Education Letter to the Editor


January 01, 1994 13 min read

Sex Education

In his article “Sex Education: Going Too Far?’' [November/December], David Ruenzel makes many assertions about SIECUS (Sex Information and Education Council of the United States) and its Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education that are false and misleading.

The guidelines were developed by a diverse group of leaders in the fields of education, youth services, sexuality education, and medicine. They are based on a set of values shared by most Americans. These values include: Every person has dignity and selfworth, people should respect the diversity of values and beliefs about sexuality that exist in the community, and sexuality is a natural and healthy part of living.

Comprehensive sexuality education is far from an anythinggoes approach as Ruenzel asserts. Programs are carefully developed and begin in kindergarten and progress in an age-appropriate manner through high school. They focus on giving students the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to make responsible and healthy sexual decisions. Unlike abstinence-only programs, which substitute silly slogans for opportunities to learn skills needed to maintain abstinence, comprehensive programs assist students in developing communication and refusal skills that will enable them to postpone intercourse until they can develop mature relationships.

Ruenzel constructs a skewed picture of the controversy over sexuality education. The spokespersons for abstinence-only approaches to sexuality education he interviewed are extremely conservative and do not represent the mainstream views of our society. In both national and local polls, people continually support a comprehensive approach to sexuality education, including teaching about contraception, sexual orientation, and safer sex.

Worse, Ruenzel failed to contact SIECUS to find out if any of the assertions made by opponents of comprehensive programs are true. Had he called, he would have discovered that no representative of SIECUS has ever said that “one must separate pregnancy from sex and get rid of the whole idea of procreation.’' He also would have found out that SIECUS does not train sex educators by “having them say the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ over and over again until they feel comfortable.’' SIECUS does not do teacher training--rather, we develop materials that educate professionals from a wide range of disciplines.

I am also surprised that your publication did not offer me an opportunity to respond to claims made specifically about my personal beliefs. Onalee McGraw stated in the article that I “believe that the individual cannot contain the sexual urge.’' Had Ruenzel asked me about McGraw’s statement, I would have told him that her allegations are ridiculous. I believe that adolescents, like adults, have the ability to make responsible choices about their sexuality. They need accurate information in conjunction with opportunities to develop interpersonal skills to avoid premature sexual involvement.

It is also frustrating that Ruenzel insinuates that I believe adolescents’ sexual experiences need not be limited. I am greatly committed to reducing premature sexual intercourse among teens. Teens explore their sexuality as part of normal adolescent development. Unlike McGraw and Kathleen Sullivan, I believe that teenagers can set and negotiate sexual limits; more than half of teens do so. And, unlike McGraw and Sullivan, I want teens to have protected intercourse when they do engage in intercourse.

I invite readers who may have questions about SIECUS to write our office. A copy of the guidelines may be obtained for $5.75 from: SIECUS Publications Department, 130 W. 42nd St., Suite 2500, New York, NY 10036.

Debra Haffner
Executive Director, SIECUS
New York

David Ruenzel replies: Debra Haffner is simply incorrect in suggesting that I asserted comprehensive sexuality education is an “anything-goes approach.’' While her organization’s opponents may believe this, I do not, and nowhere in my article did I make this claim. Indeed, the central problem I have with Haffner’s letter is that she seems to assume that my views are those of the “abstinence only’’ advocates, when in fact I express doubts in my article about a number of their attitudes. Like her, for instance, I find the sloganeering silly and find the “wait until marriage’’ approach wholly unrealistic. Haffner complains that she should have had an opportunity to respond to her opponents’ comments, but when I called to speak with her I was passed along to someone else in her office.

Close Encounters

Evelyn Zieman’s touching essay, “The Promise’’ [November/December], captures the essence of teaching--the relationship between a teacher and a student. No matter what reforms are enacted to improve education, the relationship between teachers and students must be at the core. We can stock classrooms with the latest computer technology, test students until we have columns of statistics, and insist on student and teacher accountability, but, until we recognize that effective teaching is based on students and teachers establishing mutual relationships of trust, most reforms will be less than promised.

