Reading & Literacy Opinion


November 21, 2001 11 min read
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Word to Reporters: Do Your Homework

To the Editor:

A bit of perspective regarding your front-page story “Educators, Journalists Spar Over Media Access,” (Oct. 24, 2001): I wholeheartedly agree that public schools and the news media must find ways to work together to best serve the community. Perhaps if news organizations set minimum standards for the reporters they disperse to cover education, some of the distrust could be eliminated. And while it may be true that educators who have been burned by negative news stories may resist cooperating with the media, accuracy and continuity are more pervasive problems.

In many communities, reporters assigned to cover the education beat turn over as often as new testing materials. Educators who are willing to do so may spend an hour explaining a complex issue to a reporter this month, knowing full well they’ll be spending the same hour next month with a new face, just as they did with another the month before.

Reporters often show up having done no research or background preparation. They implore us to just “boil every issue down to a three-paragraph explanation.” Providing context matters little if it’s disregarded. Sometimes, inaccuracies and unfair slant are simply the result of sloppy, lazy reporting. School leaders want reporters to get it right, but pay the price so often when they get it wrong.

Administrators are as likely to invoke the Buckley Amendment to protect students and teachers from ill-prepared reporters as from invasion of privacy. High-stakes education deserves high-quality reporting. News organizations that provide flavor-of-the- month coverage of the education beat have no one to blame but themselves for poor relations with public schools. And a word to reporters: Do your homework!

Kathy K. Demarest
Wilmington, Del.

‘Twice Exceptional,’ Doubly Challenged

To the Editor:

Upon reading your feature article “Diamonds in the Rough,” (Research, Oct. 24, 2001), I felt compelled to voice my pleasure. The article spoke such truth about the “twice exceptional” children who have been told too often that they are lazy or not trying hard enough, or else have been misplaced in regular classes for the gifted. These students have been misunderstood by educators, who struggle to meet the needs of children who either have giftedness or a learning disability.

For almost 20 years, I have had the good fortune to work with twice-exceptional (or thrice—having giftedness, a learning disability, and attention deficits) children and adults, as both an educational therapist and a professional-development specialist. In therapy, they exhibit exciting talents, atypical perspectives, and challenges for themselves and therapists. In the classroom, they most often pose enigmas to their teachers. Their “gift for gab” and unusual insight is not commensurate with their organization of a research paper, understanding of the “main idea,” the “author’s tone,” or the most salient point of an academic argument.

An important part of my work with individuals having giftedness, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder focuses on their understanding and acceptance of their own uniqueness and strengths. This fosters self-knowledge and self-advocacy, which lead to an awareness of how they learn best and what they need to exhibit understanding. For adults, this translates into finding appropriate career paths and having the confidence to make necessary workplace adaptations.

I recall a former client who loved antiques and “connecting with people.” Being challenged with severe dyslexia and dyscalculia, he would, as an auctioneer, accept only bids in increments of $50. This was because, as he explained, “I could add those in my head.” As an antiques dealer, he loved to discover and purchase fine, 18th-century French furniture and research its history. To run a successful business, he said, he “hired the best” to take care of his books and “read the fine print.”

Children and adults with “two exceptionalities” deserve first to be correctly diagnosed and then to experience learning and workplace environments with teachers and employers who understand the brilliance these diamonds in the (hardly) rough bring.

Arlene Harris
Educational Therapist
New York, N.Y.

Teacher Board Sets Standards ‘Balance’

To the Editor:

Alfie Kohn offers a provocative analysis of standards-based reform in his Commentary “Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests,” (Sept. 26, 2001). His argument is that the overwhelming acceptance of mandated standards—even by critics of standardized tests—is a surrender by those who would champion meaningful instruction to a course that will ultimately reduce the richness and depth of teaching.

As a classroom teacher who has worked on standards development at the school, district, and state levels, I agree that getting the standards right is no easy task. Language seen as appropriately broad by one educator may be ambiguous and confusing to another. The challenge is to find the right balance between these two extremes.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has created a model set of standards for accomplished teaching that achieves this difficult balance. While not the state-mandated content standards to which Mr. Kohn refers, the board’s standards nonetheless serve as a useful model of study because they are rigorous, flexible, and, perhaps most important, measurable.

To date, the NBPTS has established standards in 24 different certificate areas. Written by teachers and experts from the corresponding fields, the standards in each area represent a framework for instruction that is steeped in both content and pedagogy. Teachers seeking national board certification must prove, for example, that they advance mastery of a discipline, use their knowledge of students to shape instruction, and help advance the field. Instead of being overly prescriptive, the standards are grounded in the belief that curious and passionate teachers will find different paths to engaging their students.

These standards embody, rather than restrict, the kind of instructional exploration Mr. Kohn defends. The result is a living set of documents that has been used to validate the work of nearly 10,000 teachers, powerful evidence that a standards-based environment can support accomplished instruction.

The success of any reform effort will ultimately be decided through its implementation in the field by practitioners. Performance standards that both challenge and empower teachers stand a far greater chance of leading to positive learning outcomes for students than those that overwhelm and stifle.

If more state-mandated standards resembled those created by the national board, perhaps more teachers would see them as useful tools to guide their instruction, rather than as political mandates meant to supersede their professional judgment.

David Lussier
Teacher-in- Residence, School Reform
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
Arlington, Va.

