Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
No fair! While those of us who argue for more heterogeneity in classrooms are slogging through research and crafting ponderous, data-laden arguments, some gifted educators are having all the fun ("When Ability Grouping Makes Good Sense,'' Commentary, Oct. 28, 1992).
Yes, I know, James J. Gallagher cites some well-debunked "recent meta-analyses which indicate substantial gains for gifted students grouped for ability.'' However, his real craft is in probing the "small matter of common sense'' and "what is obvious to a first-year graduate student or any knowledgeable parent.''
Not being gifted myself, I can't compete with Mr. Gallagher's inventive scenarios, and neither would I presume that my common sense is as finely honed as his common sense. But, like many non-gifted, I know how to lean on the work of others; I hope I don't slow down Professor Gallagher if I rely on some of his words.
Mr. Gallagher wonders, "Do we improve the skills of our Olympic swimmers by asking that they take time to teach nonswimmers how to swim?'' I don't know much about Olympic swimmers, but it seems that we improve their skills by providing ideal training conditions, personal coaches, and swimming pools--resources that, if they were more widely distributed, could result in many more world-class swimmers. And, I'll bet some do take time to teach others--even nonswimmers--and learn from them as well.
Similarly, Mr. Gallagher asks, "Is our plan for preparing the next John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors to ask them to play tennis with novices?'' Boy, I bet they'd hate that--probably throw down their racquets, stomp off the court, curse the referee. Where would the nation be if we could not replace the current John McEnroe with another just like him?
Professor Gallagher urges the reader to "ask the bright students what they think of the two different settings'' and hear them tell of "crashing boredom, of idleness, of lack of challenge.'' I have an idea; let's do research. We can ask kids in the low, the medium-low, the average, the high-average, and the nearly-gifted tracks what they know about boredom, idleness, and lack of challenge. Maybe they will have something interesting to report.
Mr. Gallagher notes "the failure of our best students to keep pace with top students in other countries.'' A typo? He must mean our "almost-top students''--the ones who aren't in gifted classes. Common sense tells me that unfavorable international comparisons are more a reflection of America's highly tracked education system than new "social goals'' that are hardly rampaging through our schools.
I'll end with a note of appreciation to James Gallagher for momentarily liberating me from an obligation to counter common sense with a bunch of research studies and boring anecdotes about the 70 or 80--or is it 99.57--percent of the country's (not-gifted) school children (our nation's second-most-precious resource).
Calabasas High School
The writer, an educational researcher, is the co-author, with Jeannie Oakes, of Making the Best of Schools.
To the Editor:
Your piece on education in values ("Election Talk Aside, Education in Values Gains Momentum,'' Oct. 21, 1992) was very interesting, but just as puzzling. I gather that the main argument goes something like this: There are deeply disturbing signs of a moral crisis in our society and, therefore, schools ought to initiate or strengthen values-education efforts.
I am all in favor of explicitly taking on values in the schools, but there is something faulty in the logic of that argument. If there is a moral crisis in society, why is the focus only on schools? Why don't the projects and people mentioned turn their attention to that larger society that is so troubling?
Certainly the behavior of some young people is troubling, but are they the perpetrators of the moral crisis in society? Why should we ask them to change their attitudes and behavior without demonstrating that we are also expecting the same from adults whose business, media, and governmental antics create the climate of moral crisis that surrounds young people? Or is it now the case, as it has been historically, that it is more convenient and less politically dangerous to blame young people for the conditions that detract from their dignity and lead them to "strike out'' against those same conditions?
What if, before we judge young people, we were to ask why there has been a rise in conditions like poverty, unemployment, racism, homelessness, sexism, homophobia, and so on?
Another puzzling aspect of the article was the loose way in which character education was elevated to the status of values education. Character education focuses almost entirely on behavior, while values education is concerned with attitudes and predispositions as well as actions. Certainly these two views are related, but they are not the same thing. Just because young people are made to behave in certain ways (and by any method) does not mean that they value the reasons for that behavior or that they even know the reasons. If all we are after is behavior, the historical cornerstone of character-education programs, then why do we spend so much time talking about helping young people learn how to think and reason as a goal of education?
I am also concerned about the technical inaccuracy of one point in the article. Thomas Lickona, one of your sources, says that the values-clarification approach "led students to believe whatever values they had were O.K.,'' whereas he would suggest teachers indicate that "there may be more than one answer and be prepared to support your answer with your best moral reasoning.'' This would be a good point except that I cannot find where the original explanations of the values-clarification approach said the former, while I can find lots of places where they said the latter.
Could it be that Mr. Lickona is confusing misinterpretations of the approach with the theory it supposedly presented? If so, we might be better informed, and less ahistorical, if he was clear about this.
Finally, I was angered by Patrick McCarthy's comment that "you don't have ethical debates with 1st graders or kindergartners because they don't know ethics.'' This statement is not only demeaning to young children, but flies in the face of research on their moral reasoning and the recommendations of early-childhood educators. Obviously the kind of reasoning and debates we might expect from young children would be different from those we expect of adolescents, but the statement as it stands is both dangerous and wrong.
