Published Online: September 3, 1997



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Moral, Legal Issues on Race Go Beyond Desegregation

To the Editor:

Your otherwise admirable article headlined "NAACP Wrestles With Evolving Views on Desegregation" (Aug. 6, 1997) nevertheless has one serious flaw: It perpetuates the misconception that "the bedrock assumption" of desegregation litigation is "that black children are best served when educated with whites."

Some people may hold this view, but the basic premise of the Brown decision and the litigation that followed it is that black children are entitled not to be discriminated against and that official action requiring them to attend separate schools purely on the basis of their race is one form of such discrimination. This premise stands on its own, regardless of one's views of the educational or social merits of various remedies for ending segregation in particular circumstances.

This premise is now widely accepted, even in the areas where official segregation was firmly upheld in the past, and is usually enforced when such official action can be shown. That is a major achievement of the desegregation movement that should not be forgotten, and continuing debate over what to do about the continued isolation of many minority children should not be interpreted as any backsliding on this basic premise.

Nor should the continuing debates over remedies for segregation be allowed to distract attention from the efforts needed to remedy the many other ways in which minority children continue to be provided with palpably unequal and inadequate educational opportunities. Now that research and experience have demonstrated ways in which much more effective education can be provided for inner-city children, for instance, our society's failure to implement such changes should be as much of a legal and moral issue as desegregation was in the 1950s and 1960s.

David S. Seeley
Professor of Education
The College of Staten Island
Staten Island, N.Y.

Dueling Depictions of Young Highlight Need for Service

To the Editor:

Your July 9, 1997, issue provided quite a roller coaster ride for readers concerned with the citizenship and character development of today's young people.

First, we saw on page 10 your report on the newest Public Agenda study on "What Americans Really Think About the Next Generation" ("Youths' Lack of Values, Character Worries American Public"). Only 37 percent of Americans, it noted, believe that today's children will grow up to make our country a better place, and 53 percent describe children negatively--as lacking discipline or being rude or spoiled.

An uplifting antidote to this article was provided in the Commentary section by Anni Elwell's "Between Love's Hands." This eloquent high school student, whose independent school emphasizes community service, has already helped to make her country a better place to live and clearly will remain a concerned and contributing citizen.

Perhaps these two articles should have been juxtaposed, to remind us all that schools do have an important role to play in this arena.

Margaret Goldsborough
Director of Public Information and Resource Development
National Association of Independent Schools
Washington, D.C.

Essayist's Milwaukee View 'Ideological, Unscholarly'

To the Editor:

In "The Real Lesson of Milwaukee's Voucher Experiment," Alex Molnar makes several errors of fact and interpretation about recent research on Milwaukee's school choice program (Commentary, Aug. 6, 1997).

Mr. Molnar says that two studies of the Milwaukee program have not found gains in test scores at the significance level of 0.05. He reaches this conclusion by misinterpreting preliminary versions of each study and by not reading the final versions. A summary of his demonstrable errors follows:

1. Mr. Molnar claims that Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University found that "... private school students [in Milwaukee's choice program] gained approximately 1.3 percentage points per year and the effect has a p-value of 0.063." He says that "the standard protocol for statistical significance is 0.05 [so] one must wonder just what Ms. Rouse has demonstrated."

Mr. Molnar appears not to be knowledgeable about "standard protocols" in statistical research. Statistical significance is not a cliff. P-values of more than 0.05 can have great significance; in other instances, p-values of less than 0.05 can be irrelevant. Informative explanations of these issues are offered in works by Jan Kmenta, Christopher H. Achen, and David Freedman, Robert Pisani, and Roger Purves.

Mr. Molnar also misrepresents the 1996 Rouse study, which indeed did find math gains at a significance level below 0.05. Further, his Commentary is obsolete, relying on a preliminary paper circulated by Ms. Rouse in December 1996. Rather than the outdated statement he quotes, her final paper (May 1997) states: "... [P]rivate school students [in Milwaukee's program] gained approximately 1.5 percentile points per year and the effect has a p-value of 0.027."

2. Mr. Molnar makes further errors of interpretation and fact in describing an August 1996 study by Jay Greene of the University of Houston, Paul Peterson of Harvard University, and others. He quotes Messrs. Greene and Peterson as finding test-score gains that were "substantially significant" and calls this an "important-sounding characterization with no precise research meaning." Here Mr. Molnar misquotes the researchers and again reveals his lack of qualification to comment on statistics. What Messrs. Greene and Peterson said was that the test differences were "substantively significant." As Christopher Achen explains: "Substantive-significance tests answer the real question social scientists have in mind when they apply statistical methods." Mr. Achen observes that substantive significance is different from "the less important statistical significance."

Mr. Molnar fails to mention the final report of Messrs. Greene and Peterson, issued in March of 1997. It finds substantively significant gains in math scores of about 5 and 11 percentile points after three and four years in the choice program. Substantive gains in reading scores were about 2 to 6 points after three and four years. On the issue of statistical significance, Messrs. Greene and Peterson report: "Results for the third and fourth year are statistically significant ..." at less than 0.05.

Mr. Molnar's ideological and unscholarly approach to this research is illustrated by his Aug. 15, 1996, testimony in a Wisconsin evidentiary court hearing on school choice. Speaking two days after issuance of the original study from Messrs. Greene, Peterson, and colleagues, and without consulting the authors or thoroughly reviewing the work, he attacked its credibility. Mr. Molnar acknowledged that he was not qualified to evaluate the statistical methods at issue, saying instead that he had talked to an unnamed person who had concerns.

George A. Mitchell
Milwaukee, Wis.

Good Teaching's '7 Habits' Rate a '2' for Impact

To the Editor:

The only relevant point I found in Dorothy Rich's "7 Habits of Good Teachers Today"(Commentary, Aug. 6, 1997) was its emphasis on the need for parents to prepare children to learn prior to their entering the classroom.

When I was teaching high school American history, I expected each parent to take the following three steps at home prior to their child's crossing the threshold of my classroom: (1) ensure that the child understood the purpose of education and was self-disciplined; (2) monitor homework assignments and turn off the TV set; and (3) insist on daily attendance at school. It was only when all three conditions were met that teaching and learning commenced. There would be far fewer calls for education reform today if parents fully understood and were held accountable for carrying out these responsibilities at home.

On a scale of 1 to 10, the "habits of good teachers" described in Ms. Rich's Commentary would probably rate a 2 in terms of their effectiveness in combating the current mess in public education. Consider the overwhelming problems confronting the classroom teacher today: drugs, alcohol, violence in and on the way to school, lack of self-discipline, verbal and physical abuse of teachers, apathy, outdated curricula, classrooms in buildings seriously needing repair, shoestring budgets, television, the plague of illiteracy, poor diet, excessive teenage sexual activity, teacher burnout, boards of education that lack an understanding and vision of what constitutes substantive educational improvement, and collapse of family structures leading to uninvolved parents.

The suggested habits of "teaching with encouragement," using a variety of teaching styles, and making students know they are cared about will have little, if any, impact on combating such problems. "Involving students as learning partners" reminds me of the nonsense of teacher-pupil planning I was subjected to in a graduate school of education 40 years ago. Having my students review my lesson plans for the sake of student involvement would have been tantamount to allowing the inmates to run the asylum.

Personally, I enjoyed the high school students I taught in the late 1950s and early 1960s more than the graduate students that followed. They came to me each day from a supportive home and community, prepared to learn with open minds and willing to make the effort to meet high standards. I never attempted to promote classroom learning or homework as "fun." The classroom is a place where work is performed. We hope that the learning process will be enjoyable, but it requires time, hard work, patience, discipline, and commitment on the part of students--attributes common to the corporate and military environments in which I worked prior to entering education.

Ms. Rich should understand that teachers can't assume the responsibilities for the health care, social and emotional development, feeding, parenting, and counseling/nurturing of the child to the neglect of their primary function--education.

I do not want parents involved in the school. I want them involved at home and assuming responsibility for preparing their children to learn. We can properly blame schools when they fail to educate the educable. We can't blame them when parents fill their classrooms with the unteachable.

Donald M. Clark
President and CEO
National Association for Industry-Education Cooperation
Buffalo, N.Y.

Computers as Typewriters? Join the Real World

To the Editor:

I am a 40-something undergraduate in secondary mathematics and computer science. After reading in your article on technology in education the criticism that computers are little more than glorified typewriters ("School Technology Captures Public's Fascination, State's Dollars," July 9, 1997), I have the following observations:

(1) What are typewriters if not productivity tools that have enhanced our ability to communicate effectively? (2) How are computers used in business? As tools to increase productivity. (3) In the secondary classroom, doesn't it make sense to use computers as they are used in the "real world," that is, for word processing in the writing, revising, and presentation of reports; for spreadsheets in science and social studies that can be used to compile and interpret data; for Web browsers that enable easy access to the latest research information?

The use of computers can raise the bar on the level of work expected of our secondary students and better prepare them for the work environment they will find once they leave the academic world.

Leon Glaeser
New Orleans, La.

New York Has 'Timetable, Plan' for Raising Standards

To the Editor:

I read with interest Stephen E. Phillips' comments on your June 11, 1997, story about the revised New York state regents' test ("Letters," June 25, 1997). Mr. Phillips focuses on three concerns in New York's effort to raise standards:

  • He is disappointed that there is as yet no definitive prototype of revised regents' examinations. For the past three years, hundreds of New York state teachers have been involved in discussing test specifications, engaging in item-writing, pilot testing, pretesting, and scoring components of tests under development in English-language arts and in mathematics, science, and technology. It may appear that there are several versions of examinations to be reviewed because each discipline is at a different stage of test development. Teachers have seen the work, used it in classrooms with their own students, and commented on it.

We will produce and distribute a prototype of each new examination a year before it is scheduled to be on-line. Each prototype will reflect the result of piloting and pretesting, the work of teachers and department staff, and the assistance of experienced test developers who are our partners in this effort.

  • Mr. Phillips also is concerned that the new requirements may be too demanding for some students. He refers to the proposal to administer the English regents' examination in two three-hour sittings for a total of six hours. Currently, students who take competency exams in reading and writing are given six hours to complete them. By allowing six hours for the English regents' exam, we hope to assure ample time for all students and create manageable examination periods.

Mr. Phillips also suggests that students may be required to complete 30 laboratory experiments in the future as a prerequisite to taking science examinations, and he states that 20 is the number required now. Those numbers are misleading. In fact, the requirement is for 1,200 minutes of lab, rather than for a specific number of periods. Schools can allocate the 1,200 minutes into whatever number of periods is appropriate for them. There are no plans to change the 1,200-minute requirement of laboratory time as a prerequisite to an examination.

  • The third concern he raises is about the role of the state education department in producing curricula and syllabi. The department is producing a resource guide in each of the seven discipline areas covering the state's 28 learning standards. These guides contain instructional strategies, grade-by-grade materials, and assessment information. Our intent is to encourage flexibility at the classroom level to meet teacher and student needs.

We hope to strike a balance by providing clear descriptions of common content and guidance for developing local programs, but avoiding prescriptiveness in terms of instructional programs. Four of these guides--in draft form--are available on the Internet and in limited print editions. Final print editions for all seven disciplines are scheduled for 1997-1998.

In New York state, we have both a timetable and a plan to raise standards for all students.

Roseanne DeFabio
Coordinator, Curriculum and Instruction
State Education Department
University of the State of New York
Albany, N.Y.

San Diego Waldorf School: Study's Finding 'Misstated'

To the Editor:

There is a misstatement of fact in the following passage from your article "Public Waldorf School in Calif. Under Attack," June 25, 1997: "As in Sacramento, parents and teachers at the San Diego school criticized Waldorf's spiritual components, but an independent review last year found no evidence of religious instruction."

This is incorrect. The report by WestEd states: "When the district first requested the study in June 1995, it wanted a study to resolve the controversy of whether or not Tubman [School] was teaching religion, as certain individuals claimed. While WestEd did not attempt to determine whether the school is teaching religion or violating other legal requirements, we did report information on these topics."

WestEd also avoided critiquing Waldorf education itself, examining how well Waldorf was implemented at Tubman, the San Diego Waldorf school, or observing how that school's outcomes compared with similar schools in the district. The San Diego school board had promised an investigation, but what was delivered a year later failed to address the most important questions.

Dan Dugan
People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools Inc.
San Francisco, Calif.

Defending Rudolf Steiner And His Philosophy

To the Editor:

I was shocked by Earl Hautala's letter on Rudolf Steiner ("Waldorf Story 'Did Not Do Justice' to Rudolf Steiner," "Letters," Aug. 6, 1997). As a manager of research for the Textbook League, Mr. Hautala either did not do any research in preparing his letter or consciously chose to overlook the truth.

Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925, was indeed a scientist and an artist as your original article maintained. He received an undergraduate degree in natural science and a Ph.D. in philosophy. He was selected from a wide field of scientists, thinkers, and authors of his time to edit Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's scientific papers.

For Mr. Hautala to call anthroposophically extended medical procedures "magical ritual" and imply that they somehow exist outside the mainstream medical system and are never clinically studied might be laughable if Mr. Hautala were simply naive.

Clinical studies in Canada and European countries have been or are being conducted regarding the efficacy of mistletoe extracts such as iscador for the treatment of cancer. These studies are widely published. Mistletoe is also on the National Institutes of Health short list for alternative cancer treatments considered worthy of additional study.

Mr. Hautala overlooks research studies dating back to the 1930s when he asserts that biodynamic agriculture (which he wrongly describes as "an agricultural version of homeopathy") is "water magic." Any schoolchild doing research in almost any public library could discover that even Science magazine published a study in 1993 conducted by University of Washington researchers who compared biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand. Their conclusion was that biodynamic farms had superior soil quality and compared favorably economically.

I don't know which type of "science" Mr. Hautala promotes. But science and research based on truth can lead to new insights and discoveries in many fields, including education. This is what the work arising from anthroposophy hopes to promote. I hope this information brings a little truth into your discussion.

Jean W. Yeager
Administrative Director
Anthroposophical Society in America
Ann Arbor, Mich.

To the Editor:

Rudolf Steiner's preliminary studies on the nature of cancer led him to suggest that mistletoe could well have properties that would lead to effective healing. While his approach always included the attempt to recognize the spiritual realities he believed underlay the more easily perceptible realities of the physical world, he was insistent that the effectiveness of each remedy had to be proven with research, including clinical trials. That he tried to understand the spiritual reality of each illness does not invalidate his scientific method.

Earl Hautala, in his letter, would call for invalidating the educational work of Rudolf Steiner and the proof of its effectiveness in the approximately 700 Waldorf schools worldwide. Since the first such school was founded 75 years ago, many of Steiner's suggestions for approaching art, science, and technology have proven themselves time and time again.

His approach to science was a strongly phenomenological one, teaching students to sharpen their powers of observation as they study the world around them in all its complexities. Students in Waldorf schools are asked to make observations and then deduce what the facts tell them. One could hardly ask for a better foundation for scientific inquiry. My experience after 24 years of Waldorf teaching has amply demonstrated that such methods not only develop unfettered thinking in children but a love of science as well.

If these educational approaches can aid in public school programs, then our entire society stands to benefit. As to Rudolf Steiner's "anthroposophy," he made it clear that this was a method of inquiry for adults and had no place in the curriculum of schools.

James M. Pewtherer
Eastern Regional Chairman
Association of Waldorf Schools of North America
Amherst, Mass.

Are the Schools a Mirror or Agents for Change?

To the Editor:

It is curious that none of the responses to John I. Goodlad's July 9, 1997, Commentary ("Making Democracy Safe for Education") questioned his major premise ("Democracy and Education: Three Views of Goodlad Essay," "Letters," Aug. 6, 1997). The capstone (or should I say headstone?) of his article--"Schools mirror society; they do not drive it"--has remained unchallenged.

Mr. Goodlad uses this premise to caution against privatization and/or school choice and the potential erosion of social and political democracy. The statement is a capitulation, a surrender. It denies the existence of the ongoing struggle and suggests that the battle has been won.

In the 1960s and probably well before, the emphasis was on the schools as a change agent of society, rather than just a reflection of it. There was crime, there was violence, there were drugs, but not in the schools. Over the past 30 years, there has been a considerable shift in the direction stated by Mr. Goodlad. Now all the ills of society seem to have infiltrated the schools. But the suggestion that this is the normal course of events or the way it is supposed to be seems to deny the struggle that seeks to make society better through education and schooling.

This battle is by no means over, as Mr. Goodlad's statement seems to suggest. One way of looking at the major push for education reform in the last decade and a half is as an attempt by schools and educators to retake their position as change agents of society. This struggle will always be one characterized by dynamic tension, a tug of war. To base an argument on a premise that denies one side of this struggle renders the argument much less potent.

Laurence M. Lieberman
Boston, Mass.

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