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To the Editor:

Chester E. Finn Jr. strikes with his usual masterful understatement ("On 'Miraculous' sat's: Three Flaws in Reasoning," Letters, Dec. 5, 1990).

But one wonders, given his comments, did he actually read my piece? ("Sat Scores: Miserable or Miraculous?" Commentary, Nov. 21, 1990.) A consideration of his three points leads me to believe his own cognitive skills may be weak.

First, it matters not a whit that we are dealing with a bell-shaped curve. The distance from 500 to 424 only measures the number of people between the two points of the curve. On the educational import of the decline the numbers are silent. Significantly, he chooses the only comparison that shows his argument in a favorable light. I contend, of course, that that comparison is inappropriate.

With regard to point two, one must really wonder if the cognitive skills tested by the sat would change much--could change much--in a 50-year period. Or if these are the "cognitive skills" that really matter much for today's changed world. Will it increase our economic competitiveness if our students are better able to pick the proper antonym from among five choices, or deal with similar decontextualized problems as they must on the sat verbal section?

The Educational Testing Service's answer to these questions--to change what is tested by the sat and how--appears to argue in my favor. I still would not expect a highly democratized group of test-takers in 1990 to do as well as an elite in 1941 on these tests if the system were in decline as much as Mr. Finn and others claim.

Of his third point I will only reiterate part of my Commentary, a part Mr. Finn apparently failed to read, or, at least, to comprehend: "[W]e have not brought our minorities into the mainstream of academic culture."

I put the failure and the blame squarely on us, we who might reasonably be called The Establishment. Elsewhere, I have written that such failure threatens the very social fabric of the nation. There is no implication of expectancy, Mr. Finn, but a simple observance of the fact that some groups have historically scored low and continue to do so.

Mr. Finn gives the game away in his last sentence: "Nobody outside the profession believes this stuff." I presented a conclusion reached through a line of argument supported by facts. I am willing to be refuted by other facts and better arguments. He has provided neither. Belief, which is often impervious to new information, is sufficient only for religion. I would prefer a more rational, open, data-supported approach to social policy.

But I agree with Mr. Finn on one point: We must give today's and to4morrow's students stronger cognitive skills than we gave to the class of l94l, for it is the members of this class, now 67 years young, who are our "leaders." As senators and ceo's, it is they who presided over America's decline. It is they who continued to churn out two-ton gas guzzlers until it was too late, who did not automate in a timely fashion, who emphasized quarterly profits at the expense of long-term planning.

If Mr. Finn wishes to blame educators for the failures of these students later in life, let him mount the ramparts of nursing homes and excoriate the remaining schoolmarms from the swing-shift years.

Gerald W. Bracey
Director of Research and Evaluation
Cherry Creek Schools
Englewood, Colo.

To the Editor:

The word that electronic textbooks are being sold along with the printed-page type underwhelms this 35-year science teacher ("Texas Videodisk Vote Called Boon to Electronic Media," Nov. 28, 1990) .

The sad fact is that textbooks are nearly worthless to the science teacher who strives to teach that science is a structure of ideas based on observations. With a few laudable exceptions, such as Introductory Physical Science (Prentice Hall), textbooks are catalogs of facts and formulas for students to absorb and give back on a test.

Most books have a boring section on the "scientific method," but no challenge to the student to do some real science. The term textbook (or text book) suggests that it is a source of truth, a finished product. And in science, nothing could be less appropriate.

The keying of the videodisk to the text book is a sign that the electronic page will be misused, just as the printed page has been misused in the teaching of science. The videodisk will be used for teaching facts, period. Like the printed page, its possibilities for encouraging students to invent ideas that describe and ideas that explain will be largely ignored.

John E. Beach
Fairless High School
Navarre, Ohio

To the Editor:

I happened to read the article in your Nov. 14 edition, "$25,000 Bonuses for Exemplary Teachers Include One String--Their Donor, Milken." The article did not mention that Wisconsin was one of the five states originally chosen to receive awards for exemplary educators, but turned down the award.

Some things are just worth more than money.

Herbert J. Grover
State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Madison, Wis.

To the Editor:

Thank you for your recent coverage of telco/cable/fiber-optic developments as they affect American education ("Educators Join Battle Over Role of 'Telcos' in Cable Broadcasting," Oct. 24, 1990).

As the article rightly points out, few educators at the administrative level are aware of the potential for inter-school communications via fiber optics. There are, however, a large number of educators who deal with classroom communications every day who are acutely aware of the power of wiring America's schools and the kind of problems that could solve.

Most of these people are in large-city and multi-district regional media centers. These centers are highly proactive and rarely miss a chance to promote the capabilities of technologies such as fiber-optic interconnects, cable, and other delivery systems to local and state school boards. Unfortunately, their advocacy often falls on deaf ears.

The notion of linking many schools together to share teachers in critical courses or to offer advanced classes in remote areas is dismissed by decisionmakers who should know better as science fiction or unattainable in the face of revenue shortfalls and shortages of supplies like paper and chalk.

It is little wonder that few or no "educational leaders" appeared during Congressional hearings on the fiber-optic issue. It's not that the issue is ignored, just that most educators don't even know that it exists.

People in education who work with communications technology every day are largely out of the mainstream of educational administration and do not have access to state and federal information that passes over higher officials' desks.

Higher administration, on the other hand, tends not to have a strong general background in educational technology, so administrators are ill-equiped to assess certain kinds of in4formation as having an important, constructive impact on the educational process. Notices of Congressional hearings or state task forces on fiber optics are either lost in the background clutter of new regulations, test results, and funding battles or are not sent to the right people.

The larger challenge is to get Congressional committees and industry groups linked with knowledgeable people who work with the "Monday morning" needs of educational communications technology every day.

The process of solving the problems and concerns of all sides would be better served by understanding what is actually needed in the field. The beginning of that process is to differentiate between a carrier selling a service and a region with an educational problem to be solved. For the most part, they are not one and the same.

Mark L. Richie
Director
Burlington County Audio-Visual Aids Commission
Mt. Holly, N.J.

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