Letters to the Editor (10/25/23) | Letters to the Editor | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Letters to the Editor (10/25/23) 

Published October 25, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Opening Credits

I love the wit and wordplay in so many of your headlines. Kudos and thanks to whoever writes them!

Janet Rutkowski


New Chestnut

I would like to point out a common mistake expressed in the subhead of ["Branching Out: Tree Farmer Buzz Ferver Aims to Restore the American Chestnut in Vermont — and in Your Kitchen," October 4]. As the article reveals, this is not about bringing back the American chestnut to Vermont. That is a specific species, and there has been quite a lot of breeding work to develop one that will survive the lethal disease that has all but wiped it out.

Rather, this article talks about one grower's efforts to create a hybrid chestnut that will live and provide a great food source that has been enjoyed in Europe and Asia for many centuries. Much as restoring the native chestnut would be a great ecological victory, our future climate uncertainty makes having a diversity of food crops critical.

Brian Carter


Thought-Provoking Puppets

Thank you for the article about Bread and Puppet Theater ["Circus of Life," August 30], which introduced this new Vermonter to a local institution that uses art to challenge our thinking. On October 4, Burlingtonians were able to experience this when the company performed in a peace march down Church Street. With a very simple yet powerful message, the street theater skillfully synthesized some important issues relevant to the many wars the U.S. has been engaged in over recent decades.

The puppeteers chanted, "What is war? Who profits? Who dies?" A drummer then announced, "USA says, 'No negotiations, only complete victory.' Now let's show the USA victory dance!" — the cue for the puppeteers to pick up skeletons and rattle them, answering the question of "Who dies?" Indeed, a good prompt to contemplate the end result of so many of our country's recent interventions.

Other Bread and Puppet puppeteers maneuvered a giant hand carrying a letter from the Vermont Peace/Antiwar Coalition to Sen. Bernie Sanders' office, with the answer to the question "Who profits?" — the weapons manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry, whose excess profits have skyrocketed since the Ukraine war began.

And in case anyone thinks Bread and Puppet oversimplifies or does not understand the complexities of the current conflict in Ukraine, at open mic time Maria Schumann, daughter of director Peter Schumann, proved that she does. She reminded us that Jens Stoltenberg, the head of NATO, recently admitted that the war in Ukraine was provoked by incessant NATO expansion. Good food for thought.

Jill Clark-Gollub


Addiction Is an Illness

There is a simple, effective, cheap answer to the question posed in the subhead for ["Prickly Issue: Discarded Needles Litter Burlington. What Can Be Done?" October 4]. It will greatly reduce the number of needles littering our streets. It will save lives by ensuring that medical treatment is provided quickly when needed. It will save law enforcement costs and create a healthier, more productive community by welcoming addicts to an environment that encourages them to seek help and by facilitating their connection with services that can aid them not only in overcoming addiction but also in stabilizing their lives economically, legally and psychologically so that relapse is less likely. It can be said in three words: safe injection site.

These three words express something so obvious that the only surprise in them should be why we're not doing it already. Of course, we know the answer to that, too. We haven't matured enough politically to recognize that addiction is a matter neither of criminal intent nor of moral failing on the part of the addict. Nobody grows up wanting to be a junkie. Addiction is a social/medical/psychological illness. We need to treat it as such.

We provide clinics for people with purely physical health problems. If we had responded to COVID-19 the way we are responding to addiction, people would still be dying from it on the streets, nursing homes would be empty, and prisons would be places you are sent to get sick and die.

Lock up pushers, certainly. But give addicts the help they need.

Seth Steinzor

South Burlington

Nice, for a Capitalist

It is great and wonderful that MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is donating $20 million to the Champlain Housing Trust ["MacKenzie Scott Donates $20 Million to Champlain Housing Trust," September 27]. It is wonderful that her charitable organization, Yield Giving, has also has made donations to the Vermont Foodbank, Goodwill Northern New England and others that help Vermonters so desperately in need. It shows great empathy on her part, an especially rare quality in our libertarian culture that produced the Trump era and where working people and the poor are generally considered looters and parasites feeding off the good rich people.

As we applaud and appreciate Scott's generosity, we should never forget how this $20 million was stolen off the backs of these working and poor people so desperately in need of it now. Our scandalous homeless problem (I live in public housing, without which I would also be out on the streets) is no symptom of our mythical "free market." It is the deliberate result of economic and social policies that have been plundering us since the Reagan era, transferring some $50 trillion and probably more of our wealth to the very top 1 percent of Americans, like Bezos, all with the gleeful cooperation of our federal and state governments.

While we appreciate and thank Scott for her kindness, let's not forget why it was so needed in the first place and those who are directly responsible for this dire need.

Walter Carpenter


Not-So Fairholt

[Re True 802: "A Burlington Mansion Hits the Market for $15 Million," October 4]: Amy Tarrant must have taken a course in real estate at Trump University (before it was shuttered and paid $25 million to the "students" it had defrauded.) Specifically, the course underlying the Trump organization's own behavior that provoked the current $250 million New York State fraud suit against Trump, his sons and the Trump Organization itself: "Fudging the Numbers 101: How to Tank Property Appraisals for Tax Purposes and Then Pump Value Ridiculously When Setting the Sale Price."

Will Tarrant do better than the Trumps at following this playbook? Shouldn't the Burlington assessor and city council take notice of this massive discrepancy in valuations?

And which Burlington taxpayers were assigned higher property values to make up for the $1.4 million hole in the Grand List that the assessor created by acquiescing to Tarrant's own appraisal (a 20 percent reduction in appraised value)?

Her final grade for the course will depend on whether the city steps in now to examine the assessment and whether anyone is willing to pay her $15 million asking price. But, at a minimum, the post-sale assessment for the new owner must be set to reflect the price the market delivered.

Stay on the case, please, Seven Days!

Jeanne Keller


Well Read

Many readers responded to Alison Novak's October 4 cover story about declining literary rates among Vermont schoolkids. Titled "Reading Reckoning," the story broke the news that a teaching method called balanced literacy may not be as effective as the phonics-based one it replaced.

It is gratifying to know that Vermont educators have been making strides to improve literacy education for Vermont kids. My own reckoning as a reading specialist came when I could clearly see that my master's degree training, which focused on balanced literacy teaching, had not prepared me to teach many of the kids, teens and adults whom I encountered and who needed help. Later, I had the opportunity to learn structured literacy, which includes more depth of understanding of phonology, orthography and multisensory teaching than I previously learned. It took time and practice. Eventually, I was able to deliver instruction that made a difference. Growth and progress were evident. My students and their families were grateful. I felt like I could do what I had set out to do. I was successful in my commitment to my students to teach them how to read.

I currently hold the position of reading specialist/special educator for the Vermont Department of Corrections. As a branch of the DOC's risk reduction program, the Community High School of Vermont offers not only high school level classes but also a therapeutic school where students who need help with reading, writing and math also build their skills to work toward a diploma, job or career training or address other personal, functional literacy goals. We use a structured literacy approach. We see progress. Kudos to the Vermont DOC risk reduction program for its commitment to helping reduce educational obstacles for Vermonters.

Jeanne H. Smith

St. Albans

Alison Novak penned a great article but omitted key statistics showing the abysmal proficiency scores of Vermont students.

Kids learn to read, then read to learn. If they miss step one, school is boring, books are uninteresting and paying attention is difficult. Is this failure to teach our kids basic reading skills — combined with dramatic increases in screen time — a major contributor to poor overall proficiency and surges in behavior problems and "social-emotional challenges"? All parents should be outraged and listen to the American Public Media podcast "Sold a Story."

Perhaps the most infuriating quote in Novak's story is "[reading expert Louisa Moats] believes the politicization of literacy — with phonics often being thought of as a Republican cause — is one reason that scientific knowledge about reading hasn't been put into practice widely." Our schools failed our kids because it would validate a "Republican cause"?

Folks on the "blue team" need to stop doing the opposite of what the "red team" says or does. This is infantile and exists in many issues today. Too often, when a "red state" goes one way, Vermont moves hard the other way — despite the consequences.

It's clear that if Republicans had demanded that kids stay home and wear masks all the time, the "blue team" would have used "science" and "data" to show why kids should be in school full time and not wearing masks.

Please think for yourselves. As the article states, we already set "kids back for years, if not for a lifetime."

Tim Guiterman


I read "Reading Reckoning" with some confusion. I understand teachers are often led by educational theorists who may create incompetent or ineffective theories, and I understand teachers may be overworked, etc. But where are the parents in this equation?

