Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

March 18, 1992 10 min read

To the Editor:

Although I agree with U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane S. Ravitch’s statement that “this has been 20 years of remarkable change’’ for women (“National Groups Promise Steps To Combat Inequities for Girls,’' Feb. 19, 1992), I cannot agree with her assertion that gender-equity programs are no longer needed. Empowering environments are needed for adolescent females now more than ever.

The progress that has been made toward gender equity has had one negative side effect: As women prove that they can do and have it all, they create an expectation of achievement which becomes increasingly intimidating to the next generation. My experience working at an all-girls school has shown me time and again that female students need the kind of environment we provide. We must assuage their fears about being able to live up to the new stereotype of the successful woman.

As a single-sex school, we have the research, the programs, and the resources to show our students that they can have fulfilling lives as leaders, scholars, athletes, and friends. We are motivated by the one goal we hold above all others: to provide young women with exceptional training, for college and after.

Empowerment and equal access should not be benefits available only to the few. Most young women in the United States today will not have access to the resources that Madeira and other girls’ schools have to offer. But during the crucial adolescent years, when vital qualities like self-esteem begin to erode, any type of single-sex experience can help prevent that almost irreversible damage.

Teenage girls should be encouraged to join the Girl Scouts, an all-girls church group, an intramural sports team--any kind of activity, as long as it provides a single-sex environment with strong female leadership. The opportunity to learn self-sufficiency, problem-solving, teamwork, and consensus-building with intelligent, caring role models can reverse, or at least diminish, the effects of bias in a coed classroom.

Meanwhile, it is imperative that the U.S. Education Department share with the National Coalition of Girls Schools the common goal of educating and preparing girls for life, for participation in the workforce, for parenting and volunteering and care-giving. The department must attempt to reach the girls that we cannot. A majority segment of the population is in danger.

Jennifer Jackson Salopek
Madeira School
McLean, Va.

To the Editor:

The news that the Council of Independent Colleges wants to accredit its own education programs (“Revamped NCATE Posts Highs, Lows In Tides of Teacher-Education Reform,’' Feb. 26, 1992) is disquieting. “Two organizations’’ means “two sets of standards,’' and one must be inferior to the other. Those certified by the inferior gain the opportunity to stigmatize themselves and the duty of convincing others that they aren’t stigmatized. Either activity undermines high standards by confusing them with an imitation.

If independent colleges have their own accreditation process, why not research universities or the Renaissance Group? Proliferation doesn’t lead merely to balkanization, but to a vacuum which invites filling. Others could accredit preparation programs, with considerable power through local hiring processes. If programs are uncomfortable about co-operating with one another now, they may soon be more uncomfortable about not co-operating with one another.

Each time NCATE raises its standards, there’s a reaction from those to whom the standards apply. This time, budgets are leaner, so the reaction is greater. But the answer is still the same: Make NCATE work. A single credible process promotes professionalism; balkanization destroys it. To make teaching a profession equal to others, the center needs to hold.

Who gains by destroying accreditation? The presidents and provosts who are not supporting it now. Faced with new standards, they move to eliminate those seeking improvements. In the clash between institutional and professional cultures, our stewards choose corporatism. This is a far greater threat to the academy than the desire for better practice through higher standards of preparation.

Jim Sutton
Staff Specialist
for Policy Development
Iowa State Education Association
Des Moines, Iowa

To The Editor:

It was refreshing to see Harold Williams’s point of view on arts education (“Why Ignore Arts Education In Our Reforms?’' Commentary, Feb. 26, 1992) being given prominent attention in your publication. We who are involved in the arts and public education often feel alone in the battle to remain a viable part of the American education system.

I think it is important to clarify that Mr. Williams is speaking about the Arts, with a capital A. Although his affiliation, through the Getty Trust, is primarily art education, his essay could have been written about music education, dance education, or theater arts. I believe he would agree that this is a time for people in arts education to act together in stressing the importance of understanding the many avenues of human expression.

I know that in music education, for example, researchers, thinkers, and leaders in the field have worked and are working on exciting and meaningful ways to improve the structure of music teaching and learning. Work in philosophy, in esthetics, in skill development, and in performance have all contributed to a sound body of educational organization and methods to enhance instruction in a variety of settings.

Mr. Williams challenges us to be outspoken advocates for the arts. In addition, I believe we must take the time to understand that the arts encompass unique types of human expression available to us that have been and will continue to be important in the future. If arts educators can realize together the uniqueness of their contributions, the commonality of their specialties, and the great strength they could have as an organized and articulate group, I feel an impact could be made on the people who shape the destiny of our schools.

Only through extraordinary cooperation, however, will the full force of the principles and ideas of arts education be allowed to generate the power necessary to convince all those concerned with education that the arts are basic. I hope someone in Washington is really listening to people like Harold Williams--for the sake of our country, our schools, and our children.

I hope arts educators are listening, too, so that they may recognize and understand the important position they hold in our society and our future.

