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Do 'Phantom Kids' in N.Y.C. Contribute to Overcrowding?

To the Editor:

Let me tell you a story about Community School District 3 on the prosperous Upper West Side of Manhattan that might throw a different light on your article about overcrowding in New York City schools ("Tight Budgets, Escalating Enrollments Collide," March 8, 1995).

When I began teaching in 1961, the student population of the district was over 20,000 and the cry was everywhere heard from the four district administrators that schools were overcrowded. The administrators in my own school frantically relayed the same intelligence.

But I was fresh from Pittsburgh and saw something different. The first thing I saw was that a small but significant fraction of the school's enrollment was made up of phantom kids in several categories: 1) kids on the school register who had never shown up but who were carried as if they had; 2) kids who were absent but who, for revenue purposes I think, were entered as present; 3) kids who were assigned to out-of-school programs of various sorts, some term long, but who were allowed to swell the school rolls.

Then there were the absentees (about 10 percent a day) who were actually marked absent, and the curious fact that after-lunch attendance dipped precipitously, although once again there seemed to be a gentleman's agreement not to document the fact.

So when the union was announcing class sizes of 35 and 40, at least in my school they were in fact about 28, though not in the records. As the years passed the number of phantom kids grew and grew until in the year I quit, 1991, there was no connection I could see between the school's attendance and actual attendance.

Not unrelated is the curious matter of phantom schoolteachers. Patricia J. Kobbetts, a principal, is quoted in your story as saying, "When ... there aren't enough teachers, you start seeing more discipline problems." When I stopped teaching, my school was virtually all Hispanic or black, and class size was still about 28. There was, however, one enormous difference. Toward the end of my teaching, if you divided the total number of men and women paid as teachers in the district into the total number of kids logged as students, a ratio of from 15 to 1 to 17 to 1 would emerge. What were the rest of those "teachers" doing that class size hovered around 28?

Finally, on the amount of space available in wealthy District 3: Although there was "absolutely no space available" anywhere in the building I worked in for independent-study projects, private project work, or bouts of solitude, I was able, by greasing the custodian's palm, to obtain a master key and a treasured document known as the "empty-room schedule." Would you believe there was never a time when multiple rooms in the building weren't empty? By training my kids in guerrilla low-profile tactics, I was able to spread about half my class every period into different cubbyholes around the building, where they worked happily and productively, alone, at age 13.

But beginning in the 1980's, this tactic became impossible, even though the district's published enrollment figures had dipped close to the 10,000 level. Although attendance was about half what we once had, and although many times more children were phantoms, all the space in the buildings was filled up. How to explain the difference?

Easy. A vast array of "coordinators," "special supervisors," "community programs," and other assorted deadwood, much of it politically connected to the patronage system of local politics in big-city America, had taken over that space.

As I write, the district population has indeed grown, all the way back to between 14,000 and 15,000, as its budget has tripled in tax-adjusted dollars. I would ask your readers to swallow with a grain of salt either that budgets are "tight" or that the testimonials about crowding are the whole truth.

John Taylor Gatto
New York, N.Y.

California-Code Letter Makes Bureaucratic Point

To the Editor:

In your Feb. 8, 1995, article "States Take Aim at Regulatory Beast: School Codes," I was cited as the source of the statement that California legislators introduce some 2,000 education bills each session. In the March 1, 1995, Letters section, Richard Simpson, the staff director of the California Senate education committee, countered that some 625 bills affecting the education code typically are introduced.

Mr. Simpson's statement is symptomatic of the insulation of politicians and bureaucrats from the real world. Of the 6,000 bills introduced in the 1993-94 session, far more than those merely directed at the education code severely impact schools. For example, one of the biggest headaches for school boards, collective bargaining, is actually in the government code. Bills addressing cities, counties, public-employee protections and benefits, housing, and other areas quite often have serious effects on schools.

It is not surprising that Mr. Simpson would be an apologist, since the committee he serves has given us thousands of pages of mandates and regulations in recent years.

Maurice A. Ross
Assistant Dean
School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Maybe Special-Ed. Critic Has Key to Problem-Solving

To the Editor:

Miriam K. Freedman, an attorney who regularly represents school systems in special-education proceedings, argues that evaluators of children to determine their need for special-education services invariably diagnose the disability in which they hold their expertise: In effect, that evaluation is a self-fulfilling prophecy ("The Elevator Theory of Special Education," Commentary, Feb. 15, 1995). She apparently would like to eliminate evaluators from the equation altogether and spend education resources for "teachers" rather than "testers." Moreover, she would like to have no more talk of "learning difficulties," preferring to speak instead of "learning differences."

If I understand her logic, I think Ms. Freedman may have hit upon a revolutionary solution to more problems than merely how best to serve children with special educational needs. Think how many fewer crimes there would be if we merely eliminated police officers and laws defining crimes; reduced the number of doctors, threw out the medical texts, and thereby rid the world of disease; eliminated teachers and thus eradicated ignorance ... the possibilities are endless.

Robert K. Crabtree
Boston, Mass.

U.S. Education's Record: Bracey Responds to Critics

To the Editor:

In their responses to my Commentary "Data-Proof Ideologues" (Jan. 25, 1995), Lawrence C. Stedman (Letters, Feb. 22, 1995) and David Barulich (Letters, Feb. 15, 1995) both present highly selected data. Some from Mr. Barulich are also inaccurate. Consider:

  1. Of the nine NAEP trends (reading, writing, math for 9-, 11-, 13-year-olds), seven are at all-time highs. Modest gains, mostly, but still there.
  2. Mr. Stedman's claim that one-half to three-fourths of the S.A.T. decline is from demographic changes is pure speculation (as it was for the Wirtz panel that first made it in 1977). My 1990 analysis which tried to control for such changes found only a 22-point decline in verbal scores since 1951, none at all for mathematics. Mr. Barulich's citation of only 1972 and 1982 numbers is suspect. Could it be because in recent years the number of high scorers has been growing? Mr. Barulich ignores S.A.T. math scores. In 1993, the proportion of students scoring above 650 on the S.A.T. math reached an all-time high.
  3. In international comparisons, Mr. Stedman mentions the 15- to 18-point gap between the United States and other countries, but this is misleading: This is only the sometimes-found gap between the United States and the top country. Most countries are tightly bunched together. U.S. 9-year-olds placed third (of 15) by scoring only 3 percent better than the international average. Similarly, if our 13th place 13-year-olds had scored 5 percent better, they'd have finished fifth. These tightly bunched scores mean that if America has an education crisis, the world has an education crisis. This is possible, of course, but I have never heard it alleged.

Mr. Stedman at least avoids the Harold Stevenson-James Stigler trap. Mr. Barulich does not. A close look at the original studies of these two authors of The Learning Gap shows so many methodological flaws as to render these studies meaningless. The samples of U.S. and Asian students are neither representative of their nations nor comparable to each other.

What criteria does Mr. Stedman use to warrant his claim that U.S. students perform "at dismally low levels"? None, really. The criterion-referenced interpretations from NAEP and National Assessment Governing Board officials have been shown to be invalid.

Both authors make the mistake of confusing ranks with performance. When athletes run the 100-meter dash in the Olympics, someone ranks last. He is not likely known to his peers as "Pokey." California, Mr. Barulich's target, ranks well behind Utah, but scores only 14 points lower. It also has much greater variability: Its fifth percentile is 24 points behind Utah's, its 95th only three.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

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