Panel, Not Conveners, Produced the Report

To the Editor:

Your article “State Tests Don’t Support Good Instruction, Panel Says,” (Oct. 31, 2001) stated that the leaders of the National Education Association and four other national education associations were members of the group that wrote “Building Tests to Support Instruction and Accountability: A Report for Policymakers.” This is inaccurate.

The report was written by an independent commission composed of national experts in assessment, curriculum, and instruction. The five national organizations, (the NEA, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Middle School Association) convened the independent commission. None of our leaders or staff members served on it. Furthermore, none of the commissioners received any compensation from us for serving on the commission.

The five national associations, which convened the commission on instructionally supportive assessment that wrote the report, enthusiastically embrace the results of its deliberations. We applaud the commission’s bold assertion that a state’s assessment system must meet the nine requirements it sets out in its report to be credible.

The report, however, is the commission’s, not the convening associations’ product.

Marcella Dianda
Senior Policy Analyst
National Education Association
Washington, D.C.

‘Chronic Condition,’ Or Adult Annoyance?

To the Editor:

I am concerned about your uncritical relaying of the information in a press release put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“Pediatric Group Issues ADHD Treatment Guide,” Oct. 10, 2001). The AAP release claims that ADHD is a “chronic condition,” yet there is no scientific evidence that ADHD is anything more than a catchall label for children who do things that annoy adults.

Certainly, there are students who wiggle in their seats (now assigned the label “hyperactivity”), gaze out the window (labeled “attention deficit”), and speak out of turn (“impulse disorder?”). And some students annoy more than others.

But any number of causes can be responsible: not being able to see the board, not being able to hear the teacher, having been exposed to drugs in the womb, or having been poisoned with lead or mercury. What about the child who loves sports and dislikes academics, or has a creative spirit easily bored by repetitive tasks? And then there are: the gifted student bored by regular classroom work, the student who failed to learn to read because phonics was skipped, the one with food and chemical allergies, and on and on.

The solution that the schools are emphasizing is to label such children psychologically disordered. They are then in line to be drugged into docility and compliance. But this “solution” does not serve, and may even compromise, the health of the child who is restless because he cannot see the board or hear the teacher, or who is gifted and needs enrichment, or who has never learned to read, or who yearns for more action or more creative outlets.

ADHD is not a “chronic condition.” It is a label for what kids do when they’re bored, and we haven’t yet found out why.

Mary May
Just Like Home Daycare
Sunland, Calif.

Leaving None Behind: Support From Safety Nets and ‘Out of the Box’Thinking

To the Editor:

Congratulations to Derek Furr (“Leave No Child Behind?,” Commentary, Oct. 31, 2001) on thinking “out of the box.” His questions about our educational structure are extremely important, and I doubt that our policymakers have any idea how to answer them. There isn’t an original thinker in the lot, which, by the way, is a sad commentary on the education they themselves received as children.

Mr. Furr’s question about why all children are expected to matriculate at the same rate is particularly worthy of further investigation. Why do we force children to move on to the next level of learning before they have mastered the level they are struggling with? It’s hard enough for the average child to keep up with the frenetic academic pace we demand. By expecting struggling kids to catch up, we are asking them to accelerate faster than everyone else. How stupid can we be?

Let’s take heed of Mr. Furr’s words and think out of the box. A completely new model is what is needed to ensure that everyone’s educational needs are met. Yes, it is expensive. But I’m willing to bet that in the long run, the changes Mr. Furr is talking about would be far less expensive than what we are paying now in social services and corrections.

Nancy Aranda
Long Island Public School Teacher
Rockville Centre, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Derek Furr answers his own thoughtful question in his second paragraph when he says, “Schools ... have their safety nets.” He argues a compelling issue that children who cannot read in the 1st grade “grow ever ‘poorer’ over the course of their schooling.”

But viable research-driven “safety nets” do exist. The Massachusetts legislature, for example, devotes $3 million as a safety net for 1st graders having difficulty learning how to read and write by training approximately 125 teachers annually in Reading Recovery to work with some of the 15,913 nonreaders in the 1st grade. Reading Recovery also serves as the first pre- referral for special education, and Massachusetts has had one of the highest (and most costly) special education enrollments in the nation.

Massachusetts, of course, is a state that has an enlightened legislature attuned to preschool and early-childhood issues. Its financial support for almost a decade generates calls from around the nation, always with the same question: “How do you get their (the legislators’) support?” In addition to that, however, Reading Recovery has a sustained success rate in the state of almost 90 percent—a most formidable safety net.

Two years ago, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores were announced nationally, three New England states were at the top. Maine identified Reading Recovery as one of three critical features in its successful reading program. Gov. John Rowland of Connecticut also identified the program as a key factor.

But to support Mr. Furr’s initial premise, I recently received a brochure at a national reading conference that said: “Sixty percent of poor readers enter prison. Prison systems determine the future number of beds needed by looking at numbers of children who fail to learn to read by the end of 2nd grade.”

This reminded me of when I first read, almost 12 years ago, that Arkansas used the number of 1st grade reading failures to predict its future prison population.

To Derek Furr: A great Commentary, but the safety net is out there. You still have time to save those young learners.

David J. Moriarty
Director of Language Arts, K-12
Medford Public Schools
Medford, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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