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To the Editor:

I was rather dismayed that you gave featured space to the book excerpt by Rita Kramer ("Reciting the Sins of a 'Professional Education Industry,'" Commentary, Oct. 23, 1991), Her arguments about teacher education echo those of James Koerner from the 1960's. In fact, the subtitle of her book ("The Miseducation of America's Teachers") is the same as the title of his. The arguments were erroneous then and are even less justifiable now.

Among the strange perceptions are these:

  • Skip teaching thinking skills and focus on facts which are "real knowledge." Which facts; they have quadrupled in the past 40 years? Today's jobs require people who can think, solve problems, and make decisions. While it is necessary to have access to "facts," it is not possible to try to have them all in your head. Teaching that focuses on teaching facts has been proven to have only a 3 percent retention rate one year later. Why use a system that is 97 percent ineffective? As Henry Taitt said, "Teach a child what to think and you make him a slave. Teach a child how to think and you make all knowledge his slave."
  • Learning how to teach can be done in the content department of the universities. Most content professors care little about teaching. Publishing is where the money and promotions are. Teaching is an obnoxious task one has to perform in order to be able to do research. When I was at Purdue, the criteria for promotion were "excellent publications and adequate teaching." Probably the worst teaching in the world occurs at universities. Many professors are not models of what one should do in the classroom.
  • Education schools produce people who "have a lot of information about how to teach but have little or nothing to teach." On our campus, students take a general liberal- arts core of 62 semester hours, a minimum of 48 hours in the content they will teach, and 18 hours in education. Eighty-six percent of the hours are in content and only 14 are in education. If her statement is true, the content professors must be terribly ineffective and the education professors are tremendous.

In truth, students know a great deal of content, much more than their elementary and secondary students are ready to learn. Ms. Kramer has no proof of her comments. Some critics keep repeating the same old garbage. Just because it's been said several times doesn't make it true.

As an outsider who spent some time at a few selected institutions, the author somehow considers herself an expert. I guess if I spent some time observing at a few "selected" newspapers and a journalism seminar or two I could be an expert on the news media and write a book. This is ridiculous. No one in his right mind would consider that a serious study of journalism.

By the same token, no one should take Rita Kramer seriously. Some will, generally those who share her unproven biases. So much for objective journalism. As I said, I'm sorry you wasted space on this nonsense. The very next week, however, you made amends, in my estimation, by putting Harold Hodgkinson's excellent Commentary ("Schools Are Awful-Aren't They?," Oct. 30, 1991) in the same high-visibility location.

Terry Northup
Dean School of Education

To the Editor:

The essay by Susan Harman on elementary reading textbooks ("The Basal 'Conspiracy,'"Commentary, Nov. 13, 1991) calls for another, less biased opinion.

I doubt that Ms. Harman has even looked at the new series, The Literature Experience, published by Houghton Mifflin this year. If she had, she would know that it is based on authentic, unadapted literature by such well-known children's authors as Arnold Lobel, Peggy Parish, Steven Kellogg, Shel Silverstein, William Steig, Tomie dePaola, and many others.

This program stresses reading from whole to part, with skill strategies taught as an integral part of the literature, not as isolated skill and ditto work. Children are reading real literature as early as kindergarten. The overall emphasis of the program is to work with children to develop a love of reading.

Pupils are introduced to reading through themes, such as animal friends, "favorite things," growing up, mysteries of the deep, and numerous others that children love. The youngsters then become involved in extended activities in writing, art, and other areas that spring from the theme and the literature.

No longer are children working alone on worksheets. They are meeting as a whole class for instruction, doing shared readings, reading aloud, and developing a host of activities that connect reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

In addition, they are assessed with tests that require them to write about the themes, not memorize skills. Folders are kept on each child's work so that teachers have a portfolio of that child's development in all aspects of language arts.

No, Ms. Harman, the publishers are not in control here in Fair Lawn, N.J. Reading--and children's excitement about it--are alive and well. And our teachers are in love with the literature- based program the district has adopted. Maybe you should look more closely at the new materials in teaching published in 1991.

Ilona Mellor
Language-Arts Supervisor
Fair Lawn Public Schools
Fair Lawn,N.J.

To the Editor:

As a former school superintendent, currently an observer of issues and trends in education, I am frustrated with the seeming short-sightedness of the current debate over the validity of international tests and comparisons of student achievement ("Revisionists Take Aim at Gloomy View of Schools," Nov. 13, 1991). Like many polemics, the rhetoric obscures important fundamental truths about public education.

