Causes of Dropouts Left ‘Out of Focus’
To the Editor:
I am compelled to respond to the Commentary by Mary Hatwood Futrell and Iris C. Rotberg (“Predictable Casualties,” Commentary, Oct. 2, 2002). I agree that standardized testing is not the answer to student achievement and may well contribute to dropout rates. But I disagree with the politically correct prophecy that we should anticipate the cause to be low teacher salaries and lack of resources in the public schools. Use of the time-worn, liberal-knee-jerk mantra to blame dropouts on “failed societal and educational policies” is twice repeated. Real solutions are not to be found here. Taking more money from those who have earned it cannot solve problems that originate elsewhere.
The symptoms of dropouts are alluded to—parental education levels, poor health and nutrition, poverty, and social problems—but causes are left out of focus. Let’s have the fortitude to face the fact that half of all U.S. children born to women ages 20 to 24—of all races and ethnicity—were born out of wedlock. Reality and research show that the quality of a child’s family life is a crucial predictor of that child’s school performance and success in later life. Society and schools are not responsible for five super-important home factors that correlate with school proficiency:
- Number of days absent from school.
- Number of hours spent watching television.
- Number of pages read for homework.
- Quantity and quality of reading material in the home.
- The presence of two parents in the home.
It is also a fact that between birth and the child’s 19th birthday, American children spend 9 percent of their time in school and 91 percent elsewhere.
These are the real problems that affect classroom performance, and schools cannot do their job without families. Ours is the one country above all others with the freedom to exercise individual initiative in these areas. Educators and the country’s leaders should be constantly repeating these facts, encouraging and legislating to re-establish families as the center of society’s well-being. Then we will begin to see fewer dropouts.
On Seeing Biases In 9/11 Curricula
To the Editor:
What a strange letter you published from Dennis Lubeck (“Lessons for 9/11,” Letters, Oct. 9, 2002).
Clearly, Mr. Lubeck did not think that Education Week should have deigned to publish the essays by William A. Galston, Lynne Cheney, and Richard Rodriguez (“9/11: Hard Lessons,” Commentary, Sept. 11, 2002) that first appeared in the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s Web-based curricular guidance, “Sept. 11: What Our Children Need to Know,” (www.edexcellence.net /Sept11 /September11.html).
But he evidently could not find anything to criticize in the essays themselves. (Not too surprising. Those three are terrific. So are the other 20.) So he faulted Education Week for ignoring the “context” in which they first appeared. That enabled him to take a shot or two at my introduction to the Fordham collection, an introduction that (while I, of course, find it memorable, powerful, and persuasive) had appeared nowhere in Education Week.
It galls Mr. Lubeck that the “first two essays” in our collection are by “well-known conservatives” William J. Bennett and Lynne Cheney. Maybe he didn’t notice that the authors were listed in alphabetical order. And of course he failed to note the liberals and Democrats among the authors (including former Clinton White House adviser Bill Galston, whose essay was one of those chosen by Education Week).
Mr. Lubeck directs “a professional-development program for American and world-history teachers,” so I looked at his Web site (http://csd.org/staffdev/iecweb/i ec.html) and wasn’t surprised to find there a three-year, federally funded U.S. history teacher-development project. I guess it doesn’t bother him to be on the payroll, so to speak, of a Republican administration, one of whose leaders is Ms. Cheney’s husband. Money is green, right?
The U.S. Department of Education program underwriting Mr. Lubeck’s work with St. Louis-area teachers is intended to advance the teaching of “traditional American history,” a special love of its legislative parent, a Democrat, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Yet Mr. Lubeck complains that Fordham included “defenders of traditional approaches to teaching U.S. history” in our collection.
Isn’t he even a little sheepish when faulting us for that while promising taxpayers that he’ll use their money to help schoolteachers do precisely the same thing? Or is he not carrying out the law’s intent?
I also notice that one of Mr. Lubeck’s partners, the Tennessee coordinator of his “mid-South Japan project,” is Professor Lucien Ellington of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who happens to be the author of another grand essay in the very same Fordham collection that Dennis Lubeck criticizes Education Week for having excerpted. Evidently, Mr. Lubeck is one of those “liberals” who believe that opinions he disagrees with should not be published.
Chester E. Finn Jr.
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Pride and Ignorance On Public Schools
To the Editor:
In her attempt to denigrate private schools, Elizabeth Randall proves nothing other than that she obviously has never visited a good private school (“The Holes in the War Against Public Education,” Commentary, Sept. 25, 2002).
