Education Letter to the Editor


June 18, 2003 13 min read
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Special Education’s Paperwork Burden

To the Editor:

Regarding your front-page article on the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act entitled “Disabled by Paperwork?” (May 28, 2003):

Why not attempt to cover the topic of special education from all venues? Perhaps you might try setting aside the obvious bias of your writing staff and consider doing some articles from the point of view of a parent, or better yet, from the point view of a child whose life has been ruined by bad special education teachers.

After two years of being instructed by teachers who failed to live up to their responsibilities, my son is receiving the services of two private tutors this summer, paid for by his school district. Yet, despite the district’s best attempt to provide him compensatory damages, as mandated by the Georgia Department of Education, my son still greets every morning with a face full of tears. He doesn’t understand why he is the one being “punished” because his teachers failed to do their job.

I’m sick of hearing the whining of grown adults complaining about their paperwork. The amount of paperwork that most professionals are required to handle is equally large. Need I mention that without this paperwork parents would have no accountability and no way of tracking their child’s progress? Oh, that’s right, I used the bad word—"accountability.”

If teachers would complete the paperwork correctly the first time, they would not be so overwhelmed. Yes, it is true that most individualized education plans, or IEPs, do represent from 10 to 15 pages of paperwork, but that’s just 10 to 15 pages to plan the entire next year of a child’s life. How would we feel to have the next year of our lives spelled out in just 15 or fewer pages?

As a special education teacher, an advocate, and the mother of five children (two of whom have been diagnosed with autism), I have literally sat on both sides of the IEP table. Believe me, articles like yours are definitely not in the best interests of children.

Such articles only contribute to more misunderstanding of the issues. Too many members of Congress hear these complaints and believe what they are hearing. With your help, the reauthorization bill flew through the House and will probably move as quickly through the Senate. Then the children in special education will suffer the consequences. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I remember a time when we said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Mimi Spruill
Albany, Ga

‘Clash of Ideas’ Seen In Essay, News Item

To the Editor:

There’s an unsettling clash of ideas in two separate pieces in your May 28, 2003, issue. In an essay, Saul Cooperman addresses contemporary high school practices and proposes a program that would help students build connections (“‘A New Order of Things,’” Commentary). And in a State Capitals news brief (“Minnesota Replaces State Learning Standards”), it is noted that the state of Minnesota has repealed its Profile of Learning performance-based standards and replaced them with the Minnesota Academic Standards. You report that the MAS standards are factual and conceptual in structure.

Saul Cooperman has long been a voice in pursuit of educational reform. His plan to create a high school program focused on interdisciplinary themes seems to be rooted in the earlier works of Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Theodore R. Sizer. The Minnesota Academic Standards, on the other hand, appear to be a reaction to the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 and are reminiscent of E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

I advocate Mr. Cooperman’s model. When I think about the type of schooling experience I want for my 7-year-old daughter, I support the program that will help her know why things are or how they function. I want her to connect ideas, think about relationships, and establish a coherence of understanding.

Mr. Cooperman writes that many schools advocate student- centered learning but equate it with an adult-determined curriculum that satisfies a need to have a highly structured, hierarchical body of knowledge. This latter type of curriculum appears to be what the MAS will deliver and what Mr. Cooperman argues against.

Perhaps he will be able to use his national platform to help policymakers see the benefit of a lofty, visionary, and relevant educational program for all children.

Edward J. Sullivan
State University of New York
at New Paltz
New Paltz, N.Y.

Schools’ ‘Weapon Of Mass Destruction’?

To the Editor:

The Education Commission of the States is supposed to be a policy organization for the states. It is thus appalling to find Ted Sanders, the president of the ECS, writing in his recent Commentary on international education: “Schools now have a great deal on their plates. They must continue to work hard on the goals of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act of 2001" (“International Knowledge: Let’s Close the Gap,” Commentary, May 28, 2003).

