Published Online: May 28, 1997



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Charter Schools Essay Shows Anti-Union Bias

To the Editor:

Assuming I counted correctly, the Commentary piece by Gregg Vanourek, Bruno Manno, and Chester E. Finn Jr. included 11 statements which were explicitly anti-teachers'-union ("The False Friends of Charter Schools," April 30, 1997). I quickly learned that the real enemy of charter schools is the National Education Association and its state and local affiliates. Still, I noticed that the authors included a few nasty comments about school administrators and school boards. Perhaps they did this in order to show some "balance and objectivity" in their perspective.

Let me predict that one of the central conclusions that will be reached by Messrs. Manno, Finn, and Vanourek in their two-year study of charter schools in America is that teachers' unions are the real enemies of educational reform. (Or will they be clever and again refer to them as a "false friend"?). I have a hunch that they will "discover" that the educational bureaucracy (school administrators, elected school boards, and state departments of education) also are the real enemies of reform. They also will conclude that a free market for charter schools is just what we need.

What is unique about this essay is that the authors manage to address the issue of educational reform and charter schools without saying much of anything about the important factors that we know have a positive influence on student achievement, including high expectations by teachers and others, parent support, family condition, small class size, student effort, or the like.

For those who seek simple answers to complex educational questions, this Commentary represents the perfect place to begin.

Russ Allen
Research and Professional Development Consultant
Wisconsin Education Association Council
Madison, Wis.

To the Editor:

The authors of the "The False Friends of Charter Schools" indicate that as researchers at the Hudson Institute, they are currently conducting a two-year study of "charter schools in America." Their biases toward charter schools and against unions and conventional public schools are blatant. Readers should be sure to remember this bias when they read the outcomes of their current two-year study of charter schools.

Messrs. Vanourek, Manno, and Finn recognize the recent emergence of charter schools and thus the fact that they do not have a lengthy track record. Nonetheless, they are convinced that charter schools are the answer to the challenges of maintaining a strong system of public education. They dismiss those charter schools with documented malpractice as the bad apples that are a necessary result of the freedom that is vital for the many good ones to succeed. The authors believe that the real advantage of charter schools is the freedom they have from the influence of unions and their collective bargaining agreements.

If the Hudson Institute study of charter schools is to have any credibility, it needs to incorporate researchers with less bias. And may I suggest that the research team include the South Carolina experience in its research, asking questions about the minority makeup of proposed charter schools in this state, and noting that collective bargaining agreements are not a factor, since teachers in this state have no collective bargaining rights.

I hope that the research study will also include the economic analysis of charter school funding. What is the source of the grant and foundation money which will support South Carolina's charter schools? If public monies are being used as the economic foundation and combined with funds from private foundations, have we created new innovative public schools or have we just subsidized private schools with public monies?

Those of us who care deeply about public education in the United States acknowledge the need for definitive research--not more rhetoric about charter schools. I hope that the Hudson Institute study will be a responsible contributor to the research effort.

Loretta D. Warden
Hilton Head Island, S.C.

On 'Talent Identification': A Response to Criticism

To the Editor:

This letter is in response to Pamela George's Commentary ("The SAT and Talent Identification," Feb. 26, 1997). I would like to clarify some of the misconceptions left by Ms. George's comments, specifically those regarding the programs of the Center for Talent Development of Northwestern University.

Ms. George is unclear as to the use of the SAT and ACT tests with pre-college-age students. These tests, because of their higher ceilings, can give a more accurate assessment of the abilities of high-achieving middle school students than in-grade achievement tests. The concept of "off level" testing, which the talent searches embody, is widely used and considered valid by the educational community. The purpose of testing in the talent searches is to provide a more complete picture of students' domains of academic talent and level of abilities within domains. The data obtained can then be used to provide more appropriate educational placement.

