Education Letter to the Editor


October 17, 2001 16 min read
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Standards Movement Is Not ‘Undemocratic’

To the Editor:

Alfie Kohn’s Commentary about standards was thought-provoking (“Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests,” Sept. 26, 2001), but I wish he and others would address the distinction between standards for younger vs. older students.

I am not an educator, but it seems to me that in the early grades, the emphasis should be on skills and knowledge of basic facts—things that lend themselves well to standards and measurable outcomes. As the students move into advanced levels of curriculum, I think, there are many more nonmeasurable outcomes we should be seeking.

I find the criticism of one-size-fits-all standards to have a good deal of merit when it comes to those parts of the curriculum that involve higher-order thinking skills. But in the early grades, schooling is about skills and basic knowledge. What’s wrong with measuring that?

Second, I think Mr. Kohn is way off base when he calls the testing/standards movement “undemocratic.” He does this by citing the fact that the movement is coming from the top down, and is usurping “the long-established power of local school districts to chart their own course.” The same could be said for virtually every significant reform movement in education.

Schools did not integrate because local school boards across the country demanded it. Schools did not move students with disabilities into the mainstream because the locals were asking for this. Schools did not get sensitive to gender-equity issues because of local pressure. It all came from the top, and those offended by these movements wrapped themselves in the same tired slogan about “local control.”

The testing/standards movement can be criticized for many things, but “undemocratic” it is not. Unlike other reform movements, this one is coming from elected representatives, rather than the courts. The reason that politicians are pushing the issue is because this is what the people who elect them want. In the last presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore seemed to be competing for who could outtest the other. Politicians are listening to the people, and this is what the people are demanding.

The people may be wrong. They often are. But they are not “undemocratic.”

Jim Walsh
Austin, Texas

On Welfare Reform’s Impact on Children

To the Editor:

Your front- page article “Experts Debate Welfare Reform’s Impact on Children” (Sept. 19, 2001) was an informative presentation of the state of “expert” knowledge on this important topic. Two points, however, are open to commentary.

First, none of the research evaluating welfare reform to date has focally examined or measured whether children are helped or harmed when their parents leave welfare for work.

A few analyses have reported on children’s outcomes from indirect indicators, but they could not specify whether family-background factors (for instance, having lived previously in a family where domestic abuse was taking place; adjusting to a new neighborhood and new school) or the change in the parent’s work status caused the outcomes. In addition, parents’ work hours, days, demands, and other work-site characteristics that result in job stress and leaving jobs, and that directly and indirectly influence children’s well-being, were not examined. These studies primarily looked at children’s outcomes in relation to what type of welfare-to-work program the parent attended.

Equally important, the figures citing the decline in child poverty in the article are clearly dependent on source and techniques of measurement. According to the Kids Count Data Book 2000, an annual report on children’s welfare published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, child poverty increased over a similar period (1990-1997). Using refined data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program, the foundation reported a significant increase during the 1990s in the number of children in working-poor families: from 4.3 million in 1989 to 5.8 million in 1998. At least one parent in these families works full time, full year, yet the families’ incomes remain below the poverty line.

Many of these new low-income families were previously on welfare, a fact that is in line with attorney Mark Greenberg’s description in your article that most of the mothers who have left welfare have moved into low-wage jobs “with very little chance for advancement.” Their persistent poverty directly contradicts Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., who says in the article, “Low-income parents are now supporting their children with paychecks instead of welfare checks.”

These parents may be paying some of their bills from a paycheck instead of a welfare check, but they are a long way from supporting themselves and their children.

Roberta R. Iversen
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
Assistant Professor and
Clinician Educator
School of Social Work
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pa.

To Close the ‘Gap’ May Require Rage

To the Editor:

Recently, the National Urban Alliance provided a compelling paid advertisement in your publication that spoke fundamentally to the most critical issue in American education today: the academic achievement gap between Caucasian students and their African-American and Latino peers. (Sept. 12, 2001 print edition.)

In 1999, the Norwalk, Conn., public schools worked in conjunction with the NUA to develop a process by which the district could address the academic- achievement gap. The study yielded several recommendations that reinforce the blueprint proposed in the advertisement.

Generally speaking, school districts know what to do. We have successful models to draw from at the local, state, and national levels. A systemic approach is the key. All of us who make up the community must have the will to commit our resources to the right places over time. We must have an “abundance” mentality and understand that closing the gap is not about any student getting less. Most of all, we need the institutional will to succeed.

The final recommendation in the plan drawn up for Norwalk was this: Pursue the work with a sense of urgency. This should be stated first and then again and again. A sense of urgency is difficult to achieve, but any action plan will fail if not buttressed by people willing to stand up, be counted, and work to ensure what is best for students. In some respects, we need to develop a genuine sense of rage on behalf of children. It takes that kind of urgency.

John J. Ramos
Assistant Superintendent
Curriculum and Instruction
Norwalk Public Schools
Norwalk, Conn.

Special Education’s ‘Common Ground’

To the Editor:

Writer Clint Bolick didn’t miss much in his recitation of the many problems associated with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“A Bad IDEA Is Disabling Public Schools,” Commentary, Sept. 5, 2001). Almost lost in his otherwise sweeping critique was a brief and understated acknowledgment that the IDEA “unquestionably has helped millions of severely disabled kids achieve to their abilities.”

It’s more fundamental than that. The IDEA has literally opened up public education as a basic right for millions of otherwise excluded children. This is one reason there is such strong support for the IDEA today. We fully understand that if the responsibility to educate children with disabilities were left to the states and the schools in them, millions of children now in school would simply not be there.

Even so, resistance to providing what the IDEA mandates, a free and appropriate education, runs far and deep in our nation’s schools. This resistance takes many forms and is itself a factor in the wholesale education failure noted but not fully explained by Mr. Bolick. No one ever really comes out and says he won’t educate children with disabilities. Instead, plausible excuses are devised. Among these is the argument that the IDEA is an “unfunded” mandate.

The premise of this argument is that states do not already have a fundamental obligation to educate all the children. They do, and they are not excused from this obligation because of the IDEA, which, if nothing else, at least defines the obligation. If the IDEA is an “unfunded” mandate, then so is all the legislation passed during the civil rights era to guarantee otherwise disenfranchised citizens basic civil rights.

Mr. Bolick’s suggestion that children with so-called learning disabilities be removed from the mandate sidesteps the question of why they need help in the first place. A fruitful line of investigation might be to address the question, “What is it that schools do that causes children not to learn?”

An inquiry in this direction would take us away from endless debates about “psychological processes” and into the more concrete area of “performance,” where the long-standing failures of special education are well-understood. This is where special education critics and reformers of every stripe seem to find common ground, and it is solid ground upon which to build a better future for children with disabilities.

David O. Krantz
Mountain View, Calif.

Voucher Case: Phony Arguments, Lack of Economic Sophistication

To the Editor:

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the voucher decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which held that the Ohio Pilot Project Scholarship Program was in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment-of-religion clause (“Supreme Court to Hear Pivotal Voucher Case,” Oct. 3, 2001). The program provides scholarships of up to $2,250 to attend public and private schools. At the time of the appeal, 4,266 pupils had utilized the scholarships in 56 private schools; 96 percent of the pupils were enrolled in denominational schools.

Personally, I wish that a more favorable factual case had been chosen for Supreme Court review, and I am not so confident that the outcome will be a sweeping victory for those of us who would like to see a competitive education industry. Nonetheless, in view of the political and legal situation we face, it is probably a good thing that the 6th Circuit decision will be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Unless the court decides to punt, the outcome will have a tremendous effect on elementary and secondary education for years, perhaps generations, to come.

Because 96 percent of the voucher-redeeming students in the Cleveland program attend denominational schools, the anti-voucher forces contend that the program violates the establishment clause. This contention has not been sufficiently vetted in controversies over vouchers. Let me try to clear up one aspect of the contention.

If parents want a religious education for their children, they must pay for it, because they cannot get what they want in a public school. The denominations and the teachers in the denominational schools also absorb some of the costs, but there is no competition between public and private schools in the sense of competition to provide the same service, to wit, a denominational education.

The absence of competition, however, would not be the case with parents who want a better education for their children but are not interested in a denominational education. For these parents, public schools do provide competition with private schools. The problem is that it is very different to compete with a free service, just as it would be difficult for automobile salesmen to compete against those offering free cars. The car that had to be paid for would have to be greatly superior to induce purchases of it; car dealers would surely fight tooth and nail against free cars.

The upshot is that most private schools in the United States are denominational schools. This explains why most of the initial private school enrollments in voucher plans are in denominational schools. Furthermore, it takes a great deal of time and resources to plan, construct, and operate a private school. Consequently, when a voucher plan is introduced, it is only natural that most enrollments in the private schools will be in denominational schools. Vouchers increase the demand for private nondenominational schooling, but it takes at least a few years before the supply side can meet the demand.

The anti-voucher forces are trying, legally and otherwise, to persuade everyone that the heavy enrollments in denominational schools in the first few years of a voucher plan “prove” that voucher plans are really enacted for the benefit of denominational schools. They are well aware of the fact that this is not true, and would not be true even if denominational enrollments exceeded nondenominational ones long after the voucher plans were enacted.

At one time at least, in some school districts, denominational enrollments exceeded public school enrollments even in the absence of a voucher plan. And interestingly enough, perhaps as much as 10 percent to 15 percent of the enrollments in Roman Catholic schools are by non-Catholic parents who seek a better and safer, but not necessarily denominational, education for their children.

From my point of view, the anti- voucher reliance on phony arguments is a good illustration of the abysmal level of intellectual integrity in voucher controversies. I would have to admit, however, that the lack of economic sophistication may be a more important factor. In some ways, this is even more depressing.

Myron Lieberman
Education Policy Institute
Washington, D.C.

Single-Sex Schooling: Critique of Report Relies On ‘Disturburbing Overgeneralization’

To the Editor:

Christina Hoff Sommers misused the findings of our recent study on single-gender public schooling for her own benefit, thus damaging any advancement of single-gender education (“Give Same-Sex Schooling a Chance,” Commentary, Sept. 26, 2001). Her diatribe uses grossly inaccurate and unfounded claims to support her misguided conservative agenda that feminism is harming American education.

Our report details the successes and failures of the single-gender experiment, concluding that while “there were some positive aspects to the single-gender arrangement,” there were many challenges to implementing and sustaining these academies. They faced a lack of state-level support after two years, often a lack of support for single-gender schooling at the district level, high rates of teacher and administrative turnover, and inadequate time to prepare for implementation.

Moreover, most of the academies struggled to enroll sufficient numbers of boys or girls, contrary to Ms. Sommers’ claim that the program was popular with parents. These challenges were so substantial that five of the six districts closed their single-gender academies after two years.

Ms. Sommers states that “adequate funding was a problem from the beginning” of the single-gender-academies pilot program in California. Yet she neglects to mention that California’s law allowed the school districts to receive $500,000 to operate single-gender academies at the middle and high school levels. Considering that none of the six districts served more than 140 students in the single-gender academies, $500,000 was a generous amount for start-up, particularly given that the funds were not intended to be used for staff salaries.

Numerous administrators sought the funds because of the resources and opportunities they would offer to students in their school systems, and less so because of a deep commitment to single-gender education per se. These conditions at founding undoubtedly influenced the implementation and sustainability of the single-gender academies.

Contrary to Ms. Sommers’ claim that our goal was simply to “dissect the sociopolitical context of single-gender public schooling,” we clearly stated that the overall purpose of our study “was to assess the consequences of single-gender schooling in the public sector.” Our study resulted in a much-needed qualitative analysis of single-gender public schooling in the United States, and is no doubt the most comprehensive to date. We conducted over 300 interviews with policymakers, school and district staff, students, and parents, along with extensive school and classroom observations.

Ms. Sommers would lead the reader to believe that we had no interest in the academic implications of the academies. We do, however, address school organization, curriculum, and instruction. As detailed in the report, we initially planned to also evaluate quantitative student-achievement outcomes over the three-year period of our study. However, since most of the sites closed in the first two years, this portion of our study did not yield meaningful results that would allow us to draw any conclusions about the success of the single-gender academies in raising student achievement. Reporting such results would have been disingenuous and perhaps even harmful.

A major goal of our study was to examine the equity implications of single- gender public schooling. To this end, we conclude that “when single-gender academies tailored curriculum and instruction to meet the different educational needs of boys and girls (as the legislation suggests), they did not, despite their best intentions, offer equal educational opportunity. ... Both boys and girls lost out, but in different ways.” Nowhere in the report do we describe any teacher as “sexist.” As we explain, most educators did not have sufficient time to engage in inquiry about the single-gender teaching experience, nor were they offered relevant training.

Yet there were numerous occasions when the single-gender schools in our study were successful at expanding opportunities for students and challenging traditional gender roles. Moreover, our study found that that one of the main benefits of the academies was that the separation of students by gender allowed some teachers to have candid discussions that were aimed at helping students broaden and achieve their future life goals.

Ms. Sommers also mistakenly raises the “nature vs. nurture” debate about gender as an either/or debate that erudite scholars have long refuted. There is a substantial body of research on gender and schooling to support the fact that gender is in part a social construction. And certainly, biological differences exist between boys and girls. Our study suggests that the way in which educators viewed significant differences between males and females informed their notions about classroom practice with respect to curriculum, pedagogy, and discipline; the structure and practices of the single-gender academies often contributed to the belief that boys and girls are different, to the point of ignoring the commonalties.

Perhaps most painful is that, to buttress her weak argument, Ms. Sommers grossly denigrates the students in the single-gender academies. We reported that many of these students were low-achieving, yet nowhere did we describe them as “barely literate.” And while “many of the boys had a history of truancy and gang violence” in one of the six districts studied, Ms. Sommers took this statement out of context to support her disturbing overgeneralization. Given her concern with the shortchanging of “our young men,” Ms. Sommers, especially, should be careful in making statements that pathologize boys as a group.

In the end, our study makes clear that the context in which a reform is implemented is vital to its success. The California single-gender-academies pilot program provided the funding for districts to experiment with single-gender public education, but there was not sufficient support or demand for it to succeed.

Finally, we wish to make clear that our report states that our study “was supported by grants from the Ford Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. ... However, any opinions expressed are the authors’ own and do not represent the policies or positions of these organizations.”

We hope that the readers of Education Week will take a closer look at our study and see Ms. Sommers’ supposed critique for what it is—yet another unfounded attempt at advancing an agenda that is supported only by conservative political rhetoric, as well as a failed attempt to elevate her status to that of a respected academic.

Amanda Datnow
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto
Toronto, Canada

Lea Hubbard
University of California, San Diego
San Diego, Calif.

Elisabeth Woody
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, Calif.


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