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To the Editor:

Education Week is really a Pittsburgh Public Schools fan. Last spring, you published an article praising the district's Prospect Middle School ("Pittsburgh School Aims at Cultural Harmony, April 4, 1990), which I criticized in a letter you chose not to print.

This fall, you praised Pittsburgh's new exit requirement, which proposes that all high-school students complete a culminating project, such as a thesis, for graduation ("Pittsburgh Mulls New Exit Requirement: A Final Project," Oct. 17, 1990).

How can the teachers of Pittsburgh accomplish this task when they can not teach high-school students to use grammar correctly or to read better-- even after they have each spent nine weeks in the celebrated Schenley High School Teachers' Center?

At no high school in the school system did the African-American students achieve at or above the national norms in reading or lan guage in the 1989-1990 school year. Unless you agree with those who believe that African Americans are genetically inferior, or that their parents, community, and culture are responsible for what goes on inside the schools, then Pittsburgh's students should be doing better, provided instruction is of high quality and teachers and administrators are competent.

But competence is a problem in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Teachers and administrators who fail to elevate the achievement of their students are rewarded, as in the case of Prospect Middle School, which finished next to the bottom in achievement for the 1989-1990 school year. Those who are successful are punished, as in the case of the school-improvement director, whose program was terminated.

Even the school-board president offers excuses for the failure of the school system to elevate achievement among African-American students, who constitute 53 percent of the district's enrollment. The board president led the vote to cut the budget of the School Improvement Program, which was the board's only initiative to eliminate the achievement gap between white and African-American students.

Barbara A. Sizemore
Professor of Education
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pa.

To the Editor:

Earlier this year, I completed a tour of Japanese schools with 20 other American educators. Our purpose was to learn from the Japanese system. The trip led me to this conclusion: The Japanese system is not special and there is no magic. Japanese students simply try harder and work longer.

They try harder because, if you don't do well on your entrance exams there, you don't get a second chance; you shame your family, who fervently believe in education. And there is in Japan an ingrained belief that effort is more important than talent. Students work longer because they are required to stay late, attend Saturday classes, and go to school during the summer.

The Japanese system, in addition, is favored by the absence of certain American distractions. Uniforms mean that students don't compete for clothes. Drivers licenses are available only to 18-year-olds, so cars are not the center of teenage culture. Students are not expected to work in malls but to concentrate on homework; they do not seriously date until college.

In countless other ways, the culture is favorable to education. A mother's identity is tied to her child's education; divorce is some thing to be avoided; teachers are honored, well-educated, and paid a middle-class wage.

The pathology of urban America has not reached Japan. Drugs, crime, illegitimacy, and streetlore not issues in Tokyo. (Think what eliminating these scourges would to for our big-city schools.)

I could not explain to my Japanese colleagues why millions of guns float around the country, or why, in New York City, female pedestrians are stabbed from behind with hypodermic needles, or why, on Halloween night, restaurant- goers are beaten up for fun.

The Economist recently reported that "as against Britain, America, or West Germany--taking the lowest of the three figures in each category--Japan's divorce rate is 30 percent lower, its murder rate 40 percent lower, its rape rate 80 percent lower, its rate of illegitimate births 95 percent lower."

Japan is becoming more middle class, America less. Disparities in income mean tensions in school and mockery of the ideal of the "melting pot." Disparities mean a many leveled educational system, with options depending on where you live and what your race is.

Japan emphasizes saving, America spending and borrowing. Our children will hardly learn to postpone gratification when they see their parents and leaders so reckless.

America spends more money on pre-college education than Japan. America is far more experimental and innovative with curriculum and tests. America has smaller classes. America takes care of its privileged. But for the majority of our students, American culture is hostile to educational achievement; for the majority of their students, the culture is favorable.

As a headmaster lucky enough to instruct the privileged, I returned home a firm believer in beautiful buildings, small, lively classes, autonomous teachers, and generous writing assignments.

To me, the Japanese educational system smacks too much of Sparta and the State. There is too much drill, recitation, indoctrination, and memorization--and too little questioning and challenging. There is too much preparation to be "economic animals" and good corporate citizens. There is too much loss of childhood and spontaniety.

But as an American citizen concerned about public education, I returned skeptical about our culture and, therefore, about the possibility of education reform.

No educational reforms can compensate for a slack, undisciplined culture, for disintegrating families; no tough regulations can overcome a tolerance for high rates of crime and drug use; and no government report can make disappear economic inequities and racial conflict.

Peter Gibbon
The Hackley School
Tarrytown, N.Y.

Vol. 10, Issue 10

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