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On Federal-Role Essays: Where Were Real Critics?

To the Editor:

One of the things I've most admired about Education Week has been its representation of educational issues without becoming a mouthpiece for various sectors of the educational establishment. So I was surprised and offended at the discussion and sponsorship of your Special Commentary Report ("Balance of Power: Rethinking the Federal Government's Role in Education," March 27, 1996). Given the background and interests of the participants in your "frame" (with the exception of Sheldon Richman), perhaps I should have expected nothing more than what was mostly edubabble and self-serving bureaucratic and political rhetoric.

Where were some of the real critics of the role of the federal government in education who might have seriously discussed the real issues involved? Perhaps editors who see nothing wrong with having the purveyors of a lethal product, Philip Morris, underwrite such a discussion, even as teenage smoking has more far-reaching consequences than anything the politicians and bureaucrats can dream up, cannot be expected to present a balanced or, indeed, honest discussion of the real issues.

But then, of course, this is not the first debate over the prospects and course of American education that has been fouled by corporate or political meddlers in matters they know nothing about; consider the recent governors' education summit. ...

J. David Colfax
Trustee and Past President
Mendocino County Board of Education
Boonville, Calif.

Home-School Data Found Lacking in Comparability

To the Editor:

I found Mark Weston's Commentary ("Reformers Should Take a Look at Home Schools," April 3, 1996) of interest, but I question his analysis of the data he used.

The article estimates there are between a half million and 2 million children being home schooled in this country. The cited study from Riverside Publishing Co., which analyzed 16,311 students' results, is hardly a significant sample of children who are home schooled. There is no mention of the size or composition of the sample in which home schoolers tested at the 77th percentile. If those 16,311 children's scores were included in, but rated separately from and then compared with the mass of public school students, one would expect that selected representatives of home schools would score well. The data say nothing about educational progress for those home schoolers who were not tested, nor do they offer evidence of inherent superiority of home schools.

Mr. Weston notes that the public schools could only reach "about the 50th percentile," suggesting public schools are therefore inferior to home schools. My recollection of the meaning of percentiles in test results is demarcation between higher and lower scores than at the given percentile. Average is near the 50th percentile. Consequently, the average of any sample is near the 50th percentile. If the 16,311 home schoolers constituted a sample of their own, they would also average "about the 50th percentile."

To certify and compare actual learning of students from a variety of settings, criterion-referenced (not norm-referenced), validated, reliable, and bias-free tests would have to be administered under standardized conditions. To my knowledge, no such comparison has ever been made.

Interest and involvement of parents are valuable supports for learning by children, regardless of the site of schooling. High expectations are equally essential. Nothing precludes those from taking place in public schools. However, public schools' test scores include all enrolled students, even those who lack all of the supports described as essential for high quality learning. In the future, let's compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

Dorothy Beardmore
Michigan State Board of Education
Lansing, Mich.

Finding Apathy's Source In Lax, Modern Curricula

To the Editor:

I just read Gene I. Maeroff's Commentary, "Apathy and Anonymity," in your March 6, 1996, issue.

To me, it is nothing but a bunch of pretty (or not-so-pretty) words cranked out by an ivory-tower expert. I am well aware of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and its role, along with the unions, in the promotion of consolidated school districts with their huge high schools. However, I do not believe this is the root cause of the problems of identity and social functioning Mr. Maeroff discusses. I was in a graduating class of 400, and these kinds of things were unknown then.

As a retired teacher with 40 years' experience--20 in the elementary classroom, the rest as a specialist dealing with all ages--I believe the root cause is miseducation starting in kindergarten. A child is completely formed by 4th or 5th grade (if not before), so that trying to correct underachievement and effect a real change of attitude after that age is virtually impossible.

The so-called modern curricula, which devote much of the school day to self-esteem, safe sex, nondirective drug "education," save-the-world programs, and so forth, are at fault. There is simply no time for any real learning to take place. When high school students can't find the United States on a map, don't know where to place the Civil War or the Revolutionary War in history, or can't do a long-division problem without a calculator, they feel hopeless and pessimistic about their futures. Who wouldn't? The realization that one is ill-equipped to survive in a competitive world could be enough to turn a young person to drugs.

The only answer is to go back to the very beginning (kindergarten) and put in real learning. Good, enthusiastic teachers can make real learning not only fun but exciting. And believe me, the children know.

Pat Degen
Bad Honnef, Germany

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