Letters to the Editor

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

To the Editor:

In "Goals 2000 and the Bilingual Student'' (Commentary, May 18, 1994), Rosalie Pedalino Porter recommends a radical change in policy if language-minority students are to achieve the national standards. Ms. Porter must be commended for her commitment to helping these students achieve their highest academic potential, and for her useful recommendations (after-school programs, private language schools) to families and groups wishing to retain their language and culture. There are, however, a few problems with her account which require highlighting.

1. "Students can begin to learn subject matter taught in English within a few weeks of entering U.S. schools, given a modified curriculum and trained teachers.'' This statement may be true, but it is only a small part of the truth. First of all, the two givens raise large questions: How is this curriculum to be modified, and where are the trained teachers? Further, is such content-based English teaching possible without quite systematic and carefully structured native-language support, provided concurrently? If it is not, who is going to provide that support, for how long, and in what ways?

2. Time on task and optimum age for second-language acquisition are "the two most important principles in language learning.'' As long ago as 1962, John Carroll (known as the originator of Mastery Learning) specified five variables relating to success and time on task: aptitude, perseverance, opportunity to learn, ability to understand instruction ("a variable that might become more critical as the quality of instruction decreased''), and quality of instruction. As Mr. Carroll emphasized, time itself is not the crucial variable; "what goes on in that time is more important.''

As for "optimum age,'' we may do well to think carefully before automatically and simplistically assuming that younger is always better. In the Canadian language-immersion programs, evidence now seems to point toward middle, partial immersion (from age 10 or 11 onward, for part of the day) as the most effective model. When learning a second language very young, a child is most in danger of losing the first language. When that happens, and when family support is inadequate, we get families in which communication is impaired, and the sad and grim consequences of that are all too familiar. Apart from that, it is certainly necessary for new arrivals to receive high-quality English-as-a-second-language instruction right from the moment of arrival. But for how many of them is it available?

3. "The Swedish linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas told us that we are committing 'linguistic genocide' when we teach our immigrant students English.'' I feel that Ms. Skutnabb-Kangas (actually, she is Finnish, and lives in Denmark) is being grossly misquoted here. Although I leave her to defend herself, she has never, to my knowledge, argued against the teaching of English as a second language. The argument is far more complex than that. A more important point is the one of whose responsibility it is to preserve the mother tongue. Here, we must ask ourselves, under what conditions can the mother tongue be lost, and what are the consequences--social, personal, economic, etc.--of this loss?

Secondly, I would argue that it is the duty of all schools to insure that all students become bilingual and multiculturally aware. If, as a result of school practices, or neglect, students lose a language they once had, the schools waste a resource and are guilty of dereliction of duty.

4. Bilingual education creates separate schools within schools. This is true, though I am not sure that it is caused by an "entrenched bilingual-education bureaucracy.'' In the places where I have seen such segregation, school boards and administrators have been overwhelmingly white (and male). It would be interesting to see full demographic information about our segregated schools. Further, given the monstrous size of most of our schools, creating schools within schools (families or academies) is a much-vaunted practice nowadays. Provided the schools are equal in terms of excellence, and offer the best possible service to their constituencies, breaking up schools into smaller units is an excellent idea.

The arguments Ms. Porter presents against bilingual education are not theoretically or practically substantiated, either in her essay or elsewhere. Rather, they are personal, emotional, and political. Bilingual education neither creates nor prevents ghettos. Bilingual education neither promotes nor prevents segregation. The forces that create inequality, discrimination, and racism are not to be found in the bilingual classroom. They come from somewhere else.

Leo van Lier
Professor of Educational Linguistics
Monterey Institute of International Studies
Monterey, Calif.

To the Editor:

Had Rosalie Pedalino Porter written her Commentary 15 years ago, she might be forgiven. In 1994, however, with a substantial body of new and more reliable research evidence available, misunderstandings of the magnitude displayed in Ms. Porter's rambling criticisms of bilingual education must be viewed with suspicion. She uses a shotgun approach to discredit the entire bilingual-schooling movement instead of trying to understand which specific program treatments have been the most effective with various populations of language-minority students under differing conditions of implementation.

Findings of a 1992 report on the nature and quality of research on bilingual education, conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, indicated that: (1) studies in this area were of the same suitable quality as other studies in education, and (2) taking into account any limitations in the studies, there is consistent empirical evidence that supports the theory underlying native-language instruction in bilingual education.

Ms. Porter claims that a California study found that "no one educational model, bilingual or nonbilingual, could be considered the most effective under all conditions.'' The problem is that Ms. Porter would have us believe that bilingual education is not effective under any circumstances. That finding is just not supported in the research literature or in the experience of educators around the world.

More often than not in the United States, languages other than English, when spoken by minority students, have been viewed as obstacles rather than as resources in education. All children will be better served when we begin to realize that the home languages and cultures of children are important personal, educational, social, and economic resources which can assist students to progress academically in school and become educated speakers of English. Schools can take advantage of this resource by aligning instructional, assessment, and other educational practices with the cultural and linguistic realities of their local communities.

Rosalie Porter makes reference to the "Swedish'' researcher, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas happens to be Finnish, a detail apparently of minor importance to Ms. Porter. That aside, I know that this internationally distinguished researcher would argue that educators should work together to promote the bilingual and cross-cultural development of all children, rather than have us limit schooling opportunities in ways that perpetuate monolingual narrow-mindedness.

David P. Dolson
Bilingual Education Office
California Department of Education
Sacramento, Calif.

To the Editor:

In his letter regarding the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' certification process (Letters, May 25, 1994), John Taylor Gatto does everything short of hanging out a shingle. Setting himself up as a sociologist ("diseased idea of social organization''), a psychologist ("serious identity problems'' of two candidates for national-board certification), and a seer (national-board certification has "no chance at all of succeeding''), Mr. Gatto attempts to denigrate a process about which he clearly knows nothing.

Fortunately, however, he seems to know better than to pass himself off as a writer. His pretzel prose and rambling, inflated pronouncements are as flawed as his perceptions about teachers, teaching, and the extraordinary process for national-board certification.

Claire L. Pelton
San Jose, California

The writer is vice chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

To the Editor:

Perhaps Richard John Gibson and I did not see the same version of "Schindler's List'' ("A Dissenting Viewpoint on Lessons of 'Schindler's List,''' Letters, April 20, 1994). Mr. Gibson states that "Schindler's List'' has no history of the fascist movement, and he is correct; but the movie is "Schindler's List,'' not "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.''

Mr. Gibson tells us of the stereotypes of the movie, that it shows Jews as swindlers, cheats, and connivers. As he so cleverly points out, "we are plunked down in the midst of fascism in its peak,'' and during that peak, it was necessary for some enterprising youths to run goods on the black market. Others traded needed goods for other commodities. What should be noted here is the adjustments the people made in order to survive.

If Oskar Schindler was such a horrible man, he sure saved hundreds of lives, and spent thousands of marks to do so. Maybe the ones to ask of his character are the large number of men, women, and children he saved. I guess that the state of Israel was wrong when it granted him a Most Righteous Person status.

In my opinion, Mr. Gibson missed the point of the movie. The point was the millions of people who died, the hundreds who did not, and that not all of the German-speaking people wanted all the Jews dead.

Ronald Neuser
Albuquerque, N.M.

To the Editor:

I have enjoyed your excellent articles in the series "Learning To Earn: Preparing Tomorrow's Workers Today.'' They have been well-written, well-researched, informative, and timely.

I would, however, like to comment on what I consider to be an oversight. Preparing tomorrow's workers should not begin at the high school level. It should begin at the elementary and middle grades, where young people can begin to understand the applications of the academic skills they're learning to the broader world, and to understand the decisionmaking process.

Because your series focuses a starting point just at high school and stresses high school and post-high-school experiences, it leaves out a major component of career counseling in many school districts today. The Career Education Program in St. Louis, for example, begins at preschool and moves through grade 12. Comprehensive classroom curricula, along with experiential components with the business community, are the cornerstones.