When I was a teacher, I read a research report investigating whether class size had any impact on learning. Since the researchers concluded that smaller classes do not improve academic achievement, the point of the article was that smaller classes are not effective. But the report did not address the psychological impact of smaller classes. In my smaller classes, I felt more at ease and got to know the students better; students shared with me issues that concerned them. Yet research tells me that this really doesn’t matter. While increased comfort may not lead to improved test scores, teachers who get to know students through smaller classes may help them develop some of the intangibles that cannot be tested, such as self-confidence and respect for others.

Zieman’s essay shows some of the “non-testable’’ aspects of teaching. She encountered a situation that did not have neat solutions. At the end, she asks, “Would it have been better if I had broken my promise?’' No; she did what was right. She provided two children with time, empathy, and respect. Perhaps reformers need to concentrate on developing models that promote teachers and students getting to know each other. They need to recognize that encounters such as the one between Sean and Zieman are more valuable in developing student potential than test statistics.

John Snyder
Office of Career Services
Slippery Rock (Pa.) University

A Coincidence?

The new NAEP findings on students’ reading abilities [“Briefs,’' November/December] are dismaying but not surprising. The NAEP report shows, for example, that reading scores of 4th graders in California are near the bottom of the assessment. Some testing experts blame the poor California results on the high percentage of disadvantaged children in the state. Perhaps there is another explanation. A recent article in The New York Times reported that half of the school libraries in California have closed in the past decade due to budget cuts. According to the article, the American Library Association cited California in 1992 as the “worst of the worst’’ for the deterioration of school libraries. One school principal told the paper that “there are students here who have never seen a school library.’'

As a former teacher of disadvantaged students and a parent of two excellent readers, I believe that access to books, and access to adults who put a priority on reading and books, will create good readers. Many disadvantaged students who have never seen a school library will never see a library of any sort. Those who believe that school libraries are a frill--or that they are needed solely to give teachers a break--are condemning children to illiteracy. Research into the background of disadvantaged children who succeed in life will always uncover an adult who pushed reading.

Is it possible that the closing of school libraries and the simultaneous drop in reading scores are somehow related? Perhaps Californians needs to look into this coincidence.

Mary Walter
Gainesville, Fla.

Another Slant

I have a few comments on the article “A New Slant On Penmanship’’ [November/December], which focused on the D’Nealian method of teaching writing.

A distinction should be made between printing and cursive writing. Printing is what we read most in our lifetimes; books, newspapers, and magazines are printed. Cursive writing looks different. The easier it is for children to duplicate printed letters the easier their reading development will be. Developmentally, children should print until they are proficient readers and then go into cursive. Cursive shapes are confusing to a child who is having difficulty learning to read.

Proponents of D’Nealian writing assert that the method helps children avoid letter reversals. There is only one way to prevent reversals: Children must know how the letter, number, or word looks in relation to themselves, their own bodies being the reference for comparison. Reversals can be reduced by having the children make all vertical lines from top to bottom and horizontal lines from left to right. Problems arise in letters and numbers having arcing lines. About one-half of arcing lines begin at the left and proceed to the right. When children do not know how a letter should look, they reverse. Doing it the right way is a learned visual ability that can be taught. (The essence of teaching is helping someone learn how to see.) Devising an alphabet without arcing lines would not solve the problem; children would still reverse.

The advantages of the D’Neal- ian method are that it is more challenging to proficient students and that it is a forerunner to cursive writing. But these gains come at an expense to less proficient students. I am not against cursive writing, but it should be introduced at the proper time.

Ben Stoebner
Developmental Optometrist
Tehachapi, Calif.

‘Jones Of Arc’

I have been in education for 20 years, and, although I have never seen your magazine, I would guess from reading just one article, “The High Price of Failure’’ [October], that you are a unionowned or -controlled periodical. The article tries to paint teacher Adele Jones as “Jones of Arc’'--a martyr who lost her job over principles--rather than show her as she is, a curmudgeon who puts kids on a procrustean bed of her own making.

In the article, you admit that she consistently fails 30 percent to 40 percent, or more, of the students who take her classes. You try to blame this phenomenon on the students, the administration, other teachers, textbooks, and school board members, but not once do you even consider that this might be the teacher’s fault.

To consistently treat kids like this and then try to hide behind the flag of standards and principles is absolute hogwash. How could you even print an article that is so obviously biased and full of insidious half-truths and slanted interviews?

