Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

January 20, 1999 19 min read

Abuse of Students Haunts Many Lives

To the Editor:

I commend you for your courageous and thorough investigation of the issue of sexual abuse of students by school staff members (“A Trust Betrayed: Sexual Abuse by Teachers,” Dec. 2, 1998; Dec. 9, 1998; Dec. 16, 1998). Your work sheds a piercing light on this most destructive and complex reality within our nation’s schools.

The absence of concrete national data on allegations of sexual abuse by school employees illustrates a lack of leadership from both within and beyond educational institutions. Realistic statistics, however, call for a genuine and compassionate outreach to victims, survivors, and their families. Reporting of abuses, exploitation, and harassment must be encouraged and welcomed as valued information for learning, not as threats to be defended against.

There is no absence of research on the harm done to children who have been sexually victimized and exploited. Students sexually abused by school staff suffer these same known acute and long-term effects. From shame to suicide, depression to drug and alcohol addictions, every facet of their lives becomes negatively compromised.

Every one of us shares in the responsibility of keeping our children safe. Educators, however, have personally chosen to be leaders for society’s children. Leadership is essential for changes in attitude and commitment to action. Who will take up the challenge laid out in your investigation?

Unless the light cast by “A Trust Betrayed” keeps children in the center of its beam, the issue of educator sexual abuse will quickly revert to the recesses of this country’s consciousness. Survivors of educator sexual abuse have already paid too high a price to allow such a return to darkness to occur.

Mary Ann Werner

(Survivors of Educator Sexual Abuse & Misconduct Emerge)
Copake, N.Y.

To the Editor:

The issues confronted in your series on sexual abuse of students are essential to every teacher and administrator. Our vocation is a sacred trust. When that trust is violated by unprincipled professionals, the entire education system is damaged.

For the past 10 years, I have independently studied, researched, and lived with the ramifications of what sexual abuse does to a child. I am a supporter of a survivor of child sexual abuse. There is no greater challenge to an individual than that faced by those who are recovering from the betrayed trust inherent in an experience of physical, sexual, psychological, or spiritual abuse. This lifelong process takes its toll on the individual survivor as well as his or her family and friends.

As a veteran teacher of 28 years and as the author of Dear Teacher, If You Only Knew!: Adults Recovering From Child Sexual Abuse Speak to Educators (The Dear Teacher Project, 1997), I applaud the students featured in your series who had the courage to confront their perpetrators. The letter-writers in my book showed this courage as well.

Every teacher and administrator must display the same kind of courage and principles. We must be alert and aware. When we observe a lack of boundaries from our colleagues or unhealthy teacher-student relationships, we are required to confront the situation according to the policies of each school district. If the system does not adequately protect each student from a teacher- or employee-perpetrator, then we need to challenge that system.

John M. Seryak
Wadsworth, Ohio

In Learning To Read, Context Is Key

To the Editor:

Gerald Coles’ point about the limitations of decontextualized direct instruction of skills in beginning reading (“No End to the Reading Wars,” Dec. 2, 1998) is supported by my own research and my review of the research on the subject. (See, for example, Beyond Traditional Phonics: Research Discoveries and Reading Instruction, Heinemann, 1997.)

Since the 1960s, researchers and educators have learned a great deal about reading and how children learn to read. Unfortunately, at the time we have moved to a new definition of reading as one of making sense of written messages, the skills-first educators are pressing to move back to the traditional assumption that reading is pronouncing print.

Researchers and educators who continue to advocate that children be taught letter-phoneme correspondences outside of meaningful contexts point to research which demonstrates a correlation between children’s knowledge of letter-phoneme correspondences and their reading ability. They fail to recognize that correlation does not establish causation. In fact, the surprising finding of research is that the correlation between children’s knowledge of letter-phoneme correspondences and their reading ability occurs as a consequence of learning to read.

There is considerable research demonstrating that the optimum way to help beginning readers become independent readers is to first help them learn to read (make sense of print) through instructional strategies such as shared reading. In shared reading, the teacher takes a predictable story--a story with language familiar to the children--and teaches the children to read the story by reading the story over and over again to them while pointing to the words in full view of the children until the children can read the story by themselves. The cycle is then repeated with other stories. As children learn to recognize more and more print words in context, they then make analogies between familiar and unfamiliar print words to pronounce unfamiliar print words. This natural cognitive process can be enhanced by systematically and explicitly showing children letter-sound (letter-rime and letter-onset) correspondences in the context of words they have learned to read via shared reading.

Margaret Moustafa
Associate Professor
Charter School of Education
California State University-Los Angeles
Los Angeles, Calif.

Let’s Not Oversell Brain Research

To the Editor:

I read David A. Sousa’s Commentary, “Is the Fuss About Brain Research Justified?,” Dec. 16, 1998, with great interest. There is a long history of trying to make use of what we know about the brain in education. Unfortunately, much of what we know about the brain right now does not translate into obvious applications for education, and current theories are in a constant state of flux. For example, there was great excitement when neuropsychologists found differences in the functions of the brain’s right and left hemispheres, which led to calls for teaching to “both sides of the brain.” More recent theories, however, suggest that the differences between the hemispheres are quite subtle and not amenable to simple differences in teaching styles.

Likewise, Mr. Sousa points to the fascinating developments in cognitive neuroscience going on right now with the help of modern imaging techniques (like PET and MRI) that create pictures of the brain in action. Unfortunately, what we are learning from these techniques right now is unlikely to be very helpful to the classroom teacher. The tasks that researchers use must often be completed in a matter of seconds or minutes because of the limitations of the machinery. It is not at all obvious how conclusions drawn from this work can be extended to learning situations that occur over hours, days, and weeks in a classroom.

Thus, while the next decades hold much promise for our understanding of the way the brain processes information, brain research at present can only support very general suggestions about how we should teach. Indeed, most of the suggestions made by Mr. Sousa in his Commentary are ones that could just as easily have been justified on the basis of current research in behavioral psychology. I agree that we must be on the lookout for ways to use brain research to help teach our children. I just think that it would be dangerous to overclaim the importance of current research for modern educational practice.

Arthur B. Markman
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas

‘Scientific Validity': View From 2 Essays

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch recounts her serious medical crisis and treatment and in the same breath laments that educational research does not have “scientific validity” comparable to the research she claims underlies her medical treatment. Many readers are familiar with her monotonous, “the glass is half empty” critique of educational research.

As I read, I was hoping for some insight from her apparent mesmerization by medical research. I found none. But lo and behold, I found what might be the right prescription for her--and it was part of the same Commentary section. I heartily encourage Ms. Ravitch to pair up with David A. Sousa, who asserts that “neuroscience holds the promise for a quantum leap in our profession” (“Is the Fuss About Brain Research Justified?,” Dec. 16, 1998).

Mr. Sousa discounts cognitive and behavioral psychology, the roots of educational research, as invalid sources of understanding the teaching and learning process now that we have biomedical research to draw from. He suggests that neuroscience has alerted us to the importance of a wide variety of new understandings. Ms. Ravitch would like this stuff. I wish to repeat four of his points and then draw attention to the fact that they are hardly new and are well established in the field of cognitive and behavioral psychology.

1. “The richer the environment ... learning takes place with greater meaning. And this growth is based on experience. These so-called ‘windows of opportunity’ represent critical periods. ... " Piaget is most noted for his research in this area. Freud and Erikson were also notable with their pioneering work on critical periods. Remember Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud, and Erik Erikson? Their work has been available for more than 50 years.

2. “If students have not found meaning by the end of a learning episode, there is little likelihood that much will be remembered.” Episodic memory, the process of enhanced recall by experiencing learning in the context of an episode (particularly one with emotions involved), has been known for a long while. Robert M. Gagn‚ and Richard T. White reviewed the educational research on memory structures in 1978 (Review of Educational Research).

3. “Shorter learning episodes, therefore, are usually more effective than longer ones.” This may be new neuroscience for Mr. Sousa, but it’s hardly “rocket science” to those of us who studied instructional psychology a generation ago. Brief, spaced practice is effective in improving recall.

4. Mr. Sousa asserts that “multisensory approaches” to teaching and “task-centered talking” are great insights spawned from neuroscience. May I remind readers that primary teachers for years have emphasized all the senses when teaching, for example, talking, listening, drawing, dancing, building, tasting, singing, playing instruments, et cetera. Furthermore, the psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky emphasized the importance of talking and other social interactions to foster intellectual development. He wrote about this in the 1930s, although translation into English occurred only 25 years or so ago.