In your March 23, 1994, issue, there was an excellent Commentary by Juliette Lester ("Charting Career Paths--Early'') that dealt with this very issue. Its whole premise was the essential nature of early career exploration.

Susan Katzman
Career Education Unit
St. Louis Public Schools
St. Louis, Mo.

To the Editor:

There was a serious omission in your report on the unsuccessful attempt on May 3 to pass a new 12.9-mill levy for the Cleveland public schools ("Cleveland Voters Resoundingly Defeat Tax Levy for Schools,'' May 11, 1994).

The proposal on the ballot called for a "continuing'' levy, a euphemism under Ohio law that means permanent or forever. Some conscientious voters cannot bring themselves to vote such a tax on every real-estate parcel in a school district. Even nearby suburban districts that have earned a fine reputation could not pass "continuing'' levies that same day in Ohio.

Public school financing in Ohio is a challenging topic. Current financial urgencies in many households militate against voters' embracing permanent levies. This does not mean that these voters dislike children or do not want schools and pupils they could be proud of in their school districts. These voters also know that the Ohio lottery has not and will not suffice. They seek better solutions.

Mary Joyce Lunn
Berea, Ohio

To the Editor:

I have the highest regard for Education Week, but I must express my surprise and disappointment that you would publish such a denigrating piece as Stephen Barone's "Does Ms. Kleinhopper Really Run the School?'' (Commentary, April 27, 1994). To say that I found Mr. Barone's remarks offensive is an understatement. Not only do I take issue with the content of his Commentary, but with its tone as well. Clearly, the author is an intelligent man. Unfortunately, he has misused his talent for writing at the expense of others, a princely cost indeed.

At the risk of simply being written off as "politically correct,'' I would like to say that many issues are at stake when we consider the secretary's role in today's complex school system, gender and diversity being paramount. Terms Mr. Barone uses such as "phony self-deprecation,'' "perverse notions,'' and "self-righteous impunity'' are not part of my experience of this critical workforce.

I have been an educator for more than 30 years and have worked closely with a secretary for at least the past 18. I can say unequivocally that I would not be able to perform my job as head of an independent school as effectively were it not for the able assistance of the secretary in my office. Contrary to the author's perspective, she does indeed contribute to policies along with typing them. And, no doubt exists in my mind that she could compose any of our documents as well as any other administrator or teaching member of our staff and, in fact, sometimes does.

Our role as school administrators is to encourage freedom and independence of thought. We must expect and invite all employees to challenge the system, whatever the system is. I do not think of myself as a superordinate, nor the employees as subordinates. And I take serious exception to the use of such terminology.

I do not, therefore, find myself groveling at the desk of the secretary, as Mr. Barone apparently does, nor do I think her skills are "terminal.'' And I am grateful she and her colleagues have finally begun to experience a level of self-esteem long overdue.

In my recently completed doctoral studies, in fact, the subject of my dissertation was precisely this issue. I conducted a qualitative research project focusing on secretaries of heads of schools and the level of decisionmaking they engage in. I read extensivly in completing this work, and I would suggest that interested readers review the literature of business and industry in this area. Most management researchers concur: The growth or stagnation of a company is directly related to the power given to or withheld from employees. We invite stagnation, and ultimately death, with attitudes such as Mr. Barone conveys. Until we freely prize the contributions of all members of our communities, the stature we have as viable institutions of learning will be subject to even more question and debate.

Mr. Barone's views, hardly amusing, have wider social implications. What are we teaching our children when the adults in the community take a position such as he has articulated? Of whom are we afraid? The secretaries? Are we, the managers, afraid to let go of power? Whom or what are we trying to control? Until we answer these questions for ourselves, our children suffer. Our children have only us as their role models. It behooves us to provide them with exemplary leadership now, so that they will be compassionate and thoughtful leaders in the generations to come.

Cynthia Vives
Oak Knoll
School of the Holy Child
Summit, N.J.

