Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
Michigan legislators are to be commended for their responsiveness to citizens' concerns regarding the problem of excessive property taxes ("Michigan Law Bans Property Tax Use To Fund Schools,'' Aug. 4, 1993). I hope that they do not act precipitately but, instead, study the experience of other states with similar problems.
As a former Californian, I remember a comparable scenario during the advent of Proposition 13--the forerunner of property-tax limits and state financing of education. This measure was intended to correct the intractable problem of continuing increases in local property taxes.
Advocates of "13'' argued that the state surplus would easily restore to schools any amount lost through property taxes. The advocates were correct--for about two or three years! Then, as predicted by many of us, the surplus diminished and the state was no longer able to maintain a reasonable level of support to its schools. Everyone knows the result: California has at various times ranked at the bottom nationwide in per-pupil support; well-intended voter initiatives have attempted, without success, to resolve the problem; and an ongoing battle rages between schools and other public agencies for a bigger piece of the state budgetary pie.
My observation is that the state of New Jersey offers a model which Michigan may wish to adapt or modify. In New Jersey, property taxes (with mandated state limitations on annual increases) are the primary source of revenue to schools, supplemented by state aid. This system has problems related to inequities between high-, middle-, and low-wealth districts and to periodic voter dissatisfaction with the steady rise in property taxes. On the other hand, these increases are controlled annually through required voter approval of school budgets.
Interestingly, in my own county, voters have approved most school budgets during the past two years, recognizing that their elected boards have been reducing expenditures and, at the same time, maintaining sound educational programs.
Of course, this positive trend could end, depending on voters' perceptions and economic factors. Yet, I believe that the New Jersey property tax/state model offers greater possibilities for quality educational programs and citizen involvement than systems which are predominantly state-supported.
Perhaps the New Jersey model is inappropriate or untimely for Michigan. If so, I would still offer one note of caution to legislators, based on my experience in two states: If the state can't fix it, it may not be broken.
North Hunterdon/Voorhees Regional
High School District
To the Editor:
Your article describing Clinton Administration plans to reshape Chapter 1 ("Clinton E.S.E.A. Plan Would Retool Chapter 1, Eliminate Block Grant,'' Aug. 4, 1993) contains language on testing that might mislead some readers.
The article refers to "a new national system of standards and assessments,'' then later explains that this refers to Goals 2000. Yet, the assessment language in the Administration's bill and included in both House and Senate versions of pending legislation refers to state assessments or sets of local assessments. That is, none of the legislative proposals includes a national assessment system, nor even requires a single state assessment system.
We recognize that "national system of assessments'' is a quick summary, and that some may even consider Goals 2000 certification procedures an assessment "system.'' But given the history of the proposals for a tightly connected national system, or even a national exam, the current legislation does not add up to a system.
It remains to be seen exactly what language the Administration will offer on assessments in Chapter 1. FairTest expects it will be similar to the Goals 2000 proposals. If so, the Administration's plans will be compatible with the Chapter 1 assessment criteria developed by the National Forum on Assessment, which have been endorsed by many leading education and civil-rights organizations. The forum, co-chaired by FairTest and the Council for Basic Education, has proposed a bottom-up, classroom-based performance-assessment system that could be complemented by various state monitoring and assessment practices for accountability and improvement purposes.
For the best possible Chapter 1 assessment system, the U.S. Education Department should avoid three pitfalls: allowing continued reliance on norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests; becoming overly prescriptive as to how states and districts should use performance assessments to obtain accountability information; and presuming performance examinations can be used to produce data with sufficient accuracy and reliability so as to be the sole basis for rewards and sanctions without either massively overtesting students or disastrously narrowing curriculum and instruction in a repeat of the damage of the past.
National Center for Fair and Open Testing
To the Editor:
Alan Ehrenhalt ("Malaise and America's Schools,'' Commentary, Aug. 4, 1993) found it "hard to imagine anyone saying it any better'' than these words of the school superintendent he quoted: "I am being asked to correct the economic state in which some of our students live. I can't do that. I can't fix all that. I can't provide long-term family counseling. There has to be some societal acceptance of responsibility.''
It is very easy to imagine a superintendent saying it better! The superintendent might have added: "In spite of what I can't do, we have in the last two years reduced our dropout numbers by 48 percent through the use of monitor-tutor volunteers. We have reduced the failure rate in the elementary grades by the use of high school volunteer tutors. Much of this tutoring is done Saturday mornings. By the use of volunteers, we have been able to find food and clothing for some students who live in extreme conditions. For students whose home language is not English, we have found volunteer tutors. You would be surprised to learn that 32 percent of our non-teaching staff members are giving a half hour of their lunch time to tutoring. By reaching inward and especially by reaching outward to the community we have been able to overcome some of society's failures.''
Ralph W. Lewis
Center for Integrative Studies
College of Natural Science
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Mich.
To the Editor:
The drafting of standards for arts education ("Draft Standards for Arts Education Stress Both Knowledge, Performance,'' Aug. 4, 1993) marks a welcome change in America's perception of the arts in our classrooms. Too often, the arts are viewed as a frill. Radical as the notion may seem, however, serious study of the arts is one of the best ways to educate a young person for college and work.
In this postindustrial society what is required of workers at all levels is that they be creative thinkers, problem-solvers, able to work well with others, and able to work independently. Schools must no longer simply train students for specific tasks; we must educate them in terms of broad skills, so that they will have the ability to function in any number of capacities.
Arts training develops these skills. The student artist (musician, dancer, studio artist, writer, actor) learns by doing. Often in schools students do not do anything: They learn about doing something, or watch someone else do it. The young musician, however, learns by doing, by playing the violin, not by listening to someone lecture about playing. Artists often work in groups, requiring listening, responding, and asserting their own "voices'' while supporting the voices of fellow artists. Research tells us that one of the most important reasons Japanese education produces such productive workers is not the many classroom hours, rote learning, or longer days, but the fact that children are taught how to work well in groups.
Artists take risks and learn from their mistakes. The "mistakes,'' the parts that are not yet well-executed, tell the artist where the work is, rather than being an indication of failure. Working toward mastery of an art form is a long-term goal and life-long process, not something that is completed on the day the student receives a diploma. The artist works for himself, as well as against an external standard of excellence. Having chosen an artistic pursuit, the student feels a level of personal investment not always found in the classroom. Other characteristics gained from the arts are thinking creatively, acting on one's belief, the development of positive self-identification as an artist, and good judgment.
The distinction should be made between education and training. In American schools, for the last century, we have been concerned with training; that is, turning out young people who will predictably perform certain tasks and share the same specific knowledge (back in the days when a teacher could convey most important cultural knowledge). Nowadays we should seek to educate, a different proposition altogether; to produce young people who ask questions and who can continue to learn throughout life.
We need artists in all areas and walks of life, and "artists'' are people who share these qualities no matter what their occupation. Arts in the curriculum are a necessity, not a frill. To cut the arts is to deny students a whole avenue of learning.
Stephanie B. Perrin
Walnut Hill Boarding School for
Arts and Academics
To the Editor:
With respect to Wade F. Horn's criticism of my position on attention-deficit disorder ("Letters Mislead Readers on Attention-Deficit Disorder,'' Letters, July 14, 1993): I am aware of the National Institute of Mental Health study documenting the "neurobiological underpinnings of A.D.D.'' What disorder affecting attention, planning, motor activity, and related symptomatology does not, on empirical or theoretical grounds?
Mr. Horn hits the mark when he says that "the manifestations of A.D.D. may be grounded in the interplay between biological and psychosocial variables.'' To reduce those manifestations to neurobiology, Mr. Horn himself seems to be acknowledging, is just that: reductionistic.
There are perfectly satisfactory appellations we might use to describe A.D.D. children without resorting to "stupid,'' "lazy,'' or "troublemakers'' in substitution for neurologically impaired, as Mr. Horn falsely charges me (and Dr. Gerald Coles) with advocating. How about A.D.D.?
John M. Throne
Institute for Life Span Studies
University of Kansas
To the Editor:
I have been following the discussion on school choice that succeeded your "Q&A'' with James MacGuire on his response to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's report ("Monograph's Author Critiques Carnegie Study on Choice,'' Focus On, May 5, 1993). While the subject remains politically charged, there is little solid data regarding whether or not school choice is effective. It is, therefore, not surprising that the issue is especially susceptible to claims of selective interpretation of the little data that do exist.
While reports like Carnegie's and Mr. MacGuire's serve a purpose, they offer little factual information about school choice outside the limited, partisan perspective in which they are mired. This is clearly demonstrated in their focus on the Arizona Department of Education's survey data regarding parents' reasons for transferring, which both the Carnegie Foundation and James MacGuire utilize.
