Letters to the Editor
Ethics Education in School Substitutes for 'Real Thing'
To the Editor:
Like Peter R. Greer ("Teaching Virtue," Feb. 4, 1998), many educators miss the point in their lofty attempts to mold the minds of students. As the 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman said, "Intellect only looks like a virtue from a distance." Ethical people are not made by discussing classical philosophy (Ethics with a capital E), passing tests, or earning a degree. Morality is inspired primarily through modeling and practice over an extended period of time.
Moral conduct in the past was not specifically taught in school; it was demonstrated and reinforced there. Its presence in an individual was cultivated by family, religious institutions, and the community. Most children knew what respect meant, as well as the rudimentary difference between right and wrong, before entering kindergarten.
Today, blaming the local school system or government rather than a child's parents for their offspring's ethical deficiencies is very common. How can a young person be expected to understand the significance of positive behavior like commitment, insight, and courage through mere lectures, book reading, and discussion without knowing beforehand how they are supposed to be exercised? The classroom is where ethics should be applied, not learned or discovered for the first time.
Society seems to have forgotten how to raise children and is permitting a surrogate system to take over. An ethical education provided within a school setting is just a substitute for the real thing. It fosters compliance and servility to contemporary temperaments like individualism.
Mersault, in Albert Camus' The Stranger, was condemned to death for his indifference toward life. Maybe this morose predicament is our punishment for allowing a fundamentally indifferent bureaucracy to shape our children's outlook and morality.
Thomas J. Seitzinger Jr.
Inability To Read Fuels Blacks' School Alienation
To the Editor:
The researchers contributing to the shallow "study" you reported on black male alienation ("Alienation From High School Is Worst Among Black Males, Study Reveals," Jan. 28, 1998) danced around many symptoms but avoided serious discussion of causes. They completely ignored the fact that black males get thrust into special education in inappropriately high numbers, and that their rates of reading failure are excessive compared with other ethnic groups. Combine that with studies showing the chief cause of school alienation and dropping out to be academic failure, and the chief ingredient of that failure to be reading, and you have a study worth reporting.
But it's not the fault of the kids. It's the effect of whole-word, whole-language reading systems that deprive them of the use of their sense of sound in learning how our alphabetic language works. The data leading to that assertion stem from research with a new type of reading test that shows whether a person first learned to read by phonics or by whole-word memorization. The test quantifies the degree of disability, or "whole-word dyslexia," associated with nonphonic teaching, as reported by many practitioners (referred to, for example, in the April 1993 "Facts About Dyslexia" pamphlet from the National Institutes of Health).
The new test is the Miller Word Identification Assessment, or MWIA. It consists of two lists of words: a "holistic" list of the 220 high-frequency words that appear in basal readers and in children's books, and a "phonetic" list of 220 one-syllable, regular (no silent letters, no non-standard pronunciations) 1st grade words that are not among the high-frequency words. The person taking the test is timed and his errors noted as he reads both lists. If the person is a phonetic reader, he reads both lists with equal success, or perhaps reads the phonetic list better because the words are easier. (The holistic list contains some multisyllable words, such as "another" and "anything," and phonetic irregulars, such as "could" and "would.")
A child (or adult) who first learned by whole-word memorization zips through the holistic list--and slows down and makes more errors on the phonetic. And not just a little, up to 25 percent or greater slowdowns and double or triple the errors.
There is no biological reason for such a pattern; it has to be a learned behavior--a reflex governing how the person "looks at" words--strongly influenced by what was learned first. This is plainly a reading disability, a difficulty with unfamiliar words. Furthermore, when a child's attention is directed to some of the miscalled words on the phonetic list and asked to spell them aloud while looking at them, he generally can pronounce them correctly. So we have to ask, "If he knows the necessary phonics, why didn't he use it on first reading, when he was 'running on automatic'?" The answer is obviously reflex in "looking at" words, a conflict between using the external appearance or the internal structure of decodable syllables. This difference between sight-taught and phonics-taught readers was known in the reading fraternity as far back as 1908, when it was mentioned in E.B. Huey's Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, as noted by researcher Geraldine Rodgers.