Mr. Sousa concludes that teacher training should include neuroscience. For a quantum leap in education, all it’s going to take is neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, CAT, PET, and MRI instrumentation. So, prospective teachers now should study neuroscience, in addition to pedagogy, liberal arts, and concentration in a subject area. Then they should apply the findings to the teaching of 25 children in a classroom. Perhaps this is what Ms. Ravitch was leading to in terms of scientific validity?

I’ll let Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Sousa work together on the validity of biomedical research. For me, I see much more validity for improving schools by understanding the behavioral and cognitive psychological processes that are the foundations of educational research than by training teachers in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology.

Hmm, now from which side of my brain did these musings originate?

Philip A. Griswold
Associate Professor
College of Education
Ashland University
Ashland, Ohio

Standards Trap: The Consequences of Impoverishment

To the Editor:

Ronald A. Wolk brings American educators an important message in his Dec. 9, 1998, Commentary (“Education’s High-Stakes Gamble”). Three quotes from his powerful statement carry the gist of his thinking:

  • “Standard-based school reform--the strategy of choice in the United States--is on a collision course with reality.”
  • “For tens of thousands of urban youngsters, it’s a kind of double jeopardy: The system failed to educate them adequately, and now it punishes them for not being educated.”
  • ” ... until the schools demonstrate the capacity to provide an adequate education, high-stakes consequences for students, at least in big cities, are unjust.”

Mr. Wolk’s definition of the trap that children of many poor families are in couldn’t be better explained. He might have said “millions” without exaggerating the problem. His response for dealing with this issue--emphasis on reading and writing for middle and high school students--is certainly a step in the right direction. I doubt, however, that it is adequate for the nature and extent of the dilemma confronting many urban schools and their students, along with others in the countryside.

A step backward helps us understand these troubles in American schooling. By the late 1980s, the so-called “school reform movement” in our country was well under way, with a strong emphasis on higher standards and tests to measure them as requirements in most public schools. If these new elements weren’t actually in operation, they were almost certainly in a planning stage. Individual schools, local school districts, states, the federal government, and numerous philanthropic foundations supported initiatives for more demanding classroom learning and its measurement. Arguments about the details of achieving these ends were hot and heavy, and they still are.

By the early 1990s, thoughtful educators had raised exactly the same issue Mr. Wolk does, but with less directness and clarity. They talked about the need for providing a “level playing field,” so that privileged students and those with second-rate schools would have equal opportunities for success with more demanding lessons. As far as I know, no one ever clearly defined the details of this policy, the level playing field--probably because the differences involved were so daunting and so expensive that a realistic correction of the inequities would have been regarded as madness. Consequently, nothing happened under the banner of the level playing field, even though numerous educational dignitaries spoke up for it. Standards and tests rolled forward as the dominant element in school reform, and the impending crisis of massive failures in weak schools identified by Mr. Wolk grew more difficult to correct.

If that task of correction is to have any of the “reality” that Mr. Wolk lays so clearly on the table of school reform, it will have to have two major aspects to be successful. First, the sorry condition of teaching and learning in many urban schools will have to be radically changed--an exercise that will take a mixture of additional funding, extra work on staff development, and a quality of leadership and commitment that will take time and patience. Actually, it is under way in some of our cities.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, new and imaginative efforts will be necessary to close the vast differential gap that exists and is growing in our society between the opportunities of middle-class children and those of the poor. Poor people in urban America are scrambling so hard to keep their families together that they often have limited chances to read to their children, let alone to attend community or religious events. If there are two parents, both are working, sometimes at two low-paying jobs. More often than not, neighborhood opportunities for recreation are limited or nonexistent. Frequently, children come home from school to find no adult there. Although middle-class children and their families have plenty of problems, they do have a good chance for decent lives. That chance for the poor is sternly limited by the circumstances of their lives. A vast difference exists in our society between the nonschool opportunities of middle-class children and those of children from poor families. This gap is so wide and so deep and so frightening that political leaders of both parties are loath to talk about it, let alone do anything about it.

What, one may ask, has all this to do with schools? My answer is that destructive environments in homes, communities, and associations of the young are every bit as significant as the shortcomings of second-class schools, maybe more so. Why is it that average incomes of families are relatively accurate in predicting SAT scores? The more acute the poverty of students’ families, the lower their test scores. Academic performance by young Americans is as dependent on their nonschool experiences as it is on the routines of schools. Furthermore, the difference that exists today between the opportunities of middle-class families for stimulation of mind, body, and spirit outside of school dwarfs these developments among the children of the poor. Some poor but strong families win out in spite of these odds against them. Many don’t.

