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Discipline Essay Ignores Public's Safety Concerns

To the Editor:

Michael Casserly makes many assertions in his recent Commentary, even as he raises many questions ("Discipline and Demographics: The Problem Is Not Just the Kids," Jan. 24, 1996). Among them, he asserts that America's schools are themselves responsible for putting many African-American men where they are, in the criminal-justice system. That may or may not be a defensible statement; I'm in no position to evaluate that, but those who are should.

I do know, however, that he is treating Americans' concerns about discipline and order in our schools contemptuously when he dismisses Public Agenda's findings as "merely" polling results.

Again and again, in the significant body of research produced by Public Agenda over the past six years, African-American parents--in even greater numbers than either white parents or the general public--express their dissatisfaction with our nation's public schools for their failure to provide a safe, orderly environment in which the vast majority of children who wish to learn can do so. Public schools are hallowed ground in the public's mind, and even one violent act is one too many. Eighty percent of African-American parents say there's too much violence in the schools, and 79 percent call for the removal of disruptive children so their children may learn ("First Things First," 1994).

In Public Agenda's latest study, "Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Education Today," teachers agree. (See story, page 5.) Over 80 percent of public school teachers, an overwhelming majority, think restoring order in schools is a top priority. Eighty-eight percent think the removal of troublemakers from class would substantially improve academic achievement. Included are 85 percent of African-American teachers and 80 percent of Hispanic teachers, both of whom disproportionately teach in inner-city schools.

As Mr. Casserly points out, "children are raised by adults," and Americans do not ignore the role of parents in the academic life of a child. Six in 10 feel a child from a stable and supportive family who attends a poor school is more likely to succeed than a child from a troubled family who attends a good school. This view is shared by seven in 10 public school teachers.

Little is to be gained by ignoring the views of the public toward school safety and of teachers toward order in the classroom. It is only by addressing their concerns and seriously inviting them into discussion about the issues Mr. Casserly has raised that strategies will be devised to solve these problems.

Deborah Wadsworth
Executive Director
Public Agenda Foundation
New York, N.Y.

Service Learning: Potential To Redefine Education

To the Editor:

Kudos to Education Week for laying before the public the necessity of reconsidering the purpose of public education ("Rethinking the Mission of American Education: Preparing the Next Generation for the Civil Society," Commentary, Jan. 31, 1996). Jeremy Rifkin presents a cogent analysis of the requirements of the workforce in the next century. He foresees shrinking manufacturing and service sectors with potential only in the "Third Sector," or nonprofit world, to absorb the millions of young people seeking employment in the future.

Previous treatments of education reform have been limited to improving on what already existed rather than examining the very purpose of education. Change has meant adjusting schedules, teachers participating in decisionmaking, inviting parents to take part in schools, or teaching through interdisciplinary curricula. What Mr. Rifkin proposes is that we address the restructuring of education in the context of a changing social order by "redefining the nature of work itself."

Implementing service learning well requires the kind of conversation to which Mr. Rifkin alludes. Just as educators, young people, and community members must talk about the purpose of education, so must they reach consensus on why youths should be introduced to community roles. Howard Johnson says that in schools, "we reward what we value and we value what we reward." The message students get in most schools is that high grades and winning on the playing field are the only things that matter. Schools that adopt service learning broaden what they value, and say to young people that we and the community value their contribution and we reward application of knowledge as well as demonstration of caring and compassion.

When 7th graders work in the neighboring preschool to teach young children to count or read, these adolescents reinforce their own skills in calculation and comprehension while at the same time developing patience. The 8th grader who gathers oral histories at the senior center learns about the community's history while simultaneously developing an appreciation for older adults.

Service learning is too significant to be treated as a strategy for changing schools as they are; it has the potential to redefine education. Mr. Rifkin has laid out the blueprint for a dialogue in which we hope the nation will participate.

A.L. Halsted
President
National Helpers Network Inc.
New York, N.Y.

Headline on Desegregation 'Does a Real Disservice'

To the Editor:

Headlines are tricky creatures. They have two jobs that are often in conflict: one, to summarize or provide the salient point of the story that follows; a second, to lure the reader into the text. So many of today's readers are actually skimmers that a headline such as that in your Feb. 7, 1996, Special Commentary Report does a real disservice:

"Beyond Busing: As districts grapple with school desegregation, they must weigh the value of integration against the necessity of providing a quality education for all students."

Implicit in this headline is the notion that integration is antithetical to quality in education. Wrong. A quality education for Americans and for the 21st century must, by definition, recognize, include, and embrace the rich diversity of our county and our world. Diversity in schools has to do with justice, fairness, opportunity, and a real-world education for all children.

Peter D. Relic
President
National Association of Independent Schools
Washington, D.C.

'Tenure on Trial' Feature: Breaking Journalese Mold

To the Editor:

Educational journalese seldom rises above the humdrum. Like Hamlet's uses of this world, it is "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable."

But Education Week broke the mold of mediocrity in the Jan. 31, 1996, issue with the account of the imbroglio in the Patchogue-Medford Union Free school district in New York. What a wonderful piece of investigative reporting you produced in "Tenure on Trial." Honestly, it was a pleasure to read a thorough and carefully researched account of an event that lay perilously close to tragedy. Do it again sometime.

C. Howard Smith
Frederick, Md.

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