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Kennedy Credits PTA for Education Victories on Hill

To the Editor:

A recent Education Week article on the National PTA indicated that the group is unable to influence national education policy ("Who's Minding the Children?," Sept. 28, 1994). "When it comes to the work of school reform," the article says, the PTA is "reported missing in action." Some of us in Congress have not found this to be the case at all.

The National PTA and its affiliate state and local organizations were instrumental in generating and reinforcing support for several important education measures in the 103rd Congress, most notably the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. On both bills, we faced dangerous filibusters. Both times, with the PTA's help, we prevailed. The PTA also played an important role in supporting the nominations of Assistant Secretary of Education Thomas Payzant and Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

In addition, the PTA made a difference on several specific issues that were important to its membership. On both Goals 2000 and the E.S.E.A., private-school-voucher amendments threatened to take scarce federal funds away from public schools. The PTA worked to defeat these amendments and also influenced provisions relating to school prayer and guns in schools. The PTA also helped draft much of the strengthened parental-involvement language in the E.S.E.A. reauthorization.

While one of the PTA's great strengths is the effectiveness of its local chapters in addressing local concerns, the organization plays a vital role on the federal level as well. The 103rd Congress truly was the "Education Congress," and we could not have done it without the PTA.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)
Chairman
Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources
Washington, D.C.

Survey Data Can Mislead On How Parents View Reform

To the Editor:

The report of the survey conducted by the Public Agenda Foundation ("School 'Experts' Found Out of Sync With Public," Oct. 12, 1994) concluded that "over all, the public seems to have a more traditional view of what should be happening in the classroom." That is what I also thought until I conducted a study based on interviews with parents. I discovered that survey data can be very misleading and not very useful in helping educators figure out what they can do to build public support for classroom change.

For instance, one parent in my study expressed very strong opposition to cooperative learning, but further questioning revealed that she actually believed students could learn from each other--sometimes even more from peers than from teachers. Her initial response stemmed from the fact that her daughter had recently received a low grade on a small-group project because other students didn't do their share of the work. This and other examples from my interviews suggest that parents' negative responses to survey questions may be based on the way a practice has been implemented rather than on their beliefs about the value of the practice itself.

It is true that people do not understand why reforms are better than traditional practices. Most parents I talked with had no experience with newer ways of teaching--the process approach to writing, for example. Thus, they were concerned that the "basics" weren't being taught. However, even within the context of the interviews when I made no attempt to explain how students could learn the basics (good spelling, punctuation, etc.) in a different way, many parents reflected on the learning process as they talked and came to different conclusions about traditional practices.

My data clearly indicated that educators need to do a better job of communicating how they are helping students learn what parents feel is important ("the basics") in ways parents have never experienced. One way to help people understand changes in classroom practice may be to give them opportunities to actually experience these practices at parent-teacher-association or booster-club meetings.

The results of my study also suggest that the visiting "sessions" currently being conducted in many school districts may be counterproductive in building consensus about school reform. People tend to be very much in agreement about outcomes, but they often disagree about the best ways to reach these outcomes. Discussing practices along with outcomes will likely produce conflict, but through dialogue about teaching and learning, people may eventually come to new understandings about innovative practices they first opposed.

Although my study was a small one, the results convinced me that the educational community needs to spend less time surveying people and more time actually talking to them. Not only can such conversations help educators understand the idiosyncratic and complex reasons for people's responses to survey items, but these conversations may also lead to more widespread support for change.

Anne Westcott Dodd
Brunswick, Me.

'Get Real' About Discipline; Let Those Who Try, Learn

To the Editor:

Your story "NASBE To Urge Against Expelling Disruptive Students" (Oct. 12, 1994) reports that the National Association of State Boards of Education is set to recommend that schools make every effort to avoid expelling disruptive students. A report from NASBE argues that "expulsion without alternatives is not a solution to youth violence." To the maximum extent possible, it says, students should be kept in regular schools.

Violence and the growing disrespect for authority we see in this country today are the result of many complicated societal factors, and we must begin to deal with these in schools, when people are young. But let's get real! Educators today are besieged. They are competing with media images and other distractions far more interesting to young people than what happens in many classrooms. Yet, we adults--at least those of us who have successfully been through the process of schooling--have a responsibility to convey to these youngsters the real value of an education.

I have been in education for 32 years, as a teacher, a principal, and an administrator. At my request, I have returned to the school level as a principal after 14 years in the central office. I would suggest the same for those who urge against expelling disruptive students.

The difference between today's young people and those I left after my first experience at the school level is almost incomprehensible. Although most students are respectful and are held to acceptable levels of behavior, those who present the problems in school often interfere with the rights of those who want to receive a quality education.

I am not against trying to help students. In our system, caring adults mentor students with special needs. Our social workers and psychologists assist not only students, but families as well. Efforts must be made to let students know that we care for them and that schools are safe zones.

But I also believe students and staff members are entitled to learn and to teach without fear and without disrespect.

Zero tolerance is necessary and proper when combined with attempts to turn a student's bad behavior in a positive direction. If the behavior cannot be changed, I say suspend the student and provide an alternative educational setting.

I'm sorry that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act's expulsion provision will put more youths on the streets, but students who want to learn, and who have a right to learn--and teachers who want to teach, and have devoted their careers to helping students learn--deserve the respect of the public and our professional groups, and the support of NASBE for their efforts.

Until this country gets violence under control, gets the drug problem solved, and gets family life back on a positive track, disruptive students will remain, sadly, a part of the bleaker picture of our society. It's time to focus on those who see the value of education.

