In the past few months we have discussed quite a lot of issues in the Homeroom column, which drew a number of responses. For today's column I thought I'd open up the floodgates and get out of the way.


Dear Homeroom:

As you said, parent groups can and should foster a sense of community and bring the parents, teachers and administrators together to meet the goal of educational excellence (Aug. 5).

However, starting a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) is only one way to do that. Across the country, self-styled parent groups are effectively advocating for a wide variety of concerns, from the mundane, like school uniforms, to the all-important issues of accountability.

PTAs rarely see it as their job to analyze schools or recommend improvements. The National PTA doesn't encourage it and works hard to simply unite parents with their schools, not necessarily to help schools enact substantive changes. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but you should decide what it is you want to achieve before you start or join any group.

Robin Coblyn

Director of communications

The Center for Education Reform


Summer Reading Lists

Dear Homeroom:

You criticized the preponderance of fiction assigned for summer reading (Sept. 9). Please keep in mind that it is the English teachers who assign the reading and have to grade any assignments associated with that reading.

English has its own curriculum; it is not simply the handmaiden to other subjects. Books are chosen for their literary merit. English teachers do not necessarily have the background to evaluate the merits of natural history or science books on their accuracy or appropriateness.

On the other hand, biographies and autobiographies compose part of the English curriculum, and careful readers can learn as much about history and culture from the milieu of excellent fiction as from nonfiction texts. This summer my daughter learned about political and religious issues in 14th-century Italy ("The Inferno"), social injustice in Victorian times ("Tess of the D'Urbervilles"), and propaganda-as-history in 16th-century England ("Richard III").

Karen Mikkelsen


Dear Homeroom:

Scott Lavine, a high school student, complained that his honors English teacher forced him to read a "female novel" over the summer rather than allowing him to read either of the books he would have chosen for himself. I applaud Mr. Lavine for the fact that he would have liked to have read two books.

But I have a question: If he wanted to read them, why didn't he? Is self-motivation such a lost art that it is unthinkable to read voluntarily over summer vacation?

Secondly, Mr. Lavine wrote that he and his classmates "would never read [these books] even when they are older." But political inertia--also known as a closed mind--is exactly what most teachers are determined to fight. In English, that means "forcing" students to read books written by many different kinds of writers in the hopes that they may realize that insight and wisdom are not the exclusive domain of dead white men.

Steven G. Anderson

Adjunct Professor

Gettysburg College

Dear Homeroom:

So, boys are being forced to read "female novels" in school these days? Gee, wish I had had that option when I was in school reading "male novels"--"Moby Dick," "Heart of Darkness," "The Red Pony," etc. The list was endless.

Paige Baker


Social Studies

Dear Homeroom:

You apparently think that "specific knowledge," which you now call "stuff" (new technical term in the curriculum field, I assume), automatically results in achieving competence in academic skills, understanding, critical thinking, democratic values, and if I may, the "broad sweep of history and the triumphs and failures of society" (Oct. 7).

Facts are simply the raw materials that a good curriculum and good teachers refine into intellectual power. Of course students are exposed to facts.

But just because you can define "altimeters, fuel mixtures and lift and drag," does that entitle you to fly an airplane? Moreover, it is the emphasis on "stuff," not the lack of skills, understanding, critical thinking and democratic values, that fuel what you call demagogues and propagandists. Intellectual skills and concepts, when thoughtfully offered in scholarly books and by talented teachers, are the end product of student engagement with information that defies demagogues and propagandists.

Robert Carbone

Professor emeritus

University of Maryland

Dear Homeroom:

I couldn't agree with you more about social studies and the teaching of history. While memorization of context-free facts is clearly ridiculous, equally ridiculous but much more insidious is the idea that theories and concepts are more important than facts. This is absurd; it is like saying that forests are more important than trees.

Concepts and theories are nothing more than a deeper understanding of facts through connection and explanation. Without facts, they fall prey to emotions and political agendas. Even worse, teaching students that theories are more important than facts encourages them to ignore facts that don't fit their theories, a phenomenon all too common in American society today.

Jim Cohen


Criterion Referenced Tests

Dear Homeroom:

Thanks for your recent column on Montgomery County's CRTs (Oct. 14).

One point which is worth making, however, is that these are grade-level tests, designed to test grade-level skills. If you have a child who is academically advanced in math or who is particularly skilled in reading/language arts, you may find that the child does not necessarily test off the scale on CRTs.

For example, if your child is in algebra in the seventh grade, then that child's math score on the seventh-grade CRT may not reflect the fact that he or she is in what has traditionally been a freshman math course. The test will test what are typical seventh-grade math skills; an advanced student may well have forgotten some of these skills and moved on to higher level math skills. If so, then your child's math score may drop in a particular year or years; it doesn't mean that your child isn't doing well--it just means that your child has left behind the grade level skills which are being tested.

MCPS does not really publicize this phenomenon, but it occurs. If you talk with parents of children in magnet middle schools, or who are advanced academically, you will find out that this occurs quite a bit.

Beverly Jennison

Silver Spring

I was trying to keep quiet in this column, but I can't let this one go, because--although I've heard it before--it makes no sense to me.

Reading, writing and math skills and knowledge are not discarded when you move to a different level--they are foundations to be built upon and added to.

In other words, a skilled author or a high-flying, university-level mathematician should be able to do very well on the CRTs, not say, "Oh, I forgot all that stuff."

Children in higher-level courses who don't do well on CRTs may be building fancy houses on faulty ground, and parents and teachers should look closely at their children's tests and other schoolwork to see if the problem was just a little momentary carelessness or a reflection of serious gaps in knowledge or skills. Or, possibly, that the test is flawed in some way--it's been known to happen.

Dear Homeroom:

You say that one of the best uses of the CRTs is to help teachers and schools pinpoint what instruction individual children need and how they themselves need to improve their teaching. That's not quite right. A CRT has only about 25 questions, so just three or four questions may be used to measure a student's achievement in a particular subgroup like whole numbers or geometry.

It is just plain silly--and misleading--to tell parents and teachers that a child "does not meet standard" or "exceeds standard with distinction" in a topic area based on such slim evidence.

Maybe these sub-categories have some value if an entire class showed a real mastery of numerals and place values but a weakness in fractions, as you put it. That way you at least average out the careless mistakes. But teachers should look for other corroborating evidence.

John Hoven, co-president

Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County

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