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Despite the National Polls, Education Is a Local Matter

To the Editor:

Once again, George Kaplan has proven why he is considered an incisive writer in the field of education. In his Commentary "Another Boilerplate Campaign Misses the Point,"(Oct. 23, 1996), he illuminates the distance between the concerns of the electorate on the issue of education and the candidates' consistent propensity to ignore these concerns--while appearing to respond accordingly. No matter how pressing voters' demands for genuine education reform seem in the opinion polls, the candidates manage to remain strategically at the noncontroversial center.

In the campaign just passed, President Clinton refined this approach to an art, managing to make safe and marginal initiatives appear momentous (school uniforms, Internet access, etc.). His record on education, it must be said, has been solid but by no means "reformist." Candidate Bob Dole's stands were, at best, uninspiring. In both cases, as Mr. Kaplan observes, the candidates did little to address the deteriorating situation of the urban and rural poor--problems which have a far more fundamental impact upon the long-term state of education in America. Indeed, President Clinton has even taken action to exacerbate the problem--witness the welfare-reform bill.

The larger question for electoral politics is much simpler: Does it even matter? Though poll after poll seems to indicate a strong voter call for education "reform," there is very strong evidence that people rate their own local school systems as fairly strong. It is only when asked to rate the nation's schools that people appear troubled. Schools in their own backyards tend to garner high marks. This reinforces an age-old truth about American education: It is very much a local thing. If polls aren't enough to demonstrate this, budget realities cinch it: The federal government provides only 6 percent of educational funding anyway.

Perhaps rather than monitoring the stands of candidates like Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole, we'd do better to tally the results of school board elections in order to gauge the "education voter."

Regan Kenyon
President
Secondary School Admission Test Board
Princeton, N.J.

Site-Based Management: A Good Idea 'Led Astray'

To the Editor:

Your article "Study: Site Management Has No Effect on Scores,"(Oct. 30, 1996) deserves comment because it illustrates how good ideas in education are so often led astray.

When the site-based-management idea was first advanced, it was not intended to be a concept for blanket application. What we wanted to do was allow outstanding, effective, and courageous teachers to take charge of a school and develop cooperative programs of educational excellence. We wanted those outstanding teachers to be free of the negative effects of uncooperative, wrong-headed administrators and other roadblocks to effective performance. We wanted classroom practitioners with the right stuff to have an opportunity to prove the worth of their ideas and be accountable for their results.

Successful programs were expected to be replicated, and those which didn't work out were expected to be eliminated. Every school in a district was not expected to be a site-based-management school. We expected such a plan to give teachers a sense of ownership of their programs that would provide incentives and opportunities for teachers to improve their knowledge base and teaching skills. Briefly stated, we wanted to professionalize teaching.

The original idea was bitterly opposed at the time, and finally we were forced to compromise and accept the pale, watered-down nonsense that now passes for site-based management. Is it any wonder that just telling teachers who couldn't care less that they are "in charge" has no effect on scores?

An interesting question occurred to me after reading your article. Doesn't the University of Virginia study also prove that traditional forms of management are also not effective in raising scores?

Fred Gibson
Tahlequah, Okla.

School-to-Work Not Just for Non-College-Bound Students

To the Editor:

Two articles in the Oct. 2, 1996, issue express a common misunderstanding of the school-to-work movement. A. Graham Down's Commentary, "Three Assassins of Excellence,"(Oct. 2, 1996) and the researchers from the Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development quoted in "The Career Game,"(Oct. 2, 1996) in the Research section both misconstrue school-to-work as job-specific programs for non-college-bound students.

School-to-work is a movement for all students. It is not job training, but good learning which is not confined to classrooms but can and should happen in a range of situations, including workplaces. Students in school-to-work programs do go on to college or university. They may do this immediately after high school or later; in either case, their grasp of key workplace skills, both technical and interpersonal, together with their strong academic knowledge, are of great benefit in their lives as workers, as citizens, and as family members.

We encourage people to become informed about school-to-work programs at such schools as Fenway Middle College High School in Boston and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. These programs, which are preparing students for lifelong learning and empowering them to make better choices from the whole range of education and work possibilities, embody the school-to-work idea far better than its limited interpretation in these two articles.

Peter Seidman
Dissemination Program Director
National Center for Research in Vocational Education
Berkeley, Calif.

For Pedagogical Effectiveness, Try Psychology Departments

To the Editor:

E.D. Hirsch Jr. is so right ("Challenging the Intellectual Monopoly,"Commentary, Nov. 6, 1996). Pity the poor American students in our public schools whose learning is subverted by teachers whose own educational ideas echo those of liberal professors in schools of education where no dissent is brooked.

Mr. Hirsch doesn't say this outright, but why don't we just eliminate schools of education? This would allow teachers to get their training from those paragons of pedagogical effectiveness, "mainline" professors of psychology, who, according to Mr. Hirsch, don't shy away from the "rough and tumble of scientific criticism."

Of course, if psychology departments are really immune to fads (a doubtful proposition if there ever was one) and if genuine scientific debate really rules in those precincts, then Mr. Hirsch may be a bit optimistic in thinking that important questions about human learning have received settled answers. Take, for example, a recent article in an educational journal which offered that "an important ingredient ... for excellence is the participation of the student as an active partner along with the teacher in determining what are reasonable goals for him or her at any point in the learning process."

That sounds just like the kind of platitude one would expect from an educationally correct professor of education. What a surprise, then, to find that the author, Martin Covington, is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Francis Schrag
Professor of Education
University of Wisconsin at Madison
Madison, Wis.

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