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Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

May 24, 1989 8 min read
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I read with interest the contrasting “Perspectives on Public-School ‘Choice’,” by Scott D. Thomson and Joe Nathan (Commentary, April 19, 1989).

Both authors deftly explored the social and political ramifications of this issue.

As a policymaker, I always ask the first-order educational questions: What are the educational benefits to students? Do they outweigh the advantages of strengthening the home school site?

I am in favor of choice--but choice within a school.

If a principal promotes professional preparation and comprehensive educational planning, schools become places of choice--especially in large, urban areas, where elementary schools may educate 1,000 students with a 60-person support staff.

These sites have the potential to reshuffle the basic ingredients of students and staff into flexible educational options that attract and accommodate different students’ needs.

Schools should be strengthened so that they can fulfill their mission to educate students excellently and equally.

Stephen R. Franse Member, Board of Education New York, N.Y.

Minnesota’s “experiment” with open enrollment is one of the most politically motivated and least thought-through of current efforts to reform public schools (“In Nation’s First Open-Enrollment State, the Action Begins,” March 15, 1989).

Since political tampering and educational tinkering will be irreversible, open enrollment is a threat to American education.

There seem to be three major goals surfacing in the discussion of Minnesota’s effort by thoughtful professionals.

First, although “choice” is touted as the fundamental principle behind open enrollment, a primary goal of the movement is to decrease local control of schools and further centralize decisionmaking at the state level.

And even though history shows that one of the major strengths of public education is its diversity, another goal of open enrollment is to reduce the number of small school districts and thereby reduce educational variation.

The third goal is to provide national visibility for the individuals involved--even though they are using an untested strategy whose longterm effects will be unknown until well after the players have left their positions for new arenas.

The underlying premise of open enrollment is the view that “bigger is better and small is inefficient.”

But it could be convincingly argued that this very “inefficiency” accounts for lower rates of drug use and higher rates of graduation among students in smaller systems.

These kinds of successes are apparently not considered important measures of schools’ performance.

It is ironic in a social sense--although politically understandable--that at a time when many people are expressing concern about the demise of rural America, a state like Minnesota takes steps to speed up that process under the guise of “choice.”

For many small communities, the only remaining social structure with which citizens can identify is their school.

Social organizations, band concerts, athletic events, and the like are important components of the community structure.

It is true that the academic programs of small independent districts may not be as strong as those of larger schools.

But I doubt that I or any of my six high-school classmates who now hold their doctorates would be where we are now if we had attended a large high school.

I cannot objectively measure the importance of my having lettered in football and baseball, acted the lead in two plays, served as president of the student council, and participated in the school band for eight years.

I cannot put anything but a value judgment on having a yearbook with personal notes from every teacher, each knowing me so well they could address both my strengths and weaknesses in an open and nonthreatening manner.

My school did not have a counselor; rather, each teacher was a “counselor,” and I felt free to meet with any one of them.

Higher algebra and geometry, as well as chemistry and physics, were offered only in alternate years. There were no foreign-language or trigonometry or calculus courses.

According to college-admission requirements, I was deficient in these areas and had to take courses for noncollege credit. I guess in the eyes of some that would now be considered “unfair.”

But on the other side of the coin, there was really only one track: My school did not have the resources to offer special” courses for noncollege-bound students.

Not knowing that I had been deprived of “quality” education, I proceeded to complete my bachelor of arts degree in three and a half years.

I realize that I lacked the sophistication of my big-school counterparts, but in retrospect I see that that was a strength--I did not realize that there were things I wasn’t supposed to be able to accomplish.

It is my alma mater the Minnesota leadership wants to eliminate.

Was my situation unique? I think not. Every small high school had similar students and teachers.

But eventually only the well-to-do will have the resources to place their children in schools like these.

David H. Ost Professor of Biology California State University Bakersfield, Calif.

“Teachers” in Los Angeles did not vote “overwhelmingly to strike,’' as your lead said in the article, “Teachers’ Union in Los Angeles Poised To Strike” (May 3, 1989).

The actual vote to strike was 16,254 union members out of 34,000 teachers.

By anyone’s calculator, abacus, or pencil, that comes out to only 48 percent.

Not only is this figure not “overwhelming,” but it is not even a majority.

Union officials are always quick to tout union-member votes as “teacher sentiments,” when in reality, they rarely are.

Roberta L. Weintraub, president of the Los Angeles school board, was much more accurate when, according to your report, she “attributed the stalled negotiations primarily to an issue of ‘power and control’.”

Your failure to cite a critical issue in the protracted bargaining is also misleading.

The demand for a compulsory “agency shop” contract--the right to make every teacher pay dues to the union or quit--has been on the union officials’ laundry list for nearly a decade in Los Angeles.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles has poured thousands of dollars into school-board elections over the years to gain just that.

And why not? Such a requirement would bring more than $4 million every year into the union’s coffers!

As the leading education newspaper in the country, you have an obligation to be accurate and thorough.

The nation’s “teachers” deserve more than a union label, since the vast majority of them disavow strikes, coercion, and the militant antics of Wayne Johnson, president of the utla

You could set an example for the rest of the media by assiduously making the distinction between “union officials” and “teachers” in reporting major stories.

Jo Seker Director, Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism Springfield, Va.

Editors’ note: According to the union, 20,137 members cast ballots in the April 19 vote. Of those, 17,412 voted to strike; 2,725 voted to accept the district’s offer. The union also claims that there are slightly more than 32,000 members in the bargaining unit. The issue of agency-shop fees is not cited by either side as the principal stumbling block in negotiations.

Your article on the National Science Foundation’s backing for efforts to restructure American education (“nsf Weighing Grants To Assist Systemic Reform,” April 26, 1989) was both provocative and timely, because the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy’s report on education for the 21st century is dying on the vine.

Except in a few urban school systems that have developed elaborate plans as part of their labor agreements, the bottom line is that throughout the nearly 16,000 school districts in the nation, the report is not receiving much attention.

The problem is not that its ideas are receiving vigorous debate and being rejected; rather, it is not even being discussed.

One facet of this issue is the generally low scholarly orientation of teachers and administrators to their “profession.”

This variable, however, is alterable through transformational leadership, which approaches the need for change as a constant of organizational life.

One need only read any newspaper’s business section to realize that organizations that do not change become extinct.

Developments within the privatization movement in this country place the public schools at risk of going the way of the dinosaurs unless they engage in massive restructuring.

It does not matter so much where organizations start to change, but rather that they do so on a systematic and sustained basis until something different takes hold.

The real crisis in American education, then, is a crisis in leadership, especially leadership that is transformational in nature.

The schools need leaders with vision, high levels of competence, and an entrepreneurial spirit of risk-taking. I am not talking about folly, but about vision that is both significant and feasible.

My personal experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and college professor tells me that this solution is going to be difficult to achieve, however, for we are too close to the forest.

For example, I am both amazed and dismayed by the extent to which students in graduate programs in curriculum or administration are conditioned to block out systemic, creative thinking. If they do try it, it is most often with the attitude, “This is fun, but what are we going to do Monday?”

We must get our house in order, or others will do it for us--but then maybe within our collective psyche, that is what we want.

William P. Deighan Coordinator, Graduate Program Educational Administration and Supervision John Carroll University University Heights, Ohio

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 1989 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor

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