Published Online:

Letters to The Editor

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

I was pleased to see your recent article, "School-Finance Suits Look Beyond Money to Issues of Quality,'' (June 17, 1992). It discusses an important trend in education litigation: the increasing reliance on theories of adequacy to achieve high-quality education for all students.

I was distressed, however, by the article's suggestion that the quality-education movement is somehow at odds with the civil-rights principle of equality.

In fact, all of the educational-adequacy lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union also seek to establish educational equality. Indeed, the lawsuits go beyond formal equality--as measured by school-expenditure levels--to seek educational equity. By this we mean that the true measure of educational equality is that all students be provided with educational resources that afford them with equality of educational opportunity.

The importance of equity in this sense is demonstrated in the A.C.L.U.'s Connecticut lawsuit, Sheff v. O'Neill. In Connecticut, earlier school-finance litigation established the principle of equal funding. However, children in the Hartford school system continue to receive a substantially inferior education than children in the surrounding suburbs. In Sheff, the A.C.L.U. and other civil-rights groups are asking the court for a remedy that would ensure that the Hartford students receive an equal level of educational opportunity, even if this requires an increased level of educational funding.

The A.C.L.U.'s work in Alabama and Louisiana has shown that equality of educational funding is not enough. Alabama, for example, ranks 49th in the country in per capita spending on its public schools. The "average'' school in Alabama has shortages of textbooks, decrepit buildings, inadequate curricula, and other serious educational problems. A remedy that merely "equalized'' funding or, for that matter, educational opportunity, would condemn all children in the state to inadequate educations. For this reason, the A.C.L.U.'s lawsuit, Harper v. Hunt, expressly seeks to establish the right to an adequate education, as well as to enforce equal protection.

The problem, of course, is that either litigation theory--equality or adequacy--taken alone has the danger of creating what one commentator has characterized as a "caste system.'' Under a federal system, in which education remains primarily a state function, achieving educational equality within each state could result in a nation in which students in Alabama, for example, are relegated to a level of education far below that offered to students in states that are willing to make greater investments in their children. For this reason, the A.C.L.U. is firmly committed to using both strategies--equality and adequacy--to secure the right to an education that allows every child to flourish and achieve his or her fullest potential.

Helen Hershkoff
Associate Legal Director
American Civil Liberties Union Foundation
New York, N.Y.

Two crucial facts seem to be neglected by most persons working to improve public education:

1. Most teachers teach as they were taught.

2. Most high-school teachers teach the textbook.

Thus, if we want to improve public education, we must improve the teaching of teachers in college and we must improve textbooks.

In the natural and social sciences, most college teachers of teachers do not know their subjects in the best form for teaching, learning, and thinking. They cannot answer the following questions about the courses they teach and most of the answers are not present in college textbooks:

1. What are the embedded and developing theories included in this course? Identify all theories, even though they are not commonly called theories, even though they lie hidden in the dogmatic language of textbooks.

2. What are the basic premises, the postulates, of each theory?

3. What are some examples of lines of reasoning used for support, for explanation, and for prediction in each theory?

4. What are the range of applicability and the limitations, the boundaries, of each theory?

If answers to these questions were known and put to work in textbooks, classes, and examinations, the following words from Bruner could have a strong impact: "Perhaps the most basic thing that can be said about human memory, after a century of intensive research, is that unless detail is placed into a structured pattern, it is rapidly forgotten.'' "A good theory is the vehicle not only for understanding a phenomenon now but also for remembering it tomorrow.''

And if all college courses in the natural and social sciences were properly structured, there could be a concerted and lasting across-disciplines program to teach teachers the pattern, the arts, and the habits of rational-critical thinking while at the same time teaching the subjects in a more efficient and a more effective way.

Ralph W. Lewis
Professor Emeritus
College of Natural Science
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Mich.

Thank you for your news report, "Keyboard Helps Autistic Youths Find Their Voices, Advocates Say,'' (June 10, 1992).

The article covered many issues and differing points of view concerning "facilitated communication.'' What is most important is that it informed professionals, parents, and others that there may possibly be a way for people with communication deficits to communicate.

As a behavioral scientist and a believer in facilitated communication, I know that research must be done, not only for validation, but to answer many questions concerning this approach and its effects. What I have encountered at professional conferences, however, are closed minds on the subject. It is distressing to me that some professionals seem willing to keep people--adults as well as children--silent for another 5 to 10 years until facilitated communication is validated through research.

The question I want to ask is, "How does one know what the research questions are if one has not been part of the facilitated-communication experience?''

My hope is that parents and professionals will read your article. Then maybe parents will place pressure on the professionals to try facilitated communication. Or, perhaps, the many professionals who read your paper will decide on their own to try facilitated communication in an effort to help all people "break the silence.''

Constance D. Saxe
Program DirectorDatahr Rehabilitation Institute
Brookfield, Conn.

I've just had the opportunity to watch my first kindergarten class (which opened the school in 1986) be promoted to middle school. I left one of the "best'' elementary schools in Dade County, Fla., (high test scores, high socioeconomic area, heavy parent involvement, etc.) to come to a Hispanic area where fully one-half of my entering kindergarten class was "at risk.'' From a school where you could expect the majority to know their colors, shapes, numerals to 10, some alphabet, and their name--to another school in the same system, 15 miles away, where the majority couldn't speak English, didn't know all their colors or shapes in their native tongue, couldn't recognize their name, didn't know the alphabet, and knew only a few numerals. Therefore, I read your special report, "By All Measures: The Debate Over Standards and Assessments,'' (June 17, 1992) with great interest.

We all use the same curriculum guide, the same computerized grade cards, and have similar materials. Are the kindergarten programs similar? Elliot Eisner, Kenneth Goodman, and Grant Wiggins would know the answer: "[T]he belief that a common curriculum will serve all, at best is questionable'' ... "Our standards need to vary as much as our people do'' ... "Why haven't schools chosen to adopt genuine standards?'' Flash! News bulletin: Children don't enter school with the same level of skills or mastery, even in the same school system in the same town.

How about the all-important "hidden curriculum''? Did my mainly Hispanic class know that school is a place for learning? Could they sit in a seat, listen well to follow directions, use scissors, hold writing implements properly, treat a book with respect, return homework, or arrive at school on time every day? These tasks/skills take months to teach when a parent hasn't previously introduced or reinforced them. It took hours of extra time to hold parent/teacher conferences as early as 7:30 A.M. to gather the background in-formation that would explain a child's behavior and provide me with a beginning; it took hours more for me and the counselor to do some sort of parent education and follow-up. Parents must be involved.

We have writing portfolios at my school and I was asked to review the 5th graders, as I had taught them in kindergarten and might be interested in their progress. Their portfolios were fascinating. While they had progressed from three- to five-word sentences, I was overwhelmed by spelling errors, lack of punctuation, grammar, and limited vocabulary. In saying this, I know how hard teachers have worked, how many in-service hours we've all put in, the quality of instructional leadership, our ongoing home-reading program, and the expectations.

With all the buzz words--"world-class standards,'' "cutting edge,'' "quality education,'' etc.--the at-risk youngsters must be introduced to school earlier, as President Bush mentioned in his America 2000 plan. A parent-education component is critical, and if the parents can't come to the school, we must go out to them. Beginning in kindergarten, children must be encouraged to learn all they can (not just finish the workbook, or do the ditto); to move ahead as fast as they can (computer technology helps the teacher here); and, to help one another work with others--and learn cooperation, sharing, and other group skills. (Need I mention "decent'' class size?)

So, set standards if you must, but please, be creative in the assessment and give children all the help and time they need to meet the standards (without being made to feel unworthy). We don't all start at the same place, and no one really believes we should finish there, either ... at the same time.

Nancy K. Webster
Miami, Fla.

Contrary to the feeling expressed by my colleague, Superintendent Mark Beauvais of Tilton, N.H., ("Boards and Administrators: Making Top Job a 'Horror,''' Letters, May 13, 1992), there is no confusion over who's the superintendent in St. Vrain Valley, Colo.

Our board member, William Soult, was profiled in the your article, "Seven Days a Week,'' which was part of a special report on school boards (April 29, 1992).

In my 26 years of public education, Bill Soult has proven to be one of the strongest advocates for hiring a superintendent and entrusting him to do his job. There is no "micro-management'' in my district and our entire board understands its role very well.

They know that their job is to set a vision, hire a superintendent, adopt a budget, and allow the job to be done. In Bill Soult's case, he takes the job one step further in keeping open communication lines with me and with employees and students throughout the district. His insight, along with that of other board members who adopt this kind of open and non-threatening attitude, enhances our ability to keep in touch with our community and know its needs and expectations.

In the current climate for public education, superintendents and board members need to take this enlightened and non-defensive posture in approaching their work together as a team. It is only in this kind of trusting, mutually respecting environment that we can best make our schools the center of our community and entrust both staff and board members with working together to create a climate for excellence.

Fred Pierce
St. Vrain Valley Schools
Longmont, Colo.

There is an assumption made by Cinthia Schuman, executive director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, that the higher grades that girls get compared to boys are valid ("Is the National-Merit Deck Stacked Against Women?'' Letters, June 17, 1992). Might it not be that girls' grades reflect a "halo'' effect?

Joseph P. Kender
Department of Leadership, Instruction and Technology College of Education Lehigh University
Bethlehem, Pa

Charles F. Manski's economic analysis of voucher plans ("Economist Discusses Study Analyzing Voucher System,'' June 3, 1992) concludes, usefully, that vouchers "would not come close'' to equalizing educational opportunities and that the nation "should not rush to implement voucher programs.''

It is disturbing, however, that voucher plans were analyzed primarily from the point of view of an economist. Ever so much more is at stake.

Any comprehensive analysis of possible voucher plans should look at least at these topics: constitutionality under federal and state constitutions; religious, ideological, socioeconomic class, gender, and other forms of selectivity and imbalance which would likely be increased under a voucher plan; academic selectivity or "skimming''; school "shopping''; increased costs of transportation which would inevitably follow "choice'' plans, whether open to non-public schools or not; effect on public support for education if the public has to pay for schools not under public control and in which sectarian or other indoctrination is pervasive; effects of teacher unions, teacher tenure, teacher compensation, and desirability of teaching as a profession.

Such an expanded analysis would lead most fair-minded persons to conclude that vouchers are decidedly not a good idea.

Edd Doerr
Executive Director Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

The recent expansion of the U.S. Supreme Court's prohibition against prayer in the public schools to ban invocations at public-school graduation ceremonies seemed unnecessary. However, it reminded me of a story I heard some years ago about a notice that was posted on the bulletin board of a California school. It read: "In the event of an earthquake, the Supreme Court's ban against praying in school will be suspended temporarily.''

Paul Brickner
Immediate Past President
Wisconsin Board of Education
Willoughby, Ohio

I enjoyed Wayne Hogan's Commentary ("What's Good Writing and What Ain't,'' June 10, 1992) and agreed with his assessment of the unnamed young writer's "People/Dogs'' essay. His remarks brought to mind a quote attributed to Mark Twain:

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.''

I'm sorry I can't confirm this as an authentic Twain utterance, but thought, in the spirit of the essay, that it deserved to be passed on.

Dean Hiser
Program Director
Early Intervention for School Success
Costa Mesa, Calif.

I just finished teaching a graduate course entitled, "The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America,'' and I found two articles in your June 10, 1992, issue most timely on that subject.

These two articles, "Downsized Military Curtails Job Options For Some Graduates'' and "States Aim To Ease Transition From School to Work,'' were both on target. I prefer to use the term "school to employment'' rather than "school to work,'' since work may imply the message that school is not work for students.

During our course at the State University of New York at Buffalo, el10l.we discussed both of these issues in detail. We had two Marine recruiters visit the class and talk about the issues of recruiting high-school students into the U.S. Marine Corps. This proved to be a most interesting and helpful session for the students in the course.

Students make a transition from high school in one of three ways: school to school; school to employment; or school to unemployment. I have come to the conclusion that every high-school graduate should be handed over to some agency upon graduation: 1.) Those going on to higher education are handed over to postsecondary schools. 2.) Those seeking and finding employment are handed over to an employer. 3.) Those seeking but not finding employment should be handed over to the local state employment agency.

To repeat: Every high-school graduate should be handed over to some agency upon graduation and not just left to sink or swim in the adult world.

Most school districts see their role as preparing students for more schooling, rather than employment after high-school graduation. Equal attention must be given to those graduates seeking employment. When local districts report the percentage of their graduates planning to go to college, I want to know about the forgotten half as well.

I thank the William T. Grant Foundation's Commission on Youth and America's Future for bringing the issue of the forgotten half to national attention. Think about it.

Albert J. Pautler. Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo, N.Y.

I enjoyed very much the Commentary, "Watching Parents React to Test Scores,'' by James T. English (June 3, 1992).

As educators, we need to remind parents that tests are not magical x-rays--they are samples of behavior at a given point in el15l.time. We need to remind them that often what is taught in the classroom according to a specific curriculum and what is tested on the standardized test are not commensurate; that students learn differently--why can't they be tested differently?

Often, how a student processes information will have more to do with his performance on a standardized test than how much ability he has. Poor processing skills can depress a student's performance on a test in spite of his abilities. We need to teach children how to become better at recalling, sequencing, and integrating information commensurate with their rate of informational intake and output. It appears that we value more the test score than what has been learned.

Robert M. Davis, Jr. School Psychologist
Albemarle County Schools
Charlottesville, Va.

By Brad Mitchell

We are adrift in a rising tide of "education'' presidents, governors, business leaders and their erstwhile replacements waiting on shore. They come and go almost as swiftly as their sound bite slogans and "photo op'' summit meetings. What lingers always in the wake are the overly politicized governance structures and the highly bureacratized public-sector institutions devoted to the efficient delivery of mass education to the masses--namely, the Education State.

Over the last decade we have tried to reform the education profession (witness career ladders, merit pay plans, increased starting salaries, graduate-level teacher education programs, professional standards boards). We also have tried to reform the public-school bureaucreacy (witness site-based management, parental choice, total-quality management, paradigm shifts, school-business partnerships). Clearly, a renewal of public education in American requires such actions. Yet we have overlooked a third cornerstone of change--government. Beyond being workplaces for millions of professionals and exemplars of bureaucratic organization, public schools are governmental enterprises. To reform public education fully and fairly, we must also reform government in America, especially at the state level.

David Osborne and Ted Gaebler have just published a book all educational reformers should read titled: Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector (see Education Week, February 19, 1992). Osborne and Gaebler suggest "business-as-usual'' governing is no longer viable in policy domains such as health care, banking, defense, welfare, crime and education. They call for a "reinvention'' of American government based on values of local empowerment, competitiveness, entrepreneurialism, and marketplace accountability. The authors argue that the question should not be whether or not a new governor will aggressively support radical educational reform in her state. Instead, the question should focus on how to establish new governance strategies and ways of governing to propoel the state's education system into the next century regardless of who resides in the governor's mansion.

Osborne and Gaebler are on to something here. Put simply, today the Education State, in most states, is perhaps in greater political turmoil than the Russian commonwealth but hardly anyone is paying as much notice. Russian and Eastern European public managers in the rudiments of democratic decisionmaking. Would they have any better luck with an American high-school staff on the verge of site-based managememnt or a state school board's battle with an aggressive governor on the nature of board membership and appointment?