Jack E. Sotsky
Principal
Landing Elementary School
Glen Cove, N.Y.

C.E.D. Recommendations: A Vote for Vouchers?

To the Editor:

Having been interested in the school-voucher movement for well over a decade, it was with great interest that I read the article headlined "C.E.D. Seeks Reordering of School Focus" (Sept. 28, 1994). The premise was that public education has "lost its sense of priorities"--that public schools are no longer focusing primarily on improving learning and achievement, but increasingly are focusing on providing health and social services.

The recommendations of the Committee for Economic Development, an independent research and public-policy organization, seem so logical and practical that it would appear difficult to argue with them: Schools should focus on learning and achievement; schools should not be expected to solve all social ills and cultural conflicts; school boards should concentrate on educational policy; schools should have site-based management; schools should identify their mission and goals; teacher salaries should reflect higher pay for specialized skills with bonuses for principals and teachers where improved student achievement is demonstrated; charter schools should be established; and a myriad of other reasonable recommendations were suggested.

I found it intriguing that these recommendations so closely parallel the arguments that proponents of school vouchers have used for years. A basic premise of the voucher movement is reiterated when the C.E.D. states, "We believe that allowing parents to choose the public school their child attends can provide a valuable incentive for schools to improve performance." Ironically, however, the committee goes on to say its members do not feel that "the arguments supporting vouchers [are] persuasive enough to reverse our long-standing objection to using public funds to support private education."

I would ask the C.E.D., "Why not?" While vouchers are often viewed as a public-versus-private-school issue, I suggest that the use of vouchers could radically improve public schools, allowing them the freedom and ability to make the changes the C.E.D. recommends. If public schools are to really improve in the manner that the Committee for Economic Development suggests, nothing could accelerate that process more quickly than allowing public schools autonomy in meeting the needs of the student population.

Over the years, public schools have lost their individual identities, their ability to meet the unique needs of their students. A voucher system could provide public schools the opportunity and incentive to individualize and to once again meet the needs, values, and goals of their student populations.

Betty Van Wagenen-Riches
Los Altos, Calif.

K.C. Desegregation Case Needs High Court Review

To the Editor:

Your story on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to re-examine the Kansas City, Mo., desegregation case ("Court To Review Kansas City Case for a Third Time, Oct. 5, 1994) was both enlightening and exciting. I hope you will continue to follow the results of this re-examination with a watchful eye.

After over a billion dollars of reforms, with few nonmaterialistic results, it will be interesting to see if the High Court can see from Washington what U.S. District Judge Russell Clark cannot see in his own backyard. The millions in tax dollars for the results (or lack thereof) received would turn any sensible taxpayer's stomach. It has turned the stomachs of "out state" administrators throughout the state of Missouri for years.

To see the inequality that now exists between the Kansas City schools and the suburban and rural districts around our state reminds one of the inequalities that prompted the original desegregation order. Perhaps the only solution is a new series of lawsuits designed to remedy the current discrepancies between rural students and those in the urban schools.

It is unfortunate that court rulings seem to be the only avenue open to providing equal opportunity for all.

Don Lawrence
Superintendent of Schools
Savannah, Mo.

Privatization Competitor Challenges View of E.A.I.

To the Editor:

In your article on the contract between the Hartford, Conn., school district and Education Alternatives Inc. ("Hartford Hires E.A.I. To Run Entire District," Oct. 12, 1994), you suggest that the agreement to manage that district is a "model for [the] nation" and infer that it is a more extensive arrangement than the contract between our firm, The Public Strategies Group Inc., and the Minneapolis school district.

I agree that there are dramatic differences between our two approaches. For many reasons, however, I believe our approach is more extensive and more powerful.

In December 1993, the Minneapolis school board contracted with the Public Strategies Group to provide "leadership services" to the district. In doing so, it became the first school district in the country to be managed by a private firm. What does "provide leadership services" mean? In Minneapolis, it means that P.S.G. challenges everyone in the district and the community to focus on creating environments in which students can learn. "Leadership services" means that we act as superintendent, carry out the district's strategic direction, and manage the district's $450 million budget. Most importantly, it means P.S.G. supports the more than 6,000 employees in 80 sites who are working on raising the achievement levels of the district's 44,000 students. For these leadership services, we get paid only if specific results are produced for students.

How does this differ from Hartford's contract with E.A.I.? As reported, the Hartford contract calls for E.A.I. to make substantial investments in the school system, particularly in technology. They will manage 26,000 students and the entire budget for each school. They receive monthly installments for their work, expecting to recoup their investment on the savings in the district budget over time. For this to be a winning proposition for E.A.I., they must cut costs in the schools.

What do these two approaches offer to students? Our approach focuses directly on improving the learning environment so that reading comprehension increases, math skills improve, school safety is heightened, racism is challenged, and parents are involved in their child's education, to name a few. If P.S.G. gets paid, it means that all students win because their academic achievement is improving. For students of color, this is particularly important as the gap between their achievement and that of white students must decrease dramatically if the former is to be true.

What students generally receive from E.A.I. are more computers, a particular curriculum model, and a better student-teacher ratio. If E.A.I. gets paid, it probably means the environment is better; but their payment is not directly linked to improved student achievement.

Clearly, both companies offer something new to the practice of public school management. Clearly, the results remain to be seen from these early efforts. In the end, however, we believe that students stand to reap much greater rewards for themselves when the energy of a public school system is focused on them, and not on cutting costs.

Laurie Ohmann
Partner
The Public Strategies Group Inc.
St. Paul, Minn.

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