I am not an educator and haven't studied reading theory, but I taught my three children to read, each by age 4.5. And it was fun! We read daily, eagerly, lovingly, and they were introduced to phonetic reading from the beginning. It took a huge amount of my time and some focused structure. I am sure we gave up other things, such as television. We didn't own one.

I worked full time and put my career on "slow." But what are our priorities? I reasoned that the strongest academic foundation I could give the kids beyond good work habits was to be fluent readers. My eldest's first-grade teacher "thought he was pretending" to read until March of that year. Why would I trust these folks to set good foundations?

Two of the kids are in science today, but all continue to read — novels, poetry, history, philosophy. School can enhance your children's learning. It won't do it for them. You don't have to be as over the top as me, but our best learning can happen at home.

Richard Hudson


Alison Novak's article was heartening to read in the sense that — if at long last —some sort of systematic progress in teaching teachers balanced literacy is under way and children are benefiting. But it left out a vital piece of the full story: What reading methods were used before 2000 that resulted in such high Vermont reading scores back then? Something was working.

In that connection, to really have the full picture, readers need to have the hard data that would let us compare changes in the social determinants mentioned — such as those for poverty, food security and housing — over the time period. After all, it is suggested that these also play a vital role in children's educational success.

Kate Robinson Schubart


Thank you for featuring Alison Novak's exceptional article on Vermont kids' lack of reading proficiency. I was a Burlington school commissioner for seven years until 2020. Reading proficiency by third grade became a key data point associated with our equity policies. Thanks to our expert executive director of teaching and learning, Stephanie Phillips, we began understanding in 2014 why reading by third grade matters and how critical phonics is to achieving that outcome. From then on, we concurred with Phillips' budget guidance each year to transition to a phonics curriculum.

It was disturbing to read that Vermont institutions accrediting teachers are not in the "run, don't walk" mode of replacing current teaching practices with phonemic awareness and fluency. Any defensiveness on these higher educational institutions' part can only be interpreted as neglect and contributes to the collective grief expressed by teachers for their ignorance of data-driven teaching methods, through no fault of their own.

More disturbing is how ill equipped our Agency of Education is to intervene. Our kids cannot afford Vermont's love affair with local control when it comes to policy decisions that are paid for with state-controlled funding. It's shameful that we have a governor proposing to return ed funds to taxpayers when Vermont kids' reading fluency limits their/our future success.

The State Board of Education establishes and is currently updating Education Quality Standards. Adopting a "Reading Proficiency by End of Third Grade Through Phonics" standard would go a long way to institutionalize reading proficiency into local school budgets.

Liz Curry


Yes, you read this article correctly. Vermont is at the national average in reading test scores for fourth graders. It's tied with states such as Mississippi — which, not for nothing, spends less than half what Vermont does per pupil ($23,000 versus $10,000 in FY 2021). Meanwhile, the legislature is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: "Legislature focuses on student equity in Vermont schools."

To paraphrase President Joe Biden: "Don't tell me how anti-racist you are; show me how many minority kids in your state can read, and I'll tell you how anti-racist you are."

Don't just release some nonsensical policy that trips over itself to inclusively define all the groups who need to be culturally sensitively identified as unique individuals. We also have to teach them to read! We have to put as much legislative attention toward the hard work of executing on progressive priorities as we do into talking about how meaningful they are to us.

An inclusive school that fails to educate students who need it is as tragic as an elitist school that only educates privileged students. Maybe more so because it allows us progressives to feel like we are finally doing something about structural racism.

Roger Brown


Thank you for publishing this article. Being unable to read at grade level not only impedes learning across the content areas year after year but also impacts a person's mental health, social behaviors, and overall success in school and beyond. Being consistently unable to access text leads to demoralizing feelings of frustration, shame, resentment and anxiety, which are counterproductive to learning and thriving. For students to become lifelong learners, they must be given the tools to become lifelong readers. It's apparent that for the past two decades, the actual system meant to educate them has denied them these tools.

