Letters to the Editor

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To the Editor:

Your questioning of Thomas James, the director and principal author of the National Academy of Education's study of education research ("Director of Academy's New Study Analyzes R&D Proposals," Focus On, June 5, 1991), prompts me to write to consider some other questions.

As a student and teacher of biology during the last half-century, I have also been constantly interested and concerned about education in general. In biology, I have seen the growth and accumulation of basic knowledge that has had, and is having, good and useful results in medicine and agriculture. Basic research in education has produced results that seem to be true only for the time and place where they were produced.

Nothing positive for education seems to have developed out of educational research. Rather, the reverse occurred. The more educational research, the poorer has become the quality and quantity of education in the schools.

You asked Mr. James about the current needs in basic research. His answers were essentially the same as those given 50 years ago. Judged by the past, further basic research in education will be a waste of time and money, insofar as the improvement of education is the concern. We already know what needs to be done to improve education. All we have to do is to go to work and do it.

Our big problem is the phrase, "go to work," as applied to administrators, teachers, and students--go to work on those subjects and skills that are of cumulative significance in the growth of individuals and of society. Japanese and German students far excel ours because they work hard on significant subjects.

Basic research in education should start with an outline of the structure of knowledge in education. To do this, three questions need to be answered for each theory in education: What are the postulates of the theory? What are the crucial lines of reasoning used for support, explanation, and prediction? What are the known or presumed boundaries of the theory? With these answers in hand, some larger pattern may become visible, but this larger pattern would be minuscule compared to "how human beings think."

There may be a legitimate place for some basic research in education, but I doubt that it will be of any practical value for a generation or two.

Ralph W. Lewis
Professor Emeritus
College of Natural Science
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Mich.

To the Editor

Like Randy Schenkat and Jeanne Ehlinger ("Questions on Quality for Textbook Selectors," Commentary, May 22, 1991)--and, we suspect, thousands of reading teachers--those of us at the Center for the Study of Reading are also concerned about the quality of basal reading programs. And like them, we agree that, given the role they play inshaping reading instruction in most of our elementary schools, little is gained by bad mouthing these programs or by wishing them away.

That instructional activities in most basal programs do not reflect the best information from research and effective practice is particularly dismaying to us, because, after all, many of our staff members have been involved with much of that research. We know that the information exists to make dramatic improvements in the quality of reading instruction.

The suggestions offered by Schenkat and Ehlinger are good ones, and we hope that publishers and members of selection committees will consider them carefully before the next round of textbook adoptions.

But we are not willing to write off the current round. We believe that members of adoption committees truly want to select the best reading programs for their students. We believe that they want the instruction offered in their schools to be based on sound research and practice. For these reasons, the center has developed a guide designed to help members of committees evaluate the soundness of the instruction offered in reading programs. Called A Guide to Selecting Basal Reading Programs, this publication offers brief reviews of research in key areas of reading instruction--comprehension, vocabulary, reading selections, tests, workbooks, and the reading/writing connection. Then it offers guidelines to help evaluators determine how well a program reflects the research.

The guide is not a checklist or a gimmick. Nor does it make the evaluation and selection process easy or fast. What it does is provide evaluators with current information drawn from research and effective practice to help them better determine the quality of the instruction offered in a reading program.

Anyone wanting more information about the guide should write: Guide, Center for the Study of Reading, 51 Gerty Dr., Champaign, Ill. 61820.

Jean Osborn
Associate Director
Fran Lehr
Staff Associate
Center for the Study of Reading
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Champaign, Ill.

To the Editor:

How unfortunate that you chose to focus on what you perceive to be the negative implication of the recent appeals-court ruling that school districts deduct "off the top" of their Chapter 1 monies to reach parochial schoolchildren ("Court Backs Rule on Chapter 1 in Religious Schools," May 29, 1991).

We should think that educators interested in the welfare of children would have rejoiced that the tax dollars of parochial school students' parents would be used for these students. We would think that educators interested in the welfare of children would have rejoiced that children with special needs, who are freeing their public school district from the exorbitant cost of educating them, would be getting the help they need.

You chose, on page 23 of that issue, to highlight in a headline the statement, "Decision Seen as a Setback by Advocates of Separation of Church & State." For those who merely skim the newspaper, this biased outtake is more editorializing than news reporting.

Alas, no. Once again the children are forgotten and, once again, those who have it all want it all.

Sister Mary Anne Brawley
Executive Director
Sister Carol Cimino
Associate Director
Catholic Schools Administrators Association of New York State
Troy, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I read with great disbelief the Commentary by Rosalie Pedalino Porter regarding the early English acquisition of non-English-speaking preschoolers ("The False Alarm Over Early English Acquisition," Commentary, June 5, 1991).

It is unfortunate that Ms. Porter takes issue with the recent research reported by Lily Wong Fillmore, criticizing it from a scientific perspective, with little other than her citation of her highly suspect personal opinion and individual experience.

Ms. Fillmore has done the early-childhood field a great service in reporting the highly negative effects on family relationships within families whose children are "forced" to learn English during their early-childhood years.

Early-childhood educators have long understood the significance of strengthening the family unit and enhancing the communication between the preschool and the home. Native-language services at the preschool level assist in such a process.

Moreover, Ms. Porter ignores a rather large body of research literature, including a 1980 national study of Head Start, which supports the conclusion that native-language instruction is the preferred mode of instruction for non-English-speaking children with regard to enhanced language, social, and cognitive development.

