Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
We at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching welcome thoughtful critique of our study, "School Choice.'' But the record needs to be set straight following your recent "Q&A'' interview with James MacGuire, who argues that the Carnegie study distorted data on parent motivation and student participation in Minnesota and Arizona, conducted a slanted opinion poll, and ignored past studies that purportedly demonstrate choice's effectiveness in improving academic performance ("Monograph's Author Critiques Carnegie Study on Choice,'' Focus On, May 5, 1993).
Taking each point in turn, we did not ignore past research, some of which supports the high hopes for choice. We cited, for example, studies by the Educational Testing Service; Barbara Strobert of Montclair, N.J.; Charles Glenn of Boston University; and Bell Associates of Cambridge, Mass., whose research buttressed our conclusion that well-designed, local public school choice can be an effective reform tool.
A good deal of research is less supportive. The RAND Corporation's voluminous study of the Alum Rock, Calif., choice experiment a decade ago raised many concerns about the fairness and effectiveness of choice. Several recent analyses of student-achievement data from the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study suggest that "choice schools'' are not, per se, different or better than other schools. Studies of Milwaukee's private school choice plan show, so far, few gains in academic performance among participants.
Our intention, however, was not to write an exhaustive review of the literature but to present a portrait of choice plans now in place. We derived our conclusions not only from past studies, but from extensive classroom observations and interviews with students, parents, teachers, and other participants. To complete the national picture, we mailed a questionnaire to the 50 state departments of education, with follow-up calls to update and verify the data. Finally, we hired the highly-respected Wirthlin Group to conduct a national opinion poll.
The state and local data we gathered in Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota, Arizona, and elsewhere showed that many parents switch schools for convenience, geography, and other nonacademic reasons--a finding consistent with Alum Rock research a decade earlier. We spent hours in several districts such as South St. Paul, Minn., reviewing open-enrollment applications received by that district last year. We discovered, once again, that parents cited a host of reasons beyond academics for switching schools. Further, our national survey of parents found that only 15 percent who expressed a wish to send their children to other schools identified "academic quality'' as their primary reason.
Mr. MacGuire states that "Carnegie reaches the conclusion'' that only one-third of Arizona parents choose schools for academic reasons. This was not our "conclusion,'' but a direct reference to a March 1992 survey by that state's department of education of inter- and intra-district student transfers. The exact percentage of participants citing "general academics'' as their reason for transferring was 31.53 percent.
Next, Mr. MacGuire claims that a U.S. Education Department-sponsored study published last October, titled "Minnesota's Open Enrollment Option,'' discredits our findings about choice in that state. He fails to mention that we did, in fact, cite that report's data--including the figure that 55 percent of Minnesota's parents named "learning climate'' as a reason for switching schools. (Of course, "learning climate'' is such an all-embracing category including anything from class size to safety to physical plant to academics--that it would have been astonishing had most respondents not selected it.)
The Minnesota report, in fact, contains conflicting evidence on parent motivations. Differing with parents, Minnesota school administrators believe that geography, not academics, has been the main motivation for school transfers.
Further, the U.S. Education Department's report found little evidence that choice in Minnesota has affected teaching style or led to instructional innovation. And many African-American, Hispanic, Laotian, and Hmong parents were largely unaware of their choices, according to the report.
Next, Mr. MacGuire charges that we deliberately used "outdated'' choice enrollment figures "in order to downplay its popularity'' in Arizona. Our figures were the most up-to-date available at the time of publication, taken directly from the state's March 1992 choice report. As we reported, some 9,000 of the state's 683,000 pupils were attending public schools outside their district under the state's choice program, while another 21,000 attended non-neighborhood schools within their districts. Shortly after our study went to print, Arizona released new figures showing, as Mr. MacGuire correctly states, that 35 percent more students were participating in various choice plans than the previous year. Once again, however, he fails to mention that practically all that growth occurred in plans within single districts. Even had the updated numbers been available to us, they would not have altered our finding that statewide choice plans, so far, have not been widely used.
Finally, Mr. MacGuire concludes that we published a biased poll on school choice, since our findings seemingly differ dramatically from past surveys. The simple answer is that our poll, designed and conducted by the Wirthlin Group, asked different questions. Frankly, we were troubled by polls that have asked, in effect, "Are you in favor of choice?,'' or "Other countries offer private school vouchers, so shouldn't we?''--with no hint at all of any trade-offs involved. Our goal was to formulate, as carefully as we could, a question that fairly summarized both sides of the equation.
Specifically, the poll asked 1,000 parents nationwide to state their preference between two broad reform strategies. The first would focus on improving all neighborhood schools, providing each the resources needed to achieve excellence. The second would have schools compete for students, with quality schools rewarded and weaker schools forced either to improve or close.
The survey found that 82 percent agreed with the first option. In this connection, it might be noted that when citizens in Oregon and Colorado were given the opportunity to actually vote on the issue, they turned down statewide voucher initiatives by 2-to-1 margins.
The Carnegie Foundation report on school choice was never meant to be the last word. New information will surely be forthcoming as state and local initiatives continue. Such evidence should be used to guide the future path of school renewal.
The stakes are far too high for policymakers to divide into warring camps. The goal should be to search for common ground, and seek ways to make every school a school worth choosing.
Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching
Mr. Mitgang was the principal researcher for the foundation's report, "School Choice.''
To the Editor:
Your article about corporate "curriculum materials'' ("Some Educators Casting a Wary Eye on Corporate Curriculum Materials,'' May 12, 1993) focused on items that try to promote specific goods or services, or that try to enhance recognition of a company's name and logo. Let us note that corporations also distribute materials that are not overtly commercial but promote false impressions about current events or about issues of public policy.
An example here is "The Continuing Forest,'' a video produced by Caterpillar Inc. Caterpillar sells equipment for road-building and logging. The video presents a fanciful, misleading picture of logging in the national forests of the Northwest, evidently seeking to deflect attention from controversies that have arisen from destructive logging practices. The video even includes statements that are patently false, such as the categorical declaration that clear-cutting is "necessary'' in Douglas fir forests.
Another example is a video that the Exxon Corporation has been offering, at no charge, to science teachers. Exxon says that the video, titled "Scientists and the Alaska Oil Spill,'' tells about the "recovery'' of the marine environment that was polluted by the notorious Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The California Textbook League recently arranged for the Exxon video to be reviewed by D. Michael Fry, a professional biologist who has observed the Exxon Valdez spill directly and has studied its effects for several years. His review has been published in the league's bulletin, The Textbook Letter; Mr. Fry demonstrates that the video deals in misinformation and gross distortions, and he concludes that it is "not an educational resource but a public-relations device.''
William J. Bennetta
California Textbook League
To the Editor:
Your article on sponsored education materials raises some important issues, yet misses a key point: The future of education depends partly on corporate involvement. The demand for corporate-sponsored materials is well established and has risen dramatically as educators contend with reduced funding nationwide.
Understandably, there is concern about the educational content versus the marketing content of sponsored materials. The contention of Alex Molnar of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee that "the free materials contain nothing of value that schools could not come up with on their own'' is true.
To assure educational validity, the programs we design for the classroom are designed in conjunction with parents, educators, and in some cases, child psychologists. They are then carefully analyzed and reviewed by focus groups of educators to insure that the material provided is pertinent, meaningful to the curriculum, and unbiased. All corporate sponsors are clearly defined in the communications teachers receive. And, most importantly, teachers make the final decision on whether or not the students view the materials.
In many schools, teachers spend an increasing amount of their own money to provide even the most basic classroom supplies. In addition, with the textbook-approval process taking as long as several years, even when a school can afford new textbooks, they are often outdated. Many letters we received from teachers in response to Holiday Inn's geography program indicated that the map included in the unit was the only map they could acquire that had an accurate representation of the modern world.
Teachers also must struggle, in a TV/Nintendo age, to maintain students' interest in the lesson. One way to create the type of attention-grabbing programs that do that, and make them available to schools that need them, is with the help of funding from corporate America. In most cases, the money is just not available through existing public sources.
Involvement from large corporations, government, and trade associations does not automatically condemn these programs to be blatant commercial pitches. By working closely with educators and corporations alike, we can create programs that benefit all parties. There is a middle ground that will offer the best possible resources for our children.
Bruce J. Crowley
Senior Vice President
Modern Talking Picture Services Inc.
New York, N.Y.
To the Editor:
Your headline calling the research output of the regional educational laboratories "disappointing'' ("Study Cites Need To Improve E.D. Research Efforts: Labs' Output Over All Is Called 'Disappointing,''' May 5, 1993) does the U.S. Education Department, the laboratories, and the author of the study a severe disservice.
Maris A. Vinovskis, the University of Michigan historian who wrote the unreleased study you cited, has himself said many times over that his review represents only his own opinion. According to his own definition of what constitutes quality research, his study is a non-scientific analysis.
Moreover, he has solicited comments on his report and is purportedly making considerable changes based upon those comments.
In addition, Mr. Vinovskis examined only the laboratories' "research'' activities. This work makes up about 10 percent of their work for the department's office of educational research and improvement. The fact that his recommendations strayed into areas that, by his own admission, he did not investigate, is a major weakness of the study.
To call the "output'' of the regional educational laboratories "disappointing'' without examining the usefulness of the major portion of their work to schools, communities, and states misleads readers about the purpose of these institutions. Sadly, this is what your newspaper highlighted in its headline. The real issue is whether the laboratories are making a difference for schools and children. And here, as demonstrated in a study done by the National Academy of Sciences last year, the answer is "yes.''
Finally, regarding O.E.R.I., let's keep in mind the agency's own role, which, like that of the laboratories, goes far beyond "research.'' It also involves transforming raw research into useful ideas, practices, and products for educators and policymakers.
Mr. Vinovskis only looked at one small part of this larger O.E.R.I. mission, one small part of the laboratories' mission, and at a limited set of research designs used by the centers. He did not set out to do more.
The Education Department is in the midst of a three-year study of laboratories, being conducted by individuals well-versed in the R&D needs of educators. Mr. Vinovskis' unique perspective as an historian should be evaluated as part of that study.
Dena G. Stoner
Council for Educational Development
To the Editor:
While your reader from Moorehead, Minn., reflected on the male-to-female ratio in appointed versus elected chief state school officers ("Listing of State School Chiefs Shows an Interesting Bias,'' Letters, March 24, 1993), the real shame is that none (perhaps one) of the chief state school officers are African-American or Hispanic.
While we often tell our children to learn about and appreciate the diversity in our nation, we adults should do the same. Our schools will be predominantly those we call "minority'' in a few short years. Our chief state school officers don't reflect our nation--that should be the real bias that concerns us.
Wake up America.