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Helping Teachers Use All Tools

To the Editor:

The critical first step toward helping teachers feel more qualified to teach in today's demanding classrooms is to identify valid research and then put it into practice--in teacher-preparation programs and in the classroom ("Teachers Suggest the Need for Better Training," Feb. 3, 1999).

The good news is that we have two decades of research in learning and instruction that can help point the way to better, more effective classroom practice. The National Center for Learning Disabilities, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health, will unveil this research at an education summit in May in Washington. The summit will recommend specific tools and strategies that have been proven to work best in enhancing learning for all students, particularly in reading.

Teachers of subjects outside their areas of study or those who are not prepared to support students with learning disabilities are in greatest need of our help--as are their pupils. We need to ensure that those teachers benefit first and foremost from such research.

James H. Wendorf
Executive Director
National Center for Learning Disabilities Inc.
New York, N.Y.

If Schools Err, Abolish Them?

To the Editor:

So, John Taylor Gatto feels the way to end sexual harassment is to end public schools ("Court Should Weigh Harassment 'Heavily,'" Letters, Feb. 10, 1999)? Because one principal, in his opinion, did not deal adequately with the situation?

He's watching the U.S. Supreme Court for answers? Well, the court made some bad decisions in the 1850s and 1860s; should we campaign to end the Supreme Court? Congress has made some bad laws from time to time; should we campaign to abolish Congress? Federal and state law-enforcement agencies make mistakes from time to time; should we campaign to abolish law enforcement?

Mr. Gatto complains that the principal in his former school did nothing to stop the harassment of Mr. Gatto's students. But did Mr. Gatto do anything besides watch the "forced breast massage and other forms of sexual harassment" he observed? Did he contact the boys' parents, contact the girls' parents, or put his observations in writing to the principal (with copies sent to the appropriate director or assistant superintendent)? Did he contact child protective services?

I realize South Texas is a bit different from New York City; however, as a teacher, I would have done something besides observe and then wait a decade to complain about what the principal had not done. Read the newspaper: Charter schools and prep schools have had their sexual-harassment problems, too.

Ron Williams
Kingsville, Texas

Reading Story Told in Verbal Shorthand

To the Editor:

Education Week's attempts to use a shorthand explanation of the current international debate among reading-instruction specialists on the best way to teach children to read is inadequate for its purposes. I deduce that this is an effort to save space in the periodical. However, I fear that this venture at compressing the reading-instruction dispute is misleading, and therefore I urge that it be abandoned.

The latest lapse of this nature is found in your article "Delay in Store for State Data on NAEP Reading Scores" (Feb. 10, 1999). Here, you contend that the reading-instruction controversy is over "whether to emphasize literature and comprehension or phonics--the sounding out of letters and words--when teaching children to read." The first part of this statement is a misinterpretation of the argument to which you refer.

Both sides of this worldwide contention believe that children's ready access to high-quality literature, and the development of their ability to comprehend what they read, should be emphasized in reading programs. They concur that without superior literature to read, children will not develop reading-comprehension skills at the highest level possible.

The disagreement between these two sets of reading-instruction specialists lies elsewhere. It is over the best way to teach children to recognize written words, and whether or not word identification by children always should be accurate.

On one hand, there are reading-instruction specialists who recommend that phonics skills be taught to all children in a direct and systematic fashion, since experimental evidence indicates that method is the most time-effective one for that purpose. They insist that this phonics instruction is essential because written words must be constantly recognized in an accurate way, that is, without guessing at their identities. The acquisition and application of phonics skills is the best way for children to achieve that goal, it is held.

On the other hand, there are those who maintain that children merely need to acquire, in an indirect and unsystematic manner, whatever amount of phonics information their individual learning styles dictate. In that regard, they contend that children's guessing at the identities of words from sentence contexts, and adding, omitting, and substituting words in sentences when reading, as they see fit, are practices they should be encouraged to conduct.

Thus, contrary to your article, the great debate over reading instruction centers on how necessary it is that children learn to recognize written words in an accurate fashion, that is, whether precise word recognition is needed in order for children to read all kinds of written materials with comprehension.

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus
College of Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

For Accountability, Eliminate Tenure

To the Editor:

Hooray for Robert Evans and his Commentary, "The Great Accountability Fallacy" (Feb. 3, 1999). Finally, someone has said what I've been saying ever since President Reagan's excellence commission charged educators with producing a "rising tide of mediocrity."

I would go one step further than Mr. Evans does, however. In addition to deterioration in the psychosocial, cultural, and economic lives of children, there is another factor at play in the poor school performance of many students. That factor is tenure. Students' scores will rise if we eliminate tenure for both teachers and administrators.

Too many educators today are too comfortable in their jobs. If the deadwood in the schools could be eliminated without the long, costly process that is now required, we'd see the difference in scores more quickly. Tenure gives unfair rights to the incompetent at all levels.

Lin Dixon
Assistant Principal
Medford, N.J.

Grammarama II Lost Art, Old Story

To the Editor:

In "Grammarama" (Commentary, Feb. 17, 1999), Howard Good finds much fault with student writing today. I find the same faults myself. However, I am not as sure as he seems to be that I know the source of the ills we writing teachers must attempt to cure. Here is an attack on student writing--at the college level, yet--as scathing as anything Mr. Good has to offer. Would he, or anyone else, care to guess when it was written?

"Generally speaking, the writing of literate Americans is pretty bad. It is muddy, backward, and self-strangled. Almost any college professor ... will agree that his students' writing stinks to high heaven. It is a rare student who can write what he has to say with simplicity, lucidity, and euphony. Far more graduating [college] seniors are candidates for a remedial clinic than can pass a writing test with honors."

The author of this was himself a linguist, Donald Lloyd, writing in The American Scholar in, alas, 1952. Was this a period of "moral relativism"? What I remember most about it--apart from the fact that practically no one owned a television set--was U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Now, there was a man who knew right from wrong.

If neither moral relativism nor television can be blamed for poor writing in 1952, then how about the schools? They are a place we can always criticize when we don't want to face the real sources of problems. But the schools taught "grammar" back then, as I recall. Indeed, here's another quote from a time when the schools really taught grammar:

"The students could diagram and understand sentences and point out the various parts of speech with great facility, repeating the rules of grammar applicable in each case, yet they were unable to put this theoretical knowledge to any practical use, as they showed when called upon to write an ordinary letter in English."

This is from a report to the Quincy, Mass., school board made by Francis Wayland Parker, in 1892. The high school students there seem to have the mastery of "the ground rules of English" that Mr. Good calls for, yet they still couldn't write "an ordinary letter."

I have detailed my own "solution" to the problem of unclear writing in an article in the March 1999 issue of Phi Delta Kappan ("Reforming English Language Arts: Let's Trash the Tradition"). It is much too lengthy to summarize here, but I will say that I do not believe the solution lies--as Mr. Good implies--in more "grammar" teaching in the schools. Indeed, I also disagree with one of his fundamental premises; namely, that "clear writing has become increasingly rare, a lost art." Clear writing, I suspect, has always been rare, and without anything less than a revolution in our schools, it will always be rare.

Edgar H. Schuster
Melrose Park, Pa.

To the Editor:

Howard Good refers to many likely reasons why his college students are not performing up to his standard of writing expectations, and like so many college folks, he points one of his many blaming fingers at public high schools. The "Good" solution is to have students "write, write, write": "All teachers, no matter what their subject areas, should regularly assign writing and then collect and critique the assignments, not just put a check on them."

He is right about writing. Unfortunately, he is not realistic. I've worked in 10 secondary schools, public and private. Right now, I consider myself to be working in a school which is "as good as it gets" in the American education system. But my teachers, as bright and dedicated as they are, are still each responsible for at least 150 students.

Has anyone ever asked you to proofread a letter they wrote? An essay? A research paper? A dissertation? How long did it take? I assure you it takes more than twice as long as simply reading the writing. If my teachers spent only one minute per student per night reading student writing, and then two minutes per student per night giving meaningful feedback on those papers, they couldn't possibly get two minutes of sleep before their duties would resume the following day. It is, realistically, humanly impossible.

The expectation that "if high school teachers are not standing before students, they are not doing their job" is the fallacy that has led to the decline in writing among American college students. Further, it has led to the decline in the teaching profession and our inability to recruit and retain teachers who can read and write themselves. Were high schools designed like colleges, or secondary schools in other countries, where teachers teach students for three to four hours a day (or two to three days a week) and spend the remainder of their on-the-job time reading, writing, and learning, perhaps they could begin to do justice to their students. How many doctors are expected to perform surgery after surgery with no time to prepare or to stay current in their practice? How many lawyers spend all of their working hours (except a 54-minute conference period) actually in a courtroom trying cases?

In addition, were teachers working with students who were in attendance by choice, leaving their personal adolescent problems outside the classroom door, even having paid a tuition to attend, perhaps their odds for success would be increased. Why should secondary school teachers be expected to achieve the results of colleges with the least professional working environment in our entire educational system? Even elementary school teachers are only responsible for the learning of 25 or 35 students a year. And, generally speaking, parents are the most supportive in the earlier years. Secondary teachers have five times the number of students, less support, and higher expectations.

Do college remedial-composition classes contain the silver bullet? Then simply give it to us. But please stop blaming us.

Rebecca Shore
Los Alamitos High School
Los Alamitos, Calif.

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Page 51-52

Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Letters

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