The most striking thing that was mentioned was that once a group of students with learning disabilities was given intensive phonics instruction for two to three years, "two-thirds were able to leave special education entirely." That's incredible news! It means that if schools made "reading at grade level" for all students a top priority (as it should be), we would likely see a significant reduction in the number of students with learning disabilities at our schools, a significant reduction in the cost of educating children in our towns, and a significant reduction of behavioral and mental health problems at schools.

Dear Vermont, please join me in encouraging our Agency of Education, school boards, superintendents and school administrators to finally prioritize significantly increasing our students' reading proficiency rates. There's too much at stake to wait a moment longer.

Sharon Kulsick


Love of reading is sown long before a child sets foot in school. Do children see their parents reading books? Do stacks and shelves of "I can't wait to read" books fill the home? Are regular visits to libraries and bookstores eagerly anticipated?

Decades ago, my father was so eager for me to read, he taught me before I started kindergarten. In my mind's eye, the two of us perch side by side on my bed reading Bed in Summer by Robert Louis Stevenson, while the late-day sun streams through the curtains.

And kudos for a brilliant title and clever cover art! Not only did it get me singing the theme song of "Reading Rainbow," that wonderful PBS show, but it referenced lyrics that sing of the joy of books. I can go anywhere! As a reader who has to have several books going at a time, this week I've been in Wessex (The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy), Florence (Inferno by Dan Brown), Istanbul (A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler), London (London: A Pilgrimage by Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold), and Alberta (Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton).

To quote Emily Dickinson, "There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away!"

Tica Netherwood


Kudos to Seven Days for your article on science-based reading instruction. When our kids were subjected to the whole-language approach to reading, which is part of the balanced approach, we thought it was a bunch of baloney. Having students guess a word based on context seemed ridiculous. We felt vindicated recently after listening to the podcast "Sold a Story." In the podcast, we heard how George and Laura Bush tried to promote science-based teaching, but it became a political football and Democrats dismissed it as conservative hogwash. Even today, your article notes that some Vermont colleges are still promoting the balanced approach to reading instruction. It is amazing what people will believe if it aligns with their political ideology.

David Maher


The role of reading in a democratic society is critical, yet this article did a disservice to educators and the public by oversimplifying the work needed to improve literacy in Vermont.

Asserting that student scores on standardized tests are the result of lack of phonics instruction is misleading. State and national tests are not tests of word reading; they assess students' ability to read and understand complicated texts. Students may perform poorly for any number of reasons, including weak vocabulary, fluency, comprehension or decoding skills.

Reading scores for Vermont have not experienced a "20-year slide." From 2000 to 2017, Vermont consistently outperformed the nation and experienced a small increase in achievement. From 2017 to 2022, there was a decline. This is a concern. A number of factors have likely influenced that result — including a decrease in our veteran teaching force, an increase in the number of teachers working on provisional licenses, a pandemic, and a decline in the amount of reading students do inside and outside school. Serious improvement will require identifying and solving the right problems.

Can schools continue to improve? Certainly. Is it simple? No. An inclusive and systemic approach to teaching all aspects of reading will make it possible to respond to the needs of individual students. State policy acknowledges what research has found: No one approach can ensure that Vermont's students will be engaged participants in a literate democratic world.

Mary Grace


Grace is executive director of Partnerships for Literacy and Learning.

After spending 27 years helping kids learn how to read, I feel compelled to respond to your article "Reading Reckoning." The word "science" is bandied about, but no one has explained how it is to be used. It is my view that if you can't test and replicate it, then it's not science. We are presented with anecdotal observations that lower reading scores are caused by the lack of phonics instruction. Interesting, yes, but now the work begins. No correlational data are presented, and, remember, correlation is not necessarily causation.

In my Reading Recovery training, I overheard a New Zealand guru tell our very competent RR teacher-leader that letter knowledge was not necessary. Seriously? At that point I wanted out, and it took me three years to free myself of the RR yoke. Why?

English employs an alphabetic system. This means that words are mediated by the letters. So letter/sound knowledge makes the words easier to recognize. Fast and accurate word recognition is the ultimate goal for competent readers in order to free up memory for comprehension. Why one would keep this "phonic secret" from struggling kids who are just beginning to learn how to read is baffling to me.

There is also the naïve view that if all the schools changed to Orton-Gillingham, then the reading problems would significantly lessen and perhaps disappear. Be careful! Along with my own teaching history, other pro-phonics people also have had their own reading failures.

Louis Welna


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