Mr. MacGuire criticizes the authors of the Carnegie report for minimizing the number of academic-related transfers in an effort to support their own anti-school-choice conclusions. However, his method of eliminating the 10 percent of respondents who did not provide a reason artificially inflates academic-based transfer requests. To eliminate them assumes they are not valid transfers and "stacks the deck'' for his pro-school-choice position.
Both studies' reliance on academic issues as the only reasons legitimate for transferring also puzzles me. Choice advocates such as Mr. MacGuire attempt to find high numbers of academic-based transfers to show that the education marketplace works, while critics, such as the Carnegie Foundation, dispel this by citing low numbers of academic-based transfers. If, however, the freedom to choose is in fact a basic tenet of a democratic society, and therefore a major reason for school choice's desirability, then isn't convenience just as legitimate a reason as academics?
In any case, interpretation of the Arizona data demonstrates that both the Carnegie Foundation and Mr. MacGuire apply their own standards for selecting and interpreting data. What needs to be added to this debate is an objective analysis of statewide programs and their individual components (for example, transportation, funding, application process). Once a broader factual basis is established, a more thoughtful debate can take place.
The Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University has pursued ongoing research on statewide school-choice programs. Most recently, the institute has published a report describing the current status of choice in each state. This work is unlikely to generate accusations of being agenda-driven. Its focus is providing the reader with broad background information about choice--where it has been and where it is going, the arguments of both opponents and advocates, and accurate descriptions of states' choice programs (as reviewed by state education and legislative staffs).
I believe our research fills a void by addressing the realities of legislation and implementation, rather than simply arguing about the worthiness of choice as a reform. We welcome inquiries.
Lori A. Mulholland
Morrison Institute for Public Policy
School of Public Affairs
Arizona State University
To the Editor:
Anyone interested in revitalizing American education should begin by reading Leon Botstein's piece in your June 23, 1993, issue ("The Use and Misuse of Hope,'' Commentary). Although he makes recommendations about changing the curriculum I cannot comment on, his prescription on teacher training is something I understand quite well.
I got involved in teaching after I had spent four years as an undergraduate immersed in the study of history. When I wanted to teach, I was told I was not "qualified.'' The qualification I would have needed included studying social studies from professors in the school of education. I had already studied history from historians.
I also would have needed, I learned, to take a number of courses in pedagogy and educational philosophy. These are helpful to educators, I am sure, but they could not have taken the place of my history courses in preparing me for the teaching of history (and social studies).
When I did gain a teaching position, it was in a private school (only private schools were interested in talking to me), where I was able to design courses and "cut my teeth'' in an environment where my knowledge of history would be my touchstone for success. I learned the methods for creating lesson plans, keeping my classes in order, and interesting kids in the material, but the main ingredient in my ability to do all that was my background in history. The public schools I had talked with wanted people who had education degrees, and who would pick up the knowledge of the discipline later.
After two years, I went back to graduate school to study both history and education. Even then, the greatest growth for me as a teacher came from learning more history, not education. The education I did learn was superb because it was rooted in content. Our professor (Michael Whelan of Teachers College) entered every day and taught a lesson. We then "debriefed'' it and attempted to create our own. Through that type of professional development I was able to synthesize my knowledge of history with his masterful insights into teaching. If I had learned his methods, but did not have the knowledge base that I learned as an undergraduate, it would have been little more than hollow pedagogy.
I agree with Leon Botstein, teacher education should begin (and remain) in the discipline in which one hopes to teach, not in a department of education. If the American public schools could adopt this approach to hiring, they could attract young people who have strong backgrounds in the subjects they teach. These people could then learn the method and the philosophy as they traveled through their careers.
Fort Myers, Fla.
To the Editor:
I would like to offer an "amendment'' to your July 14, 1993, "Private Schools'' column in which you reported that the Ojai Valley School in Ojai, Calif., "this summer apparently became the first U.S. school to host young students from the People's Republic of China.''
This may be accurate depending upon how you define "host,'' but our school, Crossroads School in Santa Monica, Calif., has enrolled a number of students from the People's Republic of China for the past seven years. We provide home stay for these students, and, two years ago, purchased a home near our school where students from China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan live with a teacher.
Many of these students are superior musicians who come to Crossroads for the music program. They are generally in grades 8-12 and stay here through graduation. They then typically move on to colleges and universities such as Julliard, Curtis, Yale, the New England Conservatory, Oberlin, Indiana, and the University of Southern California.
Paul F. Cummins
Santa Monica, Calif.