First, regardless of how well our students score now, or whether the comparisons with other countries are valid, we can and should do better. Indeed, there are a number of significant indicators which suggest slow, but steady improvement over the last 50 years despite a worsening educational environment. Although the overall picture appears dismal, there continues to be an increasing number of outstanding triumphs at the school and district levels across the country.

Secondly, we know how to improve student achievement; in fact, we know more about how children learn than we do about how to assess learning most appropriately. Meta-analyses of more than 8,000 research studies clearly identify the elements that contribute to success in learning. Gathering these elements into a coherent system and putting them into practice remains a continuing challenge for reasons that are often beyond the control of educators, such as the effects of poverty, drug addiction, and child abuse.

Third, we seem determined to avoid dealing with root problems and deficiencies of the infrastructure of public education--chiefly, the basis of school finance, the politicized process of decisionmaking, and the inherent value conflicts between schools' role as transmitters of the culture, surrogate for family and church, and preparer of students for the future. Restructuring schools built on a faulty foundation will not achieve the desired goals for long-term improvement.

Lastly, we are still talking about incremental changes, essentially fine-tuning the old model. If we are going to get ahead of the curve, we can do so only by attempting to make a genuine breakthrough, a truly innovative design. Evidence suggests that while there is a way, so far, we have not, as a nation, shown the will.

Frank Betts
Resource Center
Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development
Alexandria, VA

To the Editor

As a former adviser in reading to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, I do not share some of the views quoted in your article this fall on NAEP results ("Student Performance Reaches 70'8 Levels, NAEP Study Finds," Oct. 2, 1991.

The article is correct in sharing that "in reading, the report found, most students were performing at about the same level [in [email protected]] as those in 1970." However, you go on to say that at least one member of NAEP'S governing board found these results to be "very disappointing."

I disagree. Staying the same in reading is nearly a flat-out miracle of good teaching, given the socioeconomic level of children currently being sent to the nation's schools in increasing numbers.

Reading research might be ambiguous on many points, such as which is the best teaching method for reading. But it is certainly unambiguous about the close agreement (high correlation) between reading-achievement scores and socioeconomic status. Every National Assessment shows that clearly by giving separate subgroup scores for urban and suburban children.

It is not the teaching profession's fault that lower socioeconomic groups tend to have large families, while upper-level socioeconomic groups have small families; or that many families are single-parent-only, which usually means having a female head and resultant lower income level and higher exhaustion level.

Yet, teachers, school administrators, and textbook publishers get blamed for producing "very disappointing" reading- test results.

There is another fundamental fact often overlooked when examining test results. That is that almost all human abilities--from the ability to play basketball to reading achievement-tend to follow the normal distribution curve. And that means that half the nation's students are below average (by the very definition of average), and, worse than that, 1 out of every 10 is in the bottom 10 percent. If you don't understand that, you have forgotten your mathematics or slept through Psychology 1.

But if you have forgotten these things, please don't run around and say how horrible the schools are because some students are "below grade level" ("grade level" means average achievement). Of course some students are below average.

I say the NAEP reading test results are remarkably good, and it is time that everybody begin to appreciate that fact. Of course there is room for improvement, but what couldn't be improved?--like, say, income levels, moral climate, parental skills, health care, etc., etc.

Edward Fry
Professor of Education Emeritus
Rutgers University
Laguna Beach,Calif.

To the Editor:

One apparent misquote crept into your deservedly-splendid article on the Manhattan Comprehensive Night High School, leading one to believe that an "academic diploma" is somehow different from a diploma from "one of the city's 'alternative high schools.'"

Alternative high schools in New York universally issue "academic diplomas," some 2,500 of them during the 1990-91 school year alone. Equally important, Manhattan Comprehensive Night is one of the "most alternative" comprehensive schools in the nation: the organizational and curricular features of the school, while pioneered in alternative high schools, illustrate the contributions that progressive, alternative features can make to students' attainment of goals that too many educators assume demand traditional, rigid, archaic procedures.While the night-hours operation of the school is a "catchy feature," it would be equally as successful operating from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M.: "alternative education" works at all hours of the day.

Stephen E. Phillips
Alternative High Schools and Programs
New York City Board Of Education
New York,N.Y.

Vol. 11, Issue 13, Pages 24-25

Published in Print: November 27, 1991, as Letters to the Editor
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