments.

As a result, her children have prospered, and now that Ms. Williams is in a position to effect change in public education, she is determined to do so.

Her proposal to allow 1,000 low-income students to attend private, nonsectarian schools is an important step toward improvement.

Under this plan, these children’s parents would enroll them in the schools they feel are best tailored to their academic needs, and the state would pay up to $2,500 per student for tuition.

This legislation would allow parents to choose what is best for their children, rather than being forced to submit to the state’s dictates.

This is precisely the kind of reform that has been endorsed by President Bush and Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos.

And there’s the rub. Ms. Williams is an acknowledged liberal--one who supported Jesse L. Jackson in his last two Presidential campaigns.

But she stands alone in daring to take school reform to a new level--one that defies partisan politics.

Her involvement in the issue stems not from a desire for political advancement but from concern for the many disadvantaged youngsters who are routinely compelled to accept a public education that guarantees them a one-way ticket to nowhere.

I applaud Ms. Williams for her courage and determination to dothe right thing, and I would hope that all of America’s politicians and educators would have the strength of character to follow suit.

Political battles are not going to help our children--only substantive reform will.

Michael J. Costigan Director of Communications National Council for Better Education Alexandria, Va.

To the Editor:

Junius Eddy’s kind words about the Educational Facilities Laboratories are much appreciated (“The Role in School Design of Facilities Laboratories,” Letters, March 14, 1990).

Mr. Eddy is correct about the efl’s work under Harold Gores, which continued when Alan Green assumed the leadership.

In April 1983, Mr. Green became vice president of Cooper Union. At that time, I became head of the efl division and vice president of the Academy for Educational Development, with which the efl had merged in 1979.

I continued in this role until January of this year, when I formed my own organization.

That the efl is still remembered and looked to as an authority and clearinghouse for creative thinking is underscored by the average of three telephone calls and numerous letters I receiveeach day for information on facilities planning and environments for learning.

I find it amusing that some prefer to ignore the contributions of the efl

Ben E. Graves Principal Educational Planning Consultants Austin, Tex.

To the Editor:

Connie Weaver’s Commentary (“Weighing Claims of ‘Phonics First’ Advocates,” March 28, 1990) alludes to a longitudinal research study of over 1,500 students conducted by Wesley Becker and me that appeared in the American Educational Research Journal in 1982.

Ms. Weaver asserts that “close examination ... reveals that, while 5th and 6th graders who were in the Follow Through program during their primary years scored much higher than comparison groups on a test of decoding skills, they scored considerably lower in reading comprehension.”

Quite simply, she is wrong.

In the 18 evaluations conducted, there are no instances of comparison-group students performing at a higher level than those who had been in the Follow Through program on the measure of reading comprehension, the Metropolitan Reading subtest.

Nor are there any instances of superior performance by comparison students on the “word knowledge” or “total reading” subtests.

On the other hand, there are instances of significant differences in comprehension, vocabulary, and total reading favoring the students who had earlier been in the Follow Through program.

These differences were statistically significant at the 5th but not the 6th grade. Even in the 6th grade, however, the trend favored the Follow Through group.

It is unclear how someone could totally misread the findings of the report and then go on to attack Marilyn J. Adams for her accurate reporting of the findings.

I can only assume that what Ms. Weaver meant to say was that the magnitude of the effects was stronger in word attack than in reading comprehension, though positive in both instances.

The Follow Through students’ reading careers began with intensive instruction in word-attack strategies during the first two years of school.

Within weeks, students learned to use these strategies to read connected text and short books, and to discuss the books and stories they read.

By 3rd grade, as students became fluent readers, the emphasis shifted to comprehension and development of analytical abilities.

More recent longitudinal research indicates that the students experienced long-term benefits in reading up until the 9th grade.

There is no evidence that students displayed deficiencies in comprehension later in their school careers.

Russell Gersten Associate Professor College of Education University of Oregon Eugene, Ore.

To the Editor:

After reading your article about reading methods (“From a ‘Great Debate’ to a Full-Scale War: Dispute Over Teaching Reading Heats Up,” March 21, 1990) and Connie Weaver’s Commentary, I realize that we are headed for another round in the bout between backers of phonics and whole language.

Let me try an idea.

It’s important for the body to have both water and food. Most people try to use them in a balanced manner that creates enjoyment, proper nutrition, and lifelong health.

We can argue about the amount of water needed or the manner in which food is prepared and served. But let’s agree that both are important for a healthy existence.

Transferring this logic to the conflict between advocates of different reading methods, we can conclude that a balance of major ingredients would be a better situation than another “debate.”

Our energy and time must be spent on providing support for teachers and administrators as they make decisions about materials and strategies for learners.

An environment for reading needs to provide both for learning and using sound-letter relationships and for responding to words and ideas.

The controversy over calls for exclusive use of either method is a “water-food” disagreement that leaves lots of learners starving.

Martena B. Taliaferro Supervisor of Instruction (on leave) Montgomery County Public Schools Silver Spring, Md.

To the Editor:

Your article about the debate over reading left the impression that the two sides of the debate are incompatible--that we either teach children the relationship between letters and sounds or we have them explore real literature, but not both.

Marilyn J. Adams made it clear in her study that research shows a need for both.

In actuality, the issue is whether or not to teach children explicit phonics--the relationship between letters and sounds and meaning.

On one side is the scientific community, which deals in facts. Research suggests that phonics is a crucial step in learning to read for comprehension and pleasure.

On the other side is the reading establishment, which controls the training and certification of teachers. The members of this group ignore the research because they don’t believe in teaching explicit phonics. Not only do they not train teachers to teach it, but they teach a bias against it.

As a nation, we are far less literate than Cuba, Israel, or the Soviet Union, which have already solved literacy problems by teaching children explicit phonics.

For example, the illiteracy rate in Israel went from l3 percent in 1969 to 6 percent in 1984 because of this practice.

By contrast, our illiteracy rate for minorities is over 50 percent and rising--because teaching phonics has become a lost art in education schools.

No wonder the voices are shrill.

Marguerite F. Hoerl Reading Consultant Newark, Del.

To the Editor:

As a reading teacher, I was concerned by Connie Weaver’s Commentary, primarily because the essay focused on ways of teaching rather than of learning the written language.

Whatever happened to individual differences and learning styles?

Whole-language instruction presupposes a certain familiarity with the printed word: left-to-right orientation, some knowledge of the alphabet, and so on.

This approach is fine for students who come to school with the prerequisite skills; good, early readers tend to internalize these skills and have a working knowledge of phonics even before entering school. Why would anyone drill such readers on phonics?

But others enter school with far less linguistic background, unable to recognize the letters of the alphabet, their names, or local store logos.

In 1st or 2nd grade, they cannot rhyme words or duplicate a rhythm. They may continue reversing letters and words, and may even misspell their own names throughout the elementary years and beyond. Verbal comprehension is delayed.

Why would anyone expect their reading skills or comprehension to improve through use of a whole-language approach? They have a language disability.

For students whose decoding skills are significantly above their reading comprehension, a language evaluation would be indicated. This gap could occur not because of an improper teaching method but because of a substantial delay in the ability to process language, a far more serious problem than a few points on a standardized reading test.

Phonics instruction is an ideal way for many students to achieve the goals Ms. Weaver mentions near the end of her essay.

Phonics need not be completely separated from other written-language skills, and whole language can build on a familiarity with phonics.

Linda O’Connor Newton, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 1990 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor