Letters to the Editor

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To the Editor

President Bush's decision to focus anew on education is welcome ("Bush Strategy Launches 'Crusade' for Education," April 24, 1991). His call for the nation to respond to a "crusade to prepare our children and ourselves for the exciting future that looms ahead" is laudable. But how will the President's new education strategy affect minority schoolchildren?

That remains an unanswered question in the current discourse, even though minority children make up the majority of students in many school districts. What will the President's "America 2000" plan mean for them?

The President proposes setting "world-class standards" for what children should know in five core subjects. Setting standards for all children to meet is not in itself a bad idea. There are two problems with the current approach, however.

The first is the question of who will set the standards. Do parents and teachers, particularly in minority communities, have any say in the process? With the current debate over the importance of a more diversified, multicultural curriculum, minority-community input would seem critical. Yet, if the national goal-setting process is taken as the example, the procedure followed may mean politicians and "experts" dictating to communities what their children will learn.

The second problem is how to ensure that children can meet the standards set. A focus on goals and standards means a focus on outcomes. This is important, but without some balance with inputs the outcomes are only fantasies. It is not enough to say children are not meeting the goals; programs need to be in place to make sure that they do.

Equally worrisome to minority communities is the unilateral focus on rewarding the successful. The Bush strategy includes financial rewards for high-scoring students, outstanding teachers, and successful schools. It promotes school choice, and encourages communities in each Congressional district to compete with each other for one, well-funded New American School.

Although it has been compared to one, the public school system is not a capitalist marketplace. The goal of public education is for all students to succeed. Dropouts are not defective widgets to be discarded. What happens to the failed student or school? Nowhere in this strategy is a plan to help them achieve.

The President's optimistic vision should not be used to disguise reality. And the reality is that solving the education crisis will take money, as well as time and effort. Surely no one would have suggested to the President that he launch Operation Desert Storm based on the will of the nation and the effort of its soldiers without providing them with the resources to do battle. Yet he proposes launching America 2000 with the federal budgetary equivalent of half a day of Desert Storm.

The reality is that 28 states have to cut their budgets this year because of fiscal crises. States do not have the money to fund the status quo for schools, much less new initiatives. New demands continue to be placed on existing schools to serve the increasing numbers of poor, minority, immigrant, and emotionally needy children.

Our schoolchildren are the generation who will support our nation and us individually when they grow up. The President is right that money is not the only answer, but it is a necessary part of the solution, along with innovation and dramatic structural changes. He is right that making education a national priority for everyone is a critical need, and that all sectors of society need to get involved. Anyone working on education issues with inner-city youths would be likely to welcome the involvement of others in saving public education from its current abysmal state.

Yet in declaring educational excellence a goal for all children, we need to pay particular attention to those children, schools, and communities who are currently farthest from this dream.

Janice Petrovich
National Executive Director
The aspira Association Inc.
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor

Connie Mack Rea's letter taking the hide off Janet Emig about collaborative learning ("On 'Sociologists of Writing' and the Grouping Instinct," Letters, April 24, 1991) reminded me once again how strange and nasty educators can get in public.

Some educators probably remember Jeanne Chall and Marie Carbo hammering away at each other last year in a national publication about reading--loading the evidence, impugning each other's motives, and using bitter language. I've met both people, and they are warm, intelligent folks, at least until somebody gores their ox. So I imagine Ms. Rea at home or in the classroom is also a pretty decent person.

Now, I confess to not having been too pleased with Ms. Emig's tone, either, in her article addressed to Susan Ohanian. I don't know whether folks use highly charged language because they think their colleagues are too dense to hear anything but shouting, or because so many educational questions are rooted essentially in how we see the nature of human beings. I suspect the latter.

As an oversimplified example, if people are at bottom pretty good and all have considerable (if often untapped) knowledge and potential, then learning cooperatively and experientially makes a lot of sense. If people are mostly competitive and manipulative, and absolutely very different in their level of ability, then maybe we're better off writing and reading all by ourselves.

This is not a casual value dichotomy, because we don't just work from premises like this, we live by them. Strike at one of them and you strike at the essence of me, and I'll bite you. Not very professional, but very common. Remember that Einstein was snide about quantum mechanics because he just couldn't believe that the universe might be a fabric of chance.

As a matter of fact, the classroom teachers now using collaborative workshop approaches to teaching reading and writing appear to be having more success than they ever had before, and so are many of their students. Some of them, heaven forbid, are even enjoying themselves in class. It is these teachers who are doing and publishing a lot of unpretentious classroom research providing support for change. They have developed some methods that work, they try to understand them, and they share both what they do and why they think it works. That's professionalism at its best.

Frankly, for the most part I now get much more of substance from this sort of professional communication than from the caustic sniping of most theorists on any side. To them I should say, Get a handle on why you're so angry. Deal with it. Go watch some kids.

Kenneth Bradford
Virginia Department of Education
Richmond, Va.

To the Editor

A headline in your April 17, 1991, issue reads, "Catholic Educators Press To Add Sectarian Schools to Choice Plan."

Even a casual look at any random selection of dictionaries will show that the term "sectarian" not only has a nasty pedigree but also continues to carry a highly prejudicial meaning. Some of its more common synonyms are "bigoted," "narrow-minded," and "heretical."

As the Cornell University professor Richard Baer has shown in a recent 20-page article in The Journal of Law and Politics, the term "sectarian" has been used throughout American history to marginalize Americans who have been committed to the "wrong" kind of religion, or who have been religious rather than secular.

Mr. Baer shows that the use of the equation "religious = sectarian" by the courts violates the spirit of the Constitution and perpetuates a form of religious bigotry that goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and his attempts to privatize the religious beliefs of those Americans with whom he disagreed.

At any rate, please stop using the equation "religious = sectarian.'' It is offensive to Americans who have been sensitized to its history and meaning, and it helps perpetuate a fundamental injustice in our public life. Such terminology is not worthy of Education Week, anewspaper that has consistently opposed the use of racial and gender epithets and other forms of unwarranted discrimination.

James W. Skillen
Executive Director
The Center for Public Justice
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor

Reform versus Recession are not "the two powerful forces" causing the education storm, as suggested by your April 17, 1991, article, "Tight Budgets Escalate School Labor Tensions."

The forces are union contracts versus the taxpayers.

The superintendents from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois were the ones who had it right in lamenting "their inability to proceed with reforms while their budgets, containing preordained contract provisions, were falling behind." They should know. They deal constantly with three of the most reform-restricting education labor laws in the country!

Aside from the "preordained contract provisions," the budget-busting costs of the bargaining process itself have been amply documented. A 1990 analysis by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association calculated their bargaining law had cost the taxpayers "nearly $900 million" since its passage in 1970. That represents $45 million per year, or nearly $90,000 for each of their 501 school districts. This report supported earlier studies of bargaining costs in the 1980's.

It's no accident that the per-pupil costs of education in the bargaining states topped the nonbargaining states this year by $1,300, and showed an increase of 8.2 percent compared with 5.8 percent. Think of the "reforms" this money could buy.

The failed public policy of industrial-style monopoly bargaining, driving up the costs of education and strangling our schools, has brought us finally to this abyss. Like girdling roots choking off the life of a once-proud maple, union control over every facet of school policy has become more a part of the leveling than of the blossoming of our education system.

A look at how the contract-imposed "reform" measures of Rochester, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles have stalemated is proof enough that the first priority of monopoly bargaining advocates is control of the process, at any cost.

Is it any wonder that the nation's citizens are clamoring for parental choice, equity funding, privatization, site-based management, alternative certification, and decentralization to regain some voice in how their tax dollars are being spent?

Their call is to open up the system at long last so the nutrient of competition will stimulate fresh ideas, courageous exploration, and bold innovations to fuel authentic reform.

Reform versus Recession? Taxpayers know full well what's required when budgets get tight: to get more bang for the buck, cut to the essentials and eliminate wasteful practices.

Mom and Pop do it every day. Why can't their schools?

Jo Seker
Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism
Springfield, Va.

Vol. 10, Issue 34

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