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National Neurosis on Schools Abetted By 'Throwaway' Line

To the Editor:

Gerald W. Bracey's Commentary regarding the status of the U.S. educational system in relation to other developed nations' was a welcome introduction of evidence into a near-hysterical "grass is greener" phenomenon we have been in the midst of, as he points out, practically forever ("TIMSS, the New Basics, and the Schools We Need," Feb. 18, 1998). It is particularly frustrating to me how often the wide availability and relative adaptability of our system is overlooked, even as we are compared with smaller, more homogeneous, and more class-based systems.

There is one statement he makes, however, that I felt called for comment. As one explanation for the conflict between the fact that 8th graders evince requisite skills and Richard Murnane and Frank Levy's assertion that "many" high school graduates lack these skills, Mr. Bracey states with some disbelief, "Or, one must speculate that kids get dumber in math as they progress through the secondary school years." This, though defying intuition, is not as crazy as he means it to sound.

When students receive instruction in content that is generally segregated from its context and its related content, as they do when learning algebra one year, geometry the next, and so on, it makes some sense that their general knowledge in the subject (here, mathematics) does not actually expand. Indeed, as the years of high school education pass, isn't it possible that one segregated knowledge-set just replaces, rather than enhances, another? It is these sorts of questions we should be tackling, not the endless international contest that has shown itself to be a nonissue.

Mr. Bracey's first idea, that we should question the use of the word "many" in Messrs. Murnane and Levy's comment about the skills of high school graduates, is more salient. Theirs is an example of a throwaway statement that serves only to intensify the performance anxiety that has become a national neurosis.

Sarah V. Gruber
Educational Research Associate
Cornwall, N.Y.

Successful School Climate From an AFT Perspective

To the Editor:

C. Stephen Wallis' Commentary, "Waging a War on Incivility," Feb. 11, 1998, correctly addresses the necessity of a safe school environment if students are to achieve. In fact, rigorous academic standards and strong standards for student conduct are the essential ingredients of the American Federation of Teachers' "Respect, Responsibility, Results" national campaign. AFT members, as well as K-12 school employees, have long known that if a school is plagued by violence, disruption, and persistent misbehavior, the work of students who want to learn and teachers who want to teach is difficult, if not impossible.

Mr. Wallis correctly points out that there are many successful schools "dotting the education landscape." Despite their broad diversity, those schools have a common characteristic: a safe and orderly environment. However, too many students, teachers, and other school employees enter schools whose "policies governing behavior are weak or inconsistently enforced," and students in those schools are cheated of a fair opportunity to learn.

The AFT's "Respect, Responsibility, Results" campaign has been endorsed by the National Education Association and numerous other organizations and persons interested in improving the academic achievement of all students. I urge the people who share this interest to examine and implement the specific recommendations made in "Respect, Responsibility, Results" proposals.

Once we replicate in all schools the conditions found in the many successful schools referred to by Mr. Wallis, then all students will have equitable access to academic achievement.

John Tarka
Executive Director
Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Teacher Education's Debt to Oppressive 'Thoughtworld'

To the Editor:

The two companion Commentaries in the Feb. 4, 1998, issue illustrate an important debate not just about teacher education, but about the intellectual underpinnings of the education profession ("'Different Drummers' and Teacher Training").

J.E. Stone's essay ("A Disharmony That Impairs Schooling,") mentions the very shaky nature of these intellectual underpinnings to which most professors of education (Mr. Stone being an obvious exception) cling so tightly (a phenomenon which E.D. Hirsch Jr. refers to as the educationist "Thoughtworld"). Much of Evans Clinchy's essay ("Who Is Out of Step With Whom?") is a citation of the tired shibboleths and invocations of authority (Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky, Howard Gardner, and so on) which constitute this Thoughtworld.

Let me just make one point that may show the way toward a healthy criticism of this oppressive Thoughtworld. Mr. Clinchy quotes Piaget as calling for an education that would help us "to distinguish between what is proven and what is not." Just so. Mr. Clinchy also has much to praise in the findings of "cognitive science." The problem is that many of the views that Mr. Clinchy and other defenders of the Thoughtworld hold as true are specifically contrary to the findings of cognitive psychology.

Mr. Hirsch makes this point in The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them, but others, who are trained in cognitive psychology, make the same point. For instance, in How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker, a well-known cognitive psychologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that U.S. math education fails because "the ascendant philosophy of mathematical education in the United States is constructivism, a mixture of Piaget's psychology with counterculture and postmodernist ideology." Nobel laureate Herbert Simon and two other cognitive psychologists at Carnegie-Mellon University argue, in "Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education," against constructivism, situated learning, and other elements of the Thoughtworld.

It is time for those of us who work in public education to look at what the real research says and not to have our thinking tied to a "philosophy" that will not admit contrary arguments and evidence.

Paul Regnier
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Your article "New National Reading Panel Faulted Before It's Formed," Feb. 18, 1997, highlighted concerns about the selection process for the National Panel on Reading Research and Instruction and, specifically, Gerald S. Coles' concern of conflict of interest vis-a-vis Dr. Duane Alexander's executive role in the selection of panel members and his responsibility to ensure that the panel's mandate is fulfilled. Given the traditional role of political views and issues in forging practice and policy in the reading field (and other fields as well), I can understand concerns about conflicts of interest, particularly when a wide range of reading-research efforts will undergo review, some of it supported by the institute within the National Institutes of Health that Dr. Alexander directs.

What some in the reading field may not know is that panels similar to the National Panel on Reading Research and Instruction are convened at the NIH on a frequent basis to address issues of critical health import. In the main, such panels are initiated when: (1) a controversial health-related issue of public-health concern needs to be addressed scientifically because the most reliable and valid information about the issue must be presented to the public in a rapid manner; (2) there is thought to exist the requisite amount and type of data to address the controversy and achieve consensus related to best practices; (3) there is a need to determine which facts are clearly supported by scientific data and are ready for immediate dissemination to the public; and (4) there is a need to identify gaps in the extant database and to suggest research strategies to fill the breach.

Within the past five years, such panels have addressed the use of human fetal tissue in transplantation research, research with the human embryo, research involving pregnant women, research involving persons with diminished capacity to consent, genetic testing for cystic fibrosis, interventions to prevent HIV risk behaviors, diagnosis and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and breast-cancer screening for women ages 40 to 49, to name a few. Obviously, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has supported a significant amount of research that informs these areas, but as the consensus achieved in each of these domains indicates, NICHD research is afforded no greater or lesser attention or emphasis than other research during the review process.

In all cases, the individual who oversees the panel and all members must be able to suspend preconceived notions and bias to address the issues in an objective manner. This process is also at work every three months at the NIH, when standing scientific-study sections composed of scientists from across the country who serve four-year terms convene to review new research applications within specific scientific domains. All of the reviewers are frequently confronted during every review session with scientific ideas that may run counter to their own. No doubt then, the review process must rely on the reviewer's understanding of the scientific method, his or her scientific integrity, and a commitment to ensure that facts and the weight of the converging evidence, not beliefs, not one's own research interests, inform the research community, the clinical community, and the public at large.

The National Panel on Reading Research and Instruction will stand on these same principles. The mandate from Congress requires the director of the NICHD, along with the U.S. secretary of education, to assemble an impartial panel to examine the scientific evidence in reading development and reading instruction, and this selection process is proceeding at this time. Panelists will be selected to represent specific areas of expertise--child development, reading psychology, reading instruction, classroom teaching, school administration, and parenting. The individuals selected must, above all else, be capable of impartial review of the evidence. The panel is charged with a number of responsibilities, and among these is the determination of what has been proven by modern scholarly standards to work for specified students under determined conditions.

This charge would be impossible to address appropriately if panelists were selected to reflect only specific methods, specific philosophies, or personal beliefs about reading instruction, child development, schooling, or learning.

The selection of the chair of the National Reading Panel is being made by Dr. Alexander, Secretary Richard W. Riley, and acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. These individuals, in consultation with the chair, select the members to serve on the panel.

Richard Allington's comments in your story also deserve clarification. In contrast to his statements that the panel would have no staff and little funding, the National Panel on Reading Development and Instruction will be supported by an executive director and a logistical-support group that is highly experienced in convening and supporting similar panels under similar time constraints and content complexity. Moreover, the national panel will be able to access and build upon the findings of the panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences to address a critical question heretofore unanswered. Specifically, what research methodologies and what types of evidence (or combinations of methods and evidence) are most appropriate for addressing specific questions relevant to reading development, reading difficulties, and reading instruction?

Both the NICHD and the U.S. Department of Education are committed to the solution of problems that have limited children and adults from achieving their full potential, and both are seeking solutions wherever they can be found, regardless of which agency sponsored the work. The fundamental purpose of science is to test our beliefs and intuitions and to tell us where we are right and where we are wrong. Indeed, the education of our children is too important to be determined by anything but the strongest of objective scientific evidence. Our children deserve nothing less.

G. Reid Lyon
Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch
National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, Md.

To the Editor:

Your article on the selection of members for the National Panel on Reading Research and Instruction accurately described the potential conflict of interest in having Dr. Duane Alexander, the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, choose panel members whose charge includes assessing reading research the NICHD has funded. Omitted from the article, however, is the record of publications, funding, and politics that justifies raising concerns now about Dr. Alexander's role.

For example, Dr. Alexander and G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the NICHD branch on reading and learning-disabilities research, co-authored an article ("Progress and Promise in Research in Learning Disabilities," Learning Disabilities, Winter 1997) that praised the NICHD reading research for its solid science, replicable results, uniqueness, and "converging evidence" of important findings. In their judgment, it was superior to other research approaches.

This partisanship is evident in the NICHD's funding of reading research dedicated to an unremitting partiality toward one interpretation of what counts as "effective" reading instruction--that is, the direct instruction of skills and small language units in beginning reading.

Politically, Dr. Alexander has never voiced an objection to Mr. Lyon's active encouragement of federal and state legislation that would narrowly--and undemocratically--define "reliable, replicable research" along lines that accord with the purported "findings" from NICHD reading studies. All other approaches are dismissed as "unscientific," even though nowhere in any of Mr. Lyon's testimonies or writings is there any evidence that he has made a substantive and thorough appraisal of the research he readily dismisses.

Similarly, Dr. Alexander has never himself raised a question about the legislative efforts that would enshrine the NICHD studies as the "gold standard" of reading research and diminish the validity of journal peer review as a standard of research quality.

It is this history of consistent allegiance to one brand of studies that justifies looking critically at assurances that the panel will be impartially chosen. Dr. Alexander has the right to laud research his institute selects and supports, but he has not demonstrated in words or actions that he can objectively select a panel that will fairly appraise that research.

Gerald S. Coles
Ithaca, N.Y.

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