To the Editor:

Now let me be sure I understand what I've read in "Algebra Focus of Trend To Raise Academic Stakes'' (May 18, 1994): New York City pupils are going to have to take algebra in order to graduate. Baltimore and Cambridge, Mass., schools also will require passing algebra in order for a pupil to get a diploma. One of the rationalizations for this is that "a recent study by the College Board found that high school graduates who had taken one or more years of algebra were 2 times more likely to go to college than those who had not.'' Further, "the gap in college-going rates between minority and nonminority [that is, black and white] students virtually disappeared'' among kids who completed high school algebra.

Now, of course, this is a wonderful thing, though there are a few caveats, none of which have to do with the pupils. For example, the curriculum will have to start preparing kids for algebra earlier in their schooling, and teachers will have to be prepared by means of summer and in-service programs. Indeed, " ... requiring algebra for everyone without changing the rest of the system 'is a setup for failure.''' No big deal--most of these programs are setups for failure.

First off, it does not take a philosopher of science to figure out that it is not the algebra that makes the difference but the kind of kid who chooses to take the algebra.

This is of course blasphemy, but really, how important is it for most people to learn algebra? I thought the idea that math "trained the mind'' had already been discredited. No matter, assuming all of your readers are college graduates and that all of them at least passed high school algebra (and probably geometry as well), how many of them have used any of that algebra since they left the class? You would be hard pressed to find a C.P.A. who could solve a simple first-degree equation with one unknown.

If test results are to be believed, kids aren't learning to add, subtract, multiply, and divide when they have all the numbers; what in the world is going to get them to learn it with x's and y's? Get real!

This whole business is a manifestation of the mindset that says, "If I think it's important, it should be important to others.'' It reminds me of the saying that if you ask a plumber to change a light bulb, the first thing he does is check your pipes. Those with a special interest in mathematics believe it provides the means to intellectual achievement and success. Artists and the teachers of art think their subject is the path to self-actualization and happiness. Every special group has its own route to self-improvement and a happy life.

How about this: If a kid has learned what he has been taught, by the time he has left the 6th grade he will have learned most of what he has to know to make his way in the world--how to read, write, and understand simple directions; how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide whole and decimal numbers, and simple interest; and how to tell time. The rest of it will most likely be learned on the job or in conjunction with the job.

If all this algebra and chemistry stuff is so important, how many of you ask your auto mechanics, plumbers, or gardeners if they've passed algebra (or even graduated from high school) before you trust them with your car, pipes, or lawn? The next time you go to your tax accountant or physician see if he can solve for x in this equation: x¢+4x+4=0. If he can't (and he most likely can't) and you believe in the importance of algebra, get thee to another tax preparer or doctor.

Let's assume this or that school district is going to require passing algebra in order to graduate. Does that mean all the kids are going to be able to solve the equation just cited? Of course not. What it will mean is that some kids are going to take some sort of "real'' algebra while the majority will get something called "Algebra for Everyday Life'' or "Practical Algebra'' or, for those who have no aptitude whatsoever for the subject, "Fun With Algebra.'' And, in a year or two, some foundation will do a study showing that kids who pass "Algebra'' are 2 times more likely to go to college than pupils who pass "Practical Algebra,'' and we will be in for another "reform.''

There is one possibility, of course, and that is to start looking at how it is some kids learn math easily and others don't and whether there is anything the schools can do to get all kids to learn math to some agreed-upon minimal level. How much math do most of us really need to do our jobs? Do we really need every high school graduate to go on to college? And really, how much do you need to know for most of the jobs in the world, when those jobs are available? Does it follow that because a kid is taught to be a computer programmer at the end of the course there will be a job for him as a computer programmer? If that makes sense, let's teach kids blacksmithing, since the field is wide open.

What do the guidance counselors tell the kids? "If you don't know where you are going, you're not going to get there.'' That applies to the education establishment, too. We really have no idea where we want to go or where we want our pupils to go and, if someone does get an idea, it is changed next week. No wonder we never seem to get anywhere--we are too busy riding off everywhere.

Charles M. Breinin
Tonawanda, N.Y.

The writer is a retired science teacher.

Vol. 13, Issue 37

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories