Letters to the Editor
To The Editor:
I congratulate you for your recent in-depth analysis of Education Alternatives Inc. ("Private Enterprise,'' May 25, 1994). Privatization of public schools is a critical policy issue that demands greater discussion and debate. Your story effectively documented the controversies surrounding E.A.I. As someone who has followed closely that company's experiment in Baltimore, however, I'd like to elaborate on E.A.I.'s performance so far.
Your story mentioned that last August, E.A.I. issued a press release boasting that their Baltimore students had shown significant achievement gains on computer-administered tests. Subsequent to your article, E.A.I. admitted in a copyrighted story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune of June 4, 1994, that it had exaggerated those test results. The lead story in The Sun of Baltimore on June 8, 1994, read: "An admission by Education Alternatives Inc. that it exaggerated the progress of its Baltimore students has undercut the credibility of the for-profit school-management company. ... There has been no documented improvement in student achievement at E.A.I. schools.''
In January, Baltimore Superintendent Walter Amprey, a strong proponent of E.A.I., announced that the city had overpaid the company by $500,000, based on inflated enrollment figures submitted by E.A.I. Two months later, E.A.I. conceded that its enrollment figures had been inflated, and the city compromised on an overpayment amount of $370,000.
The city's own evaluation found that in its first year, E.A.I. spent $2.5 million less on regular and special-education instruction than would have been spent if the Baltimore public schools had continued to operate the schools ("The Early Implementation of Tesseract; 1992-93 Evaluation Report,'' Baltimore City Public Schools, January 1994). The study also revealed that the school system had paid E.A.I. $26.7 million to run the nine schools, but that the cost would only have been $20.6 million if the city had operated the schools itself.
E.A.I. is getting more money per pupil from the city of Baltimore than the elementary schools run by the board of education, according to a Baltimore Sun story of March 4, 1994. The Sun reported that E.A.I. receives $5,918 per pupil while "most of the city's other 166 schools ... receive far less per pupil.'' A master list of school-based budgets from the school system reveals that most elementary schools receive less than $5,000 per pupil, with some receiving less than $3,400.
There are other troubling aspects to the E.A.I. project in Baltimore. If enrollment goes down, E.A.I. pays money back to the city. But, by contract, they return less than half the per-pupil fee paid to them in the first place. When enrollment drops in regular public schools, teaching positions are lost. With E.A.I., the company realizes a $3,000 profit on each student who doesn't enroll.
E.A.I. also retains full copyright and marketing rights to the curriculum. The school system has to pay E.A.I. if it wants to use the same curricular materials in other schools. Traditionally, teachers are encouraged to share successful practices. Under E.A.I.'s contract, the corporation can charge for it. E.A.I. also retains the right to make money by using the Baltimore schools to market its services and products. The Baltimore City Public Schools can't raise money this way; nor does it get any percentage from E.A.I.'s promotional use of its schools.
When E.A.I. signed a contract in Baltimore, it pledged to invest $7.1 million to improve and equip the schools. By many accounts, the E.A.I. schools are cleaner, better maintained, and have more computers than before. The lesson is not that there is any magic in privatization, but rather that money does make a difference in revitalizing rundown urban schools. Every public school would look better and be equipped with the most modern technology if they had that kind of infusion of money.
Some of the changes E.A.I. has made in the Baltimore schools it operates have raised serious questions among school advocates. The first thing E.A.I. officials did was eliminate art, music, and physical-education teachers in elementary schools. Then they eliminated special-education classes for students with disabilities. And, as your article pointed out, they eliminated instructional assistants and hired interns instead. Rather than career employees with 10, 15, or 20 years of experience in public schools, they have a "temp'' agency hiring people who have never worked in classrooms. It may cost E.A.I. less money, but it's not necessarily the best thing for students.
Privatization has become a rallying cry for political conservatives unwilling to invest more money in public education. But it is a false panacea. We have to recognize that there is no getting off cheap. Money does make a difference.
To the Editor:
Your article "Writing Still Needs Work, Report Finds'' (June 15, 1994) pointed out that students at top-performing schools completed assignments that required "analysis and interpretation,'' and that students whose parents had achieved academically wrote better than students whose parents had limited academic success.
These facts are not surprising to those of us who have taught in inner-city schools. Good writing is just good thinking, and good thinking requires mental struggle in a quiet environment. Unfortunately, our urban centers have become too chaotic and too confrontational.
If we really want all children to do well academically, we have to make home and community environments less chaotic and less confrontational.