Today America is beginning to awaken to the concept that children’s intellectual, social, and emotional development is dependent on decent and enriched lives along with academic learning. But the self-appointed nabobs of intensive standards-raising have had limited interest in any other corner of the maturing process. The only aspect of a child in which they are interested is her test score. This unbalanced emphasis has brought us to the crisis that Mr. Wolk presents.

What should we do about this overwhelming situation that threatens the future of our county? Here are a few thoughts to get started:

1. The governors should go back to Charlottesville, Va., and issue another set of national goals focused on the lives of children in families and communities.

2. Teachers should be encouraged to file with their school boards reports on shortcomings of their schools that prevent adequate preparation for required tests. These should be public documents.

3. Most states have recently planned and launched statewide programs for raising academic standards. Similar and related planning and action should take place in each state for children and youths with regard to health, recreation, family support, and other nonschool aspects in the lives of young Americans. Uncle Sam should encourage and support this exercise as he has the efforts for academic standards.

4. A national planning group should be created outside the political realm to seek a resolution of the dilemma now dominating the education of young Americans--how to finance the services they need. (Note that I emphasize the word “education” which means all the supports of learning in students’ lives--not just schools.)

5. Invite our president to slow up on promoting national tests and standards. Our country is not ready for any such extension of the crisis Mr. Wolk has defined.

6. The supporters of level playing fields should reawaken their enthusiasm for that endeavor. They might help the governors with their second inning in Charlottesville by carefully defining what a level playing field is.

7. Philanthropies wanting to “do good” should invest in nonschool aspects of education as heavily as they have in promoting standards and tests. Some foundations are so engaged now.

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

Medical Science vs. Education Research

To the Editor:

In her Commentary, “What If Research Really Mattered?,” Dec. 16, 1998, Diane Ravitch misses the point with her call for scientific validity for educational research. Unlike the human body, which has very few variations on its basic structure and components, children’s minds are almost infinitely varied and diverse. Thus, the task of teaching children is complex and multidimensional. This is why there are few “scientific” findings in educational research that provide answers for every case.

The idea of “replicating” an educational research study is actually preposterous, since if an educational “treatment” has worked, the subjects are altered forever. Another group of subjects can never exactly duplicate all the conditions and control for all the variables that may have accounted for the original results. Consequently, we have to just use our best judgment about what works by studying educational outcomes over time and discerning patterns, if they exist.

Another point that Ms. Ravitch misses in her analogy is that she was the only person who had to be satisfied by the outcome of her scientific medical treatment. The public schools must produce outcomes to satisfy many diverse constituencies and groups in society with very different goals and objectives for educating our children. If scientists and doctors had to come up with treatments that had to be ratified by all the patient’s relatives and friends, our mortality rates would skyrocket.

This essay was just another attempt to convince the educational community that certain select groups should have the authority to decree what is best for education under the banner of “scientific” studies. Sorry, we just don’t buy it.

Jill Kerper Mora
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

Finally, we have pinpointed the problem. The people now doing educational research do not believe in the scientific method. Diane Ravitch’s excellent Commentary shows what effective writing is about. I have noticed for some time that these researchers did not believe in the scientific method; and hence their results become absurd. But I was unable to convince my fellow educators. I hope Ms. Ravitch’s essay will have more impact. I could not have made the point better.

James Ellis
Sedalia, Mo.

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch makes the telling point that “unlike educators, physicians have canons of scientific validity to protect innocent patients from unproven remedies and specious theories.” Because that is true, practices that would be condemned in matters of physical health are condoned in the matter of educational health.

It is unthinkable that the medical profession would tolerate physicians who used ideologically based experimental methods to treat patients, and then blamed their patients for not getting well. Yet, educators in positions of authority have no qualms about mandating ideologically based, experimental, whole-language reading instruction for children, and then blaming the children, their parents, and society for reading failure. And while a few educators speak out against the great harm in this, they are attacked by those who would damn science to protect the status quo.

Modern science unequivocally ranks systematic, direct phonics as the reading-instruction method of choice. Educators who ignore or denigrate this fact deny children drowning in whole language the lifeline of phonics. And those educators do so with a freedom from consequences that neither medicine nor any other self-policing profession would dare grant its practitioners.

Aaron Kessler
New York, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 1999 edition of Education Week