Education Letter to the Editor

Letters To the Editor

November 23, 1994 7 min read

‘Hoods and Sheets’ Image Unfair to The Bell Curve

To the Editor:

Your recent article on The Bell Curve (related story ) fails to convey the significant extent to which the pillars of this remarkable book extend to a large body of expert opinion in psychometry, behavioral genetics, and related disciplines.

Richard J. Herrnstein, long an occupant of one of the world’s most distinguished chairs in psychology at Harvard University, died in mid-September of lung cancer. I suspect if he were alive and well now, he would be very much into documenting in the instance of media reviews of The Bell Curve the increasing extent to which a very frightening gap has developed between broad areas of expert opinion, on the one hand, and media confusions and misrepresentations, on the other.

A landmark 1988 book, The I.Q. Controversy: The Media and Public Policy (Snyderman and Rothman), based upon a survey of over 660 recognized experts, should have introduced a corrective influence. The Bell Curve arises from a respectable body of research and scholarship--not from people wearing hoods and sheets. The failure to convey this fact does nothing to aid the career-survival information needs of major school administrators--or anyone else, for that matter.

W.A. Summers
Manhattan, Kan.

Rural Areas Can Teach Much to Dominant Culture

To the Editor:

I read with great interest “The Bitter Harvest” (related story ), which describes so well conditions I find in Down East Maine. Although Mount Desert Island is a relatively affluent area, I learned almost immediately after moving here in 1979 that many people believe “our children are our greatest export.”

This poignant belief underlies education of children of traditional families. Many people “from away” are attracted to the coast of Maine by its extraordinary beauty and way of life. Today, on Mount Desert Island, 80 percent of school board members are from away. These people, though dedicated, come from a different culture. The cultural themes described in your article--hard work, love of the land, thrift and love of the family, independence, integrity, and appreciation of how well a person does a job, not the rank of the job--are fundamental to Mainers, but at odds with a culture that (in the words of Jules Henry) promotes expansion, competition, and achievement.

I see a profound culture clash, one in which traditional families are losing as are we all. The dominant culture promotes self-destruction in many ways (I am reminded of Neil Postman’s analogy between those who in our own age value culture and the embattled monks of the Middle Ages). In Maine, people “from away” earn, on average, 7 percent more with the same credentials and in the same jobs as their native counterparts.

Rural schools have recently been touted as a model, “the way of the future,” by offering small, mixed-age classes and parental and community involvement (all benefits of consolidation limited by geographic obstacles). However, this is put in perspective by one of our island principals: “We are on the cutting edge because we never changed.”

Maine graduates a large number of students from high school (higher than the national average) but a smaller than expected number go on to any postsecondary education. This is particularly surprising as Maine students placed number one in math and number two of 4th graders from the 42 states participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1992.

Clearly, cultural values and lack of money form a barrier to higher education. I have been told by admissions people from Maine colleges that often highly qualified students refuse even full scholarships because “Mumma says no.” And part of the reason these mothers say no is that they fear they will lose their children.

I am trying to understand ways in which culture impacts education and schooling because I think without a deeper understanding of what is important to people, we cannot design effective programs. Coupled with these efforts, however, must be the search for ways to improve rural opportunities. What is the point of having aspirations if there is nothing to aspire to? Jonathan Sher suggests we teach entrepreneurialism, and I concur. I believe we have to change the mindset of children whose parents grew up not in the days of the “frontier,” but in depression and recession.

At the same time, I believe the dominant culture of expansion, achievement, and competition has a lot to learn from rural cultures that until recently, at least, have eschewed these allurements.

Barbara Kent Lawrence
Northeast Harbor, Me.

Ohio Exit-Test Data Ignore Rise in Push-Outs

To the Editor:

The Ohio Department of Education continues to praise itself for a purported increase in the pass rate for black students on its high school exit tests to nearly 90 percent (related story ). This claim helped spur the settlement between the U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights and the Ohio department. Unfortunately, new data suggest that the rising pass rate may stem from a striking increase in the number of African-Americans who drop out of high school--or are pushed out by the test.

Statistics from the Cleveland public schools can be used to compare the number of high school graduates in each June with the number of 8th graders four years previously. For the classes that graduated in June 1992 and June 1993, the graduation percentages were 52 percent and 53 percent respectively--about half as many students graduated as had attended 8th grade. But for 1994, the first class for which the state graduation test was required, the comparable rate was 36 percent--barely more than one-third of 8th graders went on to graduate.

Clearly, something very significant has happened in Cleveland which is masked by a focus on the 90 percent pass rates of those black students who remain in school. Ohio’s graduation test may be reinforcing inequities in a state education system that has already been found unconstitutional. Political posturing and a reliance on misleading testing data do not address these fundamental failures. Enforcement of educational-opportunity standards by agencies such as the federal Education Department and its office for civil rights is still very much in order.

Monty Neill
Associate Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.

Disruptive Students Need Help Outgrowing Immaturity

To the Editor:

I am a physical-education student at Montclair State University writing with regard to your brief news item related story ). I am quite pleased to hear that education officials in the state of New Jersey are going to implement more nontraditional high schools for disruptive high school students. It is extremely important to keep these types of students in the education system, rather than ostracize them. Many of these students are at a point in their development where they want to defy rules and challenge others. These types of outlets help students grow through this stage of immaturity.

Stephen Spain
Montclair, N.J.

Does School Money Matter? See Where Critics’ Kids Go

To the Editor:

I am an elementary school principal and the parent of two sons who have attended public schools. I would like to make a suggestion to those who might be reporting on and interviewing scholars, politicians, and public figures on the issue of whether money matters in regard to student achievement (related story ). Although that was the central question in the research that was discussed, this issue usually comes up in the context of whether or not governments--local, state, and national--should spend more money on education, on a particular school, etc.

In all the print and other media coverage on this topic, from radio talk shows, to political speeches, to news interviews, I have never heard a reporter or talk-show host ask the speaker/writer the following questions: Where do/did your children go to school? If it is a public school, what is the per-pupil expenditure there? If it is a private school, what is the tuition?

Those of us who work in the public schools and whose children attend public schools, especially in areas that are struggling financially, would like to know this information. I suspect that whatever the speakers’ theories or positions are, they do not take the risk of putting their own children in a situation where money does not matter.

Jo Sullivan
La Escuela de la Calle Federal
Salem, Mass.

On Religious Right: Who’s Demonizing Whom?

To the Editor:

It’s hard to tell at first what George Kaplan is after (related story). On the one hand, he is mad when the religious right writes and says up front what they stand for, but he’s also mad when, as he accuses, they are secretive and misleading about what their objectives are.

It seems obvious that Mr. Kaplan prefers the religious right didn’t exist at all. He’s therefore guilty of the same kind of “mean-spirited,” “angry,” and “vengeful” intolerance that he accuses them of. What is even more ironic is that he accuses the religious right of being Communistic. Talk about hypocrisy: He’s the one advocating a totalitarian approach toward groups with which he disagrees. Who’s “demonizing” whom?

James L. Drexler
St. Louis, Mo.

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as Letters To the Editor