Those people who are "leading'' the new wave of concern for values in education would do well to think about the values that are behind their judgments of young people as well as the approaches they advocate. They might also ask themselves questions about whose values they are espousing and who really benefits from their work. And your newspaper ought to ask the same questions.
James A. Beane
National College of Education
To the Editor:
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's analysis of school choice is seriously flawed ("Advocates React Angrily to Study Questioning Merits of Choice,'' Nov. 4, 1992). Only one choice program (Milwaukee's) that includes private schools was studied--hardly a large enough sample to prove conclusive.
Moreover, in citing the Milwaukee voucher program as evidence that choice has failed to improve education, the foundation ignores the legislative restrictions that hamper choice in that city. There, children may redeem their vouchers only at non-sectarian schools willing to accept the voucher as payment-in-full for tuition even if the school's fees normally run higher. Not surprisingly, only 11 private schools can or will participate in the program.
It's not just available spaces that are restricted; so are the numbers of children who fill them. Only poor families are eligible for vouchers, and no more than 1 percent of all public-school children may use vouchers to switch schools. With only 632 students exercising choice in a district enrolling 97,000, it is little wonder that the public schools have not been "revitalized'' through competition.
Even more misleading is the Carnegie foundation's assertion
choice "requires additional ... financial support.'' In truth, widespread use of vouchers under a choice program would actually save money. Average state spending on education is about $5,000 per pupil. Most voucher proposals advocate spending half that amount. A study by the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles concluded that the California government could save over $3 billion dollars with school choice compared with what it spends now on K-12 education each year.
Finally, despite its overall negative evaluation of school choice, the Carnegie foundation did find that parents and students who exercised choice were happy with the schools they selected. Isn't that the point?
Los Angleles, Calif.
To the Editor:
Ernest Boyer's poll showing so much negative response to his questions about school choice is not surprising to me. I have been writing a national newsletter on educational freedom since 1968, and from letters and meetings I realize how little folks have really thought about any alternative to the present state-run systems.
For one thing, asking public school parents if they would send their child to an alternative to their local public school is stacked. All that parent can think of is perhaps a Catholic or Lutheran or Montessori school as the alternative. If they don't have an interest in any of those choices then naturally they have no interest in choice.
Mr. Boyer misses the point Thomas Jefferson made. Jefferson said freedom means choice. Not just being able to choose among existing alternatives, but to create for oneself new alternatives. Jefferson said without choice, a man becomes but an instrument, a member, a thing. Choice means freedom. My vision is that hundreds of new kinds of schools would flower if there was real educational freedom.
As long as the educational establishment, led by folks like Mr. Boyer, frustrates any effort at promoting alternatives to the compulsory, government-monopoly, mass schooling we have now, very few folks will learn of the beauty of freedom in education and how it could transform society. I wonder how many poor black or Hispanic families suffering with miserable education for their kids in the inner cities were part of the survey?
The one question no poll seems to ask is what moral guideline, what spiritual/cultural purpose, guides or should guide our huge state-run systems? What is the purpose of it all?
Education is inextricably bound up with values-inculcation. It starts and ends with values; value judgments permeate it throughout. The courts have pretty well abolished the traditional values that started the schools under Horace Mann. We should be asking, "Can a democratically controlled school transmit the spiritual/cultural tradition of a diverse people?'' I think not. Voting on what virtues are worth pursuing is not the domain of politics.
Robert S. Marlowe
Upper Marlboro, Md.
To the Editor:
Your essay on expanding the Head Start program by revamping the federal Chapter 1 program ("Re-examining Head Start,'' Commentary, Oct. 21, 1992) suffers from what I consider to be one of the chief faults of studies on the educational process, namely, generalizations.
Statements such as, "While there is not much data on the effectiveness of Chapter 1, policymakers have ignored the results that do exist, namely that participating students do not exhibit meaningful improvements in achievement levels ... and [the program] has yet to prove its worth empirically.''
The Glen Cove City School District on Long Island has yearly reviewed the Chapter 1 test results. These results are sent to the New York State Department of Education for review. I am the person responsible for the review at the local level. I cannot speak to what happens with these results once they leave the testing office, but I can address what is done in Glen Cove, and I suspect in many other districts.
After an analysis of the results is completed, program adjustments are made where indicated. Our expectation is that every child should be able to succeed, no matter how small the progress. Working with children is not like working with a machine, which, once fixed, may remain fixed. Children who are in the Chapter 1 program come from a variety of backgrounds. Progress to many may come in small steps, but if one is persistent, success will come.
No statistical analysis, and certainly not very many politicians, can measure this success.
It is true that parent-involvement issues are the current vogue. But while attempts are being made to actively involve parents in the education of their children, today's economy precludes many from helping the children as much as they would like. Similarly, family structures have changed, with single-parent homes having become almost the norm.
The people in Washington have got to realize that there are good things happening in many schools--not all schools, but many. To paint broad generalizations is wrong, particularly when the people in the field have little or no control over these "evaluations'' by governmental consultants.
Perhaps what has to be looked at are the statistical-analysis techniques the government pays for dearly from selected consultants. There is more to education than numbers. The right people have to be asked the right questions. To do less than that is unfair to the educational practitioners and to the children.
Jack E. Sotsky
Landing Elementary School
Glen Cove, N.Y.