Education Letter to the Editor


August 01, 1992 10 min read

What Conspiracy?

Consider this scenario:

In the darkest depths of our curricular consciousness, commercial textbook and test publishers are lurking, holding the minds of our children captive to their evil, moneymaking agendas. Try as they might, teachers, administrators and state policymakers have only the bleakest hope of bringing new words and new ideas to these starving minds, for they are bound to one “basal’’ text, from which the rules of the land are written, and hence to one, grueling standardized test that arrives every April, blighting the springtime of children. How brutal it is for those who truly seek to impart learning and wisdom, how cruel to be held in the vise of the capitalist monster!

Such fear and loathing could only be spawned by Susan Harman’s imaginative commentary, [“The Basal Conspiracy,’' March] in which we are confronted with a nightmare scenario where commercial text and test publishers have enslaved the education community by holding it in a vise of monopolistic control. As compelling as this Orwellian vision might be on the midnight creep show, it becomes no more frightening than a paper tiger in the light of day, once the real truths are told.

The first suggestion in Harman’s story is that publishers of basal texts and standardized tests control everything that is taught to our nation’s K-8 students by strong-arming districts, counties, and states to use, and reuse, materials into which they have made substantial investments. The publishers of basal texts and standardized tests, she says, effectively control curricula because the districts and counties can’t afford to change patterns built up over previous years.

Exactly the opposite is true.

Curriculum standards are set by state panels made up of curriculum experts, teachers, and administrators long before any investigation is made into the selection of the basal texts and tests available in the marketplace. Once the curricula are determined, states select products from a market involving upward of 30 basal publishers. The state’s stamp of approval is typically given to a list of several different basals. From this list, individual school districts select the basals that best match their curricula.

Unwittingly or not, Harman clearly insults teachers by intimating that they are forced to blindly follow the basals, without any regard to their own experience or creativity. The plot thickens, she suggests, when their school districts are compelled to buy norm-referenced tests “made by the very same people who make the texts.’' The far lessthan-ominous truth is that there are essentially three companies making tests, and all three operate independently of their parent companies--which are among the 30 or so overall that develop basal texts. The test development and text development divisions operate in separate parts of the country, with separate staffs and editors. Any company that tied its standardized tests only to its own basal texts would effectively limit its market share to areas where its texts are used. The only real way test publishers can keep their products and companies strong is by ensuring that they accurately reflect the curriculum standards they are expected to measure, and that they are able to meet the very stiff competition in a marketplace in which the nation’s educators and policymakers have the freedom to choose the best products.

The test publishing industry is even further driven by the experts within the education community. No publisher in its right mind would invest millions of dollars into research and development of its tests without first asking the prospective buyer what the purpose of the test will be.

The further assertion that standardized tests such as the California Achievement Test and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, both made by CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, are responsible for “blighting the springtime of children,’' is not only melodramatic but also absurd. Public schools typically give standardized tests to about one-third of their students every year for about three hours. These test results have nothing to do with reward or punishment, nor do they affect the grades on report cards. Instead, they are used as a critical measure of achievement to assess student needs and to enhance interaction between the school and the student and as an accountability tool for parents and others interested in evaluating their children’s overall progress in school.

Harman’s scenario is rendered even more surreal by the statement that text and test publishers cannot “afford’’ to bring innovation to their series. Innovation is the very thing, in fact, that supports the success in this vigorous marketplace. The upcoming addition of the CAT, for example, will reflect the newly recognized national math standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. This comes at the end of a multi-year process defined by close cooperation and responsiveness between mathematics curriculum specialists, teachers, and CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a company that listened well enough to tailor the product to the needs of education.

The final insult to teachers, administrators, and students alike comes in the epilogue to Harman’s tale, with the statement that test makers use test scores to “hold captive our nation’s reading instruction.’' Well, I guess we have to have someone to blame for the fact that our students are not doing as well as we know they should. Rather than talk about “malevolent’’ conspiracies, however, wouldn’t it be more productive to work together to gain a consensus on the national standards to which we expect them to be held?

Consider the elegant analogy in the popular film Field of Dreams, where baseball players come to play only after a field is constructed--"If you build it, we will come.’' Once the forces at work in the education community come together to build a set of national curriculum standards, the test publishers will design and produce tests to effectively measure them.
Michael Kean
Director of Public and Governmental Affairs
CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill
Monterey, Calif.

Save School Boards

I was shocked and dismayed to read the attacks on the local school board recently printed in your magazine [“Eliminate School Boards,’' April]. The best recommendation for the local school board is that it is an excellent expression of American values in government. The school board is elected by the will of the people. If the school board disagrees with the current crop of trendy experts, it is a reflection of the wishes of the people.

Also, I would remind the author of the letter who wished to replace the elected school board with a panel of experts in education chosen by their peers [“Letters,’' May] that in most states the school board has a limited (thank God) ability to tax. The creation of such a panel in place of an elected board is a violation of the principle of taxation without representation, which amounts to a violation of our fundamental compact with government. The school board gives the children an example of the principles of American government and illustrates well how important it is for them to take notice of “politics.’' I find the statement of letterwriter Ben Lewis that “the system itself is archaic and no longer an effective means of operating schools’’ a little suspect. How has representative democracy become obsolete? And with what “more efficient’’ system shall we replace it?

I get the feeling from reading this article that the real frustration lies not with the representatives of the people, but with the people themselves. To this I have only one reply. The schools belong to the people. They established them for the education of their children and maintain them with their own taxes. The schools are administered by representatives who do so by their consent. If the quality of the education is not sufficient, then there is no one to blame but the people, and by the same token, only the people can determine what quality is sufficient. I think the idea of government by experts is abhorrent to anyone who loves freedom.

In closing, I would suggest that those who take issue with the performance of their local school board should seek to change the opinion or makeup of that board (they are, after all, responsible to the voters) instead of trying to subvert this democratic system and replacing it with centralized control or another bureaucracy not responsible to the people.
Michael Hari
Paxton, Ill.

In his April commentary article, Dennis Evans calls for the elimination of the lay governance level of public education, commonly known as the school board. As a teacher in Houston and a board member in nearby Pasadena, I would suggest we not eliminate school boards altogether, but just eliminate the board members who do not understand their role and function in the educational process.

Evans’ thesis calls to mind the desire by some teachers to do away with principals. It is born from a sense of frustration of dealing with inept people at any and every level. It is the day-to-day frustration of weak decisions, dictatorial management styles, and plain meddling.

Evans used the example of a school board interviewing a candidate for a district-level position. This should not happen. Recommendations for personnel placement is a function of administration and any board member who does not understand that should resign. What, then, is the appropriate function of the school board? School boards should: hire, evaluate, and, when necessary, fire the superintendent; set district policy; and perform other duties mandated by law, such as approving and overseeing the budget. If board members effectively perform these responsibilities, they will be as busy as they can be with education.

What would happen if school boards were to all retire or disband tomorrow? Who would create the budgets? Would the superintendent set the tax rate? Would he or she be the “benevolent dictator’’ who would make all decisions in the best interest of the children and the tax payers? Unfortunately, eliminating school boards would not make the educational system more effective, efficient, or competent in meeting the educational needs of America’s children.

The system depends on each person doing his or her job properly, communicating effectively from level to level, and working as a team. Admittedly, one feels lucky when one is involved in a healthy, optimistic district, but we should work to make this commonplace, not the exception.
Denny Delafield
Park Place Elementary School
Houston, Texas


On page 19 of the April issue, your writer used the word “snuck’’ in the feature article about Adam Urbanski. “Snuck’’ is unacceptable, especially in an educational journal.
Robert Welt
Mystic, Conn.

Editor’s Note: Webster’s New World Dictionary: Third College Edition, the dictionary we use, lists snuck as an acceptable past tense form of the verb sneak.

Fear Of Sex?

In the article “The Fear of Sex’’ [Viewpoint, April], Pamela Wilson finds “frightening’’ the notion that some 3rd grade students demonstrated more common sense than their teacher by questioning the validity, and even decency, of showing them a woman’s naked vagina--albeit during the birth process. What is really frightening is the conclusion she reaches--that what we need in our schools is yet more “sexuality education,’' so that children won’t have such responses.

This brings some questions to mind, such as, what society is this author describing? Where is this so-called fear of sex? The author asserts that our children are learning that sex is taboo, the genitals are nasty, the human body is shameful, and that they are in danger of growing up anxiety ridden and sexually dysfunctional. If this is true, how does she explain that sexually active teens, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and teen abortions are at an all time high and growing worse by the day?

If these are the results of our children fearing sex, one shudders to imagine our predicament if they were being encouraged to think of it as merely a recreational activity. One longs for a statement by someone in the sexeducation vocation who will frankly admit what most rationalthinking people already know-- that after 20 years of having their views presented in our public schools, the program and promises of the sex education movement have utterly failed.

Instead we find yet another loosely reasoned argument for the continued propagation of a false philosophy to ever younger children. When will enough be enough?
John Wilson
Glen Burnie, Md.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Letters