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Learning Disability: No Ordinary Illness

To the Editor:

"Brain-Dead in School," Sept. 22, 1999, portrayed the thoughts of a 14-year-old student moments after he was diagnosed with a severe learning disability. I am not sure what the writer, Thomas J. Cottle, had in mind by sharing the student's innermost thoughts at such a private moment. Perhaps he thought that he could create sympathy, without raising questions about the destructive nature of a system that produces such results.

That Mr. Cottle can compare learning disabilities to illnesses "like diabetes and cancer" confirms the intractability of the belief system our society has invented to explain school failure. What the writer does not seem to contemplate is that the concept of learning disabilities offers two possibilities. One is that it is a scientifically provable idea. The other is that it is not. Despite decades of research, solid proof that mysterious brain disorders cause school failure remains, like the Northwest Passage, elusive.

To believe in learning disabilities requires a leap of faith and the adoption of an ideology that is self-defeating. The idea that, for whatever reason, children can't learn, which is at the heart of this ideology, is preposterous. Human beings are learning machines; they couldn't stop learning if they wanted to. This self-evident truth points us in a different direction--to ask, what is it about the institution called school that explains school failure? What happens in schools that so successfully prevents learning?

Unfortunately, the diagnosis of the student portrayed in "Brain-Dead" did not embrace any such notion. In short, he never had a chance. In this context, the student's poignant comments and the outrage they express take on the character of a person who understands not that he is disabled, but that he has just been stripped of all human dignity. The meaning of such loss illuminates his writing like a lightning bolt.

Illumination, sadly, ends there. By way of what can only be called a remarkably tortuous logic, Mr. Cottle would have us believe that humiliation on this scale results, with the help of a special education program, in a "concomitant rise in self-esteem."

David O. Krantz
Mountain View, Calif.

Educator Questions Gallup Poll Findings

To the Editor:

I found your article "Gallup Poll Finds Americans Committed to Public Schools," Sept. 8, 1999, to be totally in error. As a professional high school educator who has made many phone calls to recruit students, I know that random telephone calls will mainly contact people who have no idea about the quality of education in public schools because they have no children in these schools. It's like asking people's opinion about a movie or a CD they never saw or heard.

If Lowell C. Rose, the poll's director, knew anything about education, he would interview only mothers of students. He would discover that over 80 percent of students are dissatisfied with public schools. I see by these poll results that people are right when they say, "You can make anything look good by slanting your survey."

Robert Walker
Edgewater, Fla.

An Ode to the 'Digital Curriculum'

To the Editor:

Your special report on technology (Technology Counts '99 Sept. 23, 1999) blows the mind! Here is a bit of anonymous verse that should have been in it:

The word has come down from the dean
That by using a teaching machine,
Oedipus Rex could have learned about sex
Without ever disturbing the queen!

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

Credit the Schools, Blame the Students?

To the Editor:

John Sikula, dean of Ashland University's college of education, complains that a critic of education schools is "ignorant of educational research" ("Ed. School Critic Is Ignorant of Field," Letters, Sept. 29, 1999). He goes on to state that such "educational research and the literature of teaching show [low student test scores] to be related more to socioeconomic level, cultural background, the quality of parental care and support, preschool experiences, and inherited learning potential."

I wonder if Mr. Sikula applies that same rationale in reverse; that is, high student test scores are similarly related to these same factors. Or is he suggesting that the schools are not responsible for low-achieving students but can claim credit for the high achievers?

It seems to this career public educator, now retired, that the good dean is making the case that schools make very little difference and, therefore, what we need is not a better quality of schooling but a better quality of students.

If Mr. Sikula is right, he is contradicting his own position opposing closing education schools because, after all, the difference that makes no difference makes no difference.

David W. Kirkpatrick
Harrisburg, Pa.

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Page 40

Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as Letters

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