Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

January 09, 1991 20 min read

To the Editor:

I feel that I must comment on two things I found objectionable about your article on John Witte’s criticism of John Chubb and Terry Moe’s effective-schools study (“Paper Launches Academic Attack on Chubb-Moe Book on Education,” Nov. 14, 1990).

Although the lead of the article makes a point of claiming that the U.S. Education Department’s High School and Beyond data are “suspect,’' the principal criticism appears to be directed more at how Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe used that data than at the data themselves. The only criticism in that area I could see was Mr. Witte’s claim that the High School and Beyond data were “fraught with measurement error.”

I would have appreciated some further explanation of this statement, since it carries with it the serious implication that any research using the data is suspect.

My second criticism has to do with the “sound bite” approach of the article in terms of how it presents the opinions of leading researchers in the field. A quote such as “it’s on the money” (made by J. Douglas Willms of the University of British Columbia with regard to the Witte criticism) sounds a bit like what you get in those television commercials that purport to survey the opinion of people who have just come out of a movie performance.

I would think that a criticism as serious as Mr. Witte’s should have been accompanied by much more substantive statements of support from the various experts who were consulted.

This should in no way be construed as a criticism of Mr. Witte or a defense of Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe. My purpose in writing is a more general one. As an educational researcher, I have come to depend on Education Week to keep me informed of current trends in the field, and I have been impressed by the depth and candor with which educational issues have been discussed. I feel compelled to say, however, that the usual quality of Education Week reporting was not reflected in this article.

Peter Homel
Senior Research Assistant
Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Testing
New Jersey Board of Education
Newark, N.J.

To the Editor:

In your article on the reading-teaching import from New Zealand, Reading Recovery, you say that 20 years ago Marie Clay invented a way to overcome the problems of children who are unable to learn to read (“New Zealand Import: An Effective, but Costly, Way To Teach Reading,” Nov. 7, 1990).

What she did was to create two or three hundred sequenced booklets, by means of which children, with one-on-one help, can learn to read. According to the article, children are taught to “look at pictures for clues to the meaning of the accompanying text, or to reread words that did not sound right to them. The goal is to enable the child to read independently after 16 to 20 weeks of daily, half-hour lessons.”

Stanley Torrey Orton 65 years ago invented a way to overcome the problems of children who cannot read by teaching them the various sounds the letters stand for. He created a code that children can learn by carefully listening to and saying the sounds the letters stand for while printing them.

Dr. Orton, a neurologist and psychiatrist, selected for his code 70 sound/letter correlations, which he called phonograms. Most 1st graders can learn them in two months, and virtually all can learn them in a year. At the same time, they learn to write and read from left to right, to spell words correctly, and to write and read anything they want.

Children who know the code can sound out words they don’t recognize, so they don’t have to guess at them. Through writing and reading correctly, they become able to spell and read automatically and have their entire working-memory capacity available to them for figuring out what an author is saying. They do not need pictures to help them figure out what a text says. They read exciting and provocative books, rather than 200 to 300 books whose point is sequence of difficulty.

Understanding is an intellectual practice independent of decoding words. Children 5 years old are not interested in “making meaning” from texts. Decoding words is what fascinates them.

Romalda and Walter Spalding adapted the Orton methods for classroom teaching. She was a teacher and later worked with Dr. Orton; he was an engineer. They wrote it all down in their book, The Writing Road to Reading, in 1957.

Reading instruction by the Spalding method is being taught in many classrooms today, and, where well-taught, is preventing reading disability in virtually all children. Teacher colleges, however, teach nothing of Stanley Torrey Orton or his work.

They do teach Whole Language, though, with gusto. Its philosophy is the same as that of Reading Recovery. The International Reading Association conferences seldom involve Spalding materials, although where they are being exhibited, the booths area is jammed.

A teacher can learn to teach the Spalding method in a week. A Reading Recovery teacher has to be in training for a year and can work with only five children a day. Compare the costs of teacher training for the two systems. Compare, too, the costs of Spalding materials, which can be used for many years and are $88 per classroom, with the cost of 200 to 300 illustrated booklets and the many other items Reading Recovery calls for.

Compare also the effectiveness over a lifetime of learning in 1st grade to spell and read independently and accurately with the practice of guessing at words not recognized from pictures and context.

Dr. Orton did a great deal of autopsy lab study with the brain tissue of brain-injured patients he had treated. On the basis of this work, he hypothesized that people who cannot read and understand what they read simply are not able to correctly print or read the letters, and do not know the sounds they stand for.

He invented systematic ways to teach disabled readers to write the letters correctly and learn the sounds they stand for. His ways of teaching penmanship, spelling, and reading are what Spalding teachers teach today. The methods prevent the need for many disability classrooms, including those for reading disability, learning disability, emotional disability, behavior disability, and attention-deficit disorder.

It would seem that a school district that wanted to successfully teach basic skills to all its children in the primary grades--at as low a cost as possible--would teach Spalding first, then look to see how many of the disability industries are necessary before investing in them.

Ann Mactier
Member, Board of Education
Omaha Public Schools
Omaha, Neb.

To the Editor:

I was appalled by the tone and substance of your article on the Milken Family Foundation’s program to recognize exemplary educators ("$25,000 Bonuses for Exemplary Teachers Include One String--Their Donor, Milken,” Nov. 14).

While the article does provide quotes from people with a variety of views on the “Educator Awards” program, the headlines on the front page and inside clearly indicate a point of view that would fit better on the editorial page.

I should begin by pointing out that I am dean of a school of education that has received over $80,000 from the Milken Family Foundations, primarily for fellowships to enable minority graduate students to pursue studies leading to careers in education.

Nevertheless, your story raised two issues that need addressing: first, the value of a program of educator awards, like the one designed by the Milken Foundation, and, second, the extent to which the program will be hurt because of its association with the Milken name.

Let us first ask what the program is. The Milken Foundation provides the funds to enable a committee of educational leaders of a state, including in every case the state superintendent of education, to identify a representative group of outstanding educators, and to recognize the best of these by presenting them each with a check for $25,000 at a ceremony in their state.

As the article points out, teacher-recognition programs are nothing new and would normally bring plaudits to the sponsor. What, then, are the problems with this version of teacher recognition? It is suggested that the awards are too big, that no selection process could be completely fair, and that the money used for the awards could be better used.

These arguments sound suspiciously like those made by people who oppose merit pay for teachers. It is obvious that no4evaluation system can be completely fair, whether it is awarding tenure to professors, partnerships to attorneys, foul shots to basketball players, or the Nobel Prize. But clearly, by involving as many people as possible, including superintendents, past award winners, curriculum experts, union officials, school-board and faculty members, the selection process will be deliberate and as fair as possible.

I have met many of the award winners, and I believe most educators would be as impressed as I am with those who have been chosen. If absolute fairness is a prerequisite for any merit-based program, none would exist. Since in that case no one would be favored, no one would be envious or resentful or disappointed. But the benefits that result when people have reasons to strive for excellence would be lost.

The next criticism involves the amount of money the award represents. The article seems to indicate that, if $500 prizes were all this was about, all would be fine. The relatively large amounts of money involved are said to taint the program. Why is it acceptable, indeed laudable, for scientists to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars when they win a Nobel Prize, but unacceptable for a teacher to receive a $25,000 Educator Award?

As a market economist, I am left puzzled by this attitude. What does it mean in a capitalist society when a professional group is identified as an inappropriate recipient of large financial rewards?

A possible explanation comes to mind. Teachers, regardless of their professional excellence, are held in such low esteem that large rewards are unthinkable. Given that it was professional educators who leveled the criticism of the amount, however, surely this cannot be the answer. I am left to wonder if a small, unrepresentative but outspoken minority of officials responsible for getting teachers salary increases are simply opposed to any significant rewards for8which they will not be given credit.

Some might argue that the money provided by the Milken Foundation might be put to better use in education. However, I have not heard what that better use is. My view is that the greatest need in K-12 education is to attract better people into the profession. We need more bright and able people. The cream of our college graduates in recent years have opted for careers that not only pay more, but also enable the best to do significantly better than the worst. Thus, they reject teaching.

The Milken Foundation is saying to prospective teachers: If you are good, you are worth more; and we are putting our money where our mouth is. Those in charge of the program believe that the bulk of current teachers could justifiably receive the Educator Award. They feel that the actual winners are only representatives of a much larger group.

My own view is that a by-product of the awards program might be the demonstration that merit can be identified--just as it is in other fields. If this can be done, perhaps some form of merit pay will be adopted more broadly, which would be fine with me. This is not in conflict with the generally agreed upon view that all teachers (or most) deserve more pay. Unfortunately, the cost of across-the-board increases that would elevate teacher salaries to the level of other professionals is prohibitive.

The second issue, assuming we can agree that a program like the Educator Awards is worthwhile, is whether or not such a program should be funded by the Milken family. However, Michael Milken is not providing the funding for the Educator Awards; rather, the program is funded by a foundation that has been scrutinized by a number of public agencies and has been found beyond reproach.

It is not my purpose to either condemn or defend Michael Milken; this is the responsibility of our legal system. He has admitted guilt to six charges of financial improprieties. Whatever debt he owes to society will be paid. As part of that payment, Michael Milken, arguably one of the most industrious, productive, and gifted financial talents of this century, will spend 1,800 hours a year for three years in public service.

Should all right-thinking public-service organizations refuse to accept him as a volunteer? I think not; indeed, the social-service organizations to which Mr. Milken has already applied his considerable talents are far better off for his having done so. Similarly, I think that education is far better off because the Milken Family Foundation chooses to honor educators, to parade them in front of their constituencies, to tell them their extra efforts and special accomplishments are worth it.

The awards may enable some teachers to live a little bit better than they have. But do not worry, they still will not live like bankers or lawyers on a one-time bonus of $25,000. Most will use the money to help their own children or the kids in their classrooms. They will use their award money to fund programs and activities they know will work, or whose effectiveness they want to assess.

The awards provide the means for the best of our educators to do even better, to try things that cost money that would not be available otherwise.

To spend the money that has been made available is not to condone an individual’s illegal acts any more than money from the foundations of so-called “robber barons” of old purifies what they may have done. We should be grateful that bright, and wealthy, people believe education is our hope for the future. If support for education is the penance to be done by the rich, we should all give our thanks.

Lewis C. Solmon
Dean Graduate School of Education
University of California at Los Angeles
Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

Dale Mann is exactly on the mark in his Commentary article, “Bankrolling Educational Entrepreneurs” (Dec. 5, 1990). He gets to the point when he states that schools try to “vaccinate themselves against serious change. They accept a little bit in order to avoid the real thing.”

In case we needed a reminder of this reality, Chester E. Finn Jr.'s Continued on letter in the same issue chiding us for looking away from the reality of educational failure certainly documents the validity of Mr. Mann’s point.

Mr. Mann is correct in asserting that we have to look at the basic motivations of school people--indeed, of any person. His solution of emphasizing choices, returns, and accountability addresses the need for understanding human motivations in making more than cosmetic changes in schools.

As a former public-school superintendent and present independent-school head, I feel firmly that our long tradition of independent education in this country provides a model for the way to get genuine change in the public schools.

In New York City, some independent schools are prospering while others are going out of business. Although a substantial part of this change is circumstantial rather than a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest phenomenon, there is to a degree authentic accountability in what happens in the independent sector, which, if translated to the public sector, would be a real cause for change.

Mr. Mann’s proposals for an Em4ployee or Educator’s School Ownership Plan and an Investment Bank for education would create a new climate in the schools--one in which faculty, administration, custodians, students, and parents all recognized that their shared destiny is promoted by collective action for improvements for students. When this occurs, it ends the usual games that block progress in schools.

Though Mr. Mann dismisses voucher plans, my experience in public and independent education suggests that a true voucher system in the public sector, limited to the public schools, would introduce the degree of choice and accountability he is seeking.

In addition, though Mr. Mann disparages corporate or foundation grants of $250,000 as ineffective, my own experience is that significant corporate and foundation grants to a public or private school often provide ways of channeling tangible assets directly to key faculty members, and always provide psychological rewards for the faculty members involved.

We need the stimulus of Dale Mann’s creative thinking and challenging proposals if we are to face up to our challenges and make a better world for our children.

Gardner P. Dunnan
The Dalton School
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

In a letter in your Oct. 24, 1990, issue, Sandra F. Thomas, president of the group Children with Attention Deficit Disorders, argued for appropriate programs and services for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders. She made it clear that such children need appropriate educational management, and that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires the provision of necessary services for all handicapped children.

She also asserted, however, that such children need to be recognized as eligible for, and placed in a new special-education category. On this point, we do not agree.

Twenty years of experience as a former special-education teacher, a trainer of teachers at the graduate level, and a local director of special education compel me to challenge some of Ms. Thomas’s contentions.

She argues that a child with an attention deficit cannot possibly have his or her needs met in either general education programs or existing special-education programs. Nonsense. While these children are frequently difficult to teach, they do not constitute a truly discrete category. Many share characteristics with learning-disabled, emotionally impaired, and non-handicapped students.

Their need for individualized instruction employing sound behavioral methodology is clear. Reasons why such instruction cannot be provided in existing delivery systems are not.

Within the medical model, once a diagnosis has been made, treatment is implied. In education, this is not the case. Special-education goals and objectives are not (or should not be) based on the identified diagnostic category of the stu4dent. Instead, they are properly based on the individual child’s present level of educational peformance in cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains.

The suggestion that it would be damaging to serve children with attention deficits and children with learning disabilities in the same room is as absurd as the suggestion that l.d. and a.d./h.d. are discrete and separate categories.

Many children do, in fact, meet both the diagnostic criteria as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and the special-education law’s criteria as learning-disabled. Until medical diagnosis rests on physical evidence, overlap between a.d./h.d. and serious emotional disturbance cannot be ruled out either.

Rather than relying on the medical establishment to reveal diagnostic truth, educators and parents would do well to identify and measure the individual child’s strengths and weaknesses, then systematically implement sound, proven strategies to address the child’s needs.

When the child is not on medication, this is the most important role parents and educators can play on behalf of the child. When the child is on medication, our role remains the same. Such service absolutely can and should be provided on behalf of such children in our existing delivery system. Effective coordination of home and school consequences would do far more to help these children gain independence than the placement in special classrooms.

Coordinating home and school consequences is complicated by the fact that at least 20 percent of the parents of these children display the same symptoms themselves. Collaboration between parents and teachers remains critical nonetheless.

Children who fail to attend to assigned tasks and act with little apparent concern for consequences don’t need teaching that is fundamentally different, they need teaching that is verifiably better.

We do not need more special education, what we need now is education that is special. Let’s quit asking ourselves if the problems high-incidence children manifest are severe enough to “constitute eligibility’'; let’s just deal with these problems when and where they occur.

Let’s face the obvious fact that our ability to individualize in general education is greater when fewer resources are re-allocated in other directions. Instead of lobbying for more special education, let’s lobby for an Individualized Instruction Plan for every child. In doing so, we’ll take a responsible step toward giving every child his due.

Bernard H. Travnikar
Director of Special Services
The Lamphere Schools
Madison Heights, Mich.

To the Editor

In your Nov. 28 issue, a front-page article describes the advent of what is called “ground-breaking research” linking attention-deficit disorder to a biological base (“Biological Study May Fuel Debate Over Hyperactivity”). The article goes on to speculate that these preliminary findings will be likely to flame the controversy over whether children considered to have this disorder should be entitled to special-education services.

It is my hope that the fires of a far more important controversy will also be fanned by these reports, and that is the question of whether add originates from a biological problem inherent in the student or actually stems from a pedagogical problem inherent in the approach to teaching or to learning in general.

It is perhaps easier to blame students for a failure to learn, for wandering attention or for impulsivity than it is to take a hard look at an educational process that may well be responsible for producing the majority of the “2l behaviors” listed in the often cited Taylor Hyperactivity Screening Checklist.

My experience in nearly 20 years of educating children has taught me that children who have been diagnosed to be suffering from add are usually “cured” of this problem by a teacher’s hard work, not by the administration of “low doses of amphetamines” or “behavior-management therapies,” as described in this article.

A student’s ability to concentrate becomes proportionally less to the degree that he doesn’t understand what he is studying. This is axiomatic. If this isn’t addressed early on--as it occurs--the problem becomes more and more acute. I have yet to meet the teacher who hasn’t observed this personally. If that inattentive, even disruptive student is viewed for what he is--a student who is simply sitting in the middle of one or more confusions relating to what has been or is being studied--a teacher can begin to make immediate headway.

The process is one of backtracking, of finding out where the student last unerstood the subject and then where he first began to lose track of it. Right there, in the “I understand it right up to here” zone, you will find your culprit: one or more words, simple or complex, that this student misunderstood, didn’t notice, and didn’t get defined.

Clear these things up with a good dictionary to a conceptual understanding and miraculously you will have a student whose attention span begins to move from the debit side to the credit side of the ledger. With this approach the odds are that you will have not only improved behavior and enhanced concentration, but also restored interest where it, too, was waning.

The administration of drugs and behavioral therapy are simply patchwork approaches that may lead parents, teachers, and even students into a temporary feeling of well-being. It is not the solid foundation of self-esteem and confidence that comes from actually achieving knowledge and the skills of its application.

Results from this approach can be achieved even with those students who have been diagnosed as suffering from add But it takes a willingness to roll up one’s sleeves--and a clear understanding of the fundamentals of the subject of study.

I would encourage researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health to take a new look at cause and effect in their study of hyperactivity. It could well be that the slowed metabolic rate they observed in adults with add was the result of, not the cause of, problems related to study.

If we are looking for a cure for this disorder and not just a placebo, we need to look earlier than the physiological reaction. Experience suggests the “cause” of hyperactivity lies with a failed methodology, not a failed physiology. Treating the symptoms will only compound the problem and lead us further astray.