Raymond Pettit
Katonah-Lewisboro School District
Katonah, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Anna L. Heatherly’s letter (“Teachers Are Key to Making Whole Language a Success,’' Letters, Feb. 26, 1992) offers more confusion than clarity in the debate between phonics and whole language.

She writes that phonics “is a part of the skill activities involved in whole language.’' That, indeed, is true. But what she doesn’t point out is that there is a great deal of difference between teaching phonetic clues as a means of reducing poor guessing in a configurational, holistic reading program like whole language, and teaching intensive, systematic phonics as the principal means of decoding alphabetic writing.

Nor does she point out that the teaching of phonetic clues are undercut by encouraging children to substitute words. Kenneth Goodman himself has said it is perfectly all right if a child substitutes the word pony for horse because the child has gotten “the meaning.’' That hardly helps a child learn to use his phonetic clues.

Miss Heatherly then states that she wishes that “phonics was the solution to having every child read.’' But then she claims that this teaching of phonics “has been going on for years and the end result is that we have hundreds of thousands of children who cannot read.’'

Anyone familiar with the history of our reading problem would know that it all started in the early 1930’s when the professors of education discarded intensive phonics and replaced it with whole-word methodology. Rudolf Flesch’s famous Why Johnny Can’t Read, published in 1955, provides an excellent historical overview of the problem, and my own book, The New Illiterates, published in 1973, revealed that the originator of the whole-word, look-say method was none other than Thomas H. Gallaudet, the famous teacher of the deaf and dumb.

While whole-language proponents like to give the impression that their reading instruction program is something new, similar programs were tried in progressive private schools in the early decades of this century and found wanting.

Samuel L. Blumenfeld
Waltham, Mass.

To the Editor:

Your article “Studies Cast Doubt on Benefits of Using Only Whole Language To Teach Reading’’ (Jan. 8, 1992) misrepresented whole language.

The story referred to three articles from the Journal of Educational Psychology without giving the details of those articles, leaving the reader unclear of their meaning. The quotes from Kenneth Goodman, Frank Vellutino, and Tom Nicholson also appear to me to be incomplete, that is, out of context.

Whole language is a philosophy regarding learning to read, a belief that learning to read is a developmental process and a part of language development. Not every student requires the same teacher-directed lessons in order to learn a skill or to understand a concept. Phonics instruction is a method used in assisting students as they learn to read.

Whole-language educators define reading as getting meaning from print. A person who reads well has command of phonemes/graphemes, semantics, and syntax. Whole-language educators do not discount the teaching of phonics; our written language relies on a sound-symbol system. Reading extends beyond the sound symbols, however, and the reading teacher must be sure the students are able to understand the written communication based, also, on the semantics and syntax of the collection of words presented in the print.

Students may be able to identify words using phonics, but they still may not be able to obtain the full meaning of the words in print. The whole-language teacher helps his or her students learn to get meaning from words when the words are placed in a variety of contexts for a variety of purposes.

Jeannette N. Pillsbury
Conner Elementary School
Manassas Park, Va.

To the Editor:

In his Commentary, “Does Public Mean Good,’' (Feb. 12, 1992), arguing that public schools are to be avoided in the same way we assiduously avoid public restrooms, Chester E. Finn Jr. advocates the abandonment of a standard of the public good that has served to define democratic ideals from the earliest emergence of the concept of inalienable rights and responsibility for general welfare. By scorning degraded public facilities of all kinds, he provides a singular indictment of social contract run amok.

Indeed, as the gap between middle-class comfort and hanging on to a tattered safety net grows ever wider, indifference to what is public and poor intensifies. Mr. Finn’s rhetoric promotes the discourse that blames the victim and turns a contemptuous back to the homeless and the helpless. His stature as a former federal official provides this discourse with a stamp of propriety, when it implies instead a cynical reluctance to address the deeper causes of poverty.

In fact, our government has made a conscious political choice to contribute to the decay of public hospitals, public transportation, and public schools by withdrawing resources and by utilizing media and displays of self-righteous blaming of the disenfranchised to rationalize the abandonment.

At the same time that other enlightened nations support and subsidize public facilities to enhance the universal pursuit of economic and social happiness, our government in the last decade has elected to maintain a vision of private comfort and using the bottom line as the measure of all institutions, even those ill suited to a profit-and-loss paradigm. The example of a flawed health-delivery system should be a warning of the problems associated with privatizing human-services institutions.

Public facilities in many European nations suggest another model. We once found pride in our great museums and libraries as public “places,’' comparable to those that grace the capitals of Europe. These were institutions whose mission was to uplift all the people and to shape the aspirations of new immigrants as they found their way into productive citizenship.

By abandoning the notion of the public good we relegate a large and ever increasing number of Americans to a permanent underclass with little opportunity to glimpse improved possibilities for their lives. Mr. Finn’s advocacy of “choice’’ condemns public education to the same deplorable conditions as the public restroom. Another choice can be made by our government, a commitment to funding educational and other public institutions at a level that fosters compassion and virtue in the public good.

Frances G. Wills
Union, Me.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor