Education Commentary


April 19, 2000 8 min read

Achievement Gaps and Bilingual Ed.

To the Editor:

May I add one more category to the list of possible causes of the “achievement gap” between white and minority students (“Lags in Minority Achievement Defy Traditional Explanations,” March 22, 2000)? Bilingual education.

Based on my experience teaching in Title I programs, where 40 percent of my students were from the transitional-bilingual-education program, I believe that TBE did not serve the academically talented Hispanic students well. When finally mainstreamed, these students were hopelessly handicapped by limited exposure to sophisticated English syntax, grammar, and content vocabulary, limiting their success with abstract concepts.

They worked hard and were very motivated, but were doomed to failure in Advanced Placement courses because they were denied the necessary tools for success until years after their white peers. By then, it is too late.

Jade Walsh
Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Standards Backlash: A ‘Cricket’ Responds

To the Editor:

More than 20 years ago, I wrote an article arguing in favor of another SAT-score decline. It was based on the fact that recent score declines were mainly caused by test-takers from poor and minority families. Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, lambasted me for this sin. At that time she hadn’t yet dreamed up her category of “crickets,” people who are, she says, “few in number but making a lot of noise” (“Worries of a Standards ‘Backlash’ Grow,” April 5, 2000). Now I would like the honor of being one of her “crickets” for my concern about standards and tests as the core of learning.

My take on this arena of controversy goes back to a meeting at Harvard University about 10 years ago. Richard F. Elmore, a professor of education and the chairman of the event, asked me the question: “What should be the major elements of required standards for learning in schools?” My response was: “They should be as vague as possible.” The actual development of standards and tests to measure them has gone the opposite way: to high levels of specificity about what to teach and how to measure it. Indeed, it has gone so far and so fast that (according to this newspaper) Mr. Elmore and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley are calling for slowing up and rethinking the control of curriculum and its measuring. But they don’t qualify as “crickets” because they still place great value on retaining required standards.

My role as a “cricket” is well explained by your article: “One major problem, according to many observers, is that the accountability aspects of the standards movement have outpaced efforts to provide schools, teachers, and students with the capacity to reach the standards.” Indeed, I would carry that line of thought much further. Thousands of students have been forced to perform in a game they have not had the opportunity to practice. Then they are told to work harder because they were responsible for their failures. Furthermore, the provision of competent teachers and adequate learning supports that would create a level playing field have simply not been addressed.

A feature article in that issue tries to be a comprehensive statement about the standards war (“CON-test,” April 5, 2000). In general, it recognizes the critics but comes down on the side of the standard-bearers. Your entire argument is seriously damaged, however, by failure to recognize three facts:

1. Some of the tests being used are neither reliable nor valid for the purposes they claim.

2. Numerous students are facing tests for which they have not been prepared.

3. Using a single standardized test as the sole arbiter of graduation or promotion is a misuse of even the best test.

We few “crickets” will continue to sing these songs. We are acutely aware that governors and corporate leaders and even the president and would-be presidents are firmly committed to the standards mission. We hope that, as they hear more and more about the damages to children that emerge from their highly questionable commitments, they may listen to the “crickets.” Maybe even Ms. Ravitch?

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

Smart Teachers Buy Liability Insurance

To the Editor:

The title for your front-page article on liability insurance should have been “Smart Teachers Buy Insurance Against Liability” (“Fearful Teachers Buy Insurance Against Liability,” March 29, 2000).

Throughout my 31-year career as a teacher and administrator in the public schools, I carried professional-endeavors liability insurance as a rider on my homeowners’ policy. I also carried a separate million-dollar, umbrella liability-insurance policy and continue this coverage as an employee at a state university.

The cost of the additional insurance was small compared with the peace of mind it offered over the years. I would encourage all teachers and administrators to protect themselves in this manner.

Warren W. Starr
Director of Teacher Education
Lake Superior State University
Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Market Metaphors: Three Views
On Vouchers, Equity, and Civility

To the Editor:

James H.K. Norton’s Commentary on vouchers was peculiar (“Solution or Problem?” March 29, 2000). First, he declares that “the most critical objectives for schools in educating our children for democracy are equity and civility.” Says who? Funny, I imagine that most parents think the first objective of schooling is to teach children certain skills and knowledge.

Mr. Norton then asserts that vouchers (in any form, apparently) are bad policy because they are anathema to the goals of equity and civility. That’s an interesting contention, but Mr. Norton fails to support it. Worse, he engages in a bit of scare-mongering by murmuring darkly that vouchers will throw open the schools to “the free exercise” of the market. While there are a few folks, like Milton Friedman, who want to abolish the public school system, they’re the exceptions, and few take these policy prescriptions seriously.

As Mr. Norton should know, the current discussions around vouchers center on the idea of using vouchers to further equity. This would be done by targeting vouchers toward poor children, as Joseph P. Viteritti urged in these very pages a few weeks back (“School Choice: Beyond the Numbers,” Commentary, Feb. 23, 2000), or poor children in failing schools (as Gov. George W. Bush of Texas urges). Rather than allowing these children to languish in failing schools or creaming off the best students and abandoning the rest, these plans aim to give those children what every other child has—the opportunity to attend a school that works.

Kevin R. Kosar
Doctoral Candidate in Politics
New York University
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

In his anti-choice polemic, James H.K. Norton states that “the most critical objectives for schools in educating our children for democracy are equity and civility.”

On the civics portion of the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress, 63 percent of public school seniors demonstrated basic “civic competency"; 80 percent of private school seniors achieved the same level. Similar margins were reported at the 4th and 8th grade levels.

Res ipsa loquitor.

Glenn Noreen
Fullerton, Calif.

To the Editor:

Vouchers are more than a “manifestation of a prevalent conviction that the free operation of market forces is the most effective means of achieving success in most essential sectors of our society,” as James H.K. Norton would have it. Vouchers are a mechanism that can be based on many different theories of what is needed or deficient in education. One argument for them is that they give the poor parent the same options that rich parents have. This has little to do with markets, but rather with fairness and the notion that one’s educational options should not be severely limited by one’s financial status.

Equity and civility, which Mr. Norton proposes as the prime learning objectives for schools, have little to do with how education is funded. They are not found any less in private schools where vouchers would be used than in public schools. (And remember, voucher systems can include public schools, such as in Cleveland.) There is little reason to suppose, for example, that the vast majority of private schools don’t believe, along with Mr. Norton, that “every child who enters the school’s doors is naturally a learner.”

By giving poor parents the ability to choose an education that suits their children’s needs, vouchers create greater variety in educational opportunities. This is more than a reworking of the market metaphor. The current state of education is characterized by bureaucracy. Bureaucracies serve majorities. Children whose needs are different from the majority are not well-served.

And public schools are not bastions of civility. Few states, for example, have implemented requirements that include character education. If one monitored the behavior of children in public and private schools, especially those with similar socioeconomic conditions, one would probably find that children in private schools were more “civil” than their counterparts in public schools. This is not because private schools have expulsion as an option. It is primarily because private schools put more emphasis on student behavior. And when parents and children actively choose a school, they usually are more invested in its social structure.

There are valid arguments to be made on whether or not vouchers are the most effective means of reforming education. Nonetheless, voucher systems serve the objectives of equity and civility as well as or better than our current system.

Lawrence D. Weinberg
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Northwest Missouri State University
Maryville, Mo.

A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters