Education Letter to the Editor


February 25, 2004 17 min read
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Abstinence Programs Get Results, Help Youths

To the Editor:

In response to “Abstinence-Only Debate Heating Up” (Feb. 11, 2004):

Latex condoms, used correctly for 100 percent of all sexual contact, can reduce the risk of HIV transfer by about 85 percent. That’s good, but the problem is that, according to a meta-study by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, few Americans use condoms consistently. In fact, usage decreases as the number of sexual partners increases. And while condoms do provide some resistance to gonorrhea, particularly for men, it is unclear whether they provide any degree of protection for chlamydia, syphillis, chancroid, trichomoniasis, genital herpes, or HPV (human papillomavirus).

So, Issue No. 1 is: How effective are condoms as they are actually used?

Issue No. 2 is whether 20 years of condom distribution and social marketing—as part of “comprehensive” sex education programs—has been successful in reducing rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs.

Before we pooh-pooh abstinence-based programs as mere “just say no” religious wishful thinking, perhaps we should take a look at scientific and research-based programs such as those offered by the Medical Institute for Sexual Health or at Uganda’s very gritty, real- life ABC program—"Abstinence, Being Faithful, and Condom Use.” They’re getting results.

Dave Nealon
Harrisonburg, Va.

To the Editor:

In an age when early sexual activity is leading not only to unwanted pregnancies, but also to sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, and the destruction of young people’s self-esteem, abstinence education is the only sure way of protecting our youths.

One of the greatest problems facing today’s teenagers has to do with their ability to value themselves as human beings. Early sexual activity damages how young people feel about themselves, and it destroys healthy teenage relationships. Abstinence does work and should always be our target.

Rik Morris
Longview, Wash.

Why Good Teachers Leave Urban Schools

To the Editor:

In the last several years, much lip service (and some genuine effort) has been directed at closing the achievement gap between urban schools, with their mostly disadvantaged populations, and mostly white suburban schools. Attention has also been paid to the striking differences in teacher profiles at a typical urban school vs. a suburban one. By any measurable indices, the suburban teacher is generally better qualified and better paid.

A major strategy of educational planners, then, has been to focus on attracting what would have been suburban teachers to become, instead, urban ones. Fine. The problem, though, lies in the astonishing disjunction between this laudable goal and the wholesale implementation of the homogenized, numbing reading programs prescribed for some 2,000 urban schools in the No Child Left Behind Act- derived Reading First Initiative (“Reading Programs Bear Similarities Across the States,” Feb. 4, 2004).

Bright, talented teachers won’t stay in such schools, in the same way that a talented chef would leave McDonald’s at the first opportunity—whatever the rate of pay.

William Farrar
3rd Grade Teacher
South Pasadena, Calif.

Paige’s Voucher Stance Is ‘On the Wrong Page’

To the Editor:

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s arrogant plea for wider support for school vouchers (“Paige Calls for Wider Support of School Choice,” Feb. 4, 2004) shows that he is on the wrong page when compared with most Americans. He seems unaware that in 25 statewide referendums from coast to coast between 1966 and 2000, voters registered opposition to vouchers or their analogues (tax-code vouchers) by an average margin of 2-to- 1.

The latest poll, in Louisiana, found, as reported in The Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge on Jan. 7, 2004, that opposition to vouchers was running 60 percent to 34 percent statewide, with every region and ethnic group in the state opposed. This is significant because Louisiana has among the highest nonpublic school enrollments of any state.

Mr. Paige also seems to have overlooked the numerous studies in the United States and abroad that cast serious doubt on the efficacy and fairness of vouchers, and to have overlooked as well the direct and indirect forms of discrimination and segregation vouchers will promote, both by the District of Columbia voucher scheme recently imposed on citizens of the nation’s capital by Congress and those elsewhere.

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

Teaching-Group Critic Draws Reader’s Scorn

To the Editor:

Rosetta J. Boyd’s disingenuous reaction to the findings and recommendations of the Teaching Commission epitomizes the defenders of the education status quo (“Instead of Merit Pay, Try ‘Merit Schools,’” Letters, Feb. 11, 2004.) She objects to one of the four recommendations made by the commission: merit pay as a means to improve the “supposedly” deteriorating quality of public school education.

