Education Letter to the Editor


December 10, 2003 24 min read
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New NAEP Results Show Need for Library Funds

To the Editor:

Your reporting of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress results (“Math Climbs, Reading Flat on ’03 NAEP,” Nov. 19, 2003) missed a crucial state: California.

When California 4th graders placed last in the United States in 1992 in reading, the experts blamed whole-language instruction. Whole language has been purged and replaced by “systematic, intensive phonics.” Yet California’s NAEP reading scores are still in the basement.

Studies show a clear relationship between access to books and reading scores (including NAEP). California’s school libraries remain the worst in the country, its public libraries are among the worst. We need to invest more in libraries, not workbooks.

Stephen Krashen
Rossier School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Reports on School Choice Omit ‘All-Important Fact’

To the Editor:

Neither Paul T. Hill’s Commentary on “Doing Choice Right” (Nov. 19, 2003), nor the report by the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education, reported on in this same issue of Education Week, in your article “Panel Says Choice’s Benefits Worth Risks,” addresses an all-important fact about school choice plans that include nonpublic schools: The overwhelming majority of them are pervasively sectarian institutions that appeal to relatively few parents or teachers not of the faith that sponsors the schools. Voucher plans that include private schools would inevitably fragment the student and teacher populations along sectarian religious and very likely other lines.

It is too bad that Education Week does not review books. Two excellent books published this year deal directly with the issues discussed in Mr. Hill’s essay and your news report: Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers, edited by Richard D. Kahlenberg (Century Foundation Press) and Democracy and Intolerance: Christian School Curricula, School Choice, and Public Policy, by Frances R.A. Paterson (Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation). These books bear out the criticisms of voucher plans leveled by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and People for the American Way.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Paul T. Hill’s Commentary “Doing Choice Right” includes a statement that must be questioned or clarified. He says that “district central offices now rake off nearly half of all the money that is supposedly available to educate children.” In order to believe this assertion, one must adopt a very narrow view of classroom expenses, that is, to count only dollars spent within the four walls of the classroom.

I assume he includes in his “rake off” totals such things as busing in rural areas, reading assistance for English-learners, special education services, counselors, food service, cleaning, insurance, utilities, curriculum development, teacher training, and other “fat.”

In fact, when these costs are deducted, at least in California, the net cost of the district office is less than 10 percent of total expenditures. If schools of choice can provide quality education to children without most or all of these services, or at much lower prices, then they are really on to something.

The crux of the choice issue is school site flexibility. If California is any predictor of the future, increasing regulation and bureaucracy will also be the fate of schools of choice. The same unions and social forces that have tied up regular schools are now flexing their influence on charter schools. (See recent press reports on the court battles and political fighting over making Sacramento High School into a charter school.)

Michael R. Slater
Hollister, Calif.

We Need Civic Education To Safeguard Democracy

To the Editor:

It is true that “schools and state governments can do more to help children learn how to participate more fully in democracy,” as stated in your article “Civics Should Be a Higher Priority, State Education Group Concludes” (Nov. 19, 2003). But simply having content standards and standardized tests in social studies is not enough.

A lack of focus on citizenship education in the California History-Social Science Academic Content Standards prompted the California legislature to authorize funds for the state department of education to direct the Center for Civic Education to create the newly published “Education for Democracy: California Civic Education Scope and Sequence.” That document highlights important civic education learning embedded in the existing history-social science standards and includes connections to state English language arts and other standards, service-learning strategies, classroom applications, and resources.

The First Annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education, held in Washington this past September, brought together delegations from all 50 states and the District of Columbia to develop state action plans dedicated to the premise that every student in every school be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be highly effective citizens in a democratic society. “The Civic Mission of Schools,” published by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) is another national initiative advocating high-quality citizenship education.

But these civic education initiatives, state standards, standardized tests, and the extraordinary resources and professional-development opportunities available to schools nationwide may continue to be ignored if legislators and educators continue to emphasize reading and math education at the expense of all other subject areas. The No Child Left Behind Act centers almost entirely on achievement in literacy and mathematics.

Devoting up to five hours of instructional time each day in elementary schools to these areas leaves little room for history, science, art, music, physical education, civic education, and other subjects. Allocating professional-development funding to the exclusion of civic education prevents teachers from accessing important information and innovative training techniques designed to engage students in democratic participatory learning.

Reading and math instruction provides students with important skills, but until we realize (or remember) that the purpose of public education is to educate the “whole child” to become an informed, committed, actively engaged citizen, civic education will continue to be disregarded in many schools. If we don’t teach our students how to participate more fully in democracy, not only will they be “at risk,” but so will the future of our democracy.

Michelle M. Herczog
Member of Executive Committee
California Council for the Social Studies
Palmdale, Calif.

A Teacher’s ‘Testimony’ On Moldy Rooms’ Effects

To the Editor:

Your recent article reporting on the dangers of molds in our schools is an important one because it brings greater public awareness to a menace affecting so many students and public school teachers (“Mold Fears,” On Assignment, Nov. 19, 2003). While the health of many has suffered because of this problem, teachers who have voiced concerns often have received an administrative brush- off or have been seen merely as “troublemakers.”

As a former public school teacher who worked in a “sick building” for more than three years in the late 1990s, I can give firsthand testimony on the risks of working in a moldy, dangerous environment for any length of time. About 10 years ago, I transferred to a new school, in a “newer” building. But on the first day of class, as I entered my new room, I was shocked to find the walls, desks, counters, and floors of my classroom covered with a powdery or black spotted mold or mildew. I had to wash the entire room with bleach.

Within months of my transfer to this building, I developed increasingly annoying and severe sinus and allergy symptoms that led to my requiring five weekly shots. Colleagues in my building would suffer asthma attacks, frequent coughs or severe headaches, and worse.

Within less than two years, I had to have extensive sinus surgery, followed by another procedure a year later. The constant irritation of allergy-provoking substances in my classroom had created the problem. My physician told me that a majority of his patients were teachers and children from the public schools. In a letter to the school administration, he indicated that my immune system was compromised. Yet, the school administration had no plans to make changes to the building.

At a meeting I requested with the school’s building-plant officials, I learned that the district was receiving complaints about the negative effects of mold in three schools. The officials said that since more complaints were coming from one school, an experimental air-cleaning unit would be tried at that one facility. I was aghast. I remember asking, “So you know that there are three schools making children ill, and you only plan to fix one?” The answer was yes.

Meanwhile, I asked for a medical transfer and was sent to a middle school across town. My new classroom portable was in a constantly moist field behind the school. The building’s walls were almost black with moldy spots, and it was cooled with a little portable air- conditioning unit that had a tray full of dripping water where dangerous growths were likely to form. Within four months, I contracted an almost fatal three-month-long case of Legionnaire’s Disease, an illness caused by bacteria instead of mold, but one to which the immune-compromised are prone.

Sadly, many colleagues from sick buildings also were suffering, but they said they feared for their jobs if they made too much trouble by reporting the mold’s effects on them. Within a year of my recovery, I reached the conclusion that if I wanted to stay healthy, I could not trust my health to the public school system. I took an early retirement. I now teach, tutor, and work for myself with twice the joy and half the stress.

I hope that other educators suffering in sick schools will learn from your story and my experience and will gain the courage to do whatever it takes to bring about a safer environment for their students and themselves. It may not make one popular, but it could save a life.

Judith B. Munday
Chesapeake, Va.

The School Leader’s Job Is an Expansive One

To the Editor:

John Merrow’s Commentary “A Modest Proposal for New School Leadership” (Nov. 12, 2003), in one sense, hits home. Mr. Merrow has a novel approach to improve the running of schools: hire the Fire Chief, the Swimming Coach, and the Band Director or Highway Engineer to run them. His rationale is sound and his analogies are very creative.

The fire chief manages resources responsibly, carefully apportioning his limited resources where and when most needed. The swimming coach shows results for better or for worse, always striving to keep the swimmers afloat. The band director pays attention to all of the instruments in the band, encouraging individual talent while acknowledging everyone. And highway engineers anticipate mistakes by designing systems to prevent accidents.

Still, we must raise questions. The fire chief can distribute resources equally, but can he decide the most effective approach to teaching math to all students? The swimming coach can watch kids whom she has taught to swim, but can the coach design lesson plans aligned with state standards? The band director can pay attention to all of the instruments and encourage individual talent, but can he differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all players? And the highway engineer can design roads to prevent accidents, but can he be on the scene, as teachers are, when the accidents happen?

I think the breadth and depth of school leadership is so expansive that an effective school leader needs to do all the things that people in these other professions do. They also need to be as fiscally knowledgeable as any accountant, as personable as any salesman, as political as any senator or congressman, and as energetic as an Olympian athlete.

Phyllis Gimbel
Former School Principal
Wellesley Hills, Mass.

Who Dares Question Federal School Policy?

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “Education Dept. Enters Political Stage in Iowa” (Nov. 19, 2003):

So school administrators think there is some kind of hidden motive in the No Child Left Behind Act? Do they have any idea how many years of research went into this plan? Do they know how many hundreds of administrators, dozens of teachers, scores of parents, and months of tabulating and scrutinizing various analyses and alternatives went into it? The administration must get its message out.

This is the same administration that brought about our first unprovoked invasion of a foreign country, based on a premise that has yet to be demonstrated as true. This is the same administration that pulled out of international treaties, based on its own—not the experts’ or the diplomats’ or other nations'—interpretations of those treaties.

How dare school administrators question this administration? No one else does.

Bob Lilienthal
Wakefield, R.I.

In Favor of Businesses’ Subsidizing the Schools

To the Editor:

Re: “Cash-Strapped Oregon Schools Get Help From Businesses” (Nov. 19, 2003):

Anyone should be able to subsidize schools. With budget cuts and more challenging students that require medical services, social services, one-to-one teacher support, free lunches, and other programs that schools do not receive enough state or federal funds for, schools’ financial responsibilities have increased dramatically, with no increase in funding.

Businesses have a stake in student achievement. They want employees who are prepared for the workplace. Many articles have been written about what “type” of students businesses expect high school graduates to be—articles describing, for example, the shift from assembly-line workers to critical thinkers who can work collaboratively. If the business world expects graduates to meet certain criteria, then it should financially support the schools beyond companies’ local tax responsibilities. Businesses should also work hand in hand with the schools to provide mentors and tutors to support struggling students, as there is not enough teacher power to do this without teachers staying at school beyond 5 p.m.

The business community should take part in the education of every child, as it truly does take a whole village to raise a child.

Pam Ziolkowski
Plano, Texas

To the Editor:

It’s time to rethink the way education is being managed, away from a remotely designed and locally delivered service, to a more intimate relationship between all stakeholders.

A business that can feel part of a system and find a reason to take pride in it may be far more willing to pony up more investment in it. And yes, businesses should do this; raising education quality raises the performance of future employees, entrepreneurs, and the community’s financial base. We all share in the responsibility to do what we can to become more like partners in this process.

We can observe, through the success of Chugach school district in Anchorage, Alaska, that developing a customer-focused strategy that communicates value can enjoy widespread community support.

I would like to see more schools follow this plan, where families, businesses, and communities become stakeholders in the education process, rather than observers or simple recipients of a service.

Jennifer Kirley
Central Maine Solutions
Greene, Maine

No to a ‘Defeatist Belief’ About Schools’ IQ Impact

To the Editor:

David J. Armor makes a strong case that family characteristics matter far more in determining cognitive abilities than do school resources or characteristics or compensatory programs (“Environmental Effects on IQ: From the Family or From Schools?,” Commentary, Nov. 19, 2003).

We should therefore “support policies and programs aimed at improving family risk factors, rather than trying yet another special school program,” he writes. "[W]e must look hard at programs that aim to change family behaviors or, at least, to supplement parenting behaviors for infants.”

Compelling logic, but flawed. The compensatory programs/school characteristics that were the basis of Mr. Armor’s comparison were of a narrow range. They were limited to those in the traditional public school structure. Such programs and possibilities as, for example, KIPP schools (the Knowledge Is Power Program), Roman Catholic schools, and as yet unknown possibilities that expanded school choice would foster, were not considered in his analysis.

Quoting the veteran Washington Post education reporter and columnist Jay Mathews, in a July 1, 2003 column: “There is a suggested treatment for the ills of low-income schools that is approaching that same point [as medical research so good it is ‘called off early so that everyone can adopt the new method’] ... but I wonder if we will have the good sense ... to recognize that it is time to apply it to many, many more schools. I am talking about KIPP, a national network of 15 public schools—mostly independent charters or contract schools— that have produced achievement gains of a size and consistency I have never seen before.”

While recognizing the vital importance of family characteristics, let us not succumb to the defeatist belief that schools cannot have a profound impact. They can—in a supportive regulatory environment.

Tom Shuford
Retired Teacher
Lenoir, N.C.

Departing Official Asks: Do Voters Weigh Issues?

