Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

February 21, 1990 4 min read

As a member of the planning committee for the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s 1992 writing assessment, I was invited to study the latest findings in “The Writing Report Card, 1984-88" (“naep Results in Reading, Writing Show Few Gains,” Jan. 17, 1990).

Some of the results are indeed discouraging, as Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos emphasized.

But despite negative aspects featured in the news media, I found encouraging signs in the report: better performance in basic skills by black and Hispanic students in 4th and 8th grades; some improvement in students’ informative writing and in tasks calling for analysis; more efforts at revision among 4th and 8th graders; and indications that their attitudes toward writing may be improving.

I worry that these signs may be submerged under the gloomier findings and divert attention from what we can do to help children become writers.

I also worry about the effect of this negative emphasis on teachers, who continue to struggle to teach writing well under conditions that would be considered absurdly inadequate anywhere but in education.

Amid the talk of the need to restructure, to create choice among public schools, and to motivate teachers to inspire students that followed the release of the report, I did not hear any mention of class size or teacher workload as part of the problem.

This was true despite the recent announcement of encouraging news about the effects of reduced class size on teaching and learning from Project star in Tennessee.

The “student-teacher achievement ratio” experiment, which reduced primary-grade class sizes from 22-to-25 to 13-to-17 students, has yielded educationally important differences in reading and math performance on the Stanford Achievement Test. It certainly has implications for writing.

Outsized classes remain a major roadblock to improving writing.

Common sense tells us that the individual attention, coaching, and encouragement that teachers in the Tennessee experiment were able to give in small classes are not possible when a teacher is coping with more than 150 students.

Even the modest goal of reducing the secondary-school workload to 100 students, advocated for many years by the National Council of Teachers of English, is far from being realized.

Naep finds that students spend little time actively engaged in the writing process and that many come to dislike writing as they move through secondary school.

What else could we expect under present conditions?

Until the nation improves its student-teacher ratios, its seriousness about improving writing remains in question.

James E. Davis Vice President National Council of Teachers of English Urbana, Ill.

Once again, we are privileged to have a copiously researched, open-minded report from a group of well-intentioned experts who have told us that our schools are failing.

Young adults cannot read or write; their vocabulary and comprehension are limited; they can’t think or analyze; they can’t compute or understand mathematical concepts; they are not prepared for technological work or for the responsibilities of citizenship.

In effect, we are spending huge sums of money for incompetent educators to do an inadequate job.

It is becoming clearer that our society’s health can be assured only through a restructured and well-funded education system.

How else can we educate students who are neglected by their parents or who come from environments that either do not distinguish between right and wrong or think wrong is right and right is wrong?

In what other way can we educate those who have been abused, or who live in all-consuming poverty, or who are surrounded daily by neighborhood crime and violence, or who are addicted to chemical substances?

In what other way can we teach those who are in many other ways at risk?

This population may range from 20 percent to 50 percent of our students.

The top 50 percent are being well-educated. Their depth of knowledge is well beyond that of comparable groups of yesteryear.

Our educators not only must provide the assistance needed by the problem children but must passively accept the attacks leveled at them by the self-proclaimed “experts,” who seem to focus constantly on the superficial causes of undereducation in our country.

If we don’t stop using educators as whipping boys, we certainly will not ignite the torch needed to lead us, our children, and our grandchildren to the promised land.

Joseph M. Pirrello Principal Verona High School Verona, N.J.

Your article about California’s answer to the “regular-education initiative” intrigued me (“California Project Links Spec.-Ed., Regular Teachers,” Jan. 24, 1990).

Hiring enough special-education teachers to work effectively with classroom teachers on an itinerant basis sounds expensive, and getting two professionals to work well together for the benefit of the same student is always difficult.

But California’s plan sounds better than the “regular-education initiative,” where special-needs children are simply placed in regular classes with teachers who have no special-education training.

In Lawrenceburg, we feel our own “fully integrated program” has more merit.

It requires teachers certified in both a special-education field and regular education; limits student enrollment to 15 per class, with no more than 5 handicapped students; and provides a half-time paraprofessional.

The program thereby offers full-time services to special-education kids, rather than part-time itinerant or resource-room services.

T.R. Ellis Curriculum Coordinator Lawrenceburg Community Schools Lawrenceburg, Ind.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor