Education Letter to the Editor


November 13, 2002 14 min read
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For Voucher Results Try New Zealand

To the Editor:

Essayist Ted Fish is wrong when he says that no study by an objective researcher with a rock-solid methodology about vouchers exists (“A Tentative Hope for Vouchers,” Commentary, Oct. 30, 2002). He needs to read When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale by Edward B. Fiske and Helen F. Ladd, published in 2000.

In 1989, New Zealand granted all public schools complete operational autonomy and eliminated attendance boundary lines under a plan called Tomorrow’s Schools. Parents were given the right to apply to any school they wanted, including parochial schools. Vouchers followed students to their schools of choice. In one fell swoop, New Zealand created the kind of educational marketplace that Mr. Fish supports.

What happened was altogether predictable. The best schools quickly filled up. Hard-to-teach students, disproportionately poor and minority, were turned away. Within a short time, the less popular schools became significantly more polarized along ethnic and socioeconomic lines than before.

Realizing that its grand experiment was not working as intended, New Zealand began to pull back. The country is still trying to recover from its debacle.

While New Zealand is not the United States, it shares many customs, values, and traditions, in addition to a common language. Moreover, it has a sizable number of poor and minority students in the form of Maoris and Pacific Islanders, many of whom live in the inner cities.

The New Zealand experience stands as the best evidence to date about the effects of vouchers and competition on public education. It compellingly rebuts the free-market claims made by Mr. Fish and others.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

The writer taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The College Board Supports Arts Study

To the Editor:

The implication of a paraphrased remark attributed to Wayne Camara in your Sept. 4, 2002, article “Officials Tie Entrance-Score Dips to Curriculum” does not reflect Mr. Camara’s opinion or that of the College Board.

During our press conference, we pointed out that there has been virtually no change in SAT I verbal scores for more than 20 years, while math scores have consistently increased across all groups of students. We said that although we cannot definitively explain the differences in these score patterns, our trend data on student coursetaking patterns show that students have continually taken more years of math and more rigorous math courses in the past two decades.

We also said that coursetaking patterns in English language arts provide a more complicated picture. While most students continue to take four years of English language arts courses, they increasingly indicate that the content of these courses includes substantially less emphasis on grammar and composition. Instead, there is more emphasis on speech, film, and theater appreciation. The verbal section of the SAT I: Reasoning Test measures critical-reading skills rather than proficiency in speech and knowledge of the performing arts. We offered this as one of several possible explanations for the differential score patterns on the SAT.

Unfortunately, your story implies that we believe verbal scores are flat because students are taking more courses in the arts. We never discussed courses in the arts nor would we ever suggest that study of the arts would adversely affect verbal achievement. That would be absurd.

The College Board is well known for championing the arts, particularly through our very strong Advanced Placement program in the arts. Let no one doubt that we see arts courses as a valuable addition to the high school curriculum.

Chiara Coletti
Vice President
Communications and Public Affairs
The College Board
New York, N.Y.

Read More Debate On KIPP Schools

To the Editor:

In response to your recent article on the Knowledge Is Power Program (“KIPP Looks to Recreate School Success Stories,” Oct. 30, 2002), I suggest further investigation into the ability to replicate these schools, and on just what are defined as measures of success.

On Oct. 29, 2002, I debated the KIPP school phenomenon in The Washington Post with education journalist Jay Mathews. Your readers will find a lively, balanced discussion at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp- dyn/A35001-2002Oct29.

William C. Cala
Fairport Schools
National Coalition Diploma
Fairport, N.Y.

Differing Views Of Teachers’Unions

To the Editor:

Yes, the unions certainly do “labor to shape education policy,” as you put it in a recent front-page story (“Unions Labor to Shape Education Policy,” Oct. 30, 2002). And the result of their labor is that all of us are increasingly suffering with schools of the unions, by the unions, and for the unions. In my community, one of our school board members privately confided to me that the union (the National Education Association, specifically) quite simply runs the district, and that there’s nothing that the rest of us can do about it. I found it hard to disagree with him.

In its publicly posted resolutions, the NEA, the country’s largest teachers’ union, states either implicitly or explicitly that it intends to:

1. Deny parents the right to educate their own children, even at their own expense within the privacy of their homes (B-67);

2. Prohibit private corporations from offering educational services, even if those corporations and their services are privately funded (A-10, A-25);

3. Place all potentially innovative alternative programs under the control of the unionized public education monopoly (A-26);

4. Relentlessly increase both the funding and inefficiency of that monopoly by placing ever-more-onerous restrictions on the educational system (A-13, A-19, B-6);

5. Prohibit the use of education-related taxes for anything but the continued and exclusive funding of the public education monopoly (A-15, A-27, A-28, A-29);

6. Increase the power of the monopoly by extending the range of its control to include the education, child care, and health care of all citizens from birth through employment and parenthood (B-1, B-33, B-37, C-1, C-7, C-18, C-22, H-7, I-12); and

7. Effectively exempt itself and its members from any and all forms of accountability to the public (B-55, D-21, E-9, F-9).

The stated intentions of just this one labor organization should give all American citizens cause for great concern. The NEA seems to be proposing an eventual takeover of huge segments of the American economy, including apparently all facets of education and most, if not all, of the health-care industry. If the sleeping public doesn’t wake up soon, this union dream will eventually become our collective nightmare.

David Ziffer
Batavia, Ill.

To the Editor:

I believe that the teachers’ unions play a very positive role in our educational and electoral process. They are not, as some charge, “meddlesome.” They have a positive influence on national and state policy.

Dick Newbern
Brunswick, Ga.

Monitoring Work, Or Wasting Money?

To the Editor:

Let me get this straight. Philadelphia, a financially struggling district, has spent $1.6 million on a new monitoring system for employees that includes 284 scanners to keep track of their work habits (“Finger-Scanning Technology Monitors School Employees,” Oct. 23, 2002). However, the district still needs 336 of these costly scanners—and will need hundreds more, should it implement a plan calling for their installation near school buses.

So the district will probably spend at least another million dollars on this technology, probably much more. There has to be a better way to get people to show up for work on time. Has it occurred to anyone that spending this big chunk of money on the employees themselves might generate the desired results? For example, food- service workers have very low salaries. Pay them a little more and you might find that they actually care about keeping their jobs. Or try rewarding maintenance people who have perfect attendance records.

Bad work habits can be changed with the proper incentives. Why is it that we would rather spend the money on machines?

Jill Goldesberry
Conesville, Iowa

More on Failure Of Online School

To the Editor:

Regarding your news item “Pa. District Revokes Online School’s Charter,” Oct. 23, 2002: I applaud the comments of the Morrisville, Pa., school board president, Kenneth D. Junkins, who is quoted as suggesting that the state education department was trying to torpedo our online charter school to appease the districts which brought suit.

The Morrisville school district’s commitment to the Einstein Academy Charter School could not have been greater without its actually taking control. I met three times a week with John Gould, the district superintendent, from my arrival until I departed. His help and the help of his staff—as well as that of members of the board—were invaluable.

Lost in all the legal and political battles is the fact that the Pennsylvania Department of Education refused to provide start-up funds for the Einstein Academy, even though start-up funds were available for other charter schools. From July through August of 2001, the department changed the supervisors we dealt with three times. Directions and directives were provided by telephone, not in writing. Moreover, the department, which had emphasized, in its support of a charter school in Chester County, the importance of consistent funding, never provided that to the Einstein Academy.

The failure to properly fund the school left Einstein Academy in a perpetual state of “catch-up.” It led the board and the management company to distrust anything presented by the state department of education and, by association, the Morrisville district. That cycle of distrust bred a circular operational problem: A school cannot meet its obligations to the state when it needs (and does not get) the funding provided by the state to meet those obligations.

Who loses? The people who always do, the ones who were to be helped.

I have heard outrageous legal claims that “cyber education” isn’t education; that state officials can mislead when testifying; that the secretary of education can fund whatever school is politically appropriate; and more. What I have not seen or heard in any media source is that the state has two responsibilities: one to the children and their parents or caregivers, and one regarding their responsibility in providing a level playing field to all.

I thank the Morrisville school district, its administrators, and board for all that they tried to do.

John R. Severs
Former Principal
Einstein Academy Charter School
Morrisville, Pa.

T-Shirt Battle: Refighting the Civil War

Having read your front-page story “Battle Flag T-Shirts Divide Ga. School” (Oct. 23, 2002), I am struck by the dual nature of the issue facing schools and our wider culture. I agree that we must presume a broad free-speech protection in schools and that the U.S. Supreme Court has set limits to that protection (usually in the interest of safety and continuity of program) by which we are bound. But I regard with skepticism the insistence of many that the Confederate flag represents honorable sentiments folded into the idea that a benign heritage is what is at issue.

I would ask this question: What is the specific content of that heritage, besides slavery and related acts of oppression? Is it “states’ rights”? What particular rights are those other than the “right” violently to defy one’s own government in order to persist in the enslavement and then later, by legal and extralegal means, the subjugation of a stolen population?

I would ask this question as well: What nation (in history) besides ours clings and caters to a longing for symbols of an utterly defeated rebellion 137 years dead, a rebellion whose raison d'être has been discredited by every civilized people on earth? Are we not peculiarly unique in this? The very fervency with which the “Stars and Bars” is promoted (in schools, of all places, and not just by those out to make a buck) suggests strongly that we need, once and for all, to move on, or at least to allow our children to do so.

Jonathan Wolfman
Middle School Principal
The Bullis School
Potomac, Md.

To the Editor:

I am a Southerner from Georgia whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy. To my knowledge and according to my research, not a one of my ancestors ever owned a slave. But I am writing in response to the allegation that the wearing of symbols of the Confederacy disrupts the learning environment.

An acquaintance in my hometown in Georgia who teaches U.S. history at the local high school chastises me, a 31-year-old man, for wearing shirts with the Confederate battle flag on them, on the grounds that it represents slavery. I once asked this person if she, a history teacher, had ever read an actual transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation. To my astonishment, she said, “Well, no.” And there is the great failure of the education system.

Students get the textbook version of American history. The Emancipation Proclamation stated that only those states “in rebellion,” meaning the Confederate states, were to free their slaves by Jan. 1, 1863, while exempting those states holding slaves that were still loyal to the Union. The U.S. Constitution still protected slavery in 1863, and the president could not, legally, violate the Constitution. Abraham Lincoln had no authority to free slaves in states still loyal to the Union, and by offering to exempt any state “in rebellion” if it rejoined the Union by the Jan. 1 deadline, Lincoln basically said slavery was morally wrong, unless one was loyal to the Union.

To the victor goes the privilege of writing the history, and in that writing, the South has been grossly misrepresented.

At the time of issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, a year and a half into the war, Lincoln shifted the focus of the North’s motive for war from “Save the Union” to “Free the Slaves"; it is the folly of human assumption to say that the South shifted its focus from its original cause: states’ rights, independence, and self-determination.

Wars, and their causes, are complex issues, and there is so much that led up to the Southern states’ secession that gets left out of the U.S. history of the event known as the Civil War (a misnomer itself, considering that “civil war” is defined as two or more factions fighting for control of the same government).

I take great pride in being a Georgian, a Southerner, and an American. I do not wear symbols of the Confederacy because I am a racist; I know in my heart that I am not. I take pride in the Confederacy because we Southerners have a story to tell, one of courage, valor, and honor.

Kevin Logan
Chatworth, Ga.

9/11 Curriculum: Protesting Too Much, Sidestepping Issues

To the Editor:

I read with dismay and sadness Chester E. Finn Jr.'s letter “On Seeing Biases in 9/11 Curricula” (Letters, Oct. 23, 2002). It was written in response to Dennis Lubeck’s letter, “Lessons for 9/11: More Context Was Needed on Source of Essays” (Letters, Oct. 9, 2002).

What was particularly dismaying was the dismissive tone of Mr. Finn’s response, and his sidestepping of the issues that Dennis Lubeck raised, to question, instead, Mr. Lubeck’s appropriateness as a manager of one of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Teaching American History” grants. Mr. Finn seems to take the position that anyone who questions him and his particular ideological stance on patriotism and the teaching of U.S. history is to be questioned in turn as a worthy recipient of federal funds.

I was personally involved with the development of the project in question, when I served as director of the St. Louis Regional Professional Development Center. I can attest to the fact that Mr. Lubeck brought to the project a high quality of historical scholarship and a pedagogical position that embraces the inseparable nature of content and pedagogy in the promotion of good schools. He is a passionate advocate of teaching the habits of mind unique to the discipline of history.

I can also say from firsthand experience that Mr. Lubeck is viewed by talented history teachers in St. Louis as an intellectual leader and an invaluable resource.

Mr. Finn is simply dead wrong when he says that the federal project is intended to promote “traditional American history,” by which I take him to mean that all students should learn “a positive historical master narrative,” as one of Mr. Finn’s Fordham Foundation 9/11 writers, Lucien Ellington, called the ideal in undergraduate history instruction.

Even a quick glance at the National Council for History Education guidelines that the Department of Education has recommended as guidance for grant-writers shows that the grant program sees both the thematic treatment of history and the importance of sound pedagogy as critically important elements in the improvement of teaching U.S. history. In Mr. Lubeck’s federally funded grant project on the American West, teachers are reading both Frederick Jackson Turner and the new Western historians.

I am deeply saddened that Mr. Finn and the loud voice of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation see it as their mission to take on all dissents in such a narrow and vicious manner. I think Mr. Finn “doth protest too much.”

David C. Bristol
Director of Education
Missouri Historical Society
St. Louis, Mo.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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