To the Editor:

I wonder if voters really “weigh school taxes"—and other issues (“There’s No Guarantee When Voters Weigh School Taxes,” Nov. 26, 2003). You report that a successful school levy campaign in Bloomington, Minn., included 1,000 yard signs—one for every 10 students. I was just defeated in my bid for re-election to our school board. My opponent spent thousands of dollars on yard signs with the words “elect” and his name. He admits knowing little about education or our 2,250 student district, which neither he nor his family has attended. He does have name recognition.

I worry about whether our education system prepares voters to weigh issues and be well-informed voters. As a school board member since 2000, I also worry about how savvy boards really are in allocating scarce resources and giving school communities the best value for their tax dollars. Money-related issues of proportion and public perception often are ignored by our district policies.

We just asked voters for a 0.75 percent income tax for operating expenses. A year earlier, we bought a $370,000 state- of-the-art phone system for every classroom and office. The board—with no previous notice—approved it in an emergency session while I was away. I would have argued that such a fancy phone system sends the wrong message in tight financial times. Students joke about it even as the software needs upgrading.

Our operating levy failed and our district must begin making budget cuts, even as it tries to pass the income tax in March. What will voters think when reconsidering the issue? We have never discussed possible cuts, lest these appear to be “threats.” But surely voters need information to properly weigh school taxes. Or have previous board decisions already colored public perception and conveyed a potent message?

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Board of Education Member
Willard, Ohio

‘Self-Selecting Elite’ Seeks Demise of Boards

To the Editor:

The question is, who shall rule? The ability of citizens to govern themselves is a cornerstone of our democracy, and governing schools should be a fundamental demonstration of this democratic principle.

A self-selecting elite is advocating the dissolution or circumvention of school boards (“Essential or Obsolete? Panel Debates Value, Role of School Boards,” Reporter’s Notebook, Oct. 29, 2003). At one time, I was close to being convinced that this was necessary, but now I find that the preponderance of evidence demonstrates it to be faulty thinking. For example, one might hypothesize that it is the loss of school boards that has led to “A Century of Failed School Reforms” as described in Diane Ravitch’s book bearing that subtitle.

One of Ms. Ravitch’s fellow members on the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, the Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby, points out that at the turn of the 20th century, “we had about 120,000 school districts in the United States and now we’re down to 15,000, so there’s actually been a lot of consolidation.” I would submit that there has also been a great loss of self-government through the systematic exclusion of the common sense of our capable citizens.

With only a small amount of scholarly effort, the group advocating the dissolution of school boards could have found many examples of boards hard at work to improve the education of their districts’ children. To name but a few for them: Clark County, Nev. (Las Vegas); Orange County, Fla. (Orlando); Burlington, Kan.; Nashville, Tenn.; LaCrosse, Wis.; Estes Park, Colo.; Lake Washington, Wash. (Redmond); Austin, Texas; Habersham County, Ga.; Bloomfield, N.Y.; Beaufort County, S.C.; and Chetek, Wis.

I don’t believe that any of these boards would claim to be “the Platonic ideal of the elected local school board,” but they are participating in this democratic republic, as flawed as it is.

Reportedly only one-thirty-second of 1 percent (0.0003125) of all Americans are elected to public office. To me, that is a very small number (which includes school board members) to be called “rule by the people.” It would seem a grave mistake to further reduce that number and adopt the rule of the elite, as advocated at this conference.

Mark Sherman
Chetek, Wis.

Achievement Gaps: The ‘Hottest’ Topic Is the Hardest to Comprehend

To the Editor

Regarding your article on the recent Educational Testing Service report on persistent variations in student achievement (“Study Probes Factors Fueling Achievement Gaps,” Nov. 26, 2003):

It is likely that no real change in the disparity seen in the school achievement of poor and minority students will be able to be effected until pregnant women are better looked after (nutritionally, socially, economically), and are given access to information about the differences they can make for their babies—information on child development, brain research, strategies for developing bright kids, and so on.

Glynne Sutcliffe
Chandlers Hill Play School
Adelaide, South Australia

To the Editor:

As a former teacher in an underperforming school in Compton, Calif., I saw a variety of factors that led to the school’s continually low scores on standardized tests.

In three years, we had three different principals. Each year, we lost support personnel, such as curriculum specialists and counselors. The teacher-turnover rate was incredibly high (in my third year, I was considered a veteran).

