Education Opinion


February 20, 2002 11 min read
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What Helped Undo Desegregation?

To the Editor:

Richard M. Merelman’s Commentary on “Dis-Integrating American Public Schools” (Feb. 6, 2002) is right on the mark. With the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision nearly upon us, this telling essay lays out the key steps that helped undo desegregation plans, and aptly describes the social myths that have developed as a result.

How well I remember the Reagan administration’s rejection of the Emergency School Aid Act, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Milliken I decision exempting suburban districts from enforcing desegregation orders. My work for desegregation efforts in Pittsburgh, Boston, Stamford, Conn., and Alexandria, Va., was seriously hampered by such actions, as were many other such efforts.

Mr. Merelman’s perceptive analysis of the reasons for the failure of school integration is a useful reminder of what undermined a powerful, noble movement. Of particular significance is his description of the consequences, such as the “social myths” of voucher programs and the view that resegregation is better for blacks than integrated schools.

This Commentary is especially appreciated.

Robert W. Peebles
Alexandria, Va.

It’s Not Teachers Who Need ‘Fixing’

To the Editor:

I hope that the research on the value of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification proves conclusive and positive (“National Board Is Pressed to Prove Certified Teachers Make Difference,” Jan. 30, 2002). I believe in the NBPTS, even if it does not turn out to have that great an impact.

However, that said, I would predict that the impact of teacher- improvement efforts such as national certification and other, less stringent professional-development strategies will never have the impact that is hoped for.

This is because the problem in most systems (as in school systems— local, state, and national) is not the competency of individual workers or teachers. Most systems that are ineffective (schools and businesses alike) are in such a state chiefly because they are unfocused and unaligned at the strategic-leadership level, and nothing could be more descriptive of the American public school system.

This lack of focus and alignment is due mostly, in my very biased opinion, to meddling from well-meaning but unenlightened policymakers at just about every level. Placing the blame on teachers and “fixing them” in order to fix an ailing system will never return the dividends hoped for.

But let’s keep investing in teachers, because eventually someone will realize that they are the hope and not the problem. The secret of success is getting quite unremarkable people to produce remarkable outcomes, and that occurs as a result of leadership.

Robert Barkley Jr.
Retired Executive Director
Ohio Education Association
Worthington, Ohio

Higher Grades, Harder Work

To the Editor:

In her Commentary “Leave No Child Unsuccessful?” (Jan. 9, 2002), Sara Matthews makes some excellent points. The presumptions of traditional grading systems rest on the notion that the Bell curve is an ideal to be sought after. If we are truly serious that we want all children to achieve in a standards- based learning system, then we must expect quality work from everyone.

If the standards are realistic, if teachers engage students, and if students do the work (big ifs), then we should be thrilled to see “grade inflation” across the board.

Jay Mathews, an education writer for The Washington Post, illustrated the same point in his Jan. 11, 2002, article “Harder Work, but Higher Grades,” which reported and gave texture to the results of a reader survey. When more children are doing quality work and attaining higher grades, it will be a sign that we are on the right track to standards-based success.

Russell J. Dever
Superintendent of Schools
Barnstable Public Schools
Hyannis, Mass.

School, Work Setting Is ‘Win-Win’ Model

To the Editor:

Your article “Generation Connection” (Jan. 16, 2002), which highlighted the learning model in place at the Grace Living Center, has inspired me to write and wholeheartedly endorse the concept of placing schools in “real world” environs.

Whether it is from research or observation, we all know that humans need to connect learning to something that has intrinsic meaning. This chain of nursing homes and its owner, Donald Greiner, along with the superintendent of the Jenks, Okla., school district are demonstrating a blending that has been too long in coming.

There are scattered examples of this type of partnership across the country—from Toyota Motor Co. to the San Francisco Airport Authority—but most involve early-childhood centers. In 1990, I had the opportunity to leave public school administration and go on a quest to find a corporation willing to work on such a school and work model.

Nashua Tape Products in Watervliet, N.Y., opened its doors to a private school (foundation-funded) to model the win-win opportunities of merging an aging factory workforce with students in grades K-12. The partnerships that were formed during those days will last a lifetime.

I am saddened by the fact that such schools and their resultant partnerships often receive little public recognition for their efforts and may be questioned by most of “the establishment.” In a world where parents have 200 choices of cereals, one would think that finding a school that excites their children by offering real-world learning would be front-page news.

One size has never fit all, but the model of these “real” partnerships is worthy of further exploration and expansion.

Debbie N. Pepin
Independent Education Consultant
Venice, Fla.

The writer is a former superintendent of the Greenville Central School District in Greenville, N.Y.

California’s ‘Report Card’ Is Questioned

To the Editor:

Your reporting of the California education system is generally accurate and informative. In your recent special issue Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success (Jan. 10, 2002), we applaud your weighting of the resources grade using poverty and special education statistics.

But the California Teachers Association, which represents 300,000 educators, must take exception to the final report card score of F when it comes to the “adequacy” of California’s resources for public education.

We believe the report card is based on data that are two or more years old. As a result, it undervalues the increases in education spending that have occurred in recent years. In fact, Gov. Gray Davis has exceeded the constitutionally guaranteed funding for education in every year he has been in office. Two years ago, more than $1.84 billion in new funding was added to the state education budget.

The National Education Association, which has tracked state education spending for decades, issued new estimates in September that put California per-pupil spending at just about the national average for the 2000-01 school year. California spent $7,036 per pupil, the NEA estimated. The national average was $7,095.

Our association still believes that California, which represents the world’s fifth-largest economy, has a way to go in providing students and teachers with all the resources they need. However, fair is fair. According to NEA estimates, California has climbed from a national ranking of 40th in per-pupil spending to 21st. Gov. Davis and the legislature deserve credit for the progress they have made.

Wayne Johnson
California Teachers Association
Burlingame, Calif.

Editor’s Note: Quality Counts uses per-pupil spending estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics to compute states’ adequacy grades. According to the NCES, California’s per-pupil average for the 2000-01 school year was $6,255. We rely on the NCES figures for two main reasons. First, the NCES has a “cost of education” index that allows us to adjust spending figures to reflect regional cost differences. This allows for a fairer comparison of spending across states. Generally, education costs are higher in California than in other states. After adjusting to reflect higher costs, California’s per-pupil spending amount drops to $5,603.

The second reason we use the federal data source is that, in addition to state-level estimates, the NCES produces spending estimates at the district level, which are an important factor in how Quality Counts grades the states on adequacy. California received an F for adequacy in large part because of the spending disparities revealed by the district-level NCES data. After taking into account higher costs associated with special-needs students, only 1.7 percent of students in California attend school in districts where spending is at or above the national average.

Attack on Unions: ‘Bizarre’, Baseless

To the Editor:

Former Little Rock, Ark., teacher Ashley Y. Washam’s bizarre attack on teachers’ unions in your recent article on Generation X teachers (“Gen-Xers Apathetic About Union Label,” Jan. 30, 2002) should not go unchallenged. She blamed the outrageous acts of individual teachers on their unions, “surmising,” as the article puts it, that the unions kept these teachers from being punished.

What ignorance. Unions negotiate fair disciplinary practices and then help ensure compliance. But if a charge against a teacher has merit and the administrator has competence, the union can no more stop a member from being disciplined than it can stop bitter ex-teachers from making baseless charges in national publications.

Glenn Schmidt
Board of Directors
National Education Association
Sun Prairie, Wis.

Education Is Not Federal Function

To the Editor:

I just read the item “Education Only a Cameo in State of the Union” in your Feb. 6, 2002, issue. People seem to have lost sight of the fact that education is not a federal function. Check the U.S. Constitution. There should be no department of education at the federal level. Now even the Republicans have lost sight of that fact.

Brian Farmer
Appleton, Wis.

‘Digital Assistance': For Writing Disabilities, the Goal May Determine the Tool

To the Editor:

Your article “Writing Takes a Digital Turn for Special-Needs Students” (Jan. 30, 2002) raises some of the correct questions about the use of technology for writing by students with identified writing disabilities. However, several points need clarification and highlighting, and one important issue was not raised.

First, it is always important to ask how well an educational strategy works, especially when it involves expending scarce resources. But how well a strategy works should not always be defined by aggregate data in large-scale studies. Individuals are the operative units in special education, and we should be asking, “What set of tools and strategies can help this student succeed in the various settings she encounters?”

The folks at Learning in the Real World may be right to be skeptical of the promises of technology in education. But their cautions about research are not valid criticisms of assistive technology: It is tested daily and used successfully or abandoned by the individuals it is designed to help. Certainly, there may be some trial and error in trying to find a fit between individuals and specific tools, but success of any given tool for the individual has to come quickly or the tool will be dropped.

The types of “digital assistance” described in the article do not serve the same purposes, nor do they necessarily serve the same individuals. The choice depends first on the students’ needs. Some students may need only a personal keyboard like the AlphaSmart, some may only need the help of a spell-checker, some may need the help of word prediction as found in CoWriter, and some may need a combination of any or all of these or others.

In determining the “need” for digital assistance, it is also important to clearly define the purpose of any given writing activity. If a student is supposed to be learning to spell some words or apply specific spelling rules, then generally the tool should not spell for him (as in word prediction). But if the goal of the activity is to demonstrate knowledge of some content and the students’ spelling detracts in some way from their ability to display that knowledge, then an alternative vehicle such as word prediction allows students to show what they know about the subject. The same person may use different tools for different purposes.

It is also important to better understand the role of assistive technology in assessment, and here again the purpose is critical. If the goal is to determine whether the student has specific knowledge that he can communicate effectively, then why is one tool (for example, a pencil) preferable to any other tool? If the purpose is to see whether he has a specific skill, then the tool may be adjusted for that assessment.

Perhaps a larger question should be posed: In the end, which is preferable in the wider context of public education, clearer written communication or more accurate spelling?

Finally, the point not squarely addressed is how assistive technology offers hope to many students. Many students who are identified through special education never fully re-enter the educational mainstream. They are overrepresented in the school failure rate, in the dropout rate, in the juvenile-offender and prison populations, and so forth. Helping students succeed in school and feel successful as students is a critical goal.

Assistive technology plays an increasingly important role in this regard as it is more widely understood by school personnel and used by individuals across the country.

Increased success can have financial rewards as well. Some students can get off the special education rolls, or at least require a lower level of expensive direct service, if they just have the right tool at the right time. The question can be turned around to paraphrase a popular bumper sticker: If you think assistive technology is expensive, try failure.

Bob Follansbee
Education Development Center
Newton, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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