Published Online: May 21, 1997

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Do We Need Another Test? Before Answering, Ask Why

To the Editor:

It seems to me that the issue of increased testing of our students boils down to two questions: Do we need another test to tell us what we already know about student achievement in this country? And will another test improve student achievement? ("Just Saying No," April 9, 1997, and "Stumping for Standards," April 9, 1997).

For the parents of students in Birmingham, Mich., whose withdrawal of their children from statewide tests was the subject of your front-page news article, the answer to both was a clear and resounding no. For Christopher Cross and Scott Joftus, the authors of your Commentary on standards, the answer seems to be yes, if the tests are good. The problem, of course, is that there is no assurance that the tests being proposed by President Clinton will be any better than the tests we already have, especially since the proposed new tests are to be "based on" the already existing National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Messrs. Cross and Joftus also say that national tests are needed to compare student achievement across state lines. Aside from the fact that we can already do that--since the tests most states use are amazingly and discouragingly similar to each other and we already have NAEP--the question is why? Does it really matter to parents in New York that children in their state generally do better than children in, say, Texas? My guess is that what they care about is whether their own particular child is getting a good education, and whether he or she will be able to get a good job or get into college.

In four decades of increased testing in this country, there is as yet no evidence that high-stakes standardized tests lead to improved student learning. Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary. Why should we believe a new test will be different?

Sophie Sa
Executive Director
The Panasonic Foundation
Secaucus, N.J.

Our Curriculum Wars Distort Truth's Multifaceted Nature

To the Editor:

History has demonstrated that political ideology carried to extremes will result in an unstable nation run by egotistical fanatics, dullards, and bureaucrats. Since its inception, America has established many measures to enforce constitutional rights, like the separation between church and state. They protect our country from the totalitarian philosophies of despots and theocrats. Recent social trends, though, mainly those adhering to political correctness, are attempting to subtly Balkanize our public school curriculum rather than preserve a traditionally democratic one.

Is curriculum inherently political, or do politicians make it so? After reading many articles and essays about public education, from a wide range of current periodicals, a person can effortlessly create a list of politicized curricula. Conservatives claim that a left-slanted curriculum is very abstract and culturally relative. It promotes the teaching of humanism, the theory of evolution, and revisionism. Liberals say that a right-skewed curriculum is very literal and fundamental. It advocates the teaching of religion, creationism, and Eurocentric history.

The fundamentals of contemporary American politics are dichotomous. An exclusive, two-sided paradigm does not work within the framework of public education. Young people need to know that all problems are multifaceted and that everyone interprets his or her surroundings individually. The imposition of excessive political beliefs within an education system will impede the development of these important proficiencies.

School curriculum should be neither religious or political. Educators need to teach truth and theory through discrimination, diversity, and critical thinking. As a society we seem to be lost in our concessions on what we want our children to know, learn, and be. Public schools should be the place where students study about differences, not take sides.

Thomas J. Seitzinger Jr.
School District Computer Specialist
Fairport, N.Y.

Orfield Shows Paternalism In 'Resegregation' Data

To the Editor:

Gary Orfield's warnings are Chicken Little reports from Harvard University ("U.S. Schools Lapsing Into 'Resegregation,' Orfield Warns," April 16, 1997). His "one of the great questions of the next generation is whether we ghettoize our Latino population or whether we open the doors of opportunity to them" is paternalistic and ignorant of the data. As do most professional critics, Mr. Orfield puts all Latinos in the same categories. What makes him the authority to put seventh-generation Americans of Mexican descent into the same category as a newly arrived illegal alien from El Salvador?

The data that he sees are a hodge-podge of inaccurate, windshield data collected and analyzed by well-intentioned graduate students bent on supporting a welfare state. The classic stereotype of Latinos as agricultural workers newly arrived from every Mexican town and from Central and South America is misapplied. Most of us "Latinos" are American citizens, most of us speak English, and a good number of us are proficient in both English and Spanish. As a matter of fact, second- and third-generation Latinos have English as their native tongue, just as any other second- or third-generation American.

Finally, why is the term Latino applied to a population that includes at least 40 percent third- to eighth-generation Americans? And, incidentally, the vast majority, perhaps even 95 percent of this population, is white. I would ask Mr. Orfield to keep his condescending comments to himself. No one is attempting to put him into a particular group.

Luis A. Salazar
Milwaukee, Wis.