Moreover, her sweeping claims about the high quality of public schools clearly indicate that she knows little about the wretched conditions in many rural and urban districts, which, for a host of regrettable and unseemly reasons, do not share quite the same luxuries as those in places such as Winter Springs, Fla.
If public schools make Ms. Randall “proud to be an American,” then it stands to reason that she is equally proud of being ignorant.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Edison’s Failure: A ‘Hollow Victory’
To the Editor:
Unfortunately, Heidi Steffens and Peter W. Cookson Jr. may know more about education than they do about business (“Limitations of the Market Model,” Commentary, Aug. 7, 2002). Their critique, which predictably restores education to its pristine place as the supreme institution of public service, is seriously flawed.
First, “branding” is never singular. Businesses segment their markets. Adjustments to variety and demographics are a planning norm. By adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, Edison Schools Inc. was following neither a sound educational nor economic model of best practices.
Second, economies of scale have no effect on personnel. Education is extremely labor-intensive, with labor costs accounting for as much as much as 80 percent of the budget. The only way to cut such costs is to use technology or more part-time or adjunct teachers. Universities routinely have done both. If Edison’s corporate and administrative costs matched or exceeded those of school districts, then there were no economies to be realized, and hence, no profits to be made. Charter schools, although not-for-profit, work with a bottom line. If they run in the red, as a few have, they fold. Not so for many public schools that operate at a loss. They are bailed out by taxpayers, Edison by investors. Christopher Whittle ran Edison like a school, not a business.
Third, rapid growth per se is not destructive. In fact, it is a happy problem. That is what strategic planning is supposed to take care of. But the notion of a mystical critical mass in the future is delusional. Each unit should be minimally self-sufficient or profitable. No one opens outlets or factories one after the other, each one operating in the red, and magically expects to reach a point when, retroactively, the ink changes color and they all suddenly turn profitable. Whatever one thinks of the stock market, in this instance at least, it knew what it was doing when Edison shares plummeted nearly to zero.
Many educators for a long time have been on the sidelines cheering Edison on to failure. Sadly, that may be its fate. But it is a hollow victory for at least two reasons.
First, Edison’s difficulties may be used to give for-profit management companies a bad name. Now all will be even more suspicious or paranoiac about business, when in fact, it is not business that has failed, but a dreadfully inept Edison. Almost all the postwar distance-education universities are proprietary and generate a handsome profit every year for their employees and investors.
Second, all the self-righteous educators who proclaim and revere education’s social mission will once again put forth the rhetoric of teachers as public servants and schools as agents of the public trust. For a while we were spared that throwback to the days when competence was determined by dedication.
The key business perspective that was glaringly missing from the critique is that Mr. Whittle should have been asked to resign.
Irving H. Buchen
Business and Educational Consultant
Fort Myers, Fla.
Will Accountability Apply to Tutors?
To the Editor:
Regarding your article “States Suffer Halting Start on Tutoring” (Sept. 25, 2002), let me see if I’ve got this straight. Our federal government, in all its wisdom, realized that public education would never improve until the states were held to some standard of accountability. Hence, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. It requires states to identify “low-performing schools” and prescribes specific things those schools must do to help children and get back on the “good school” list.
So far, so good, I guess. But now there seems to be some confusion as to how low-performing schools are identified, since each state is allowed to set its own standard of measurement. So these highly evolved and knowledgeable educational experts who drafted this legislation are quick to tell us what low-performing schools should do to improve, but they are allowing each state to determine how to measure its schools?
Is it just me, or isn’t there some blatantly obvious room for foot-dragging and lack of equity here? Isn’t the situation similar to my telling students in my U.S. government class that if they don’t “perform” this semester they will have to be tutored over the holidays and retake the course next semester? Then do I simply allow each student, in his or her own way, to determine whether or not they are performing?
Speaking of tutoring: As a teacher, I must have a certificate to be allowed to teach children. (Even then, if one listens to experts, I and most of my peers are probably not doing a very good job and need some intensive training to bring us to the point where we can truly be effective.) Do I understand correctly that while I have to be licensed and accountable, all the tutors have to do is show a past “record of effectiveness”? Don’t they have to show that the kids they work with actually improve? If a school that needs improvement this year continues to need improvement next year because the kids that the tutors were supposed to improve don’t improve, will the tutors then be listed as “low-performing tutors” and required to “re-tutor” those children at no charge?
Another scary thought is that, according to your article, the U.S. undersecretary of education, Eugene W. Hickok, thinks that just because a person is a college professor, he or she is somehow magically qualified to teach children. He must not have had any of the professors I had in college. And I have to wonder about those state departments of education that are “struggling” with the implementation of the tutoring process. How difficult can it be to give each low-performing school a little money and tell it to run an after-school tutoring program using teachers in the school who might appreciate an opportunity to earn some extra money? Having that in place, wouldn’t the department then have the time and opportunity to explore other “intervention services”?
I can speak only for myself, but this seems to be yet another well-intentioned idea by more folks who, for some reason, think they have the corner on what is required to “fix” education. After rolling through the bureaucratic maze of federal and state governments and departments of education, that idea then becomes yet another top-down, overpriced, ineffective way of solving the problems in our public schools.
Head Start: A First Stop on the Universal Preschool ‘Highway’?
To the Editor:
John Merrow’s recent comments on preschool (“The ‘Failure’ of Head Start,” Commentary, Sept. 25, 2002) focused on the right issues.
Head Start has been addressing some of the problems that he raises and is taking concrete steps to fix them. A major flaw that needs to be corrected—and certainly not a fault of Head Start—is that all eligible children do not even have the chance to attend Head Start because the federal government has not fully funded the program. The American Federation of Teachers has called for this time and time again. And yes, curriculum changes are needed. Head Start recognizes this and is using its best programs as models, applying recent research on early-childhood learning and offering teachers more support to meet higher standards. But we also need to bring the best teachers to the field and keep them there. To do that, Head Start teachers need significant raises, especially if they are expected to meet these new higher standards.
Mr. Merrow’s main point was not to take Head Start to task, but rather to point out that the United States is woefully behind other nations in providing high-quality, affordable, universal early- childhood education.
One of the most important benefits of providing this kind of an early-childhood-education system is that it would give all children the opportunity to be well-prepared to start school, regardless of their socioeconomic status. It would greatly reduce the initial gap in preliteracy and numeracy skills that numerous studies show exists between poor and affluent children. The unfortunate reality is that this achievement gap usually widens over time, because disadvantaged students often attend poorly funded schools and experience summer learning losses year after year.
There is no reason why poor children, who face the most challenges in life, should start school with the least amount of preparation.
This is why I recently proposed Kindergarten-Plus as a “down payment” on a universal system of early- childhood education. A year-round kindergarten program, Kindergarten-Plus would be offered to disadvantaged children and provide them the opportunity to start kindergarten during the summer months before they would ordinarily enter, and then to stay on through the summer before they enter 1st grade.
Just that extra four to six months of preparing for school would make a significant difference in the lives of our most vulnerable children. It would accelerate their early education, socialization, and well-being, and help make sure they don’t enter 1st grade at a disadvantage.
Kindergarten- Plus is eminently doable and affordable. The schools and classrooms already exist. There is a cadre of highly qualified kindergarten teachers to run the program. For under $2,000 a student, kindergarten can easily be expanded to a full-year program.
And we know there is a need for it. We estimate that there are almost 580,000 children who are not receiving high-quality summer programs. The cost of providing summer support before and after kindergarten to all of these poor children is approximately $1.16 billion. This seems like a large number, but it pales in comparison with the tax breaks that the government gives to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans—$17 billion a year. The $1.1 billion in federal tax breaks that WorldCom received in one year alone would provide this program to 95 percent of the nation’s 5-year-olds who live in poverty. If we began by offering Kindergarten-Plus to the poorest quartile of children, it would cost $290 million a year. I think that is a reasonable down payment on an early-childhood-education system.
American Federation of Teachers
To the Editor:
The provocative title of John Merrow’s Commentary pulls readers into the text. That’s where the real message resides, not in the enticing headline.
Head Start is a “failure” when judged by unrealistic or unintended criteria. Labeling Head Start as a flop because it has been unable to “level the playing field” for the poor is unfair, since parents with means have always found ways to provide an extra boost to their offspring.
No intervention program has been able to erase all the advantages of an endowed economic class. Of course, the federal government, after setting eligibility rules, has also seldom lived up to the promise of funding all eligible students or schools—Title I, special education, or Head Start. The failure cannot be attributed to any of these underfunded programs, but lies elsewhere. A fully funded Head Start program would not be likely to eliminate, but could narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots.
Likewise, some unjust criticism is being leveled retroactively at Head Start for not elevating literacy skills to higher standards among its charges. Yet, until fairly recently, academics were officially only minor goals of Head Start. Now that the rules have changed, Head Start teachers are actively seeking out research and the best practices to enhance learning of prereading tools. Head Start is increasingly incorporating literacy activities within classrooms.
Unfortunately, the descriptions of Head Start with respect to literacy are often out-of-date or out-of-this-world. One widely quoted and misquoted research study states that Head Start pupils learned only two letters during their Head Start experience; however, the Head Start pupils were tested on only seven letters—thus, a pupil could know 19 letters and score zero, if he or she did not know the seven letters being tested. Recent and more valid research findings indicate that Head Start youngsters are learning close to the 10-letter objective established by Congress in 1998.
While proper instruction can have these preschoolers learning more letters, the point is that progress is being made. Mr. Merrow quotes an evaluation study that suggests that Head Start teachers have started teaching the letter A but never made it to B. Knowledgeable Head Start teachers simply do not expect their pupils to master the letters A through Z in perfect order. Legitimate national research on Head Start would not find that “some children began knowing just one letter of the alphabet, A, and left nine months later without having learned B.” The printing of this statement perpetuates the inaccurate myth that Head Start is not working.
None of this is to suggest that Head Start cannot or should not improve. Reading can and should be a focus in Head Start. Mr. Merrow provides the true comprehensive answer to Head Start: universal preschool. This solution resolves the matter of Head Start’s being underfunded, since all Head Start-eligible youngsters would be served through universal preschool.
John Merrow hits the target dead center by declaring that “Georgia is at the head of the preschool class.” For any state looking for a model universal-preschool program, Georgia certainly has the best. It offers preschool for everyone, and has solved the complexities of building on an existing preschool patchwork through statewide training and education for all early-childhood teachers and caregivers.
Universal preschool will be a boost to literacy and other preacademic areas. With the full expectations of economic levels represented among parents, the support and pressure will both rise. As children come to preschool with more background, teachers will respond with higher expectations. Universal preschool facilitates consistent, high-quality professional development for teachers and caregivers on literacy and other content areas.
The logic of universal preschool from an educational standpoint is powerful, as is the power of starting early. The cost is an obvious constraint. The High/Scope Educational Research Foundation’s Perry Preschool Study and Arthur J. Reynolds’ Chicago Child- Parent Centers Study both have counterbalancing arguments. These two longitudinal research studies independently arrived at nearly identical conclusions that for every dollar invested in preschool, society gets a return of $7. Hence, in the long run, universal preschool is an investment, rather than a cost.
But until we get there, it is imperative that we continue to offer early-learning programs to as many children as is possible. And rather than condemn Head Start for what it has seemingly not accomplished with its limited resources, we should consider it our current best option for reaching disadvantaged children. Until universal preschool is a reality in this country, we must continue to increase Head Start teacher-training programs, and put more faith into a program that has historically reached more children of low-income families than any other local, state, or federal program.
Head Start is a good start for some children, but universal kindergarten would enable all children to get off to a great start.
Arthur W. Stellar
President and CEO
High/Scope Educational Research Foundation
To the Editor:
John Merrow’s Commentary argues admirably for a system of high-quality preschool care and education for all in the United States, regardless of income. We should, indeed, be embarrassed that we lag so far behind other industrialized countries in providing excellent, accessible programs staffed by highly qualified and adequately paid teachers. However, Mr. Merrow’s argument against Head Start as a program to serve low-income children and families is seriously flawed.
Mr. Merrow believes that “we ought to be creating a system that would be good enough for the well-off ... but make it available to everyone. Design a preschool system the way we built our Interstate highway system.” This is a good beginning for a system built to serve a “a Lexus” as well as “a Chevy or a Ford.” But some of those “Fords” need some help getting onto the highway in the first place, and keeping their gas tanks full once they do. And that is where Head Start’s comprehensive support services play such an important role.
Many low-income families deal with stressors that families from higher income brackets are less likely to face. Frequently, economic hardship takes a toll on families’ health and well-being, and can have a direct impact on children’s cognitive and social development. That is why Head Start’s comprehensive services are critical in helping many parents best support their children in those years that are so vital to optimal child development and school success.
By all means, build the best preschool “highway” from the highest-quality materials, and make it accessible to all families. But please do not forget that some of the cars on that highway need more roadside assistance than others to keep pace in their journey.
Education Development Center Inc.