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Income Integration: LaCrosse Shows How

To the Editor:

Jefferson County, Ky., is to be commended for exploring the important issue of integrating schools by socioeconomic status ("Teachers Propose Integrating Schools by Socioeconomic Status," Dec. 2, 1998). As courts continue to cut back on racial-desegregation orders, and have even forbidden the use of voluntary racial assignment in Massachusetts and Virginia, socioeconomic desegregation has moved to the cutting edge of efforts to improve educational equity through integration.

But your fine article on this matter contains one error. You quote an analyst at the Education Commission of the States as saying that a 1991 plan to integrate the public schools by income in LaCrosse, Wis., failed: "'Board members were booted from office, and the program no longer exists,'" you write.

In fact, as an article from your Aug. 5, 1992, edition indicates, the new board decided to "push ahead with income-based busing." School boundaries, put into effect to better balance schools by student-free-lunch status, remained in effect. The new board did add a loophole for disgruntled parents who wished to opt out of the new boundary system, but only a very small number of families exercised the option. Moreover, in April 1993, the anti-integration board was itself booted from office as proponents of socioeconomic balance regained control of the school board.

As the author of a forthcoming book on socioeconomic integration, I have spent a good deal of time talking with school officials and board members in LaCrosse. Far from being a lesson in the political impossibility of income integration, theirs is ultimately a much more encouraging story of a community that came to support an innovative and important effort to enhance equal opportunity.

Richard D. Kahlenberg
Twentieth Century Fund
The Century Foundation
Washington, D.C.

We Can Teach Arts and Improve Reading

To the Editor:

A recent article painted a depressing picture of arts education in U.S. schools ("NAEP Paints Poor Picture of Arts Savvy," Nov 18, 1998). The article pointed out the poor arts skills of elementary students in the public schools. This conclusion was reached based on test scores of the first national arts assessment in 20 years.

The article ends on a sour note with Jay Diskey, a spokesperson for the majority Republican lawmakers on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, saying, "We need to make the basic investments first, and they are helping children read and write."

Judging from my organization's experience in Chicago schools over the past 15 years, we don't have to choose between the arts or children learning to read--we can have both. In fact, we have seen that when you have both, students learn both reading and the arts better.

Since 1983, we have worked with students and teachers in the Chicago public schools to improve children's reading skills, using a variety of arts-based teaching methods. We have combined arts training with literacy to develop a better, fully integrated curriculum.

In October 1997, Whirlwind: Basic Skills Through the Arts released the results of a research study conducted by the California-based 3-D Group that demonstrates the significant impact of our drama-based reading-comprehension program on 4th grade students' reading skills, as measured by the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Average improvement in reading test scores from pretest to posttest (expressed in grade-year equivalents) was three months greater for students who participated in our program as compared with students in other classrooms who did not participate in the drama-based program.

This innovative approach is not terribly difficult, and is terrifically rewarding for the student, school, and parents. In response to Mr. Diskey, yes, we can have both the arts and reading success. The benefits for society are immeasurable.

Karl Androes
Executive Director
Chicago, Ill.

Disputing Scholars' 'Ambitious Learning'

To the Editor:

Concerning the recent letter from a group of eminent educators: If it weren't so sad, it would be hilarious; the pots calling the kettles black ("Letters," Dec. 2, 1998). Having charged opponents to their views with "reshuffling a handful of terms," the letter writers--Linda Darling-Hammond, John I. Goodlad, Alfie Kohn, Ann Lieberman, Deborah Meier, and Nel Noddings--proceed to state their own objective of "more ambitious learning." Now what does that mean? Nothing more nor less than what is in the eye of the beholder, but true to the pedagogy that they support--the less definable, specific, and measurable, the better.

On one count, however, they are correct: Many of us do wish to destroy the pedagogical process which lacks measurable outcomes. That pedagogy is aptly expressed in the same issue in the "reading wars" essay by Gerald Coles: "How do children think, feel, and act; and how do we want them to think, feel, and act as they learn to read?" ("No End to the Reading Wars," Dec. 2, 1998.) These clearly are outcomes we cannot, with any consensus, agree upon or measure, surely not by one teacher with as many as 25 to 30 students with diverse backgrounds.

The letter writers have lost this battle with the public, not based on ignorance or lack of public understanding of the issues, but on the basis of what has happened to the children of this nation over the last couple of decades. But they don't give up trying to place social outcomes above those more content-knowledge outcomes desired by the public. Their tunnel vision and the notion of one-size-fits-all education, defined by "professionals," are what is delaying real improvement in our public education system and strengthening proponents of vouchers.

James R. Collier
Shelburne, Vt.

Biological 'Signature' and ADHD Numbers

To the Editor:

Your article on the lack of consensus regarding attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder contains two confusing and seemingly contradictory statements ("Experts Call Lack of Consensus on ADHD a Major Health Problem," Nov. 25, 1998).

It is stated that "[m]ore than 2 million schoolchildren have ADHD," and that "[t]he medical community is still unclear about the best way to diagnose and treat [ADHD]."

If the latter is true, which in my opinion it is, then how can it be said that 2 million students have ADHD? It would have been more appropriate to state that more than 2 million students are purported to have ADHD.

Recently, researchers at Stanford University apparently discovered a biological "signature" in the brains of children with ADHD. We can hope that the confusion regarding diagnosis thus will be resolved. Then we will see a dramatic decrease in the 2 million children, which will in turn stop parents and educators from blaming ADHD for what is in actuality often faulty parenting skills and poor classroom-management methods.

Norman Bowers
Director of Special Education
Cook County School District No. 154
Thornton, Ill.

Do We Want Quality or 'Coolness'?

To the Editor:

Regarding your feature article "Not by the Book," Dec. 2, 1998: The question of whether the software program Science 2000 (as well as the general trend away from textbook learning) is dumbing down the science curriculum has been answered, with a resounding yes.

My evidence? Eighth graders are using construction paper, magazines, crayons, and scissors to create a collage depicting the habitats of various animals. Why are 8th graders engaged in the exact same projects I did with my 4- and 5-year-old day-care children recently?

And the notion that improved test scores are not the goal of curriculum and material changes is a real slap in the face. Shall we just give the children Sony Play Stations and call it a day, if the goal is "coolness" and changing teaching methods is "not about quality"?

Angela Penzkover
Appleton, Wis.

The Reading Wars Instruction vs. Construction

To the Editor:

Gerald Coles' Commentary on "the reading wars" is a fine example of ideology-driven distortions masquerading as keen observations and witty wordplay ("No End to the Reading Wars," Dec. 2, 1998). The only readers likely to accede to his editorializing are true-believing, whole-language educationists, who find themselves steadily losing ground as researchers realize how much damage has been done by the whole-language fad, or persons who have not read or who do not understand the literature.

The following are among the numerous instances of inaccuracy in Mr. Coles' essay:

  • He states: "They [whole-language advocates] have no problem with the concept of 'balance' because (with few exceptions) they have always maintained that whole language does include teaching phonological and other skills as part of meaningful, rich, written-language experiences and activities."

Of course, what Mr. Coles fails to mention is that whole-language advocates (with few exceptions) merely give lip service to teaching phonics, and when they do address it, they push for "embedded" phonics instruction--which the literature shows to be largely ineffective. In other words, whole-language advocates' sudden embracing of "balance" is little more than rhetorical face-saving.

  • Mr. Coles writes that " ... there is no substantial research evidence--despite claims to the contrary--that teaching phonemic awareness and similar skills through top-down direct instruction is superior to teaching skills as children need them through a whole-language approach."

More astonishing than the fact that virtually all of the serious research of the past 30 years says that more direct and explicit teaching of phonics is superior to whole language is Mr. Coles' apparent assumption that anyone could possibly believe his false assertion. If whole language has been just as effective as more direct instruction, then why has reading achievement fallen everywhere whole language has become the dominant method? Why did California's test scores sink so low as to be an embarrassment to the California education administration? Why, indeed, has there been any "war" at all?

