Letters to the Editor

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To the Editor:

I was sorry to see Larry Cuban, who has contributed so much to education, join the ranks of whiners and complainers in his Commentary about "The Great School Scam'' (June 15, 1994). Sure, some people have unfairly blamed schools for our country's economic ills (and every other ill for that matter), but what is his point? Why isn't it to our advantage to have business people and the public believing that a well-educated citizenry contributes to a strong economy? And why is he so sure it isn't true?

Yet he uses an extraordinary array of vituperation--"deceitful political logic,'' "cunningly simplistic solutions,'' a "fraud,'' "gulling the public with ersatz solutions,'' "media-amplified delusion,'' "politically useful deception,'' "skillfully concocted deception,'' etc., to lambaste anyone who suggests that educational reform would benefit the economy. C'mon, Larry, why the foaming at the mouth? What's this all about?

And why do I think it's important enough to write a reply? Because the attitude Mr. Cuban's Commentary promotes is a serious obstacle to school reform, and it's all the more harmful when it's encouraged by such a respected leader. I find more than a few teachers, and even would-be educational leaders, who spend too much of their energy whining about how unfair "they'' are to "us'' and feeling sorry for themselves instead of applying themselves to school reform. It caps their commitment, and puts them in a sour mood. It makes them into complainers instead of doers.

My growing interest in school reform in the 50's had nothing to do with the economy. Jeffersonian belief in the need for an educated citizenry, and my dismay at our low levels of educational achievement, were my driving passions. But I have welcomed the shift in thinking that has brought business leaders (and more of the public) into the school-reform movement. I would rather that more of them shared my commitment to education for its own sake and for citizenship, but if their interest in improving education comes from their belief that a better-educated workforce will make for a stronger economy, why does this seem to drive Mr. Cuban so wild? He actually gives no evidence or even argument as to why good education isn't good for the economy; he just seems to engage in a lot of misplaced railing at those who suggest it is.

Toward the end of his Commentary, there is perhaps a clue that Mr. Cuban's real objection may be to some of the reforms he believes are promoted by business interests, such as "national goals, curriculum, and tests.'' If that's his beef, then that's a different issue, and he should argue why these reforms are bad for education, not why education isn't good for the economy. There's nothing wrong and everything right with debating which reforms will produce the best education. But we've spent too long with business people not caring enough about education to drive them out with a lot of wild attacks full of self-pitying, defensive name-calling.

David Seeley
Professor of Education
College of Staten Island
Staten Island, N.Y.

To the Editor:

While recognizing the somewhat lighthearted tone of Mark Mlawer's Commentary, "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student'' (July 13, 1994), it is not easy to disregard the rather disturbing message he advocates. I agree that honor rolls do some children a disservice in their failure to recognize effort, but perhaps the response should be to broaden their criteria rather than to eliminate them completely.

The harsh reality of life--which children must learn sooner or later--is that some people are better at some tasks than others. Should we eliminate all competition from children's lives? Does no one get to win the race, get the part, have their painting hung? Why is it the honor roll that must go and not the glee-club tryouts, the chance to make the team, the thrill of being elected class president? Why is it so undesirable that parents should be proud of children who do well in school?

Following Mr. Mlawer's argument one wonders if parents can ever take pride in their children's accomplishments. After all, if your child won the swim race, it must mean someone else's child lost, and perhaps that child tried just as hard or even harder.

Is it the term "honor'' to which Mr. Mlawer objects? Somehow I think that regardless of what it was called, Mr. Mlawer would still object to the fact that certain children will be made to "feel bad'' if they are not chosen, or if they are not recognized. These same children, who must be protected from ever feeling that they have somehow been unrecognized (and from the "resentment'' that according to the Commentary must then result) will sooner or later in life fail to get into their college of choice, fail to get a job, promotion, or raise, fail to get elected. And, having no way of realizing that this is part of living, they will grow more frustrated, disenfranchised, and bewildered. It is easy to recognize these disgruntled adults, envious of the success of others, bitter in their own lives, convinced the world owes them something they have no way of truly discerning they deserve.

I will go along with Mr. Mlawer in that I agree it would be advantageous for schools to make an effort to recognize the individual, and sometimes unique, skills and abilities of all children. But I do not believe that removing all visible signs of recognition is the path to take. Not all of us can be brilliant scholars, concert violinists, or Olympic athletes. It should not require that the recognition of non-scholarly talent, or of the willingness to make an effort, occur at the expense of those with academic gifts also deserving of recognition and encouragement.

Susan M. Fitzpatrick
St. Louis, Mo.

To the Editor:

I cannot believe that you published Mark A. Mlawer's ridiculous Commentary. Did it ever occur to Mr. Mlawer that a parent might put an honor-student bumper sticker on her car to show her own child that she valued and further encouraged his effort and achievement? Don't scholars deserve boosters as much as athletes? Aren't we supposed to be encouraging excellence? Or would Mark Mlawer prefer, in his old age, to be tended by people who were never rewarded for learning their job well?

Helen N. Hanna
Sacramento, Calif.

To the Editor:

In his letter to the editor, Charles M. Breinin says that once a student has left 6th grade, he knows most of what he will need to make his way in the world and, therefore, need not learn algebra ("Algebra for Everyday Life,'' June 8, 1994).

Why doesn't Mr. Breinin continue this argument to its logical conclusion and exempt all subject areas from further study? There is no need to learn historical facts and trends, as most students will not need those either in further life. Why read the great masters of literature; these have no relevance to most individuals' future endeavors. Let's stop the study of science; I've never needed the skills of dissecting a frog in my career. Education could end for all students after 6th grade, thus saving taxpayers an enormous amount of money. Why only single out algebra for this treatment?

I believe the answers are obvious. Educators seek to help produce well-rounded individuals who appreciate learning, whatever the subject. Our success in this is open for debate; certainly there is plenty of room for improvement. As I try to tell my students, I do not know where they are headed as far as a career or further education. I must provide for them a basis to help determine where their interests and abilities lie.

Without offering students a sampling of every subject area, we are never going to provide them with opportunities to grow and to explore areas they may find an affinity for that was not there before. The narrowing of educational offerings to only those relevant for a particular job will further stratify our society. Students need more choices, not fewer.

Norman F. Braun, Jr.
West Chester, Pa.

To the Editor:

Regarding your article on conflicts between Boston University and some members of the Hispanic community in Chelsea, Mass. ("Chelsea Oversight Panel Laments Tensions Between Hispanics, B.U.,'' June 15, 1994): So what's new?

Since the idea was first conceived, Boston University's management of the beleaguered Chelsea public schools has been besieged by individuals claiming to represent the interests of the Hispanic community in Chelsea. These individuals have attempted to thwart the initiatives of this bold partnership between the university and the city of Chelsea.

While most colleges and universities are still "talking'' about reform, Boston University, led by President John Silber, has assumed the daunting responsibility of trying to reform schools acknowledged by most as being the worst in Massachusetts in the late 1980's. Not only was the school system plagued by incompetence and inadequate annual operating budgets, its setting was a city where political corruption and incompetence was the order of the day.

Boston University has placed its reputation on the line in this project and has been willing to do so at considerable financial burden. And, while many of the citizens of Chelsea, fine, hardworking people who are frustrated with the poor schools and the corruption in city hall, have actively supported the university, a small but vocal and locally powerful group in the Hispanic community has exploited the ignorance of others, coloring B.U. as the enemy. Not true!

The university is dedicated to providing the children of Chelsea, all of them, with an equal opportunity to secure a first-rate education. By emphasizing the importance of early-childhood education and by exercising the original intent of the bilingual-education guidelines, it is making steady, often spectacular progress toward its goal. If some elements of the Hispanic community were to have their way, their own children would be consigned to second-class citizenship for the rest of their lives.

The article quotes Irwin Blumer, the chairman of the state oversight panel, superintendent of the Newton public schools, and a former Chelsea resident: "From the first year, one of the major problems has been the B.U. management team's problem in talking with people of color, people who are poor, and people who don't speak English as a first language.'' He suggests that the university team often speaks to community members in public meetings "with a tone of arrogance.'' That presupposes that members of the university management team, and in fact the entire university, have no knowledge, no history, no established record of working with people from a variety of cultures.

Quite the opposite is true. The student body and the faculty of Boston University include a large number of people from other cultures. The university is recognized as being one of the most integrated institutions of higher education in this country. In my judgment, Irwin Blumer has had a jaundiced view of Boston University's presence in Chelsea since the beginning, and this statement demonstrates that fact, as well as his ignorance of the city and its politics.

Do your homework with respect to the Boston University/Chelsea Partnership. Precollegiate education desperately needs comprehensive partnerships with higher education.

Theodore G. Sharp
Bancroft School
Worcester, Mass.

The writer is the former chairman of the Boston University/Chelsea, Mass., management team.

To the Editor:

The trend to inflate students' school grades, that is, to exaggerate on report cards sent to parents what students actually learn, has been a persistent and dominant one. So, once it became acceptable in the educational community that the standardized-reading-test scores of students in all the states were "above average,'' it was predictable that the average scores on other tests students take would follow suit. Hence, it is no surprise that the Scholastic Assessment Test will "recenter'' upward its average score ("S.A.T. To Realign Scores for First Time in Half a Century,'' June 22, 1994).

The potentials of such easy "realignments'' of the norms of student behavior are so impressive that they obviously can be applied to other than academic concerns. For example, the next steps in norming could be to declare that the present-day incidence of unwed-teenager pregnancies, of school truancy and dropping out, of students' illegal use of drugs, of violence among students and against their teachers, of child abuse and deprivation, of the lack of school books, supplies, equipment, and class space, and so on, are now "averages.'' This pronouncement in effect would still the current outcries that the frequency of occurrence of these matters is abnormal and thus intolerable.

In this respect, by far the least expensive way to "reform'' our schools would be simply to proclaim that what customarily are seen as disabling problems needing immediate attention and resolution are in fact nothing more than normal expectations. The movement represented by the S.A.T.'s intention to eliminate certain academic problems by ruling them as normal thus may presage the way the nation can afford to rectify what ordinarily have been said to be its educational woes.

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus of Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

Assertion is not proof.

Tony Wagner's assertions about the "worst side of private schools--elitism and deep-seated educational conservatism'' are not only unproved, they are unfounded ("Why Charter Schools?'' Commentary, June 22, 1994). Exeter and Andover are by philosophy and by actual composition (race, ethnicity, creed, gender, sexual preference, etc.) far more diverse than almost any public school limited by local geography and demographics can hope to be.

And woe betide these poor Exover lads and lasses, burdened by "obsolete ... curriculum and teaching methods'' that bring them to read, write, calculate, and think at levels far in excess of those achieved by virtually any public school in the country. What a sorry falling off this must be for them as they bumble off to Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Cal Tech.

Mr. Wagner needs to relearn the first maxim of good education: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Paul W. Johnston
Advisory Service on Private Schools
Mamaroneck, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I am puzzled by the frequent "labeling'' of organizations or viewpoints by Education Week. A June 22, 1994, article, "Riley Asks Conservative Parents to Back Standards,'' labels the Center for Education Reform a "conservative'' organization.

In fact, the center is a nonpartisan national clearinghouse whose people represent a variety of viewpoints. The center provides information and leadership to countless reformers spanning the political, social, and racial spectrums. We also work hard to find and build common ground among people who might not always agree. We are a broker, and seek to moderate in the reform debate. We serve the public and answer hundreds of queries weekly--including from your paper.

Through the article's characterization, however, you stereotype the center and in effect pigeonhole a broad range of folks working for education reform into a box that simply doesn't fit. In so doing, you not only mischaracterize those active in reform, but also misinform your readers.

The center discusses positively a variety of reforms, including school choice and charter schools. We promote accountability through strong assessment, standards-based approaches to reform, and decentralization. Each of these approaches is being tried and tested in various ways across the country. But these are not conservative issues; they are embraced by people of all ideologies and some who lack any.

Characterizations which mislead the public are a grave disservice to hard-working groups and people throughout the reform movement. Education reform is not about politics--it is about the future.

Jeanne Allen
The Center for Education Reform
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Mickey Mouse (Walt Disney Company) is in excellent company as he joins the rest of the world in training our children for the global workforce ("Disney Holds Up School as Model for Next Century,'' June 22, 1994). While making a tremendous profit at the expense of taxpayers, the multinational corporation will insure that it has a well-trained, docile workforce to meet its specific corporate needs.

Since several states turned down the "choice'' hoax, the moneychangers have devised a new strategy to enhance their own selfish interests--charter schools. Arizona's charter-school legislation exempts charter-school affiliates from "civil and criminal liability.'' Other states call for "waivers'' from federal, state, and local laws, rules, and regulations.

Education for "the old world order'' moves full speed ahead. Mickey Mouse has now joined other main characters--the New American Schools Development Corporation, the Edison Project, and Education Alternatives Inc.--in developing "human capital'' to support the Clinton economic agenda.

Ann Herzer
Paradise Valley, Ariz.

Vol. 13, Issue 40

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