Letters

The Real Question
Michael Berryhill's article in the January 19 issue, "The Curriculum Question," would be better titled "The Privatization Question." Mr. Berryhill's article displays both ignorance of the reading programs and a basic misunderstanding of the issue at hand.

As a first-grade teacher with experience in both DISTAR and literature-based reading instruction, I find Mr. Berryhill's dismissal of "whole language" upsetting. While definitions of "whole language" are hard to pin down (Bergeron in The Journal of Reading Behavior recently reviewed 64 scholastic articles, and found that each author defined whole language differently), no good reading program encourages children to "skip" words, or do without phonics. Phonetic instruction is a crucial component of any reading program.

The essential difference between literature-based reading programs and phonics programs is not, as Berryhill suggests, an emphasis on "skipping words," but rather an emphasis on developing integrated reading skills using authentic literature to pique students' interest. Literature-based reading programs teach skills within the context of books, rather than as isolated and disintegrated abilities. Whole language proceeds from the assumption that without well-written, engrossing and captivating literature, children will not grow up to have a love and appreciation of reading and learning.

Mr. Berryhill also misrepresented Mr. Privett's motivation and distorted the facts. Many schools throughout the district have adopted DISTAR without an outlay of a million dollars. Your article neglected to mention that E.O. Smith has since adopted DISTAR and Jerry Silbert provided them extensive training. I was present at the training, and my school partially adopted the program at a cost considerably less than $300 per student. The article never addressed what percentage of this amount would make up Mr. Privett's profit margin. In fact, Mr. Privett's stated goal was not to create a curriculum but to privately manage four public schools. The article addresses none of the crucial issues surrounding privatization of schools, which alone could fill an entire issue of your publication.

Next time, the Houston Press should respect its readers enough to investigate and research all aspects of the story, instead of portraying one perspective as fact.

Samir Muhith
Teacher, Eighth Avenue Elementary
Houston

The Real Answer?
At Wesley Elementary, Principal Thaddeus Lott is heading efforts to revolutionize the way our schools teach subjects from math to language arts using the DISTAR curriculum, which was featured in your article "The Curriculum Question" [By Michael Berryhill, January 19]. He is not the only one in this venture. In a 1993 article in Educational Research, J.S. Fuerst and Dorothy Fuerst chronicle the success of the DISTAR curriculum in an inner-city program in Chicago funded by Title I of the Federal Education Act.

The Child Parent Center Program used DISTAR to provide a structured learning program to enrich the education of disadvantaged children who otherwise lack necessary structure in their lives: "The DISTAR program developed the child's vocabulary and language concepts and effectively lengthened his/her attention span, as well as teaching him/her to speak in sentences."

The DISTAR program targeted students before entering primary school and was most effective when upheld for up to six years afterward. The results? Upon completion, CPC students scored above the control group from the same socioeconomic area, but below the national norm. In terms of long-term results, 62 percent of the children graduated from high school as opposed to the 49 percent of the control group.

Clearly, DISTAR was not the only element in the equation of success. Parent involvement in workshops, classrooms and school discussions was most vital. Determination from qualified teachers, social workers, counselors and administrators was imperative also.

The critics of DISTAR claim that it is not cognitively challenging, because of its emphasis on drills and repetition. As a middle school teacher, I find it difficult to inculcate young minds who cannot express cognitive thought, because they lack the necessary skills to even write a complete sentence.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the southeast area where I teach, 35 percent of youths over 25 have less than a ninth-grade education with a poverty level that matches that percentage. We as leaders of our schools need to be honest and forthright about what is happening to the percentage of students who are leaving school at an early age without the skills to survive. Do we need to teach a curriculum that elevates cognitive skills, or do we teach a curriculum that emphasizes basic skills?

Samina Hadi-Tabassum
Houston

A Fish Story
I'm not sure whose leg Ray Hill was pulling when he told Tim Fleck that Harvey Milk "hated the opera," but Fleck, looking for a cheap sneer at what he calls the "liberal arts establishment," swallowed the story hook, line and sinker [News, "Caught Dead in an Opera," January 19].

As is amply documented in Randy Shilts' biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, Milk was a lifelong opera fan, in New York and San Francisco, and in fact attended a historic performance of Tosca at the San Francisco Opera house the weekend before he was murdered. Describing the occasion in a note to a friend, he wrote, "Ah -- life is worth living." It is true he wasn't quite caught dead there.

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