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Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

December 05, 1990 6 min read
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To the Editor:

Gerald W. Bracey’s Commentary on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores (“Sat Scores: Miserable or Miraculous?,” Nov. 21, 1990) is a near-perfect example of a bizarre, narcissistic, and self-deluding literary genre: educators trying to reassure their peers that everything is basically all right with American education, even though everybody outside the profession knows that isn’t so.

The genre has flourished ever since the profession’s reaction to A Nation at Risk, when we first began to see heroic efforts to deny that anything was really wrong, at least not anything that couldn’t be set right by a “more of the same” strategy.

But Mr. Bracey knows better, and we should expect better from him.

Three flaws in his reasoning are central. First, when you’re dealing with a bell-shaped curve, a decline in the mean (verbal) score from 500 to 424 actually represents very substantial deterioration in the performance of most test-takers. It is a non-trivial loss.

Second, even if it were minor, does Mr. Bracey really expect us to believe that cognitive skills that may have been functional at the dawn of World War II are still sufficient as we approach the 21st century? The world has changed. Our employment needs have changed. The performance of our competitors has changed.

By every criterion I know, today’s young Americans need much stronger skills than their grandparents did. To have only slightly weaker skills, or even the same skills, is to be in far worse shape as a society.

Third, Mr. Bracey makes much of the changing composition of the sat-taking population, especially the larger proportion of minorities, women, and disadvantaged people in thatgroup. The implication, of course, is that one ought not expect such people to do as well on tests as the more middle-class, male, and white population that comprised most of the test-takers half a century ago.

To me, and to most Americans, that’s so condescending and patronizing as to be revolting, especially when used in a piece intended to make us complacent about the status quo.

To repeat: Nobody outside the profession believes any of this stuff. Why do educators keep saying it to one another?

Chester E. Finn Jr.
Professor of Education and Public Policy
Vanderbilt University
and Director Educational Excellence Network
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

As the person responsible for supervision of New York City’s lyfe day-care program, I can only agree with many of the shortcomings cited by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York in its evaluation (''Teenage-Parent Program Called Underutilized, Ill-Monitored,” Nov. 7, 1990).

And, while the board of education, in collaboration with a number of other public and private agencies, has taken steps to deal with some of the issues, others will remain.

Just last week, we dedicated a new staff-development center, which should improve the quality of all programs related to pregnant and parenting students. Within the last month, we began steps, through school-based management, to integrate lyfe facilities further into the fabric of their host schools. A long-term tracking system for lyfe participants is being developed as I write. And, thanks to the efforts of the late Schools Chancellor Richard Green and his successors, all services for pregnant and parenting students have now been integrated into a cohesive “package” of services.

In fact, however, many of our problems stem from the failure of either federal or state government to recognize, let alone fund, in-school day care, leaving us to compete, financially and programmatically, with private providers.

Though our day care is more expensive than the private providers’ (including on-site social workers, for example), we are held to the same “caps” as private providers. While private providers can be reimbursed for start-up costs, staff development, and facilities construction, we cannot. Our program must conform to non-school calendars, so that we lose aid for school holidays and vacations.

Funding streams emanating from both the state and federal governments are premised on community day care, not in-school day care. Costs not reimbursed through standard Aid-to-Families-with-Dependent-Children and Teen-Age-Pregnancy program funding must be divertedfrom decreasing instructional funds.

Programmatic problems are as pervasive as financial problems. Many of the absences students incur are caused by limited Women, Infants, and Children (wic) and prenatal programs or, more absurdly, by students’ needs to visit health clinics or social-service agencies--many of them funded by state and federal funds, all of them operating only during school hours.

It is to the credit of my predecessors that we have even the system we have, and that it operates as successfully as it does. Last year, about 100-plus students graduated from high school with assistance from lyfe, representing nearly one-third of the enrollees, grades 5-12, a figure considerably better than that for many comprehensive high schools across the country.

The Conference of New York’s Large Cities School Boards will soon release a set of recommendations which may, if passed, alleviate some of the state-generated deficiencies.

But unfortunately, even the current national debates about day-care ''rights” focus on in-school youths only parenthetically or as footnotes. My greatest fear is that, once again, programs for the general public will be passed without adequate provision for in-school youths, and that, once again, we will be forced to contort and distort our programs to meet the illogical requirements of such legislation.

Stephen E. Phillips
Superintendent
Alternative High Schools and Programs
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Ted Elsberg’s opinion that schools have become surrogate parents “taking on a multitude of tasks that formerly were part of the home and family” is, on the face of it, a partially legitimate explanation of our nation’s public-school ills (“In Our Opinion” Column from the American Federation of School Administrators, Oct. 31, 1990).

My concern is that it fails to acknowledge that many teachers are teaching growing numbers of students, K-l2, who have no strong biological or surrogate family ties that could possibly serve as role models for the self-esteem and self-motivating factors every student needs for school success.

The statistics on what’s happening to the American family--teenage pregnancies, the greater than 50 percent divorce rate, child abuse, etc.--are realities which indicate clearly that parenting is becoming spiritually and psychologically bankrupt.

Should the schools accept the conundrum of student failure as a problem that might disappear if more parents would exercise their crucial role in their children’s education? The reality is that there was a time past when waves of children of immigrants who could not even speak English attended our public schools, achieving considerable success because a corps of dedicated teachers accepted a “surrogate parents” role of motivating students to value education and to work hard in its pursuit.

No matter what parents do or fail to do, we educators must present our instructional program undergirded with large doses of motivational and value-clarifying guidance and direction.

Anthony S. Heywood
Brooklyn, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Though I enjoyed your feature, “Corporations Back Up Calls for Reform by Lending Their Expertise to Schools” (Nov. 14, 1990), I was surprised that, in spite of several references to ibm, you did not discuss that company’s extensive “Education Executive Program” of 1984-85.

Surely this program (which I was fortunate enough to participate in) must still be one of the largest corporate sharings of management expertise of all time. More than 1,000 educational administrators from all over the country were involved in one-week intensive management-training sessions--and many of us were invited back for another week of “Train the Trainer” workshops.

A feature on this corporate-sharing program--especially a five-year follow-up of participants--would make a very interesting story.

Michael T. Drons
Camden, Maine

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor

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