Three cheers for Sussex Central High School Principal John McCarthy for having the courage to stand up for kids and educational principles.

Stephen Fredrick
District Administrator
Melrose-Mindoro Area School
Melrose, Wis.

Editor’s Note: Teacher Magazine is an independently owned publication that is not affiliated with any organization or group.

I was upset and sad after I read “The High Price Of Failure.’' As a math and computer teacher, I could identify with Adele Jones. Last year, I taught summer school, and at the end of the session the principal asked me to change students’ grades. The principal’s view was that as long as the students came to class every day, the teacher had to give them at least a D. But I was (and still am) a schoolteacher, not a baby- sitter. I expect my students to perform to earn passing grades. I refused to change the grades and told the principal to change them himself. Ironically, the principal had visited my class earlier in the summer and had written me a note saying that I was doing an excellent job. (By the way, the principal at my regular school is understanding and has never asked teachers to change grades.)

The primary goal of any school should be to educate children and to prepare them for reality, not just keep them in school. Babysitting students, as Jones’ principal seems to be suggesting, may not hurt students’ self-esteem now, but it will definitely hurt students when they have to face reality later in life.

Thanh Nguyen
Inglewood, Calif.

Teach All Views

As a co-founder and co-coordinator of a nationally recognized extracurricular environmental group at the elementary school level, I was very disappointed in “Toxic Materials?’' [September]. The article seems to espouse the view that the damage our society is inflicting on our environment is not serious and that, at the urging of business and conservative groups, education about such damage should be toned down and edited. Although I, too, agree that some information may be outdated or incorrect, I do not believe that softening the facts, or allowing those responsible for the damage to distort them, is an agreeable solution. Carbon dioxide may not be the primary greenhouse gas, but our world is pouring inordinate amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, resulting in global warming, the depletion of the oxygen supply, and the depletion of the ozone. This is a fact. It is also a fact that desertification of the Earth’s landmasses is increasing, that landfills are filling up at an alarming rate, that species of wildlife are being annihilated at a disturbing rate, that our forests are being leveled, and that our topsoil is quickly being washed away due to poor irrigation and farming methods. The rapid and overwhelming destruction of our only Earth is a sad fact, and unfortunately we are under-educating our children about this global problem.

I do not advocate scaring children to death, but I do believe that environmental science should be part of our science curriculum. To adequately alert our students to the aforementioned problems, we may need to include some activist material. In the article, Jonathan Adler asks whether “schools are for education or indoctrination?’' To only include the conservative viewpoint would indeed be indoctrination. True education of the environmental crisis should involve both activist and conservative viewpoints. This would lead to stimulating discussion of human progress and its relationship to our Earth.

Environmental education may be the only way we can salvage our future. We have created a bevy of problems that our children must now solve. Environmental education centered on debate, analysis, scientific problemsolving, and up-to-date factual information is the best way to alert students. To present only one view, or to withhold or demean activists’ views, would be indoctrination, would not lead to solving our problems, and could, in the long run, be detrimental to all of our futures.

Michael Marcela
Tharrington Elementary School
Mount Airy, N.C.

Defending Skinner

David Ruenzel is certainly correct in suggesting that few teachers are sympathetic to B.F. Skinner [“Books,’' September]. It is interesting to speculate why this is so. Perhaps there would be less resistance to Skinner if his views were accurately reported. It is not true, for instance, that Skinner believed that all decisions were “determined by the environment.’' Skinner believed that all behavior, including thoughts and feelings, could be traced to a combination of physiological processes and experiences.

Nor, as far as I know, did any of the teaching machines Skinner designed provide a choice of responses, so they were not “multiple-choice tests.’' Indeed, Skinner wrote that “the student must compose his response rather than select it from a set of alternatives.’' The machines required students to write the answer to a question and then turn a crank to reveal the correct answer. Thus, the machines were Socratic tutors.

Robert Epstein has dealt with some of the common distortions of Skinner’s views in his introduction to a collection of Skinner’s essays, called Skinner for the Classroom. I recommend it.

Paul Chance
Laurel, Del.

Teacher Magazine welcomes letters. They must include your address and daytime phone number and may be edited for length and clarity. Mail them to: “Letters,’' Teacher Magazine, 4301 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 250, Washington, DC 20008.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Letters