Should Poor Parents Wait Till the System Is Fixed?

To the Editor:

While Gerald Tirozzi lists several theoretical reasons for opposing vouchers, his thoughts on some real-world questions about this topic would have made for a more poignant article ("Vouchers: A Questionable Answer To an Unasked Question," April 23, 1997).

In the case of the Milwaukee voucher program, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Houston have found significant improvements in reading and math scores among the poor, minority students in the program. Their report noted that "if similar success could be achieved for all minority students nationwide, it could close the gap separating white and minority test scores by somewhere between one-third and more than one-half."

Has Mr. Tirozzi personally reviewed that study? What does he think? Are there any other studies of which the U.S. Department of Education is aware, from Harvard or elsewhere, that have found a program that can so dramatically improve test scores among poor minority students? Has any official from the department actually visited voucher schools in Cleveland or Milwaukee, or otherwise studied these programs?

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has reported that, as a result of enacting a 1992 nationwide voucher system in Sweden, "many [public] schools have become more responsive to parents' wishes." Given this real-world experience, isn't it reasonable to believe that vouchers will provide important leverage for public schools here to undertake necessary reforms--as well as immediately benefit the students who go to private schools--thus creating a win-win situation?

Congress is currently considering a variety of proposals that would enable poor students in the most crime-ridden, drug-infested schools in the country to go to a school of their parents' choice using a voucher. Is there any proposal from the Clinton administration that would provide the immediate and direct benefits of vouchers--for example, ensuring that many children in our worst schools will attend a much better one? Is it fair to ask the parents of these children to wait a few years for their child to get a better education until the system is fixed? Furthermore, why does Mr. Tirozzi seem to believe that the use of vouchers is somehow inherently mutually exclusive from other efforts to improve public education?

Paul F. Steidler
Director, Education Reform Project
The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
Arlington, Va.

Calvinism and Education: Another Perspective

To the Editor:

As a direct descendant of a number of purse-lipped Calvinists who came to Boston from England about the time Harvard University was founded, I was surprised at the criticism leveled at Roland S. Barth by James L. Drexler ("Slight to Calvinists Seen in 'Leader as Learner' Essay," Letters, April 2, 1997).

My belief was that Harvard College was started by the Calvinists as a "vocational school" to promote the need for spiritual strengthening of the new colony. The kind of "learning" which that institution was founded to promote is but an obscure footnote to the history of education in America, not because it is remote, nor that it was unimportant, but because it was appropriate as the cornerstone for the development of an elite, selective caste system of education at that point in our nation's history. It is, I believe, more the image of that experience than the meaning it had to that period of history that connects to Mr. Barth's writing. ("The Leader As Learner," March 5, 1997.)

One only need read Alfred North Whitehead's 1941 critique of education (written while at Harvard) entitled The Aims of Education to understand the nuances of Mr. Barth's observations as opposed to the Calvinist view. Whitehead eschewed the then-popular celebration of the "inert idea" as a foundation for classroom focus. Indeed, he favored the experiential as the laboratory for testing the inert idea, thereby undermining the Calvinist notion of "acceptance of the extreme" because it was the essence of their belief system.

Not to believe was to be shunned. One could not join a community until one had been "warned" and observed for a time. Hardly the stuff of the modern "community of learners" with its focus on constructivist knowledge and meaning-making so ardently sought by Mr. Barth in all of his writing and speaking.

In this "past as prologue" criticism of Roland Barth through his writing we see either an attempt to raise doubt about Mr. Barth's message by undermining his use of imagery or to place John Calvin and his followers as the founders of a crusty philosophy of learning who belong squarely in the debate about how to change American schools. It should be an interesting debate--my money is on Mr. Barth.

Thomas P. Johnson
Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
Florida International University
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A Reminder To Identify Students in Photographs

To the Editor:

I enjoyed reading your article titled "Majority of Dade Schools Back Uniforms For Students," (April 30, 1997). As a guidance counselor and senior-class adviser in my own school, however, I have a question about the picture that accompanied the article. In the caption, you list the name of the Dade County, Fla., school board member appearing, but you fail to identify the two young people in the illustration.

Let's try to give high school students the recognition they deserve. If these students agreed to be in the picture as models, their names and the names of the schools they attend should have been highlighted somewhere in the story.

Francis Cherichello
Pascack Hills High School
Montvale, N.J.

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