  • Mr. Coles writes: "While it is certain that phonological and similar skills are essential for learning to read, identifying them as the 'causal' agents nevertheless cuts short the causal trail because it misrepresents the written-language opportunities and experiences that 'cause' children to learn skills."

Here, Mr. Coles almost manages to pull off the trick of changing the meaning of a word in midstream. He first admits that phonemic and phonological awareness are necessary conditions for learning to read. Then he substitutes "causal agent" for necessary condition--now making it appear as if reading researchers are asserting that phonemic and phonological awareness are sufficient conditions, which would be absurd. Obviously, even if children "have" phonemic awareness, they are not going to learn to read if they don't have much to read or much opportunity to read. But whole language is of little use here, because even with a literature-rich environment, children will not learn to read unless they "have" phonemic or phonological awareness first.

  • He also writes: "Accompanying the call for the direct instruction of skills is a managerial, minimally democratic, predetermined, do-as-you're-told-because-it-will-be-good-for-you form of instruction. Outcomes are narrowly instrumental, focusing on test scores of skills, word identification, and delimited conceptions of reading comprehension. It is a scripted pedagogy for producing compliant, conformist, competitive students and adults."

With these ad hominem lines, Mr. Coles relieves rational readers of any obligation to take seriously anything he had to say before or after. What we have is yet another example of the neoromantic, pseudo-Rogerian, fake-left-wing-liberationist, ivory-tower-academic bogus attack on a straw man. In the absence of evidence that they do anyone (but themselves) any good, demonizing their self-created foe (for example, teachers who actually try to instruct their students) is the route whole-language advocates and other constructivists try to take to sainthood. It has not worked before; it does not work now.

Either Mr. Coles has not read or does not choose to report on studies showing that (for all their equalitarian hype) "constructivist" forms of instruction actually reproduce social inequality (in "cooperative learning" groups, for example); do nothing to equalize the maldistribution of reading and math skill; and are perhaps best seen as serving the social and political interests of the new "bourgeoisie" (the managerial elite).

Even Project Follow Through showed that constructivist forms of instruction reduced the percentile standing of disadvantaged children from around the 20th percentile to the low teens, while Direct Instruction raised children's percentile standing to around the 50th percentile. In other words, all of the research on "instructivist" vs. constructivist methods shows that instructivist (systematic, direct) methods foster higher achievement, greater retention, higher self-esteem, and a stronger sense of internal locus of control in children--exactly the opposite of what is done by Mr. Coles' "child centered" constructivism.

The Commentary is a failure. It cannot convince whole-language advocates of anything, because they already agree. It cannot convince serious reading researchers and advocates of more direct instruction, because they know the literature. And it cannot convince general readers of Education Week, because they are not easily fooled.

Martin Kozloff
Wilmington N.C.

A Teacher's Art: Science, Not Mystery

To the Editor:

Clayton Curtiss' Commentary, in which he bids adieu to the classroom, is shallow and egocentric in its perspective ("Losing the Art of Teaching to the Science of Instruction," Nov. 18, 1998). While there are those who might question whether teaching is an art, I agree with Mr. Curtiss that it is. However, as with any art, there are technical aspects that allow us to evaluate what we do and improve the process.

Has Mr. Curtiss lost his sense of direction after 37 years? Are we not as educators interested in continuous improvement of student learning? Doesn't improving mean that we must be somewhat scientific in gathering and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and then making appropriate adjustments to what we do? This does not imply that we must take what research says and implement it exactly as someone else has. If, as teachers, we are really artists, we would reflect on what research tells us and personalize it, interpreting it relative to our needs, as artists do when they translate their sensory experiences into creations.

Mr. Curtiss is an example of someone who truly missed out by not going through what he describes as the teacher-preparation "labyrinth." If he had been through the process of a quality teacher-preparation program, he would understand how important the science of instruction is to the art of teaching.

Mr. Curtiss discusses accountability and his interest in results, stating that he is "not sure" things like better attitudes toward reading, more confidence with writing, and enthusiasm for lifelong reading can be measured. Certainly they are difficult to measure, but if he were to investigate what the literature tells us, he might come away with a more enlightened perspective.

When artists create, they research, examine, explore, and continuously seek to perfect what they do. They employ standards and constantly assess and reassess their work. They use many methods to do this. They work with great effort through their medium of choice to tell or show us how they feel. They know what they want to do; they must find the route that will take them there. Upon completion of a work, they must then decide whether or not they have achieved what they set out to achieve.

While the author complains about the testing frenzy, he offers no possible solutions to the dilemma of measuring student progress. How will we as educators know if we have accomplished what we set out to accomplish if we don't measure what we are accomplishing? Not measuring holds no one accountable.

The "best days" for Mr. Curtiss, he says, "were those when my students and I were on the same journey and none of us knew exactly where it would take us." We no longer have the luxury of viewing learning as simply an experimental journey. There are knowledge and skills that students need to master to function in a world demanding more and more of them. It is imperative that we discover "why some classrooms work, and others don't." Perhaps then we can come closer to improving all classrooms so they all work.

Incorporating the science of instruction as well as learning into the art of teaching can only help us improve our artistry--in form, technique, medium, and style. Focusing instead on our own happiness in practicing our art will not suffice.

Barbara Rado Mosseau
Curriculum Coordinator
A'Takamul International School
District of Hawaii

Mom, Dad, and Money

To the Editor:

Possibly it's because I am an elementary teacher--not a secondary one, as Clayton Curtiss was--that I have a little different view on the "art of teaching." I've been in the game a long time; my journey began 40 years ago, and I had some inspiring teacher models, too. Their passion and eloquence about early childhood's mission and importance became mine. I am also getting ready to retire--but it's not because "the magic is gone."

It takes such energy to endure the daily grind! The passion is there, but the body is tiring. I'd give a hug to a person who would view my classroom as a "laboratory," where young teachers could observe, record, and evaluate a master teacher at work. As a successful instructor (and judged so by the school system twice), I want people to come in--that to me would be an accolade, not "troubling," as it is to Mr. Curtiss.

Am I upset at the drive for measurable results? Not really. The public may be unaware that I have to pre- and post-test my 4-year-olds for basic skills. I have to test for eyesight and language ability, and record heights and weights. I also do my own testing; it's not required. I want to know for myself if they know eight colors, five shapes, letters in their name, numerals one to 10, and some songs.

Yes, "teaching is a wonderful mystery," as Mr. Curtiss writes. I'd like to be left alone to teach, and supported in my efforts. If accountability is the operative word today, then what about adding parents to the equation? Because I begin the process of formal learning in kindergarten (and now, prekindergarten), I have parents who need to be held accountable for the child they send to me, who is:

  • Out of control, behaviorally;
  • Unable to listen, because he's never been expected to;
  • Powerless to button, zip, snap, and tie because someone else has done it for him; and
  • Incompetent in too many ways.

Tailoring my instruction to the needs of my individual children is what my daily plan is all about. Therefore, I'm not troubled, as Mr. Curtiss is, "that the art of teaching has become the science of instruction." My art can't begin until the basic instruction has taken place; and it's so basic, I wonder where Mom and Dad have been--and why administrators can't see that money spent now on my tiny program will save all kinds of dollars later. Give me some money!

Thank you, Mr. Curtiss, for your years of service and your wonderful essay reviewing the changes. Progress? We'll see.

Nancy Webster
Miami, Fla.

Magic Through Training

To the Editor:

Clayton Curtiss could not have said it better: "Teaching is a wonderful mystery," but when the science replaces the art of it, the magic disappears.

Let it be said: To maintain the magic, the manner in which we train teachers must be changed.

Carlos A. Bonilla
International Consulting Associates Inc.
Stockton, Calif.

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Pages 36-37

Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as Letters

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