Letters to the Editor
William J. Bennett's cross-country criticism of American education ("Is Our Culture in Decline?'' Commentary, April 7, 1993) is a thinly veiled attempt to promote the privatization of education. He would have education in America duplicate the Christian academies of Mississippi and turn schools into greenhouses for conservative Republicans.
Before Americans believe the pressure-cooked statistics of Mr. Bennett, they should remember that his mentor, President Reagan, proposed that ketchup be considered a vegetable in the school-lunch program. If Mr. Reagan could attempt to turn catsup into a vegetable, Mr. Bennett would turn wine into water.
"America's public schools are doing a much better job than the U.S. Education Department and the Bush Administration were willing to admit,'' write Joe Schneider and Paul Houston in a new book, Exploding the Myths: Another Round in the Educational Debate, published by the American Association of Educational Service Agencies.
They base their argument on the federally commissioned report on the state of education from the Sandia National Laboratories. That report, as this newspaper has noted, was never officially released by the Bush Administration. One might ask why. Was the intent to keep unhappy or uneasy voters focused on schools rather than on government or corporate policies that have an impact on the economy?
Declining scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, increasing dropout rates, and charges that American students do not measure up to their international peers--all fodder for Mr. Bennett's "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators''--are among the educational myths Mr. Schneider and Mr. Houston seek to explode. For example, critics frequently cite high dropout rates to illustrate declining school performance, but data from the Sandia report, commissioned by the Bush Administration, indicate that "high school graduation rates are at an all-time high.''
Echoes of Bill Bennett's "the sky is falling'' mentality can be heard in comments from the distant past. In 1841, the president of Brown University complained that "students frequently enter college almost wholly unacquainted with English grammar.'' In the 1870's, the Harvard University professor Adam Sherman Hill assessed the writing of his students this way: "Every year, Harvard graduates a certain number of men--some of them high scholars--whose manuscripts would disgrace a boy of 12.'' In 1896, The Nation ran an article entitled "The Growing Illiteracy of American Boys,'' in which the authors lamented the spending of much time, energy, and money teaching students what they ought to have learned already.
Statistics are often used to demonstrate educational decay. But some sets of statistics--those, for example, that show the great leaps forward that have been made during this century in the percentage of American youths attending and graduating from high school--might cast our literacy crisis in a totally different light.
In the United States, just over 75 percent of all of young people complete high school within four years. In Sweden, 45 percent to 50 percent complete the gymnasium (grades 11 and 12). In the Federal Republic of Germany, about 15 percent are enrolled in grade 13. This kind of cross-cultural comparison is rarely made because no other country has the commitment to education for all its children that we have.
Is America's an educational system on the decline or is it one trying to honor through a period of wrenching social change the many demands of a pluralistic society? American schools are attempting to educate more students for a longer time period than any other society. And they are doing so without the benefit of a society that is homogeneous and monolingual. The decade just ended saw more immigrants from more different places coming into our schools than at any other time in our history.
Yet, financial support to education under President Reagan and Mr. Bennett as Secretary of Education failed miserably to meet the demands for more and increased student services to meet this and other social challenges.
Mr. Bennett used his "bully pulpit'' as Secretary to talk education but did not support true reform or better student outcomes. Many people are convinced that the nation's schools are the key to economic growth but few are willing to pay the costs associated with that growth now. In contrast, the approaches taken by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and Secretary of Education Richard Riley seem to be addressing these basic needs and have placed education, apprenticeships, and jobs on the national agenda.
Families, business, and government have to actively support the idea that our children are our future and are worth investing in. Commitment starts with funding. Making changes starts in urban areas, because the children of our urban schools are going to either make or break American government, business, and, in fact, the future of America.
Perhaps this is what Mr. Bennett's "cultural indicators'' really refer to. We need to support our children, but we need to have adults who care, who are responsible, and who are consistent in their efforts for their children. Adults with jobs, hope, and self-esteem are able to do more for their children, and we shouldn't lose sight of this fact.
The time has come to agree on what we expect of our schools. The federal government should provide incentives for businesses to work collaboratively with schools, focused on the development of the state-of-the-art preparation and training needed by our staffs to prepare students for the future.
Public schools do make a difference. There are many positive stories unfolding in our schools. They are not news; the media prefer to highlight instead the troubles that Mr. Bennett's views on public education take full advantage of. Funding that supports school-based initiatives and smaller class size does make a difference. Urban public schools, properly funded, are the answer to the American dream of education for all--but not in isolation from support and jobs for families and an all-out attempt to stop the drug trade.
Exploding the Myths responds to charges from business leaders that public schools fail to teach the skills needed for 21st century jobs. Examining the role of American education in a global economy, the authors conclude that "what the country needs to do is improve the jobs, pays, and skills of the non-college-educated workforce'' and that "corporate America has got to take the lead.''
Mr. Bennett should beat the drum for a renewed commitment to families and to children and not just beat his breast about the horrors of urban life.
Margaret R. Harrington
Queens High Schools
New York City Board of Education
New York, N.Y.
I wish to correct an error of fact regarding the prerequisites policy of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards ("National Board Revises Prerequisites for Certification of Teachers,'' March 31, 1993).
The N.B.P.T.S. board of directors at its March meeting revised the prerequisites policy to state that all candidates for National Board Certification, with one exception, must hold at least a bachelor's degree, have three years of experience teaching in an early-childhood, elementary, middle, or secondary school, and a valid state teaching license. The exception is teachers in private or parochial schools who are not required by their state to hold a teaching license. In such cases, the candidate must hold a bachelor's degree and have three years of teaching experience in a school recognized and approved to operate by the state.
James A. Kelly
National Board for Professional
Of the 11 people selected for the roundtable discussion on education reform ("From Risk to Renewal,'' Special Report, April 21, 1993), none were teachers.
While I do not doubt the value of their insight or good intentions, I do question the "reality factor'' of the comments made by those so far removed from the point where teaching and learning takes place.
Could it be that this is--once again--one of the key problems in achieving meaningful reform?
I'm writing to express disappointment about the omission from your now completed series "From Risk to Renewal'' of the many contributions made by Seymour Sarason, the Yale University scholar whose most recent book, The Case for Change: Rethinking the Preparation of Educators, identifies many of the most neglected aspects of the culture of the school.
Nor does the series enlarge the peephole through which reform-oriented observers and participants perceive the relationship between learning and behavior problems, and the neurobiological/cognitive-psychology research findings that are likely to provide new, useful, and potentially viable ways for constructing better (not necessarily "complete'') solutions to what now seem intractible problems.
You've published an interesting, pot-boiler series likely to gather dust in the intellectually arid field of education literature.