She ignores totally the other three recommendations: revamping teacher education programs, opening and streamlining teacher- certification procedures, and empowering principals and teachers with the authority to work as teams at the school level.

Even with regard to her objections to merit pay, she misrepresents the commission’s recommendation. Aside from science and mathematics teachers (who would not, for all that, be immune to performance evaluations), the Teaching Commission argues for raising all teachers’ salaries as long as they actually perform. And this performance is not dependent on the variables Ms. Boyd enumerates, such as “teachers fortunate enough to teach students who do well on achievement tests” or a “curriculum over which she [the teacher] has no control.” Instead, the commission suggests a number of bases for the evaluation of teachers’ performance, including William Sanders’ “value added” method, which neutralizes environmental factors by concentrating on one teacher in one classroom over a period of time.

Most telling in Ms. Boyd’s letter, however, is her mean-spirited description of the alleged disincentive of merit pay. “Why share materials and methods with the teacher across the hall,” she asks, “potentially helping her students outperform yours, giving her a chance at more pay and a better lifestyle?” This speaks volumes about her view of teachers as professionals and as human beings concerned with the achievement of their charges.

It is this mind-set that must be overcome, as the Teaching Commission makes clear, if we are to achieve real reform of the outdated education delivery system in this country. Having properly equipped teachers to teach, recognized them as professionals through a relevant process of certification, compensated them in keeping with their achievements, given them appropriate career opportunities, and then endowed them with the power to go do it, we will happily “totally alter the landscape of public education.” But not, as Ms. Boyd predicts, “ultimately lead to its destruction.”

Gisèle Huff
San Francisco, Calif.

Include Magnet Schools in Quality Counts Data

To the Editor:

While the “State of the States” portion of Quality Counts 2004: “Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards” (Jan. 8, 2004) is greatly appreciated, there are some major omissions in determining states’ grades and adequacy. One of them is in the section on school climate.

Your report puts emphasis on open enrollment and school choice, but apparently omits choice as it occurs with magnet schools and programs. The many magnet schools and programs in Florida represent the best of school choice, as they are high- quality and found in most of the largest districts, where a majority of K-12 public school students are enrolled. In fact, the choice among magnets may be far superior to choice among traditional schools. To date, our magnet schools also outperform our charter schools by a wide margin.

I hope you will include magnet schools as part of the scoring in next year’s “State of the States” report.

Pete Kreis
Retired Educator
Tallahassee, Fla.

Mismanaged Programs: A Troubling Frequency

To the Editor:

I am troubled by your article “E-Rate Purchases for Chicago Schools Found Wasted” (Jan. 28, 2004). Little more than a year ago, you published another article that discussed allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse in this same program (“E-Rate Audits Expose Abuses in the Program,” Feb. 12, 2003.) The similarities between the two articles are amazing, with leaders of Congress promising to take action and the Universal Service Administrative Co., or USAC, which is charged with managing the E-rate program for the Federal Communications Commission, telling us that it has some weaknesses but is working hard to do better.

I am even more troubled, however, by the commonality of this kind of story. For example, a News in Brief item in the Jan. 28, 2004, issue details concerns about a government survey of Head Start administrators’ salaries (“U.S. Court Rejects Lawsuit Filed by Head Start Group”). If I look further back, I find the article “Hefty Head Start Salaries Prompt Federal Inquiry” (Oct. 22, 2003) which reports allegations of Head Start administrators’ making 200-grand a year and that, in one case, Head Start money was used to partially pay the lease on one administrator’s Mercedes-Benz. Good grief!

I was comforted to learn in the latter story that Windy M. Hill, who leads the Head Start Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was on top of things and “looking into the compensation issue.” Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that her office was not responsible for initially discovering the problem, as one might suppose. Thank goodness for the San Antonio Express-News. Ms. Hill assures us the problem will be dealt with (now that it is known) “in a way that people will find fair and appropriate.” But of course it will.

Take your pick of programs, from Medicare to Social Security, from welfare to the federal lunch program, and from Title I to the U.S. Department of Education itself. In the past year, a variety of publications, including Education Week, have published numerous stories on the misuse and abuse of taxpayer dollars. In almost every case, there have been expressions of righteous anger and concern from politicians and departmental bureaucrats, followed by promises of investigations and reform. In every case, there is always some form of the “don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” argument. But the problems persist.

Now the federal government wants to “fix” our poorly performing public school system with the No Child Left Behind Act, and guess what? Your front-page article “Debate Flares Regarding Aid Given to States” (Jan. 21, 2004) reports arguments between some states and the U.S. Department of Education as to whether or not No Child Left Behind funds are being spent in a timely and appropriate manner.

Let’s forget for just a minute the confused, unclear requirements of the law; the unrealistic expectations for students, staff, and administrations; and the question of adequate funding. Let’s focus on the fact that this program is being driven by the same federal bureaucracy that attempts to manage the programs mentioned earlier. Can any reasonable person fail to be concerned that the No Child Left Behind law is going to be equally mismanaged and poorly implemented?

My daddy used to tell me that “until you get your own house in order, don’t try to tell someone else how to fix theirs.” Maybe the federal government should take his advice.

David Brothers
Chickamauga, Ga.

Look Also at the Ethics of Education Research

To the Editor:

In her Commentary, “Knowing What Works” (Jan. 21, 2004), Karin Chenoweth makes an effective case for the proposition that “we really don’t know much about what helps kids learn.” She describes the efforts of the Institute of Education Sciences to encourage education researchers to use “the ‘gold standard’ of research: ‘well designed and implemented randomized controlled trials,’ such as are conducted in medicine and psychology.”

As desirable as this may appear, applying the medical model to education raises serious ethical issues of the sort faced by medical researchers for years. Effective educational studies may require large numbers of students to use less effective materials or to be taught with less effective strategies for long periods of time. To use a medical analogy: We will give some students a placebo.

The ethical concerns are obvious and complex. They need to be addressed not just by the research establishment, but also by the larger community of teachers, students, and parents.

William A. Peters
School of Education
Saint Xavier University
Chicago, Ill.

Direct Instruction: Criticism of a Wisconsin Study And Program Testimonials

To the Editor:

I am highly dissatisfied with the methodology and the interpretation of findings in Randall J. Ryder’s study of Direct Instruction (“Study Challenges Direct Reading Method,” Jan. 28, 2004.)

The study attempted to examine reading instruction in two Wisconsin districts to determine whether Direct Instruction was effective in raising students’ levels of achievement. It concluded that the program was not as effective as three other programs that are less teacher-directed.

I offer a unique perspective on this because in 1999, SRA/McGraw-Hill, the publisher of Direct Instruction, asked me to meet with Mr. Ryder and others to discuss the study’s design and implementation prior to its initiation in 2000. After several meetings, it became clear to me that the study, as planned, was flawed in ways that resulted in an unfair bias against Direct Instruction.

The three major flaws were:

  • The faulty conceptualization of Direct Instruction (which destroyed the integrity of the Direct Instruction that was being evaluated);
  • The selection of so-called Direct Instruction classrooms in which the reading lessons were to be more like whole language or literature-based instruction than like real Direct Instruction lessons; and
  • Grossly inadequate training of teachers in the purposes and use of Direct Instruction.

After several meetings, I became convinced that Mr. Ryder’s real intent was to provide so-called “evidence” that could be used to ridicule Direct Instruction. Otherwise, if he were a knowledgeable researcher, why would he propose a study so obviously flawed in both its design and implementation? After numerous attempts to inform Mr. Ryder of these concerns were ignored, I withdrew my involvement.

It is important to remind your readers that Direct Instruction has generated proven results for nearly 30 years, and that many independent reviewers of research have acknowledged that strong research base. For the sake of our children, it seems reasonable to request a critique and reanalysis of the Ryder study.

Sara G. Tarver
Professor of Education
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, Wis.

To the Editor:

It seems absurd that a recent Direct Instruction study, administered without merit for more than $300,000 of taxpayers’ money, has been published by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The three-year study by Randall J. Ryder, as you report, concludes that Direct Instruction is not as effective in urban schools as other teaching methods.