In the case of the talent searches, the tests can identify children who reason at levels typical of older students. The programs provided by the talent searches give students advanced and enriched coursework commensurate with their reasoning capacities. A considerable body of research documents the success of talent-search participants matched to appropriate accelerative and enrichment-oriented types of educational programs.

In the Midwest Talent Search, which the Northwestern center conducts, males and females participate at fairly even rates--52 percent of 28,000 students in 1996 were males and 48 percent were females. This distribution has been stable since the center's inception. Because we recognize that not all students have the same opportunities to qualify for participation in the talent search and that some students cannot display the full extent of their abilities on standardized tests, students can enter the Midwest Talent Search via teacher recommendation and parent nomination in addition to test performance.

Not all of these students who join the talent search proceed with the testing (although this does not vary by gender), but of those that do, more males obtain scores above 540 on the math section of the SAT compared with females. However, our data indicate ratios favoring males of 1.5-to-1 at these levels on the math section of the SAT, far from the 13-1 or 3-1 ratios Ms. George presents.

Also, although the Center for Talent Development was not listed as one of the programs that use test scores exclusively for entrance into programs, the Commentary did not explicitly state that it is our policy to admit students on the basis of other criteria. For the past two summers, females represented 45 percent to 47 percent of both the applicants and attendees of the CTD summer programs. Males and females enroll almost equally in our summer math courses (46 percent vs. 54 percent).

While more boys enrolled in summer science classes than girls, our research indicates that girls who are qualified for science classes prefer and choose language arts/verbal classes in voluntary programs such as ours.

Entrance criteria for CTD programs vary by and are matched to specific courses. The center offers classes in all the major content areas and many, including some mathematics classes, use combined SAT math and SAT verbal scores or scores from the subsets of the ACT for entrance. In addition, the center clearly states in its brochures that students who have not taken the ACT or SAT or do not meet the stated score criteria for a course can submit other types of information to be admitted to the program. Approximately 120 students in the 1996 summer programs were accepted without standardized-test scores or on the basis of information other than SAT or ACT scores. These students qualified by virtue of previous achievement indicating a high probability of success in the types of classes the center offers.

The Center for Talent Development and many other university-based programs like it use SAT and ACT scores as a means of matching students to appropriate educational experiences. But we use these criteria flexibly as a general indication of developed level of reasoning ability and fully recognize that they are not the only or the best indicator of ability or talent for all children.

I believe that the effect of the talent searches and programs like the Northwestern center is to prepare more young women for advanced study at the college level by identifying their abilities at a critical stage of development, by helping them accelerate their educational progress by taking courses early, and by providing opportunities for them to take enrichment classes and advanced courses including Advanced Placement classes prior to college.

Most important, programs like the CTD's give girls opportunities to be with other young women who are academically oriented and to receive support to continue on an academic track. Our center and others like it contribute to the development of talented females by preparing and supporting them for advanced study and by inoculating them against cultural influences that work against female talent development. These programs do not exacerbate the equity issues Ms. George identifies; they do much to ameliorate them.

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius
Center for Talent Development
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

GI Bill Is a Far Cry From Private-School Tax Support

To the Editor:

John Wheeland does not understand the difference between the GI Bill and vouchers ("Tirozzi Voucher Essay Draws Spirited Raft of Responses," Letters, May 14, 1997).

It is quite simple. The GI Bill compensated Mr. Wheeland, as an adult, for military service to his country. Vouchers for children are a form of improper tax support for sectarian private schools.

Most of the beneficiaries of the GI Bill attended public colleges. Most vouchers would go to denominational private schools.

Apart from the GI Bill, the courts have long recognized a big difference between generally secular, even though church-related, colleges on the one hand and lower schools which are pervasively sectarian, on the other.

Don't worry, Mr. Wheeland, you paid for your GI Bill education by risking your life in defense of your country.

Alec Randall
Silver Spring, Md.

Georgia Program Promotes Clean and Safe Restrooms

To the Editor:

Many thanks for your description of administrators' concerns with restroom policies in school districts around the country ("A Fact of School Life: Updated Restroom Policies," May 7, 1997).

Perhaps another approach could be tried besides issuing hall passes, wearing orange vests, or rationing toilet paper, as is done in some elementary schools.

Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners, and Educators Against Neglect) is a school- and community-based effort that aims to improve the cleanliness and safety of public school restrooms by having students, custodians, staff, and a facilitator discuss a restroom-improvement plan for each individual school building. Project CLEAN has begun a pilot project in DeKalb County, Ga., in an 85,000-student school system just east of Atlanta. One school has come up with concrete plans for the 1997-98 school year. Another intends to work with the entire freshman class to bring about improvements.

There is almost no professional literature on safe and clean restrooms, yet every reader has a story--mostly a negative one. There needs to be a growing body of information on positive suggestions. Good behavior should prompt policymaking. Clean and safe bathrooms can become a fact of school life.

Tom Keating
Project CLEAN
Decatur, Ga.

Forced-Schooling Mandates Are Unions' True Enemies

To the Editor:

Your article about school reformer David Kirkpatrick seems determined to misidentify this unusual man as an "enemy of the union he once led," which is far from the truth ("Turncoat," May 7, 1997). Indeed, the real enemy of unionism has always been the cartoon old-line Socialist oversimplifications of the proper use of the forced-schooling mandate.

What Mr. Kirkpatrick seems to me to be fighting is a fundamental truth which can be broken down into these basic propositions: (1) There is no such thing as scientific pedagogy, a body of truths which can be attained by a professional class which privileges it in dealings with children. The truth of this has been tested thoroughly and expensively for a century, and no more trial time can be afforded. The exclusive possession of children by state agents has failed instrumentally and humanistically to give us characters or a social context we can applaud.

(2) The only justifications for a continuation of the current monopoly--that it protects jobs and a number of fat-cat administrative organizations and that it creates fit subjects for the national security state, that is, men and women unable to think independently, are illegitimate. (3) A silent revolution against this outrage has grown steadily to where it is now visible in various forms, one of which is the school choice movement. (4) It is time to move on, and we shall move on--with the help of the unions or without them.

Your casting of the issue in Manichean terms is common in journalism but not very enlightening for readers. Your article mentions me as a "tout" of vouchers, which is about 99 degrees from the truth; I tout full admission of the grotesque failure of compulsory schooling. Vouchers are only a ticket for other players to get into the game and far from the best one around.

John Taylor Gatto
Oxford, N.Y.

Librarians Are a Vital Part Of Educational Community

To the Editor:

I applaud American Library Association President Mary Somerville's Commentary, "Logged On and Literate" May 7, 1997. School libraries and school librarians perform vital educational functions, which when they are done "right" are so invisible that they are often overlooked or undervalued by administrators. It looks so easy to find the right book, the right video, the right Web site, the right on-line service to provide the right blend of materials and viewpoints to generate all those questions that form the basis of genuine learning. If you have spent just a modicum of time in a major library or surfing the Web, you know that it is not so easy to find "the right stuff."

School libraries are more important now than ever before for many reasons, but principally because "information" is so omnipresent that understanding its structure, its provenance, its currency, and its authority is not a simple matter. With more resources coming on-line and with more schools getting "wired," it is critical that students learn how to find, use, and evaluate information. This is a vital life skill--for today, tomorrow, and always.

The information landscape is constantly shifting, and librarians are specifically trained to track the turf. To relegate the librarian position to one of "clerk," as is happening in some school districts, is to totally misunderstand the impact of the Internet and associated new technologies. Now is when we really need school librarians and media specialists.

Part of the problem, I am convinced, is that school librarians tend to talk too much to each other and not to the broader educational community. Thus, I am delighted to see Mary Somerville's piece in Education Week.

Susan Veccia
MultiMedia Schools Magazine
Washington, D.C.

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