March 1992

This Issue
Vol. 03, Issue 06

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The publishers of elementary school reading textbooks--the heavy, several-hundred-page "basal readers'' and their accompanying workbooks, work sheets, and other paraphernalia--are engaged in what amounts to a conspiracy to deprive the nation's schools of quality education.

Advocates bill it as a way to introduce diversity and autonomy into public education. Critics call it a subsidy for private schools. But one thing is clear: Few people are neutral about a new Minnesota law that encourages licensed teachers to start and run their own independent public schools under a contract or "charter'' with a local school board.

Under the Minnesota law, any licensed teacher can ask a local school board to authorize a charter, subject to approval by the state board of education. The law requires such schools to meet certain basic principles that characterize public education. For example, they cannot screen students, have a religious affiliation, charge tuition, or discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or disability.

Teacher Shortage Appears Unlikely

Despite widespread predictions to the contrary, the nation is unlikely to experience a general shortage of public school teachers in the 1990s; that, at least, is the conclusion of two new studies from the RAND Corp.

The World Federation of Neurology defines dyslexia as a disorder "manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence, and sociocultural opportunity.''

The disability affects an estimated 10 percent of all school- children. Those plagued sometimes transpose letters or have difficulty matching sounds to the letters or groupings of letters they see on a page.

Marilyn Bue remembers the shock she felt the first time she visited Joan Riedl's classroom in North Elementary School in Princeton, Minn. "It wasn't like anything I had ever seen before,'' recalls Bue, who had a son in Riedl's 5th grade program at the time. "It looked like a beehive, with everyone talking and doing things and moving around. Joan would be talking to just a few students, and it confused me because I thought the whole class should stop and listen to her.''

Don't Hark Back

Edward Rauchut recalls with regret "the independent child reading a book, a child free from . . . the latest stream of intellectually vacuous educational gadgets and fads'' ["I Quit,'' February].

Walking down San Francisco's Market Street with my spiked leather jacket and my hair standing on end, I hardly notice the strange looks I get. But when a group of black teenagers approach me shouting: "HEY! You with the funny lookin' hair! Nazi skinhead!'' I back away.

Shoppers love a guarantee: "Buy this VCR, and if it breaks within two years, just send it back, and we'll fix it for free.'' Such assurances instill customer confidence, not just in the product but in the manufacturer, as well.

An increasing number of school districts and a handful of states, seeking to restore public and business confidence in education, have borrowed this marketing technique and are now issuing "warranties'' on their high school graduates.

Years ago, Groucho Marx had a schoolteacher participating as a contestant on his popular TV show. In the course of conversation, Marx asked her about the parent-teacher association at her school.

"Well,'' she said innocently, "I'd have to say that about 80 percent of our parents are women.''

This is the first of two articles on schools that have taken the ideas of author and education reformer Theodore Sizer and put them into practice.

Yes, it was scary. But when a young man has spent his entire life under the protection of his mother and father and then finds himself about to strike out into the world on his own, this is to be expected. For me, it was the fall of 1937, when at the age of 5, I was approaching the moment I had spent virtually my whole life anticipating. I was about to start school.

And what is Warner, a student at inner-city Philadelphia's University City High School, most looking forward to this year? "To study hard,'' he declares, adding that he wants to make As and Bs instead of last year's Bs and Cs.

It may be surprising that a teenage boy would rank his schoolwork above girls or his beloved football and basketball, but that is just what Deane is hoping Warner will continue to do--with his help. The pair was united last spring under the innovative Sponsor-a-Scholar program run by Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit enterprise that offers programs and outreach to help kids stay in school and prepare for college and careers.

For many high school students, literature is lifeless and uninspiring; they struggle through books by dead authors about long-ago times and faraway places. Despite English teachers' best efforts to bring the writing to life, many students never shake the notion that novels and stories are antiquated, things of the past.

Some students in Washington, D.C., however, are learning a different lesson: that literature can be vibrant and vital. On this winter morning, in fact, 10th graders at Woodrow Wilson High School are passing time with a living, breathing--and yes, even entertaining--representative of the world of books, author Frederick Busch.

Polling The Public:
A majority of Americans support a vast overhaul of the education system, and nearly three-quarters believe teachers, rather than legislatures or school boards, should enact the reforms, according to a poll commissioned by Scholastic Inc. and conducted by Louis Harris & Associates. Another poll, this one by the National Education Association, asked the public to grade President Bush's effort to be "education president.'' Less than a quarter of those polled gave him an A or B; a full 25 percent gave him a D or F.