Children welcomed and nurtured in the language of their home and family flourish under the professional care of native-language caretakers and early-childhood educators. A recent longitudinal study of school-age children conducted by the U.S. Education Department provides additional evidence for the significance of native-language instruction for school-age children.

Ms. Porter's personal opinions are to be respected. But they should not be misrepresented as based in "fact."

Eugene E. Garcia
Social Sciences Division
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, Calif.

To the Editor:

Chris Whittle is another of those self-proclaimed saviors of American education, but not of public education ("Entrepreneur Whittle Unveils Plans To Create Chain of For-Profit Schools," May 22, 1991). Obviously, as long as he spends money from strictly private sources, he is entitled to propose and implement any kind of school that he wishes. However, several questions remain to be answered. (Also Mr. Whittle needs to brush up on his history.)

One of these questions was posed by California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig--that of cutting costs. Mr. Whittle admits that he is, indeed, planning to cut costs. Currently, he states only that he will use students to do work that is now done by adults, a proposal that makes one suspect that he wants to hire young people because they cost less to hire than older people.

He also suggests that older students teach younger students, a proposal that reminds one of the Lancastrian system of the early 19th4century, in which a teacher might teach 50 monitors, who were older students, and then these monitors could teach 20 students each. This produced a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 1,000, which, unquestionably, is a cheap way to produce instruction.

Assuming, however, that he makes only limited use of older students, will Mr. Whittle then follow the principle often quoted by historians of education to direct administrators to hire a teacher "as cheaply as possible"? His emphasis on cost-cutting does not rule this out. Mr. Whittle seems to have made no contingency plans for financial problems. The American people are certainly entitled to know whether or not he will expect the American taxpayers to bail him out should his enterprise fail financially.

It may also surprise Mr. Whittle that the redesign of school buildings was practiced freely in Tennessee during the 1960's under the direction of John Gilliland of the University of Tennessee, and that many of these "domes" still remain as a legacy of his work, though few schools actually developed the innovations for which they were designed.

His concept of dissolving the boundary lines between subjects was advocated in the early years of this century by John Dewey, and a number of schools actually implemented these programs, although the resistance of many universities made such implementation difficult. Nevertheless, many correlated, fused, and topical courses were developed and taught in many schools that were never Deweyan but still were willing to implement some of his insights. Re-evaluation of traditional grade levels was practiced by a great number of schools, including Ridgeway Elementary School in Memphis.

Little of the Whittle program is "new" except the concept of doing it all in a capitalistic venture.

Like many of the "saviors of education" today, Chris Whittle has shown his dislike of public education. He has shown no concern for the serious problems of our society, particularly the urban areas. He has also shown no concern for the professionalization of teachers. He has shown only that he has no faith in the American school system or any part of the American system except perhaps the business community.

Kenneth D. McCracken
Professor of Education
University of Tennessee at Martin
Martin, Tenn.

Worth Noting

One evening as I watched [television], with my remote control in hand, I flipped through the channels and saw a man loading his gun on one channel, a different man aiming a gun on a second, and another man shooting a gun on a third. And if you don't believe me, try it yourself. Remember Groucho Marx's advice: 'Do you believe me or your own eyes?' I think the most troubling change over the past 30 years is the rise in the quantity and quality of violence on television. In 1961, I worried that my children would not benefit much from television, but in 1991 I worry that my grandchildren will actually be harmed by it. One recent study shows that by the time a child is 18 he has seen 25,000 murders on television. In 1961 they didn't make PG-13 movies, much less NC-17. Now a 6-year-old can watch them on cable. ...

Suppose you were asked this multiple-choice question: Which of the following is the most important educational institution in America? (a) Harvard, (b) Yale, (c) Columbia, (d) the University of California, (e) none of the above. The correct answer is e. The most important educational institution in America is television. More people learn more each day, each year, each lifetime from television than from any other source. All of television is education; the question is, what are we teaching and what are we learning? Sometimes, as in the case of the splendid Annenberg/cpb-sponsored educational course on the Constitution, we see what television can do to stretch the mind and the spirit. In Ken Burns's brilliant programs about the Civil War, millions of Americans learned more about that terrible period in American history than they ever learned in school. We are slowly doing better each year in using television for education, but too much of the time we waste television's potential to teach--and viewers' to learn. ...

Bob Keeshan, our Captain Kangaroo for life, has seen how television for children all over the world is designed to be part of the nurturing and educational system. But 'in America,' he says, 'television is not a tool for nurturing. It is a tool for selling.' True, there are glorious exceptions like Joan Cooney's work, starting with 'Sesame Street.' But far too often television fails our children. And it fails them for more hours each day than they spend with a teacher in a classroom.

Competition, it is said, brings out the best in products and the worst in people. In children's television, competition seems to bring out the worst in programs and the worst in children. Children lack purchasing power and voting power, and the television marketplace and the political process have failed them. Cooperation instead of competition--among broadcasters and cable operators--could do wonders for children. Congress last year and the fcc this year have finally started to address these issues, and the attention is long overdue. If they would give the same time and attention to policies for children's television as they give to the industry fights about the financial interest and syndication rules, our children would begin to receive the priority concern they deserve.

--Newton Minow, lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a speech last month commemorating the 30th anniversary of his "vast wasteland" speech on the future of television. The event was sponsored by the Gannett Foundation Media Center at Columbia University.

Vol. 10, Issue 39

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