However, the teachers who held high expectations for their students and supported them in their learning saw gains with their students. My 2nd and 3rd graders loved learning and thrived in a demanding academic environment.

There are so many factors contributing to the achievement gap, but the bottom line is the importance of good teaching. Really good teaching. Teachers whose drive and passion is teaching. How can we get these teachers into the schools that need them the most?

Dorothy O’Brien
Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

It’s more than mere coincidence that the Educational Testing Service’s report about the persistent achievement gap between black and Hispanic students on the one hand, and Asian and white students on the other, comes on the heels of the publication of No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. (“Book Cites Role of Culture in Achievement Gap,” Oct. 29, 2003.) The maddening racial disparity in academic achievement has become arguably the hottest issue in education today because of the demands made by the No Child Left Behind Act for proficiency in reading and math for all students in public schools by 2014.

The fundamental difference between the ETS report and the Thernstroms’ book has to do with the locus of responsibility for remedying the matter. The Thernstroms attribute the gap primarily to cultural factors that exist outside of school. Nevertheless, they want schools to undertake two daunting tasks simultaneously: one cultural and one academic. They will accept no excuses—so the title of their book announces—as to why all schools cannot perform both duties, when some schools have been able to do so. It matters not one whit to them that the few schools that have been successful in both areas have been composed of self-selected parents and students, with highly trained and motivated teachers.

The ETS, with its long history of denial about the unfairness of its standardized tests, ironically is fairer about the role of schools in addressing the achievement gap. By admitting that factors exist beyond the control of teachers that only the nation as a whole can address, the ETS shows that it has a more realistic understanding of the basic causes of this vexing problem.

Reasons are not the same as excuses. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson the Thernstroms have not learned.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

The largest difficulty to overcome in my affluent district in Fairfax County, Va., is the insistence among the privileged that their edge continue. Parents believe that their children are entitled to the spoils, since the parents have higher SAT scores and higher salaries than other people. Hence, they get these things by self-described “merit.”

Doing something that might even the playing field by providing others what they provide their children—for example, special tutoring—is greeted with demands that the tutoring be provided to all, and not just to those who are behind.

The privileged class has an advantage today, and they will not give it up willingly. This is a real shame, because it can be a win-win situation. Yet they treat it as win-lose: If your child catches up, he will take my child’s place in that selective college. And thus, they steal the future that attending that college would provide. How do we overcome that?

Dick Reed
Alexandria, Va.

Teachers’ Coursework: ‘Cookie Cutter’ Drivel?

To the Editor:

Linda Darling-Hammond criticizes David M. Steiner’s research on teacher-preparation coursework because he relies on course outlines instead of actual course content for his conclusions (“Education School Courses Faulted as Intellectually Thin,” Nov. 12, 2003). I have an M.Ed. degree and have attended three recognized schools of education, and it is my experience that course outlines greatly inflate the intellectual content of education school courses. The actual course content is well below what is in the outline.

Course content is, more often than not, mere drivel. If Mr. Steiner had used course content for his research, his conclusions would have been even gloomier.

Ken Kopicki
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

As a former superintendent and assistant superintendent, who over 12 years interviewed hundreds of teacher applicants, I fully understand David M. Steiner’s observations regarding the repressive nature of traditional knowledge imparted to students in a monolithic ideological context. Many of the applicants for teaching positions that I met were “cookie cutter” types with their rehearsed answers to interview questions and their standard applicant portfolios in hand.

Refreshing indeed was the time spent with those candidates who had ideas about teaching and educational practice that were not simply the repackaged words of the theorists they became acquainted with over their time in university classrooms. I was genuinely excited by the time spent with applicants who could represent ideas about the most important issues facing educators in a way that reflected an ability to take theory to an application level and enthusiastically portray their beliefs about teaching children in ways characteristic of our best veteran teachers.

Now, afforded the opportunity of preparing graduate students in educational leadership, I strive to have my students cultivate the ability to explore and translate theory into practice and to make that application a cornerstone of their professional pursuits.

I can understand how some may argue that course outlines are hardly the sole source of data on the efficacy of teacher-preparation practices. Regardless of whether one is predisposed to accept or reject Mr. Steiner’s research, any deliberation of current approaches in the preparation of tomorrow’s teachers should be greeted enthusiastically. It should serve as encouragement to engage in one of the most important professional practices, known as reflection.

Peter Madonia
Southern Connecticut State University
New Haven, Conn.


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