Published Online: November 8, 2000
Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as Letters



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In 30 N.J. Districts, Mandated Preschool

To the Editor:

I read with interest your article on the state of New York's attempt at universal preschool ("Plans for 'Universal' Preschool Gain Ground in New York State," Oct. 25, 2000). You mention Georgia as the only truly universal program. Just a reminder about the Abbott v. Burke mandate for universal preschool in the 30 urban districts here in New Jersey that come under the state supreme court ruling in that case.

By judicial order, all 3- and 4-year-old children living in these New Jersey communities (Newark, Jersey City, and others) must be provided free, high-quality preschool in classes of 15 with certified teachers—with no income limit and no exclusion based on parental status (for example, immigration status). And the entire program will go to a 10-hour day, 12-month program beginning next September. We estimate that over 50,000 children are eligible for the program.

Because this program is pursuant to a constitutional right, there can be no waiting lists, and the state of New Jersey has been ordered to provide whatever funding and facilities are required at the local level.

While it covers 30 cities, and not the whole state, Abbott preschool is definitely "truly universal."

David Sciarra
Executive Director
Education Law Center
Newark, N.J.

NSBA Sees Value Of Charter Schools

To the Editor:

I would like to clarify remarks made by Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform about the National School Boards Association's position on charter schools ("NSBA Report Casts Critical Eye on Charter Movement," Oct. 18, 2000.) The NSBA recognizes the value of charter schools and, in fact, our policymaking body has approved a number of resolutions recognizing charter schools over the past several years.

In addition, despite Ms. Allen's claims to the contrary, neither the NSBA nor any of our 50 state school boards' associations is leading a frenzy of litigation against charter schools. In fact, our members have been leaders in efforts to make both the law and the operation of charter schools work to the best advantage of all public school students.

We published "Charting a New Course: Fact and Fiction About Charter Schools" to help policymakers and educators make charter schools more effective. Because school boards have authority over so many of the nation's charter schools, board members have a responsibility to help charters be successful. But the fact is, there is little evidence to suggest that charter schools are living up to the promises offered by early supporters, especially in the area of academic achievement. The report's authors also found a clear lack of innovation in an overwhelming number of charter schools.

The NSBA and our state associations pride ourselves on the work we do to improve public education for all students, so it is critical that we make sure that charter schools help school districts serve the achievement needs of public school students.

Based on the report's findings, which were developed by independent researchers using a variety of data, I would encourage policymakers not to rush out and expand charter schools without addressing the concerns raised by this report. The areas that need to be examined include how charters face up to student achievement, innovation, and providing for children with special needs.

The merits of charters and other education initiatives must be decided on the basis of sound judgment and not sound bites. I urge policymakers, advocates, and educators to look at the charter movement and take whatever steps are necessary to advance these schools' effectiveness.

Anne Bryant
Executive Director
National School Boards Association
Alexandria, Va.

Remember K-6 Counseling Needs

To the Editor:

Charles W. Lindahl's essay "Counseling: The Missing Link" (Commentary, Oct. 18, 2000) was on target and long overdue.

One aspect omitted, however, was the need for school counselors on the elementary level. A comprehensive counseling program found in most districts across the country includes the need for staffing on this level, but oftentimes, funding is not available. The federal government just distributed grant monies for elementary school counseling programs, for the first time in many years. Unfortunately, there are no plans at present to continue the funding, so that many of the districts have nowhere to turn but to the taxpayers, who are already overburdened.

Multiply Mr. Lindahl's example of the high school student helped through counseling by thousands across the country. If only we could add this much-needed resource for all students at all levels, our multiplier would be much higher.

We should get the pupil-to-counselor ratio down to 250-to-1 on the secondary level, add counselors at the elementary level, and then, as Mr. Lindahl states in his essay, "we will reap the full benefits of education reform."

Edward S. Schlissel

Director of Counseling and Guidance
Newburgh Enlarged City School District
Newburgh, N.Y.

On Cardiac-Related Student Deaths

To the Editor:

Because I lost a younger brother with cardiomyopathy, I read your article on cardiac-related student deaths with special interest ("Cardiac-Related Student Deaths Raise Questions About Screenings," Oct. 25, 2000). If you do a follow-up to the article, it would be good to emphasize that an echocardiogram is needed to detect the thickening of parts of the heart.

People should not get complacent with the findings of electrocardiograms. My brother had a perfect EKG the day before he died suddenly. I believe Dr. Robert Myerburg, whom you quoted, might have been getting to that point when he mentioned that the EKG identifies only about 70 percent of heart conditions.

Cardiomyopathy can be treated and needs to be monitored. In addition, other family members need to be tested. It turns out that my other brother and one of his sons also have the condition.

Fred Hattabaugh
Florence, Ala.

Remembrance Draws Tears and Kudos

To the Editor:

Normally I don't get all teary-eyed reading Education Week, but Howard Good's heartfelt remembrance of his high school English teacher, Harry Thompson, ("Epitaph for an English Teacher," Commentary, Oct. 18, 2000) brought back memories of the wonderful teachers and professors (yes, I was lucky to have more than one) who went out of their way to help me. What a wonderful eulogy.

Ellen Bedrosian
Public Relations Coordinator
Kumon Math & Reading Centers
Teaneck, N.J.

Middle School Skepticism

To the Editor:

As a former middle school principal, I was immediately drawn to your recent supplement "Middle Grades: Feeling the Squeeze," (Oct. 4, 2000). My interest quickly turned to alarm as I discovered that middle schools were, as you reported, the "weak link" in public education. The number of "experts" you quoted left little doubt as to the validity and seriousness of the problem.

For example, William H. Schmidt, a professor of education and the research coordinator for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, says that "the middle school is the crux of the whole problem." Gail Davis, a co-author of a forthcoming book on "middle-level education," explains that middle schools are being forced to re-evaluate where they are channeling their energies, implying that more emphasis should be placed on academics. Jane E. Bottoms, the vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, believes that few middle-level educators see preparing students to succeed in high school as their primary goal. Joan Lipsitz, a consultant for the Educational Development Center, is frustrated because the middle school curriculum has become a "hodgepodge of teacher-developed units that appeal to kids but that are disconnected from the larger purposes of K-12 curriculum."

What is more, Valerie E. Lee and Julia B. Smith report in the Educational Research Journal that "in schools with a strong academic press ... students learn quite a lot," while "in schools where the academic press is low, students ... do not learn." They also discovered that students need what they refer to as "social support" to be successful. What a revelation!

And M. Hayes Mizell of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation is frustrated by the slow pace of change, low expectations, ineffective instruction and leadership, and schools that resist reform. He is also concerned about the "not yet resolved tensions" concerning academic focus vs. emotional and social needs, and makes the astute observation that we should do both!

Despite the bad news, I believe there is a bright side to this story. Now that the problem has been identified, we can begin to implement reforms to correct it. I foresee the day when these failing and recalcitrant middle schools with their ineffective staffs are forced to step out of their stubborn, old-fashioned, feet-dragging, reform-resistant mind-set and admit the "error of their ways." With the leadership of individuals like those quoted, I envision a day when middle schools finally realize the importance of a rigorous curriculum and high academic standards that prepare students for the challenges of high school.

Dare I suggest we even adopt a new name? We can call it the "junior high school" movement. Then we can ... wait a minute. Silly me! We have already had a junior high school movement. Do you remember? It was a terrible disaster perpetuated by ineffective instruction and leadership held hostage by their stubborn, old-fashioned, feet-dragging, reform-resistant mind-set.

But never mind all that. I am still optimistic about the chances for reforming our middle schools. You see, unlike Mr. Mizell, I do not believe our schools are resistant to reform. On the contrary, they are often far too willing. It seems that teachers and principals in our public schools have been running in circles in an effort to please our critics and show we are responsive to the latest research and the best educational strategies that will benefit the children we teach.

I am reminded, for example, of the "research-based" movements that gave us classrooms with no walls, "new" math, whole language, sex education, multicultural education, and a host of other reforms. I remember research that said we were "turning kids off" with a dull, antiquated curriculum that forced them to learn "meaningless facts." I remember being told that failing kids was bad for their self-esteem and motivation. I also remember 1989, when the "traditional" junior high school where I was principal transformed itself into a middle school complete with teams, common planning time, block instruction, exploratory classes, and interdisciplinary units.

Our school system spent a great deal of time and money bringing in "experts" to train our teachers and staff in the "middle school philosophy." We even required teachers to be "certified" in middle-grades education. To be honest, I should point out that my staff and I were initially skeptical. We were not totally opposed to the middle school philosophy but, in its truest form, there were aspects we simply did not know how to implement and others that we instinctively felt uncomfortable with.

For example, the interdisciplinary units so highly touted by the middle school movement provided opportunities for students to be active and do "fun things," but were students really "learning" anything, and were we maximizing our instructional time? Was it realistic to expect teachers to develop these interdisciplinary units and still maintain a rigorous curriculum? The team approach certainly allowed us to develop stronger relationships with our students, but at what price? Teachers who had been trained and certified in social studies now had to teach reading or math as well, and vice-versa. Would this cause the quality of instruction to suffer?

In spite of our concerns, we worked hard to become a "real" middle school, rather than a junior high that simply changed the name on its sign. We wanted to provide a better education for our kids. It had to be better, right? After all, the state supported it, research supported it, the "experts" supported it, and the media supported it. If we failed to do it, we would be labeled inflexible, out of touch, uncaring, selfish, rooted in the past, et cetera, et cetera.

So we "reformed." Overall, we were pleased with our efforts and proud to be a part of a reform movement to provide a better education for our kids. Now, 10 years later, I discover that we have failed again. I am reminded of the adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Yesterday, junior high schools were the problem. Today, it's middle schools.

As I reflect on our efforts and hard work and the concerns we had 10 years ago, I note in your middle school supplement that today's experts have identified the need for additional training of teachers and administrators. They point out that "middle-level teachers often lack knowledge about subject matter and young adolescents," and they mention that some colleges and universities are developing specialized classes and certification programs for middle school teachers.

Did the middle school "experts" simply overlook that fact while they were pushing so hard for reform all those years ago, or did they really believe that a few classes after school or in the summer would turn a social studies teacher into a math teacher? Did they realize or even care that teachers specialize in a specific subject because that is where their interest lies? Did they consider that requiring a person to teach a subject he or she is not interested in is a recipe for poor instruction, even if the depth of knowledge is there?

I fear my cynicism is beginning to show, but perhaps teachers are not really resistant to change. Maybe they are just tired of it.

No doubt, my comments will cause some to label me as a reform-resistant malcontent, more a part of the problem than the solution. Possibly, but I believe my work over the past 27 years, which I have truly loved, has earned me the right to be somewhat skeptical. It is interesting to me that in this day of "accountability," the so-called experts and special-interest groups (including those in education) that foster these "reform movements" have no accountability whatsoever. If these "scientifically proven" and "research-based" programs do not meet the glowing promises of their supporters, then the fault must lie with the poorly trained, ineffective, reform-resistant teachers and principals in the public schools. What other explanation could account for the lack of success these programs have had? Please indulge me in a few unscientific speculations.

Could it be that these new "discoveries" or programs are often presented as the "solution" to the myriad of problems facing public education today and that, at the time of implementation, the focus is on the change itself rather than those who must implement the change? Could it be that we are expecting our teachers and administrators to be almost superhuman in their abilities?

Consider that they must be skilled in child psychology, social work, and school law in addition to being knowledgeable in not just one, but a variety of academic subjects. They must compete with our wide-open, high-energy society for the attention of our students. They must make math and English as interesting and colorful as the shopping mall, computer games, TV, and the movies. They must deal with an ever-increasing number of students from homes where supervision is lax and behavioral expectations limited. They are expected to be "professionals" even though they may not have offices or telephones.

They don't make as much money as an attorney or a corporate CEO but, of course, they don't have the same stress and responsibility, and their jobs are not really as important. Besides, teachers work because they love kids, not because they want to make money.

I have no research to prove that my speculations are correct, or that the suggestions I am about to make are creditable. I prefer to spend my time working with kids.

I think it important, however, that our politicians, special-interest groups, research institutes, college professors, and other reform-minded individuals take a hard look at the question of what the purpose of our public schools needs to be. If the answer is to teach factual knowledge that will allow our kids to score higher on a test than kids from another country, then we need to focus on that and relieve our schools of the burden of trying to effect societal change. If we decide our public schools are the correct vehicle for doing both, then we must be willing to provide the substantial resources, both financial and human, that will be necessary to do that.

Until that happens, I fear we will continue to see debate over inconsequential "reforms" like middle school vs. junior high school that have little if any real effect on the quality of education.

David Brothers
Walker County Alternative
Education Center
Chickamauga, Ga.

Malevolent Math

To the Editor:

I could not possibly write on algebra as eloquently or persuasively as Gerald W. Bracey has ("The Malevolent Tyranny of Algebra," Commentary, 0ct. 25, 2000), and I am in 100 percent agreement with his argument.

Algebra was useless for most students 40 years ago, when I taught it in high school, and it is useless in 2000 for most students, except as a screening device for college. Algebra is a barrier for too many students in furthering their educations, not a gateway to education or to jobs.

Under the direction of its former superintendent, Howard L. Fuller, who initiated an algebra requirement for all 9th graders, the Milwaukee public school system has aspired to lead the nation in failing algebra students. Milwaukee 9th graders have been required to take algebra since the 1993-94 school year, when the pass rate was 54 percent. The district's accountability reports show the percentage of 9th graders passing in the last three years as follows: 1996-97, 55 percent; 1997-98, 56 percent; and 1998-99, 60 percent.

The 9th grade enrollment in 1998-99 was 9,340. Evidently, 40 percent, or 3,736 students, did not pass algebra. More than 3,000 district students have been failing algebra each year since 1993-94. Ninth grade enrollments have increased by more than 1,500 since that time, and increased from 8,782 in 1997-98 to 9,340 in 1998-99 because of increasing numbers of students being retained in the 9th grade because of failures.

Retention in grade level obviously is dependent on students' failing the courses they enroll in. Predictably, if a school has students with high mobility and poor attendance, grade point averages will be low, failure rates will be high, and dropouts will be numerous. Failure breeds failure, and that is the reason for bulging enrollments in the 9th grade.

In the 1997-98 school year, 43 percent of all district dropouts (1,329) were 9th graders (12 percent, or 354, were 12th graders). More than 3,000 Milwaukee students fail algebra every year. What more has to be said? It is a catastrophe.

What is the rationale for high-stakes testing for promotion and graduation? What is the rationale for the elimination of social promotion? What is the rationale for requiring "all" students to take higher-level courses in math and science? What is the rationale for requiring all students to meet college-entrance requirements to graduate from high school? Why can't the politicians, education bureaucrats, and so-called education experts advocating the above respond to these questions?

The reason, of course, is that there is no rationale for these school reforms. Like a big lie, which becomes common knowledge when repeated over and over again, an academically disadvantaged media looking for a good story blindly reports on so-called school reforms and the bashing of America's schools. I have traveled the world in six trips abroad, including most of the countries of Eastern and Western Europe as well as Russia, Israel, and China. The United States leads the world by all measures in the global economy, in technology, and in the productivity of its workers. An important reason is the high quality of American students and the schools from which they graduate.

Dennis W. Redovich
Center for the Study of Jobs and
Education in Wisconsin
Greendale, Wis.

To the Editor:

Some people never learn. Every couple of months, I think I've read the stupidest imaginable article on education, only to find something even more outrageous and imbecilic. Gerald W. Bracey's Commentary on algebra tops everything I've ever seen before.

Mr. Bracey contends that algebra is an essentially useless skill, malevolently imposed upon our students for the purpose of sorting out which will attend college. But wait a minute, don't all of us in the scientific and mathematical communities emphatically claim that algebra is the very foundation of the work we do every single day? Not so, according to Mr. Bracey. Apparently, he thinks that people can build bridges, produce electricity, design cars, and fly airplanes without any use of algebra. And what about the scientific professionals' opinions that algebra is absolutely essential? "Nonsense. Balderdash," Mr. Bracey says, offering no further support or explanation.

I can agree with him on one thing. He is right when he says that the average American places little value on algebra in his or her daily life. You can't place much value on something you don't have, thanks in great part to the teachers and guidance counselors who didn't bother to acquaint you with it. That's why the average American can never figure out whether the local bank is ripping him off on his monthly mortgage payment. Lack of familiarity with the quadratic equation is the reason why my wife couldn't figure out the solution to a simple quilting problem she encountered a few months back.

And the existence of commentators like Mr. Bracey certainly helps me grasp why many of the average Americans commenting on the recent presidential debates complained that they couldn't understand all the numeric talk (both Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas tossed out a few trivial percentages).

This year, the computer industry alone (just one branch of the sciences) will suffer a half-million-worker shortfall, due entirely to the fact that American colleges can't graduate anywhere near enough qualified candidates. Having been in the field professionally for 23 years, I must say that even those people entering it don't seem to know very much. And when I go to hire help, I've stopped looking for American citizens altogether— the last group of people I hired were all from India. No wonder Silicon Valley keeps lobbying Congress to raise the immigration limits.

If Mr. Bracey were a lone wolf, maybe I wouldn't be so concerned. But he seems to be one of the true motivators in the education field, driving everyone down towards lower standards and expectations by convincing them that all this rigor and study just isn't necessary.

A few years ago, Willard R. Daggett, the president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, visited my local schools, preaching that algebra should be de-emphasized (apparently this is a regular staple of his never-ending road show). The U.S. Department of Education recently rated 10 of the world's most ridiculous math curricula as "exemplary," much to the dismay of 200 professional mathematicians who wrote in to object. And of course, everybody knows by now that our high school seniors are dead last in math among the industrialized nations of the world, and almost last even among countries that spend a tiny fraction of what we do on education.

It has been many years since I read the report A Nation at Risk, which contains the now-famous sentence, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." When I first read these words, I thought them nothing more than hyperbole designed to evoke a reaction in the reader. But the more I see of the education profession, the more I begin to believe that we are under some sort of attack.

If there is a "malevolent tyranny" in America, it has, ironically, taken the form of the benevolent educator who assures us that we're all already working too hard.

Dave Ziffer
Batavia, Ill.

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Pages 53-55

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