The No Child Left Behind Act is a weapon of mass destruction aimed at the public education system of America. Mr. Sanders and the ECS should be busy repealing the act, not pimping for it.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

The writer’s analysis of the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 can be found at www.nochildleft.com.

Rebutting Criticism Of Reading Report

To the Editor:

Claims that the National Reading Panel Report and Reading First legislation based on it focus only or even mainly on phonics are misinformed (“Analysis Calls Phonics Findings into Question,” May 21, 2003).

The NRP report concludes, and Reading First legislation requires, that effective reading instruction must include five essential components. In addition to its recommendations on instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, the report supports—and the legislation requires—instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Moreover, instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics is only a small part of a total reading program and is limited to a short period of time. (Readers may download or order a free copy of the report itself or a teacher-friendly summary, “Put Reading First,” at www.nifl.gov or by calling 1-800-228- 8813).

Phonemic-awareness instruction, according to the report, should occupy a total of from 18 to 20 hours in a year and should be finished by the end of 1st grade.

Phonics instruction, always described as simply part of a total program, is expected to be completed by grade 2.

Fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension instruction are ongoing, from the earliest to the latest grades.

In accordance with Reading First professional-development requirements, the Illinois state board of education has developed statewide “teacher reading academies.” These academies, at present available only for K-2 teachers, include a substantial portion of materials developed by the Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. The U.S. Department of Education gave the Texas center a grant to make these materials available nationwide.

Illinois has adapted and significantly added to these materials and created teacher reading academies that include well-developed components in oral-language development, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency, as well as phonemic awareness and phonics. Throughout the learning of these components, teachers are instructed in how to assess children to judge whether they need tutoring or other levels of intervention (additional practice, additional instruction, more time) to help them develop into successful readers. Attention is also paid to tailoring instruction for English-language learners, and some attention (though not enough) is paid to writing.

No one (certainly not the panel members themselves) claims that the five components that are the focus of the national report and the Reading First legislation make up a complete reading program. Many advocate more research and attention to, for example, writing and its effect on reading. The report and the resulting legislation, are, however, a sound beginning. We are beginning to develop a common vocabulary and focus on those elements that are indeed necessary (if not sufficient) to helping most children become successful readers and lifelong learners.

Please do not undermine these efforts with misleading criticisms and claims.

Elizabeth Goldsmith-Conley
Champaign, Ill.

To the Editor:

It is very clear that unless a student can decode, he is doomed to be a nonreader. Why some students can master the decoding skills of our language without any instruction is still a mystery. The reality, however, is that some require direct instruction in decoding.

As an 8th grade teacher, I find some students who haven’t mastered the decoding secrets that direct instruction in phonics will teach. They are nonreaders. They are kept from success by the quibbling of the whole language vs. phonics camps. What a waste of time!

It is logical that a student must be able to decode a word before she can comprehend it. It is not rocket science to know this. Yet, we have studies to examine the issue. Why? The ramifications of being unable to decode become evident in the higher grades, when the words, concepts, and reading loads become more difficult. Ask any classroom teacher. Ask any teacher of adults trying to obtain their General Educational Development, or GED, diplomas.

Teach the decoding skills and then ask questions about what is being read. How simple. Why isn’t anyone listening?

Linda Schmaelzle
Suffield, Conn.

Exit Exams Leave Too Many Behind

To the Editor:

I am in shock and disbelief over the nationwide rush to impose exit exams (“States Debate Exam Policies for Diplomas,” May 14, 2003). If this country is denying students by the thousands their right to a diploma, when they have worked from kindergarten through high school on their educations, then that will undermine our free educational system.

Those who have special education needs, English-as-a- second-language students, and children without the home and neighborhood supports needed to be successful in school are being punished because they lack these basic advantages for high educational achievement. What, educationally, is our responsibility to these children?

Are trade schools going to be provided nationally for all the hardworking students who cannot pass the exit exams separating high performers from struggling students? What job training is planned for all the students who do not pass the exit exams? Many fast-food restaurants don’t even hire young people without a high school diploma. What job market are these students being prepared for if they cannot expect to go on to college and are denied a high school diploma necessary in most areas of employment? Did the supporters of the exit exams have a plan for them? It doesn’t seem so.