The point is that black kids, especially males, show a deeper degree of this whole-word dyslexia than white kids, thus falling victim to the special education and illiteracy snares in greater numbers. Black kids with this disability exhibit slowdowns and error counts that are as much as 2.5 times more severe than those of white kids.
Only more research can provide answers to why this is so. But it is clear that the Miller Word Identification Assessment data are consistent with the disproportionate numbers of black kids who wind up in special education, a statistic that relates to alienation from school.
Charles M. Richardson
Huntington Station, N.Y.
'Different Drummers' Essays: A Divergence of Views
To the Editor:
Your two evaluations of the nonprofit research group Public Agenda's report on the attitudes of teacher-educators ("A Disharmony That Impairs Schooling," and "Who Is Out of Step With Whom?," Feb. 4, 1998.) provided an interesting contrast. I must agree philosophically with J.E. Stone's essay. Traditional education has been around for a long time mainly because it works. Progressive education, on the other hand, has generally not worked well overall. And progressive education is the major reason why citizens are often dissatisfied with the public schools.
But Evans Clinchy, while a proponent of progressive education, has one thing right: We need more diversity of schools and parental choice. I must say, it is very rare to find a progressive educator who is also a proponent of choice.
The fact is, traditional education works well for many parents, students, and teachers, but progressive education works well for others. In a true environment of choice, I think that both would flourish.
To the Editor:
J.E. Stone argues that an ideology called learner-centered education has dominated teacher education "for over 80 years" and implies that it has dominated schooling. He quotes E.D. Hirsch Jr. favorably, and Mr. Hirsch argues explicitly in his recent book that learner-centered education has dominated not only teacher education but all of American public schooling for the same time period.
I wish they were right, not peddling distortions. But they're not. John Dewey and progressive education lost the culture war to a schooling based on industrial models of organization and behavioristic models of learning. And the great cultural rebellion against this model of schools in the 1960s was swallowed up by the back-to-basics/minimum-competency movement even before Jimmy Carter was elected president.
A critic who so profoundly misrepresents history forfeits credibility in offering an analysis of the present condition.
I am sick and tired of critics who cannot hold the complexity of multiple truths and who force issues into reductive polarities. Of course we need results in schooling. We also need schools that extend profound respect to young people as persons and as learners, schools that teach needed skills and information and that engage young people in developing and pursuing their own interests and purposes. It's not one or the other.
California Initiative Is 'Catechism for English-Only'
To the Editor:
You accurately call Gloria Matta Tuchman's campaign against bilingual education in California a "crusade" ("English Spoken Here," Jan. 14, 1998). The initiative advanced by Ms. Tuchman, an elementary teacher, and the Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz is more about imposing an official state ideology for assimilating language minorities than it is about effective pedagogy or public school reform.
In a document that could well be a catechism for the English-only movement, this initiative proposes to restructure California schools to provide language-minority students one year of "sheltered English immersion" before they are expected to catch up and keep up with their English-speaking peers academically.
Without citing any empirical research or sound educational theories, Ms. Tuchman decrees that one year of instruction in English in classrooms with teachers who are not required to have a bilingual or English-language-development credential is enough for all language-minority students to be successful. This instruction will take place in classrooms where children are segregated from their English-speaking peers and grouped by language ability across ages and grade levels. In this segregation and tracking system, Ms. Tuchman would have language-minority students be saved from the "ghettos" of bilingual education.
Following the reasoning that parents of limited-English-proficient students cannot be trusted to make "correct" choices of the language of instruction for their children, the initiative simply eliminates parents from the decisionmaking process. School officials become the ultimate determiners of the type of program in which language-minority children will be taught, not their parents.
The current law requires parental notification and consent or waiver of bilingual education services. A waiver is obtained by merely signing a form and returning it to the child's school. According to the California education department's Language Census report, during the 1996-97 school year, only 1.4 percent of the parents of students eligible for bilingual education signed such a waiver. Under the Unz-Tuchman plan, this simple procedure would be replaced with an intimidating and complicated "parental exception" petition process. Alternative instructional placements would only be made if parents of children who were limited in English could convince school officials that their children had "special physical, emotional, psychological, or educational needs."
It would be incumbent on parents who wanted native-language instruction or any other type of program to persuade officials to make an exception on a year-to-year basis. Even if a child were granted an "exception," a bilingual classroom would only be provided at the school's discretion if 20 parents at a grade level in a school successfully navigated the bureaucracy and also obtained "waivers." This is what Ms. Tuchman calls, in explaining her ideology, "parental choice" and "empowerment."
The Unz-Tuchman plan also has a provision for punishing school board members, administrators, and teachers who may otherwise resist conversion or stray from the path of the official state ideology for linguistic conformity. With great faith in the powers of hierarchical government, Mr. Unz and Ms. Tuchman bring in the civil courts to enforce the English-only curriculum and turn parents into language police to root out the offenders.
The proposed law removes the protections for public employees against personal liability for performing services under the auspices of a state agency for educators. It gives standing to parents to sue teachers and school officials for not adhering to the English-only provisions of the statute, to be assessed penalties by paying legal fees and damages if found to be "willfully and repeatedly" in violation of the statute. There will be no mercy for bilingual teachers who believe that native-language instruction has a useful place in the classroom for minority-language students.
Jill Kerper Mora
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.
Arizona 'Report Card' Gives Educators Undue Blame
To the Editor:
I am responding to your grading of Arizona in "Quality Counts '98," Jan. 8, 1998. After viewing the "grades" for such areas as achievement, standards and assessments, teaching quality, school climate, and resources, I continued to analyze your report. Under "teaching quality," for which Arizona received a dismal grade, I expected to find reasons why. One example you supply is the following statement: "State participates in Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (1997)--no."
I wondered if you actually had come into classrooms and observed teachers in our state before assessing their achievement in this area and others. Apparently, the answer is no. I did not expect such jargon as justification.
Your "report card" is misleading and is a slap in the face to educators all across Arizona. People who hold a dismal view of the education system and an apathetic attitude will be able to take this report as justification for their feelings.
It is simple to take arbitrary data and complete a critical analysis. But it is not fair to point the finger at educators who are dedicated, hard-working professionals under constant scrutiny.
Portfolios: Much More Than Collections of Completed Work
To the Editor:
Peter Berger presents an interesting, if somewhat one-sided, argument on portfolio use ("Portfolio Folly," Jan. 14, 1998). In our district, for example, we are discussing issues involved in performance-based teacher assessment using professional portfolios, in addition to student portfolios.
Mr. Berger reduces portfolios to a folder in which students keep their work. But they are much more than collections of completed work. Portfolios can and do include video and audio tapes, reading samples, student auditions, various genres in states of semicompletion, graded tests, lists of printed material read and reactions to those works, journals, goals, lists, descriptions of service to the community, organizations the student has joined, awards, and other examples of the student's growth in reading, writing, thinking, expressing, living, and learning.
Portfolios are an authentic component that can be added to the whole assessment process. They are performance-based, moving away from the one-shot, one-chance approach of standardized tests. Longitudinal growth and progress can be reviewed and observed. In addition, when used properly, they encourage self-reflection and advance the notion that learning happens over time.
Portfolios also promote peer evaluation and the use of mentor reviewing and assessing with the teachers and students. Students have more involvement in their own learning.
Portfolios document accomplishments and collate "work in progress." They are a component of the assessment cycle, and not an end in themselves as Mr. Berger's Commentary suggests. It would be "folly" to think that they, or any single measurement, could accurately evaluate the complex, interactive, ongoing nature of student learning.
Though the Commentary raises issues about portfolios that need further study, it would be folly as well to return to the days of using a summary test and other standardized measures as the total means of assessing student learning. No one feels that portfolios are an answer to educational problems in and of themselves. But portfolio assessment injects greater authenticity into much of what we are doing in schools. Portfolios provide us with a means of better serving our students by engaging them in the learning process with the evaluator, rather than simply giving them tests that are done to them.
Barbara A.T. Fields
Fort Osage School District