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To the Editor:

The rejection of the state-approved Houghton Mifflin social-studies textbook series by the Oakland, Calif., school board, and that district's subsequent efforts to write its own curriculum, is a very important moment in education history and should be followed carefully (In the Press, Oct. 9, 1991).

So many of the important issues involved in the restructuring of education are embedded in the controversies that arise daily in the district as it takes on this challenge. We are raising not only the issue of local control of curriculum, but also the deeper and more important question of school control of curriculum and teachers' control of their own lessons.

What constitutes a good lesson? Is the curriculum the textbook? Should teachers be expected to know their subject matter beyond the content of a textbook? Ultimately, we get to the heart of our assumptions of what education is all about.

With multiculturalism as a battlefield in California, the conflict over books could rage for a long time, with the participants bloodying one another with charges and countercharges of racism, parochialism, ethnocentrism, ignorance, stupidity, and cruelty to children. What a shame, for this is not even the right battlefield.

The central problem in most classrooms is not that the material being presented is culturally biased (although that is indeed a problem). The main problem has to do with how it is being presented. Children are still being seen as receptacles whose purpose is to be filled up with knowledge.

The "students as receptacles" concept sets us up for political battles over who gets to brainwash the students, and a fruitless search for unbiased materials. If, however, we see children as researchers and creators already possessing some knowledge, and as decisionmakers and actors in the real world, we can give them a good education almost regardless of what material we use.

We have good education if each classroom is a place in which facts are sorted [email protected] opinion, where questions of bias are raised, where opinions are evaluated against certain standards of scientific inquiry. This presumably is the kind of thing the Oaklanders who are designing the curriculum are doing. They will get a great education. Will the new lessons give the students an opportunity to do that? A locally designed textbook imposed on children will not be substantially better than a textbook designed by other "experts."

The main trouble with education in Oakland and elsewhere is that, generally, students are not afforded the respect they deserve. A wise history teacher assumes that her students already are historians and therefore are capable of historical inquiry. The excellent teacher creates the conditions in which the students start asking questions and [email protected] their own statements, which are then challenged, investigated, and evaluated by them. More facts are learned through this process than would be learned by memorizing the contents of any textbook series.

A diversity of material, and lots of it, is what is important, not material without bias (as if there were such a thing).

I would like the Oakland schools to build on this marvelous idea of local design of curriculum and extend the process, not just the product of their labors, to the entire school system. It is those involved in the process who will do the learning.

Richard W. Ackerly
St. Paul's Episcopal School
Oakland, Calif.

To the Editor:

In a recent Commentary, Perry Zirkel sounds the alarm over the legalization of education disputes in which hundreds of thousands of dollars--funds primarily targeted for students in need of special education-are ending up in the pockets of more and more lawyers ("Making Due Process a 'Do' Process," Commentary, Sept. 18, 1991). To mitigate excessive legal fees, he proposes five potential solutions.

However, nowhere does Mr. Zirkel mention using mediation as an alternative for schools and parents to consider in attempting to settle their differences.

This omission is glaring, since many of the due-process issues he refers to occurred in Pennsylvania, where new standards recently adopted by the state education department include making mediation available to settle special-education disputes.

Important to consider on the issues addressed by Mr. Zirkel are these points:

  • Mediation takes dispute issues out of the special interest of lawyers, making the experience not only less adversarial, but also less costly.
  • Mediation permits only a limited number of participants.
  • Usually, mediation is completed in one day.
  • Mediation generates a minimal amount of paper and records, so there is no testimony to transcribe afterwards.
  • Any agreement reached is binding on the parties.
  • Mediation does not interfere with one's right to a due-process hearing.

Moreover, mediation services are provided at no cost to parents or local schools--at least in Pennsylvania.

Joseph McMahon
Elwyn, Pa.

To the Editor:

I noted with surprise the assertion in a page-one story that the Bush Administration was trying te "suppress" and '%ury" the report of the Sandia National Laboratory about American education ("Report Questioning 'Crisis' in Education Triggers an Uprear," Oct. 9, 1991). According to the story, the Administration wants to hide the Sandia report because it shows that everything is "O.K." with American education and that there is no need for systemic reform.

The Sandia report has been widely circulated by the U.S. Department of Energy among several federal agencies for review and was the subject of a Congressional hearing during the summer. As mentioned in the story, I was present at a meeting where the report was presented to 10 (not two) Republican senators by the Sandia team. The next day, the report was the subject of a front-page story in the Albuquerque, N.M., newspaper. If this is suppression, then it is indistinguishable fi. om a well-orchestrated publicity campaign.

The Sandia report has been severely criticized by professional staff at the D.O.E., the Education Department, the National Science Foundation, and the Senate Budget Committee for its selective use of data.

For example, as several reviewers noted, the Sandia report begins its analysis of Scholastic Aptitude Test trend data in 1975, the lowest point for that measure; ff the researchers had begun instead in 1964, their chart would not show a steady drift upward. A number of analyses, including those done by the College Board, have shown that demographic change is not the sole cause of a score decline in the 1960's and 1970's.

Similarly, Sandia reached a rosy view of mathematics and science performance by failing to acknowledge two major international assessments (in 1982 and 1988) in which U.S. students performed poorly. Furthermore, Sandia's analysis of dropout statistics is technically flawed in making differences from relationships observed (or not observed) at an aggregate level to relationships among individual units within the aggregate.

The Sandia group is of course entitled to its views. But as professional researchers, they have some obligation to take account of peer reviews. It is misleading to suggest that the objection to their report is partisan.

Diane Ravitch
Assistant Secretary for
Educational Research and Improvement
U.S. Education Department
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

I regret that the Secretary of Energy, and perhaps Education Department officials as well, are trying to suppress the Sandia report on the condition of education. The Secretary denies this, of course, but he says he "will not permit publication of the study as presently drafted." Since the three authors of the study have been removed from further work on education, there is no one to produce another version.

I am surprised that this move comes when it does. One of the Sandia authors and I presented "their" data and "mine" (possessives in quotes because most of the data come from public sources) on the topic last June at the annual conference on assessment sponsored by the Education Commission of the States. In addition, Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, along with the University of Pittsburgh researcher Lauren Resnick, had agreed to participate with us (or send a representative) in a symposium on the issues at next April's American Educational Research Association conference.

In terms of what is or is not available for the public to see now, the Secretar/s action matters not at all. The horse has [email protected] the barn. Almost all of the points made in the report, in fact, can be found in an article I wrote for the October edition of Phi Delta Kappan.

I find that most indicators are stable, but some, such as Graduate Record Examinations and College Board Achievement Tests, are up. I conclude that while there are problems, there is no evidence that the educational system has ever functioned better than it does currently. The Sandia report concludes that "serious problems do exist in the American education system. However, there is no system-wide crisis. Much of the current reform agenda is misguided."

As noted, most data are public or are easily accessible--I believe that the most common citation in both my article and the Sandia report is to the National Center for Education Statistics's The Condition Of Education.

The Department of Energy claims that the Sandia piece is undergoing '@}eer review." What on earth can this mean? I reviewed the second [email protected] of the document in January and made a number of comments. My copy of the third draft says that "throughout the six-month critical peer review of this report, other researchers and educators have echoed our findings."

"Perhaps the most eloquent summary," it continues, '%vas provided by Clark Kerr in an Education Week Commentary: 'Seldom in the course of policymaking in the United States have so many firm convictions held by so many been based on so little convincing

The Bush Administration has its convictions. I've got the data. They don't match.

Gerald W. Bracey
Senior Policy Analyst
National Education Association
Washiington, D.C.

To the Editor:

I am writing to urge Education Week to continue examination of the Sandia National Laboratory report on the condition of education. If your article is an accurate account of the report, it offers a much needed corrective to the crisis orientation that currently permeates education reform.

Secretary of Energy James Watkins is mistaken when he claims that the report "encourages complacency." On the contrary, it merely points out that the real problems of American education are not those which have been identified by the Bush Administration or the vanons educational tocsins sounded during the 1980's. This is a far cry [email protected] saying that there aren't any gentfine problems which must be addressed.

The issue of the dropout rate offers a good example. Despite the current hysteria over the supposed crisis of high-school dropouts, the National Center for Education Statistics has reported that dropout rates in the United States have been declining over the past 10 years. This doesn't mean that we as educators and citizens should not be concerned about the life possibilities of young people who do not complete high school. However, it suggests that it is not a "crisis," but an endemic issue in American life.

This issue was addressed in a study conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and published in 1978 (Youth in Transition, by Jerald G. Bachman, Patrick M. O'Malley, Jerome Johnston). In their concluding volume, the authors pointed out that the problem of what happens to young people who do not complete high school is far more complex than the simplistic equation: High-school diploma equals good job.

The researchers warned that an atmosphere of crisis and hysteria about the dropout rate would only make it harder to develop meaningful, open-ended alternatives for students whose school experience is academically unsuccessful. How right they were!

I do not cite the Youth in Transition study to urge complacency about adolescents failing to complete high school. A survey of the past 20 years of research and policy analyses would counsel a careful, contextual, and differentiated approach to that issue. As director of a dropout-prevention project in New York State, I am far fi-om complacent about school dropouts. Although I [email protected] pride in the work accomplished by my own program and the many others like ours throughout New York State and the nation, I believe that radical new approaches are needed in American education.

However, we cannot develop those approaches via sweeping pronouncements and dire threats of disaster. There are many issues in American life that do require urgency, yet we hear no bells and alarms sounded from Washington. A call for urgency might get some action on the problems of unemployment, urban decay, lack of housing, AIDS and other health issues. By displacing the sense of crisis onto education and the schools, we are creating more problems than we are solving.

I urge you to pursue issues raised in the Sandia report if only to encourage us to keep questioning our assumptions in a careful, reasoned way. The bandwagon of educational crisis may be taking American schools in a direction we would reject in a less hysterical atmosphere.

Prudence S. Posner
Liberty Partnership Program
Associated Colleges of the
St. Lawrence Valley
Watertown, N.Y.

Vol. 11, Issue 09, Pages 24-25

Published in Print: October 30, 1991, as Letters to the Editor
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