Our schools are just testing grounds for what students have studied from 3 P.M. to 10 P.M., and we are crazy to expect students who waste those hours on fun to be on the same level as students who use those hours to their academic advantage. "Practice makes perfect'' applies to all areas of study, not just athletics.
Louis A. DeFreitas Sr.
To the Editor:
I could not read Chester E. Finn Jr.'s recent Commentary ("Drowning in Lake Wobegon,'' June 15, 1994) without taking a few minutes to set the record straight.
Mr. Finn suggests that politicians, school administrators, and educators who present positive student-test results to the public cannot be trusted because they have an interest in seeing our public schools succeed.
Mr. Finn writes from experience. If anyone has a personal interest in manipulating information on public school performance, he does. Mr. Finn is a founding partner and senior officer of the Edison Project, a profit-making venture of Whittle Communications that is seeking to run public schools in any community that will listen to its sales pitch, including the seventh-largest school district in New Jersey. As such, Mr. Finn and his organization have much to gain from his misleading attempt to discredit research confirming the strong performance of New Jersey's public school students in mathematics and reading.
Worse yet, Mr. Finn insults the New Jersey Education Association, Howard Wainer, and the Educational Testing Service by implying in his Commentary that a leading educational-research organization was somehow bought off by a school-employee association.
The N.J.E.A. contracted with the E.T.S. to conduct a study of student performance in New Jersey's public schools, knowing that the E.T.S. would release the study regardless of whether the results reflected positively or negatively on our students and educators. Other than agreeing that data from the national and international assessments of educational progress were the most credible student-performance data available, the N.J.E.A. had absolutely no control or influence over the research methods used by Mr. Wainer or the content of his report.
Finally, Mr. Finn reports that Howard Wainer's research is part of a $300,000 N.J.E.A. advertising campaign emphasizing that public schools work. That campaign, however, began in the fall of 1993--about four months before anyone at the N.J.E.A. had ever contacted Mr. Wainer.
This campaign and a larger effort beginning next fall present accurate information on the success of our public schools to combat years of misinformation and public-education-bashing by people like Mr. Finn, who stands to profit monetarily and/or politically from tearing down our public schools.
It's a shame such campaigns are needed, but someone has to start telling the truth.
New Jersey Education Association
To the Editor:
Chester E. Finn Jr. would have us believe that reports of assessment of student achievement in school are being adjusted to manipulate the opinion of the public and to provide information that most appropriately fits with the beliefs of various interest groups. He attacks in his Commentary the use of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress for secondary analyses that were not sanctioned by the National Assessment Governing Board, on which he serves.
These analyses provide estimates of student achievement adjusted for the demographic characteristics of the population of a given state. Mr. Finn claims that such analyses "may do untold mischief,'' presumably by undermining the credibility of NAEP and by giving ammunition to those who would interpret the results in ways he finds unappealing.
Although the question of the desirability of adjustments is one worthy of debate, that is not the focus of our concern about Mr. Finn's Commentary.
More fundamental than the specifics of the secondary analyses that raised his ire is the question of researchers' freedom to analyze and interpret data. The "official'' NAEP analyses and reports are an invaluable source of information about the achievement of the nation's students. We certainly would not want to see it undermined. We believe, however, that the imposition of a party line on the analyses and interpretation of NAEP data is a more sinister threat than the one that disturbs Mr. Finn.
We should encourage, rather than discourage, research that brings different perspectives to bear on the rich source of data provided by NAEP. The benefits of the free exchange of ideas far outweigh the risks. Although Mr. Finn thinks adjustments are a device for giving the results "spin control,'' the real danger of spin control comes when only a single perspective has access to the controls.
Unfortunately, Mr. Finn de-emphasizes the open, public nature of test-score information. Data must be looked at according to the purposes of the users; with many users, mulitple interpretations are required. A single interpretation that allows little possibility for examining the data for different kinds of information precludes the ability of different audiences to obtain the best use of it for their purposes. Data can be reported for them in terms of the kind of informational frame they need.
Responsible public officials and assessment agencies all make available the information on which their interpretations are based, so that any individual or group of individuals can explore the information from different perspectives. These different perspectives should be brought to public attention, which would result in increasingly informed judgment.
University of Pittsburgh
University of Colorado
To the Editor:
Thank you for the Commentary "The Power of Dialogue Across Difference,'' (June 8, 1994). A growing number of educators are realizing that we are both uninformed and misinformed about minority sexual orientation, and this has been very detrimental to all of our students. More articles on this subject would be appreciated.
Stroman High School