Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

February 07, 1990 9 min read

Doing a good job of reviewing education in the 1980’s, Diane Ravitch said that the central concern was “quality” (“Education in the 1980’s: A Concern for ‘Quality,”’ Commentary, Jan. 10, 1990).

The area she neglected was values. I’m not sure the omission was intentional, but a review of the decade’s court cases indicates that the tough battles concerned whose version of life would predominate in the schools.

From textbooks to sex education, aids, and abortion, parents were seeking to defend their values from what they perceived to be an attack.

Activists were busy at work, trying not merely to make the schools bastions of religious freedom but to remove from them any hint that man may be anything but a trousered ape.

Even Norman Lear, founder of People for the American Way, bemoaned the “spiritual emptiness in our culture” and suggested that it might have something to do with the exclusion of religion from the classroom.

Like Ms. Ravitch, advocates of reform ignore the values issue. To them, it may seem unimportant, but unless schools address the problem of one system trying to be all things to all people, even the best devised structure will fall apart.

None of the “choice” programs in existence even mentions value differences as being worthy of an option.

The blunt fact is that schools must teach facts within a value orientation that gives meaning to life.

Otherwise, the schools become boring places that leave children empty, and all too many seek excitement and meaning in drugs, sex, and crime.

There is no conspiracy. It is just a case of the courts’ trying to maintain the legal status of an educational system devised in the 19th century that can no longer meet the needs of a diverse society.

The solution is to disestablish the state monopoly in schooling--a reform proposal you will hear more about in the 1990’s.

Robert S. Marlowe Upper Marlboro, Md.

Twenty years’ experience teaching poor readers and nonreaders to read with an intensive, multisensory, basic-phonics method tells me that the Yale University researchers will discover what many successful reading teachers have known for years (“Two Centers Plan Studies of Learning Disabilities,” Jan. 10, 1990).

It’s the “whole language” approach that creates symptoms of dyslexia in children who simply need an alternative instructional method.

As a result, large numbers of children are labeled learning-disabled even though, when rescued with a strong phonics approach, they readily learn to read.

Regarding the article “Balance Between Phonics, ‘Whole Language’ Urged” in the same issue, do intelligent people really think that basic-phonics advocates believe in teaching only the letter-sound associations without corresponding reading material?

Many critics of phonics are misinformed, and most have never had the heady experience of teaching “hopeless” students to read anything and everything within a relatively short time.

Ruth Worden Frank Rochester, N.Y.

I write to offer a few corrections to your article “Balance Between Phonics, ‘Whole Language’ Urged.”

The new report does not constitute compliance with the so-called “Zorinsky amendment.”

This legislation required the Secretary of Education to “conduct a study in order to compile a complete list, by name, of beginning reading instruction programs and methods, including phonics, indicating--the average cost per pupil of such programs and methods; and whether such programs and methods do or do not present well-designed instruction as recommended in the report of the Commission on Reading entitled Becoming a Nation of Readers.”

In addition, the report, as described in your story, is misleading.

The phonetic code is not complicated; it is, instead, a modern-day miracle.

Twenty-six letters and some letter combinations represent in print the 45 sounds required to say the entire English lexicon.

Myrna McCulloch Executive Director The Riggs Institute Beaverton, Ore.

After reading your article “Rule Governing Chapter 1 Funds Is Struck Down” (Jan. 10, 1990), I couldn’t help but think that Americans United for Separation of Church and State cares more about repressing people’s religious freedom than it does about helping shape the educational future of Americans.

The fact that church-related schools provide thousands of inner-city children with an education every year while the inner-city public schools, for whatever reasons, do little more than baby-sit seems to have escaped this group’s attention.

If the Americans United would look at the legislative history of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, it would find that the intent of the framers was not to keep religion out of our everyday lives, but rather to ensure that no national holiday was established.

The fact that the Education Department allocated money to church-related schools for the teaching of remedial students hardly establishes a national religion.

It is indeed a black day in our history when a misguided group can deny schoolchildren the chance for an education merely because these children attend a church-related school.

Is it worth sacrificing young minds to ensure that a church-related school does not get any federal tax dollars? What is Americans United afraid of?

Julie A. Binsfeld Director of Communications Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights Milwaukee, Wis.

A recent article outlined the advantages as well as the difficulties of institutionalizing multi-age classrooms (“First Stirrings of a New Trend: Multi-Age Classrooms Gain Favor,” Dec. 6, 1989).

“There are no simple solutions” has become the least often challenged and most comforting shibboleth of the education establishment. But the mixed-age classroom is one issue that may, in fact, admit of a “simple solution.”

If we could look beyond academia into the thousands of small schools operating out of storefronts and church basements, we would find a ready-made answer in the Montessori method.

The “new trend” of multi-age classrooms is an idea that Montessori teachers have been testing for nearly 100 years, and the twin obstacles of curriculum development and teacher training to which you call attention are bugs that have long since been ironed out.

The key to the success of the Montessori program has been the availability of comprehensive, integrated didactic materials and proven methods of teacher education.

The Montessori educator does not define curriculum solely in terms of standard texts.

The elementary as well as the preschool environment is replete with concrete instructional materials with an intrinsic appeal.

This approach precludes standardized testing as the measure of progress. Nor can the teacher be the focal point of the classroom; record keeping involves observation of the child as an individual problem solver.

It is a myth that mixed-age groupings can flourish only under an extraordinary teacher. The Montessori method provides ordinary teachers and students with tools for making the most of their potential.

Jill Willoughby Montessori Society of Central Maryland Lutherville, Md.

The members of the Maryland Board of Education must believe themselves magicians (“Maryland Board Adopts Plan To Make Schools Accountable for Performance,” Jan. 10, 1990).

How can you make a school accountable for performance when the school has little or no influence on its major determiner?

The quality of performance is shaped primarily by the ambiance in the home.

What is the quality of its intellectual atmosphere? What is the strength of the requirement for diligence, the insistence upon doing one’s best? Is the habit of setting and then attaining worthwhile goals stimulated by example?

Far too many homes teach few or none of these qualities, as parents, by example, promote mental anemia by spending excessive time before the television; reward physical development and accomplishment in macho sports at the expense of intellectual growth and emotional control; and praise those activities that result in a combination of excessive material gain and spiritual vacuum.

No, the school cannot be made accountable when the causes of inferior performance are the behavior and failure of parents and pseudo-parents. Not even the Maryland Board of Education can overcome that.

Frederic B. Viaux Wellesley Hills, Mass.

I am constantly amazed by the efforts of certain groups of citizens to take away the rights and privileges of other citizens.

The California Supreme Court’s ruling that temporarily blocked a teacher from taking a seat on a school board--to which she was duly elected--is a case in point (Across the Nation, Jan. 17, 1990).

The “conflict of interest” argument is no more valid in this case than it would be in one concerning a lawyer’s or businessman’s serving in a legislative body or a lawyer’s serving on the Supreme Court.

The real issue is the potential of this case to become a genuine threat to democracy.

If the court’s final ruling is to refuse to allow Caroline Botwin to serve on the board, then the will of the people from her district will certainly have been denied.

Billy C. Todd Mobile, Ala.

I read Kevin Padian’s Commentary with great regret (“Framework for Science Curricula Backs Evolution,” Dec. 13, 1989).

The regret is that the essay repeats the very errors in presentation to which the California Board of Education objected in the drafts submitted by the curriculum commission.

The first of those errors was to assert a number of times that a theory is also a fact.

As any undergraduate student of science knows, theories are established after facts are gathered, tentative hypotheses tried and tested, and, finally, a theory developed to explain the facts being studied.

To say that a theory is also a fact is simply poor writing--a contradiction in terms.

The second error was to present many statements in the framework regarding evolution in the dogmatic language of the advocate rather than in the unbiased, objective language of the true scientist.

The third error was to quote the 1987 Supreme Court decision relating to the teaching of evolution and creationism out of context in order to frighten teachers who might not wish to follow the dogmatic statements contained in the proposed framework.

Most serious of all, the proposed framework expressed hostility toward people with a religious point of view by quoting out of context the report of the National Academy of Sciences.

Finally, it ignored two clauses in the First Amendment. The amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ...”

The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of speechfor teachers, as well as the press.

No governmental agency, such as the board of education, can forbid teachers to express their own views, nor can such an agency express hostility toward religion without violating the Constitution.

It is just as wrong for a governmental agency to be hostile toward religion as it is to advance religion.

Mr. Padian’s essay contains the same tone of unscientific advocacy that the board objected to in the original draft of the framework.

In addition, Mr. Padian states that “certain politically conservative board members, appointed by a conservative governor, put politics before their public trust. And they do not care how foolish they appear in public or how futile their conciliatory gestures are.”

These statements--some bordering on libel--are those of a person who can brook no opposition.

One can understand Mr. Padian’s natural desire as a paleontologist to defend his turf in a time when research is constantly making new discoveries and casting aside outdated theories.

Such a desire, however, does not justify the use of ridicule and accusations that the board has violated its public trust.

Francis Laufenberg President California Board of Education Sacramento, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 1990 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor