Subliterate Superintendent

Wilfredo Laboy, superintendent of Lowell, Mass. schools, has flunked the state literacy test. He's flunked three times.

"What brought me down was the rules of grammar and punctuation," Laboy said. "English being a second language for me, I didn't do well in writing. If you're not an English teacher, you don't look at the rules on a regular basis."

It should be "were" in the first sentence.

Laboy, who receives a 3 percent pay hike this month that will raise his salary to $156,560, recently put 24 teachers on unpaid administrative leave because they failed a basic English test.

State law requires all teachers, principals and superintendents to pass the literacy test, but doesn't specify how many chances Laboy has to pass.

These tests tend to be very basic. I find it hard to believe he couldn't pass on the second or third try, if not the first.

No Habla English

If bilingual teachers are bilingual, why can't they pass a test of English fluency, asks Rich Lowry. Massachusetts is finding that long-time bilingual teachers have trouble expressing themselves in English.

Critics of bilingual education have long contended that rather than -- as advertised -- a way to ease immigrants into instruction in English, it constitutes an educational ghetto where students are taught in their native tongues and are kept from learning in English. The fluency debacle in Massachusetts is a stark demonstration of this critique.

In Somerville, Mass., the five bilingual teachers who took the test failed. In Lowell, 22 of 25 teachers failed. In Lawrence, 27 out of 31 teachers failed. The widespread failure to pass the test is a sign that bilingual education is a misnomer. It is really monolingual education, in any language but English.

In November, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative calling for English-immersion for immigrant students.

Wrong Lingual Ed

In Madison, Wisc., a teenage immigrant was placed in "bilingual" classes taught almost entirely in Spanish. Kiet Tran, now 15, speaks Vietnamese, as his stepfather, John Gardner told school officials. This is the part that astounds me: The educated, English-speaking stepfather could not get the boy moved to English-language classes.

Finally, the family moved out of the district, and enrolled Kiet in an intensive summer English class, where he won "most improved" honors. He'll attend classes in English from now on.

In most cases, immigrant students have immigrant parents who lack the assertiveness and English fluency to make their case. A friend of mine made dozens of phone calls on behalf of her cleaning lady, who'd been unable to get her English-fluent third grader out of a "bilingual" class taught almost entirely in Spanish. Finally, pressured by an educated, English-speaking, middle-class woman, officials admitted the boy was proficient in English -- he'd been taught in English in kindergarten, first and second grade -- and let him switch classes. He'd lost half a year of education.

Basic Black

Oberlin High's black history course will be taught by a black teacher, after all. To save money, the course is now combined with U.S. government. The black teacher isn't certified to teach government, but he'll be allowed to teach with alternate certification.

A group of black parents had argued that students couldn't learn black history from a white teacher. A local TV station set up a discussion board that asked: "Should white instructors be allowed to teach black history?" One respondent said, "I'm a black English teacher, so I guess I was way out of line teaching Shakespeare." Another asked, "Who will teach Latin?"

Bully High

Self-celebration, not education, is the purpose of the American high school, writes Mark Steyn.

Schools today are not primarily in the history or math business. Instead, they teach "self-esteem." The late Bill Henry, in his wonderfully gloomy book about political correctness, summed it up in the banner fluttering proudly over the entrance to one Midwestern schoolhouse: "We celebrate ourselves." That's the spirit, kids. If you can't get a prize for Latin, give yourself one just for being you!

This is a novel approach to education. For example, the animating philosophy behind the traditional British boys' school is to reduce self-esteem to undetectable levels within the opening month of your first term. Incidentally, they're also excellent places to get homosexuality out of your system: They were Gay High before Gay High was cool.

Steyn suggests abolishing high school.

There's barely any pretense at scholarly rigor, and it seems an awfully expensive way of providing non-threatening environments for self-celebration.

Before the First World War, most Americans left school at eighth grade or before. If we resumed that system, those who wished could get jobs, the rest could take four years off before going on to college and becoming Doctors of Anger Management or Bachelors of Queer Theory.

But, if that's politically unviable, and if it's unrealistic to expect Mayor Bloomberg's schools to crack down on bullying, wouldn't it be more cost-effective just to move all the bullies into Bully High School?

There they can bully each other to their hearts' content -- or, as the educators would say, celebrate their identity in a purpose-built mutually threatening learning environment.

Actually, Bully High School is an excellent idea.


David Vandegraft writes:

I appreciated your sarcasm on the black history story. It's ridiculous to think that only a black teacher could teach black history. There are no blacks alive that were slaves. There are no whites alive that were slave owners. Time to let it go.

Morgan Smiley , Indianapolis, Ind. says:

Oberlin High School has some serious problems if they're going to let a group of racist parents tell them who ought to be teaching "black history."  Since when did one's race become a qualification for teaching a particular subject?  And is not the black experience in this country part of American history?

Julie Mckinley writes:

Here's a novel thought: How about a safe school for everyone? Actually, students with any sense at all will immediately identify themselves as "gay" so as to get a safer environment with (undoubtedly) better decor. Is the school administration going to demand "proof" of gayness? and what would "proof" look like? Those concerned about deceit could comfort themselves by consulting Webster for the old-fashioned definition of the term and deciding to be "happy and carefree."

Paul Leili says:

According to New York Mayor Bloomberg's logic, homosexual and transgender students need a separate school because they have been harassed in other schools. Should we then have separate schools for blacks and minorities because they are often harassed. Maybe we could institute this policy nationwide, and call it perhaps "Separate but Equal."

In the end how does insulating students from the diversity of society in schools teach them to interact with the real world?

Scott T. Bohn writes:

Students need to be disciplined to the level that will make them successful in society. Schools have no authority because they bend to the will of the students. Students need to do the bending. Set the standard and enforce it. Meet the standard or get out. It is that simple.

Our school administrators are afraid that if they take a stand they will be sued. I would like to see the school districts start suing the parents of the children that cause the problems (and expense for the taxpayers) instead of the other way around.

Furthermore, if there is a school that can’t protect the safety of its students, gay, straight or whatever, then it needs to be fixed yesterday. Creating a gay school because you can’t or won’t protect them from harassment is surrendering to the bullies doing the harassment. Whoever is in charge up there needs to be fired and replaced by someone with a little courage.

V. Bone of Detroit, Texas writes:

These kids just don't understand, education is a privilege. Maybe they understand after they are kicked out. Why should the school have to keep the kids who don't want to be there? If they can't follow the rules then they need to be somewhere else. Part of the problem the public schools are having is teachers have no authority. The kids know this and they bully their way up the educational ladder. Perhaps if there were work camp alternatives for the trouble makers who just won't shape up? If there were such a place and it had the reputation of not being so fun -- similar to a military basic training camp -- perhaps students would be more motivated in school.

Don Payton, Cheyenne, Wyo. says:

The item on high school students who were expecting to be on Social Security by the time they left the building highlights two fundamental problems with the current education system.

First, many view school as a place to drop of their children and their problems for a few hours. Whether the student learns anything or not is immaterial.

Second, the current system is geared towards those who are expected to go on to higher education. This a very short-sighted. Not everyone wants to or needs a college degree. Unfortunately the marketplace is flooded with meaningless college degrees as a result of this skewered thinking.

Many of the "problem " students would be better served if at the eighth grade level there was a competency test given and allow students to continue on in an academic , business, trade, or a slight mixture of the three tracks. Let those that want to leave and work, do so with school support. If theses student can pass and receive a GED, then let them leave and stop being a burden on the taxpayer, the staff, and -- most importantly -- the students who want to learn. Once these 'students' turn 18 they are definitely no longer the school system's concern.

Many will realize, that once they are in the working world, that education is indeed a necessary tool. Then, properly motivated, they could come back and pursue a meaningful course of study.

Nathan Barclay writes:

I agree with your letter writer Mike Martin that vouchers are not a substitute for parental involvement in their children's education. But vouchers would provide a great deal of help for ensuring that involved parents can choose schools and teachers they can work with effectively. In traditional public education, competing needs can create situations where

what's best for some children would undercut the education of others. Thus, involved parents may actually find themselves forced to work against each other's interests just to get what they want for their own children.

Choice is essential to match teachers, administrators, parents, and children who fit well together, because good parents know both their children and themselves far better than any bureaucrat in the education system ever could.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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