Published Online: April 9, 1997

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Immigrants Know Value Of Fluency in English

To the Editor:

Your article "The Politics of Language," (Research, March 5, 1997) did a fine job of sorting out the problems with research on bilingual education and neatly avoided the tit-for-tat quality most articles on this subject revel in. But I'm skeptical of the idea, voiced by many of the people you interviewed, that academic researchers will settle the debate over bilingual education just as soon as they get enough money to do the job right. The debate, after all, is not about how we should teach our children so much as it is about what we want them to know.

Public schools traditionally have stuck to a simple principle: Non-English-speaking children should learn English as quickly and effectively as possible. At least the schools did during the last great wave of immigration in the first part of this century, when they considered the Americanization of a foreign-born population an essential task. Polls suggest that most Americans (including Hispanic parents) still view English acquisition as critically important, but their belief is not shared by many education professionals. Spanish "should no longer be regarded as a 'foreign' language," writes Josue Ganzalez, who led the federal government's bilingual efforts in the Carter administration and is now a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Spanish should be "a second national language," he says.

The average American would blanch at such a statement. So would many immigrants, who know better than the rest of us the value of being able to speak, read, and write fluent English. And yet the radical notion that English does not occupy a unique place in our national life, as well as its logical corollary questioning how well language-minority children really need to learn it in the first place, is at the crux of the matter. And no amount of research spending will settle this dispute.

John J. Miller
Vice President
Center for Equal Opportunity
Washington, D.C.

Painting Accrediting Groups With Too Broad a Brush

To the Editor:

Your front-page article titled "Once Status Symbol for Schools, Accreditation Becomes Rote Drill" (March 26, 1997) provides an overly generalized view of regional accreditation for public schools. In your effort to describe the current condition of regional accreditation, you chose to ignore several significant differences that exist among the six regional accrediting associations in the United States. These differences are critical in understanding the focus of accreditation and the impact of the accreditation process on public schools in the different regions of the country.

Unfortunately, there are also some important factual errors in your article regarding the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. As the executive director and CEO of the NEASC, I am compelled to set the record straight on these factual matters and to point out the significance of the differences between the NEASC accreditation process for public schools and that depicted in your article.

The article indicates that the NEASC accredits 75 percent of the public high schools in our six-state region. We actually accredit more than 95 percent of those schools. The article also states that approximately 100 of our public high schools are on probation and that the director of our Public Secondary School Commission "seems almost proud" of that fact. The true number of public high schools on probation with the NEASC is currently 20, and I can assure you that we do not take pride in the fact that these schools are on probation. Instead, we celebrate the fact that many of the schools once placed on probation or terminated by the association have worked diligently to improve the quality of education they provide for their students and have sought to become accredited by us without qualification.

The article also indicates that the basis for public high school accreditation activity comes from the sixth edition of the National Study of School Evaluation manual. While that may be true of the other regional accrediting associations, it is not true of the NEASC. We have developed our own manual for self-study and accreditation for use by schools in our region. That manual focuses on qualitative, not quantitative, standards and is the result of years of work with the public high school constituency in our region.

These errors of fact are important. But there is more. The article also states that an organization called the International Council of School Accrediting Commissions oversees the regional groups. Again, that is incorrect for the NAESC. The NEASC made a deliberate decision not to participate as a member of the ICSAC due to significant philosophical differences with the purpose and function of that organization.

It also appears that you are unfamiliar with the organizational differences between the NEASC and the other regional accrediting associations. While the other associations function with autonomous commissions for the various sectors of education they accredit, the NEASC functions with individual commissions and an umbrella board of trustees. That board is made up of educators from public and private schools, colleges, and universities, along with public members from each of the six states in our region. Commission recommendations are brought to the board of trustees for action and, therefore, must undergo the scrutiny of a broad spectrum of educators and public representatives. In addition, the NEASC is the only regional accrediting association with a permanent office of school-college relations to address the critical need for K-16 discourse on the improvement of educational quality in our region.

When I left the position of commissioner of education in the state of Connecticut approximately 2 1/2 years ago, I chose to accept my current position with the NEASC because the association was viewed as a critical player in the process to improve education in our region. We have every reason to believe that this is even more the case today. We work actively and collaboratively in our public school sector with commissioners of education, state education department personnel, the federal regional educational laboratory at Brown University, business and community leaders, school administrators, parents, teachers, legislative leaders, and others to be certain that the accreditation process is, indeed, meaningful for the educators and for the communities they serve.

We have worked diligently to be certain that we are in tune with all the work being done nationally and at the state level with regard to standards and curriculum frameworks. The NEASC public high school accreditation process places a central emphasis on the teaching and learning process in the schools we accredit. We seek to ensure that the school's purpose is focused on student achievement and that the curriculum and instruction in the school are consistent with that purpose in theory and in practice. We also emphasize the need for public high schools to demonstrate through the accreditation process that the students they are teaching are, in fact, achieving to the levels of their capacity and consistent with the school's purpose.

The NEASC mission statement says, in part, that the association "is an advocate of educational quality and its improvement, and serves as a public-policy resource on issues related to the condition of education throughout New England." In your effort to paint regional accreditation with a broad brush, you missed the critical differences that distinguish the New England Association of Schools and Colleges from other associations.

Vincent L. Ferrandino
Executive Director and CEO
New England Association of Schools and Colleges Inc.
Bedford, Mass.

To the Editor:

Your article on accreditation does not represent the accreditation efforts of Michigan schools. The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools accredits 955 schools in Michigan. All Michigan NCA schools engage in a rigorous school improvement model that focuses on increasing student achievement. Accreditation visits, conducted by peers, monitor student learning, professional development, and rigorous assessment methods. Their hard work and dedication cannot be described as a "nuts-and-bolts" inventory.

The majority of schools use regional accreditation as a framework to document the positive effects of change on student achievement. An increasing number of elementary and middle-level schools are joining their high schools in NCA membership in order to pursue a coordinated, districtwide school improvement effort.

Further, if it is news you are seeking, know that the NCA is a proactive organization that is developing an even more rigorous school improvement model entitled "Transitions" in partnership with the ACT in Iowa City. It focuses on preparing students to be successful at the next level of schooling and ultimately in the world of work.

William J. Bushaw
State Director
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dress Code Commentary Not Entirely Accurate

To the Editor:

("Litigating School Dress Codes," by Richard Fossey and Todd A. DeMitchell (Commentary, March 19, 1997), contains several errors which need correcting.

The children who sued their school system in the black-armband case in 1969 were not "John, Jane, and Sarah" Tinker, but John and Mary Beth Tinker and their friend Chris Eckhardt. Messrs. Fossey and DeMitchell may not be familiar with their names, but they are household words to Jeffrey and Jonathan Pyle, the students accused by the authors of bringing a "trivial" and "absurd" lawsuit against their South Hadley, Mass., school system.

Looking at this case in some detail demonstrates that far from trivializing the U.S. Constitution, the Pyle brothers have a more secure grasp of constitutional principles than do Mr. Fossey and Mr. DeMitchell. Jeffrey Pyle, the drum major of the school's band, had been given a "Coed Naked Band: Do it to the Rhythm" T-shirt by his mother. His gym teacher told him he couldn't wear it because it was demeaning to women, and he was given detentions when he continued to do so. The school then passed a new dress code barring students from wearing clothing intended to "harass, intimidate, or demean" an individual or groups on account of "sex, race, religion, handicap, national origin, or sexual orientation," or thought to be "obscene, lewd, or vulgar."

The Pyle brothers did not rush into court. Instead, they decided to test the dress code by wearing a variety of political messages on their T-shirts--some which even Messrs. Fossey and DeMitchell might find sufficiently "serious." They wore shirts protesting censorship, advocating the rights of gays and lesbians, as well as the shirt against drinking and driving which was cited by Messrs. Fossey and DeMitchell. After uncovering inconsistencies and political bias in the school's implementation of its dress code, and failing to get the code amended, they took their case to court.

The federal trial court did not, as Messrs. Fossey and DeMitchell claimed, rule "substantially in the school district's favor." Judge Michael Ponsor ruled that the harassment provision of the dress code was too broad, saying it gave school personnel "excessive authority" to "ban speech other than that reflecting the dominant or most comforting ethos." In his view, this part of the code permitted unconstitutional "viewpoint discrimination." But he did uphold the school's right to censor shirts on grounds of vulgarity.

This part of the ruling was appealed to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The appeals court asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to interpret the state's Student Freedom of Expression Act before it made its ruling. It was the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state (referred to by the authors as "a Massachusetts state court") which ruled unanimously that teachers and administrators may not censor T-shirts they consider "vulgar." The court upheld the U.S. Supreme Court's Tinker v. Des Moines standard, which is at the heart of the Massachusetts Student Freedom of Expression Act: Student expression cannot be censored unless it causes a clear disruption in the school or invades the rights of others.

Messrs. Fossey and DeMitchell show little understanding of the Tinker standard, which they praise in the beginning of their essay. They show even less understanding about the way constitutional protections work at the federal and state levels. Under the First Amendment, expression we may not like or may find "trivial" or "absurd" is as deserving of protection as the most "civil" speech propagating supposed "community values." "Under our Constitution," wrote the U.S. Supreme Court majority in its Tinker decision, "free speech is not a right that is given only to be so circumscribed that it exists in principle but not in fact."

We would like Jeffrey and Jonathan Pyle to have the last word: "Like the politicians, the school committee in our case did not understand the basic principle of the [Student Freedom of Expression] statute and the First Amendment. They argued that 'community standards' (as if there were such things) should govern how much freedom of expression kids should have. Freedom of expression is not subject to majority rule--not for adults, and not for students. The First Amendment and the statute exist to protect expression the community dislikes. We don't need protection for expressions the community likes. ... Teachers hardly prepare students to take their place in a constitutional democracy by extolling freedom of speech in theory, while violating it in practice" (Sunday Republican, Sept. 8, 1996).

Nancy Murray
Director
Bill of Rights Education Project
Boston, Mass.

Nan Stein
Expert Witness
Pyle v. South Hadley School Committee
Wellesley, Mass.

What State Taxpayers Pay in Nonpublic School Costs

To the Editor:

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association report showing that the state spends $132 million per year for nonpublic transportation is enlightening ("Pennsylvania Fails To Cover Cost of Busing Private Students, Study Finds," March 26, 1996). As Pennsylvania is a very representative state, extrapolation of these figures for the 27 states providing nonpublic school transportation reveals that the national tab for this controversial expenditure is about $1.38 billion.

Not only does transporting students to nonpublic schools cost more than hauling kids to public schools but, adding insult to injury, Pennsylvania law requires local districts to transport nonpublic students up to 10 miles outside the district and even into neighboring states, a privilege not available to public students.

Added to the $1.38 billion nonpublic school transportation tab is another billion or so in assorted state and federal aids to nonpublic schools, none of which shows up in nonpublic school cost statistics.

Although voters have consistently voted against tax aid for nonpublic schools in statewide referenda over the last 30 years, they have never had an opportunity to vote on components of this $2.4 billion or so outlay.

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md
.

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