The problem is there are many flaws with the methodologies used to conduct the study. For instance, there is little continuity from year to year and between grade levels because many of the Direct Instruction students did not complete the entire three-year sequence. Also, some of the schools categorized as “Direct Instruction schools” used the Houghton-Mifflin reading series as a supplement.

As the principal of Dover Street School in Milwaukee, I have seen progress over my school’s seven years of full implementation of the program. Before we introduced Direct Instruction, 25 percent of our students each year were in danger of being retained. One-fourth of our 1st graders were retained every year. Last year, only nine students were retained from grades K-5. The only major difference in our school over those seven years has been the change in our reading program, followed by the introduction of new language, writing, spelling, and, most recently, math programs, all of which use the direct-instruction method.

The introduction of these programs has allowed us to focus attention on individual students’ needs, whether they are struggling, advanced, average, new to the program, or in special education. These programs allow for and encourage many opportunities to meet a child at his instructional level.

When I asked a group of formerly struggling 4th and 5th grade students about the reading program, they told me that they liked it. I asked what they liked about it, and they replied, “We can read!” I think that says it all.

Jaclyn Dee Laber
Dover Street School
Milwaukee, Wis.

To the Editor:

Even good intentions can have disastrous results. Take, for example, your article about Randall J. Ryder’s reading study.

This was a huge, state-initiated study, paid for with taxpayer money. It was intended to examine which methods of reading instruction work best in urban schools. But as your article points out, the research methodology had many flaws. As a result, the study leaves educators with a negative impression of Direct Instruction and with more questions than answers.

As the principal of Humboldt Park K-8 School in Milwaukee, I have personally seen significant academic gains since we began using Direct Instruction programs for reading, language arts, and mathematics three years ago.

The most current TerraNova test results indicate a 21-percentage-point improvement in 3rd grade mathematics proficiency (36 percent to 57 percent). Last year, we also saw a 21-percentage-point improvement on the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test’s 3rd grade reading proficiency test (47 percent to 68 percent). Our test scores continue to show a steady positive increase schoolwide.

Before using one very small study to discount Direct Instruction as an effective method of instruction, come and see what our students are learning.

Kristi Cole
Humboldt Park K-8 School
Milwaukee, Wis.

To the Editor:

As a school principal and an advocate of Direct Instruction, I was frustrated to read about the Randall J. Ryder study. As your article noted, there were many inconsistencies in the study and questionable methodologies used to compile the results.

It’s a shame that more than $300,000 of taxpayer dollars was paid for research whose findings appear not to be academically sound. How can our government leaders ignore such waste? Our legislators should demand a reanalysis of the data.

As the principal of Honey Creek School, I invite Mr. Ryder and other reading- curriculum decisionmakers to visit our classrooms to see the implementation of Direct Instruction. We could demonstrate to them the positive impact that the program is having on our students and teachers.

Santa Consiglio
Honey Creek School
Milwaukee, Wis.

To the Editor:

We have schools in this country that have been making steady progress since states began to develop standards—schools that have invested both time and money making the curriculum work for the students in their keep.

Yet the regulations of the No Child Left Behind Act are forcing such schools and their hardworking professionals to bulldoze current successful methods and materials, replacing them with one of the federal government’s “scientifically based” corporate programs.

Your Feb. 4, 2004, Federal File highlighted such an example, Pierre Laclede Elementary School in St. Louis. President Bush, who recently visited that school, even admitted that Laclede’s outstanding climb from 7 percent to 80 percent performing at grade level occurred before the No Child Left Behind law’s implementation. Nevertheless, to receive federal aid, Laclede must now invest thousands of dollars in one of the No Child Left Behind corporate programs, thus eliminating materials that really have demonstrated (scientific) effectiveness for its students.

Not surprisingly, the principal at Laclede predicts, “We’ll succeed with whatever [reading program].” She knows that it’s the teacher, not the program, that makes the difference. And this is exactly what Jim Delisle is explaining in his common-sense Commentary, “To Jon, on His First Year of Teaching,” also in the Feb. 4 issue. Mr. Delisle’s 11 tips are the real foundation for successful teaching and its predictable results. But is the government investigating such teacher strategies?

Researchers should start observing successful teachers, instead of programs. Or is successful teaching too difficult to measure and package to sell?

Ardith Cole
Port Townsend, Wash.


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