Sure there is some talk of "new and improved'' state education agencies (witness Virginia, New Mexico, Washington, and Ohio) or different forms of school finance plans. And yes, we have the touchstone of the new Education State known as Kentucky but elements of such noble experiments erode daily due to court battles, recession politics, and/or bureaucratic intertia. Despite all these actions, how we govern public schools is still in desperate need of an overhaul.

Let us cast a glance at Minnesota, Sweden, and New Zealand. We may discount these three modern Education States for being too sparsely populated, culturally/racially homogenous and overly committed to social welfare principles. What can a polygolt state like New York, Florida, Texas, or California learn from such bland and uncomplicated commonweals? At present, our best model of reinvented education governance in American is Minnesota and globally it is Sweden and New Zealand. Sure there are cultural difference we must keep in perspective but there is a lot we can learn from how they reinvent government to changing circumstances. They know how to change basic incentives that drive decision makers to improve the quality of public sector performance and private sector support.

For example, Minnesota uses a two-year budget but projects costs and revenues out of four years (two years beyond reelection years). Whenever a legislative committee considers a policy change, the state finance department issues a "fiscal note'' that identifies the four-year implications of the proposed change. Moreover, these "notes'' include the impact on other departments and other jurisdictions such as local governments and school districts. New Zealand and Sweden are shifting to mission-driven, results-oriented budyets for their national governments in an effort to prevent the proliferation of special interest politics associated with line-item budget systems. Should we ignore such refinements in public governance and administration just becuase they come from states and national with limited cultural pluralism? I think not.

In closing, I offer a "ten-point strategy'' for all "education'' presidents, governors, legislators, and business leaders to consider as they take stock of the state of their own Education State.

1. Conduct a thorough and fairly apolitical review of how governmental budgeting, accounting and personnel systems impede or enhance school restructuring in your state.

2. Delineate what reforms in legislative decision making (e.g., term limits, term expansions, campaign finance reforms, committee structures, budget time horizons) might improve the prospects of significant educational reform in your state.

3. Solicit, disseminate and discuss grassroots perceptions (employers, colleges, parents, students and educators) on what tangible benefits accrue from obtaining a public education and/or from having a public education system.

4. Discuss how governmental entitlement programs might be realigned to strengthen public and consumer confidence in the value and benefit of public education (e.g., guaranteed college education for successful high school performance, health care/home down payment vouchers for high school dropouts who return and complete degree requirements.).

5. Develop a ten year education futures plan which spells out basic governmental obligations and school reform plans that subsequent "education'' governors and legislatures must directly confront.

6. Require regular reports which compare the costss and benefits of remediation efforts sas compared to problem prevention efforts (e.g., numbers of special education units for Learning Disabled students who were low birth weight infants versus governmental support for adequate prenatal nutrution and care.)

7. Require state-supported Colleges of Education and land-grant universities to invest considerable research and development expertise and resources in school restructuring efforts and the reinvention of governing systems.

8. Require regular legislative reports on the implications and consequenses of changes in educational, youth and family policy on related governmental departments and jurisdictions.

9. Encourage school districts to tie some levy campaigns to specified educational reform plans and performance expectations. Failure to realize performance goals by prescribed deadlines could lead to loss of designated levy-generated resources.

10. Document, disseminate and discuss how business and industry policies and practices impact the pursuit of educational excellence and equity (e.g., parental leave plans, subsidized childcare, tax abatements and subsidies, zoning agreements.).

A properly structured Education State can survive the whimseys and whiplashes of "education'' presidents, governors and business leaders. Our children no longer can afford to wait for the periodic but brief appearance of the proverbial white knight on his golden steed. If the federal debt stoopped growing today, each of tomorrow's children would have to spend the first $5,000 of their annual tax burden just to pay off the interest on yesterday's debt. The Education State must provide new ways of governing and it must forge new relations with the private sector and pertinent markets or our children face grim times. I have two daughters under the age of eight and my coffee table is covered with travel brochures for Minnesota, Sweden and New Zealand.

Brad Mitchell is a professor of education at the Ohio State University.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories