Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

November 16, 1994 11 min read
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E.S.E.A.-Vote Problems Not Partisan Politics

To the Editor:

This is in response to a recent news item, the headline of which would imply that partisan politics put me in a “tight spot” on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act vote (related story ). Partisan politics was the furthest thing from my mind. The most important thing on my mind at the time was the fact that nobody was able to tell my colleagues, the National Governors’ Association, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, or anyone else that might ask, what the last-minute formula change did to any state or local school district in the last three years of the five-year authorization.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the realization that apparently the city of York, Pa., which has a poverty level of approximately 25 percent, would receive $50,000 less in 1999 under the new last-minute formula than it would have received under the formula that currently existed. If that is true, then surely the new formula made the idea of better targeting of funds political rhetoric rather than reality. No individual or organization should have put pressure on any member of Congress to vote for the unknown when there was no need to vote until we had the facts in front of us.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa.
U.S. Congress
Washington, D.C.

Test Numbers and Moby Dick: Victory Sweeter Second Time

To the Editor:

Mary Lee Wile’s Commentary (related story ) does not warrant a Commentary-length rebuttal, but it does prompt a few observations.

First, the movement of mean scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test, a criterion-referenced test, and the Maine Educational Assessment, a norm-referenced test that is renormed every year, speaks more to the differences between criterion-referenced tests and norm-referenced tests than it does to any sinister obfuscation of numbers.

Second, I’m clearly on the side of Nancy Andrews, the Maine Department of Education consultant, who is using real student work to explain the numbers (including the limitations of status measures), rather than numbers to explain student work which no one sees. When state testing agencies (like those in Maine, Illinois, and North Carolina) model distinguishing between what is being measured and the measurement, they perform a valuable service to the field and to the general public. If states can approach student performance in this manner, then Mary Lee Wile’s district should be willing to give it a try.

Ms. Wile’s uncle’s view of numbers was in line with the instruction he received in school. Were he getting his math instruction today, in Ms. Wile’s high school, he would be learning that numbers in the absence of mathematical reasoning are just as worthless as anything else which lacks a thoughtful foundation.

I know Mary Lee Wile. I admire what she does for her students and for the profession. I’m proud to count her as a colleague. She is in command of the single practice which would transform writing performance in every classroom in America--at no cost. She is a writer herself. And as a writer she knows that one use of writing is to explore important ideas. I read her Commentary as an exploratory draft.

I’ll close as she did, with a reference to Moby Dick. I read that book when I was 20, then again during the summer I turned 40. In retrospect, I will acknowledge that the whale won both times. However, the significance of that victory changed considerably the second time.

Fred Cheney
Assessment Specialist
Colorado Springs, Colo.

A Catholic Educator on Why We Need Vouchers

To the Editor:

The wealth of a country is in the literacy of its society and the moral values its citizens uphold. For this reason, I strongly advocate vouchers and freedom of choice in education for all school-age children (related story ).

The responsibility of educating the child lies mainly with the parent. It is also hoped that the state will guarantee the quality of a child’s education. Meanwhile, the church instructs the young in the light of Gospel truths. It is out of this mission that, as a Catholic, I am proud to work in a Catholic school. Catholic schools not only guide young people in their search for what is true, but also in the formation of their whole being on the road to good citizenship.

Our schools are rich in culture, religion, and color. Within this diversity, there is also a commonality in values, principles, and virtues. But the most outstanding common denominator among Catholic schools is the priority parents put on their child’s education and the dedication and commitment teachers have for their vocation.

The New Jersey voucher proposal should not exclude Catholic schools, nor should it discriminate on the basis of geographic location, income level, or other variables. Parents who work two or three jobs (to afford the cost of private education) should not be penalized for their effort; nor should a child’s educational opportunity be sacrificed due to a loss in family income.

It discourages me that interests of various groups cause voucher proposals to be just that--proposals. I am disheartened that the public school system should even perceive Catholic schools as a threat to their employment status. In fact, it is the very nature of their freedom in preparing their curriculum that the presence of vouchers should further, empowering them, as well as other teachers, to pursue greater creativity and professionalism.

Lynne Mata
Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, Calif.

Blaming ‘Bureaucrats’Will Not Improve Schools

To the Editor:

I was dismayed to read the letter of Ann Kalayjian in your Oct. 19, 1994, edition praising Lewis Perelman’s earlier piece castigating “bureaucrats” for the condition of our schools (related story ). Neither bothered to say precisely who that term covered. Scapegoating “bureaucrats” is an easy and popular pastime, but it isn’t particularly helpful. Perpetuating an erroneous view of the schools is not a good way to solve the institutions’ very real problems.

While I am sure that there are people in administrative positions who are not anyone’s ideal, the notion that schools are buried under a thick blanket of useless, highly paid administrators does not survive close scrutiny. I recommend that readers look at the supervisor-to-staff ratios of their school districts and compare them with industries of the same size before deciding where the truth lies.

In my own 3,000 student district, we have 236 teachers, 22 secretaries, 30 custodians and maintenance personnel, 30 teacher aides, and 16 administrators. My calculator says that is a worker to supervisor ratio of 19.9 to 1. I doubt there are many private companies that have a significantly larger ratio.

Our administrative budget (including the salaries and benefits of all administrators and secretaries as well as administrative supplies and equipment) is under 10 percent of the overall budget--the kind of percentage the leanest, meanest private companies try to achieve.

As for the bureaucrats dragging their feet on change, my experience has been the opposite--we have placed budgets in front of the voters that include increased acquisition of technology for the last several years, only to have them rejected. Three years ago, it was the parents who rejected the administration’s effort to restructure our elementary schools.

At the state level, the Connecticut Department of Education got up a blue-ribbon commission three years ago to recommend changes to the education system. The commission’s recommendations were promoted by the department of education, but a coalition of parent groups killed the proposals. It can be argued that the changes recommended by the commission were not the ones the parents wanted, but it cannot be argued that the department was trying to maintain the status quo.

The final irony is that the schools of this country are the only ones in the industrialized world that are overseen not by a bureaucracy but by the local citizens. Nowhere else are schools controlled by lay school boards. Ms. Kalayjian decries the schools’ providing health care and teaching morality and values. If she wants to drive these practices out of her schools, it is to her school board she should turn--that is the body that instituted them in the first place.

John H. Gillespie
Ledyard Public Schools
Ledyard, Conn.

Healing the Rifts Between Progressive and Orthodox

To the Editor:

Many Americans are involved in an increasingly rancorous debate about who we are as a people and how we will order our lives together. In the language of historians and sociologists, we are in the midst of a kulturkampf. Shrill debates regarding, among other things, abortion, human sexuality, family policy, child care, textbook content, church-state issues, and art are not isolated incidents. Rather, they are manifestations of a deeply rooted cultural conflict.

Cultural strife is, of course, not new in the United States. Consider, for instance, the great school war of the mid-1800’s fought between Protestants and Catholics--a war whose outcome has had a lasting impact on the structure and character of our educational enterprise.

Today’s culture war is different from those of the past. It involves more than schooling and does not pit Protestants against Catholics. The University of Virginia sociologist James D. Hunter asserts that the current wide-ranging conflict is “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding.” He labels these systems “orthodox” and “progressive.” In brief, partisans of the former are committed to external, definable, and transcendent authority. They are predominantly lower-middle-class and middle-class, culturally conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. For liberal, upper-middle- class Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and secularists, progressive moral authority is shaped by relativism, rationalism, and subjectivism.

These competing bases of moral authority and derivative world views cut across old lines of conflict--cooperation between Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and Cardinal John O’Connor in the May 1993 New York City school board election is a case in point--and create deep cleavages between adversaries in the current struggle.

The culture war has now reached Hemet, Calif. (related story ), as “grassroots warriors” clash over the sex-education curriculum. Claims and counterclaims, emotive language, and attempts to marginalize one another by associating the opposition with, among other things, ideological imposition or scare tactics, suggest a deeply split community. I suspect that this division emanates from the different conceptions of moral authority mentioned above.

Given that beliefs regarding human sexuality, human nature, and morality are inextricably intertwined, reaching a compromise on this issue is very difficult. Rather than engaging in a “winner take all” struggle, the orthodox and the progressives could agree to adopt both the Sex Respect program and an “information based” curriculum and permit parents to select either or neither. Choice in education can be a marvelous instrument of social peace. Allowing parents to make a choice in Kanawha County, W.Va., in 1974 effectively ended one of the most intense curriculum controversies since the Philadelphia Bible riots in 1844. Citizens of Hemet take note.

James C. Carper
Associate Professor
Department of Educational Psychology
University of South Carolina
Columbia, S.C.

Inclusion and L.E.P. Students:'Let’s Be American’

To the Editor:

Jos‚ Manuel Torres’s Commentary, related story ), is one of the most compelling and educationally on-the-money prescriptions to appear in print for a very long time. Without citing the updated demographics of a 52 percent dropout rate for the largest growing national minority (Hispanics), Mr. Torres aptly states the case for inclusive, collaboratively crafted programs for limited-English-proficient students that offer multifaceted opportunities for cross-cultural and cross-language learning in a real-life context.

As an experienced bilingual special-education teacher, teacher trainer, and parent educator in a diverse, multicultural urban district, I applaud his call for educating language-minority students in the mainstream, using peer and cross-age bilingual tutoring, expanded two-way bilingual programs, and collaborative student-support teams. These research-tested methods must be implemented as policy imperatives in all districts faced with the challenge of empowering language-minority, at-risk, limited-English-proficient children.

I would add that whole-language, comprehensive, student-centered experience in every classroom will go a long way in avoiding the need to referthousands, even millions, of limited-English-proficient future taxpayers to special-education marginalization, or worse.

As we approach the 21st century, when nearly 40 million Americans will be speaking English and another language, we owe it to ourselves and to our economic and political survival to include all those yearning to learn in the liberating dynamic of education. Our parents and grandparents have dreamed of nothing less for us. Let’s be American; let’s include everyone.

David F. McBride
Washington, D.C.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 1994 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor

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