Ohio Study Shows
Whom Vouchers Aid
To the Editor:
Your coverage of the Policy Matters Ohio study of the Cleveland voucher program (“Study: Just 1 in 5 Cleveland Voucher Pupils Left Public Schools,” Sept. 19, 2001) succinctly summarized its major findings: Only one in five students receiving a voucher left a Cleveland public school, and one in three already attended a private school. In no way are students fleeing Cleveland schools with a state-funded voucher.
The response to these facts by Robert Freedman, a spokesman for the Institute for Justice, recycled another myth about the Cleveland voucher program. Mr. Freedman said that “the program is meeting its goal of being an escape hatch for parents as they look at poorly performing Cleveland schools.”
In a recent study of high-poverty Ohio schools, the Toledo Blade found that 32 high-poverty Cleveland elementary schools performed higher than predicted, based on economic factors, on the Ohio math-proficiency test for 4th grade. That same study showed that only five high-poverty elementary schools in Akron and Columbus performed higher than predicted. Cleveland elementary schools are not performing poorly. In fact, among the 21 percent of students receiving vouchers who previously attended a Cleveland public school, many had been enrolled at the highest-performing magnet schools.
Voucher supporters need to maintain the myth that voucher parents are fleeing public schools and that these public schools do a lousy job. In fact, parents are motivated by the religious mission of these private schools. No wonder 96 percent of students receiving vouchers attend Cleveland religious schools.
Professional Issues Director
Cleveland Teachers Union
Goals in Milwaukee
To the Editor:
Donald B. Gratz makes some valid points in “Student Achievement: What Is the Problem?,” "(Commentary, Sept. 5, 2001). I am not sure, however, that the testing regimen his essay suggests is politically feasible in today’s anti-testing environment.
Mr. Gratz makes a cogent argument for a testing program that measures student progress from year to year. I agree. But to do this requires that students be tested every year using comparable tests. He further argues the need to assess a broader range of competencies than “traditional academic skills.” Presumably, some way of measuring these has to be introduced as well, adding further to the assessment load.
When I served on the Milwaukee school board, we introduced a program of annual tests in reading and mathematics, running from 2nd grade through 10th grade. The program started last spring, so only baseline data are available. The program’s purpose is to replace traditional testing’s group snapshot with a measure of each student’s progress every year. When this program was proposed, there was a huge outcry from the anti-testing crowd, who said students were being over-tested.
Mr. Gratz does not address the problem of when the testing he proposes would begin, but his example compares the progress of two 4th grade students since 2nd grade. The anti-testers in Milwaukee were particularly adamant against testing 2nd graders. As a result, the current school board dropped the 2nd grade test, and, for good measure, the 3rd grade reading test as well. Thus, starting next year, Milwaukee will know how much each student progresses each year, but only in the 5th grade and beyond. The crucial early grades will remain terra incognita.
The anti-testing folks create a dilemma. They decry the tests as too narrowly focused, yet oppose additional assessments that might broaden the areas being measured. As a result, the stress put on the few remaining tests rises, so that schools feel compelled to interrupt the regular curriculum to try to raise their test results.
As Mr. Gratz suggests, the long-run answer probably lies in more frequent and diverse tests rather than fewer, so that a more complete picture of student learning emerges and the importance of any one test decreases. But any such proposal will provoke enormous opposition.
Army Base’s Pupils
To the Editor:
I teach on an U.S. Army base, and I have never seen an event freeze children in their tracks as quickly as the recent terrorist attacks did these children (“Schools for Military, Diplomatic Offspring Tighten Security,” Sept. 19, 2001). It is as if they knew what was coming—that their parents would be called into action. Yet they were strong, unified, comforting, and supportive of one another. I worry for them and their families in the coming weeks. But I also commend their courage and bravery.
San Antonio, Texas
Even Adults Need Help After Tragedy
To the Editor:
I teach English composition at a community college in northern Virginia with an extremely varied student body representing many cultures and religions from all areas of the world. Though everyone in our country was grievously wounded by the Sept. 11 attacks, we in the Washington metropolitan area were particularly traumatized, just as people in New York City were (“Schools Struggle With What to Tell Students About a Day of Terror,” Sept. 19, 2001).
Given this level of consciousness and given that it is my charge to teach critical thinking, I gathered for my class an assortment of poetry, reflections, and critical essays copied for discussion. Coincidentally, the assignment due that very Tuesday had been an essay discussing tolerance.
When classes resumed, the issue of tolerance had taken on a much sharper edge, and many had rewritten their papers in light of the attacks. The theme led naturally into our discussions over the next three hours, in which we analyzed the political consequences as well as philosophical ramifications of actions the United States might take. More important, we discussed human nature, in the form of a personal essay by a firefighter at the World Trade Center and in several poems that celebrated the beauty of the human soul in the face of tragedy.
After class, a few students thanked me for taking up these topics. Several of them had friends and family who worked in the Pentagon, but all of us, apparently, needed to deal with the conflicting emotions running through our minds and hearts.
Though most of our discussion nationally seems to be centered on children in elementary, middle, or secondary school, we should remember that college students, though adults, also need a great deal of reassurance and direction. Teachers at all educational levels are basically doing the same work, filling the same role, giving the same hope.
To the Editor:
While Charlotte K. Frank’s essay “Do We Care Enough?” (Commentary, Sept. 19, 2001) raises an interesting question, the discussion misjudges the importance of educational resources and misses ingredients key to educational success.
Ms. Frank mentions seven keys to a “sound basic education” enumerated by Justice Leland DeGrasse in his decision against the state of New York in a finance-equity case involving the New York City schools. Few would argue against the importance of resources in the education equation. Certainly there are areas of the country where schools are resource-impoverished. Certainly conditions of inequity exist—conditions which, in fact, inhibit learning.
However, this view of what is needed for educational success reflects the kind of thinking that is responsible for the very problem that Ms. Frank bemoans: a history in which little changes in the way of educational problems. We continue to ask the same questions about our educational systems and how to reform them because of a piecemeal approach to reform.
Are caring and passion important? Yes. Are educational resources important? Yes. But if we actually cared enough to make sure that all students operated in conditions suggested by Justice DeGrasse, this would not guarantee a successful education experience for all of America’s children. It seems as if a resource-rich country like the United States should be capable of redressing the resource problem. If resources were really the crux of educational attainment, at great expense we could rectify the inequities.
The questions are bigger than questions of concern, caring, passion, and resources. Our schools and our educational system are operating within a new paradigm. What was adequate in the past is not sufficient in the information age. Some of the missing ingredients in the recipe for educational success include vastly improved teacher education, changes in the very structure of the ways that schooling is conducted, and individualized attention and commitment to each child’s attainment.
Powerful forces keep our current system functioning as it does. Our current system actually favors sorting children by ability. Perhaps the best embodiment of this penchant for sorting is the emphasis on standardized-test scores. W. James Popham argues eloquently in the same issue for an end to judging our schools by these tests, which actually measure what students bring to school (“Standardized Achievement Tests: Misnamed and Misleading,” Commentary, Sept. 19, 2001).
As the emphasis on school accountability increases, so will the role of standardized tests, even though many recognize the limited ability that such metrics have for assessing attainment of skills valued in the information age.
Our current system is inflexible—unable to respond to the needs of individual students. If we do not recognize and respond to the new requirements and exigencies of our times, we will continue to be disappointed with the results of American schools. We do not just need to work harder and better. We need to work differently. In many areas, we need a radical re-examination of how we educate, with a view toward change.
Until we examine the entire educational system and recognize the systemic nature of the issues that plague our schools, real change will not occur, regardless of passion and the amassing of resources.