Public education needs more job training for all students who are not on track to go to college with professional goals in their future. To give all students wage-earning opportunities in their future should be the purpose of our public education system. That is leaving no child behind.

The current policy, with its exit exams, has divided the futures of high-achieving and challenged students. The latter, who cannot pass the exit exam after an average of 13 years of hard work in school, have not been considered at all in our policy planning.

The idea that education must not leave any child behind must be planned and paid for—at every level of ability and for every student in the public school system.

Sally Dietz
Santa Rosa, Calif.

A Voucher Critic On Catholic School Data

To the Editor:

Ronald T. Bowes’ letter on Catholic schools was misleading (“More on the Value of Catholic Schools,” June 4, 2003). I’ll explain.

The Catholic school enrollment decline was well under way when the Nixon administration began pushing plans for school vouchers. That administration commissioned studies of the enrollment slide from two Catholic colleges, the University of Notre Dame and Boston College, both of which concluded that economics was not an important factor in the decline.

The decline was due to the mainstreaming of American Catholics, exemplified by John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960; the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962-63 rulings against the essentially Protestant practice in half the nation’s public schools of government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading, thus rendering public schools more acceptable to Catholic parents; and the 1968 papal encyclical condemning birth control, which triggered a significant revolt against the Church.

Since then, Catholic voters have voted against school voucher plans in 25 state referendums by about the same margin as other voters. Catholic voters supported anti-voucher, pro-choice Bill Clinton over his Republican rivals in 1992 and 1996.

Yes, Catholic schools probably save taxpayers some money. But any savings would more than evaporate under any extensive voucher or tuition-tax-credit plan, which would also support non- Catholic faith-based schools that promote prejudice against Catholics.

Finally, school “choice” is quite misleading. It is the faith- based school and the sectarian nature of its curriculum that “chooses” which students to admit. Under such plans, government would choose which faith-based and unaccountable (if the Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher plans are any guide) institutions taxpayers would be compelled to support. Meanwhile, all citizens would find greatly diminished their right to choose which religious institutions to support.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Washington, D.C.

Multiple Intelligences: On the ‘Staying Power’ Of Howard Gardner’s Theory

To the Editor:

The strength of Howard Gardner’s theory lies in the fact that most teachers have always understood that their pupils have different learning styles and that they do in fact learn different kinds of materials quite differently (“Staying Power,” June 4, 2003). What Mr. Gardner’s work does is to establish a base of theory for the practical insights of teachers, and in that sense is useful to teachers in helping them distinguish more accurately the different ways in which their students learn.

A difficulty arises when teachers try to adapt the theory to lesson plans, and Mr. Gardner doesn’t offer much help there. Nevertheless, his ideas are important for teachers and school principals to conjure with. In my experience working with several hundred school principals, making the connections between the theory and classroom practice is very useful.

Jerome M. Ziegler
College of Human Ecology
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

To the Editor:

My problem with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is that it has always been presented to me in my teacher education classes as the absolute, established truth. We have never had class discussions about the various merits and demerits of the theory and what empirical evidence there is to support or disprove it. We go straight from “These are the multiple intelligences” to “How can you best implement this truth in your classroom?” without ever exploring whether or not the idea has merit, and why or why not.

It is this approach (which is used in all of my education classes to approach all topics) that I believe alienates and drives away potential teachers who have strong academic backgrounds and critical-thinking skills. Who would want to enter a profession in which one is simply expected to accept what “superiors” tell you without question? Anyone concerned with making up his or her own mind based on research and evidence would run screaming from a teacher education class.

When I arrive home from my master’s-level courses, my husband always asks me how classes were that day and my answer is always the same: “Infuriating.” I’ve sort of ceased to be surprised at the low level of intellectual discourse in my education classes.

Cressida Magaro
Leonardtown, Md.


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