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Privatizers and Unions: Bottom Line Is Learning

To the Editor:

After another grueling week of work in a public high school, accompanied by the release of our latest dismal California Learning Assessment System scores (this after five years of restructuring, countless hours of really hard work by our dedicated and professional staff, and being named a National Blue Ribbon School) I saw your headline "Privatization: An Interim Report Card" and dove into the article hoping to find hope. (See Education Week, 3/29/95).

I read Keith Geiger's opening paragraph referring to "the Edison Project failing" when it has yet to open its first door or ring its first school bell. The comment caused me to close my newspaper and reminisce about times when folks said "the earth is definitely flat."

Two days later, I reopened my paper and gave Mr. Geiger a second chance. This time I got to paragraph two of the jump page. In it, Mr. Geiger implies that the "bottom line" of education is congruent with that of the teachers' unions: "student learning." He further claims that privatizers "live or die by their financial performance."

Mr. Geiger, I work in a district in which, over the last five years, unions have raised student/ teacher ratios from 150 per day to 180 per day for the sake of the almighty dollar. And guess what? When test scores drop, no one is even slightly at risk of losing his or her contract over the situation. You'll never get me to buy the argument that privatizers care less about student learning than unions do. I'll buy the services of those that guarantee accountability and are willing to put their jobs on the line to insure your bottom line--student learning.

Rebecca Shore
Assistant Principal
Huntington Beach Union High School District
Huntington Beach, Calif.

Warning to School Boards On Hiring Outside Experts

To the Editor:

Your article "Center Criticizes Florida District's Top-Down Style" outlined a report about our school district by the Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center.

The Palm Beach County, Fla., experience should serve as a warning to other school boards throughout the nation: Don't ever permit an outside agency to work with your district--no matter how prestigious they present themselves to be and no matter how tantalizing it may be to use the consultant because someone else is paying. Important safeguards should be taken if boards do decide on this course. At the very least, I would suggest the following:

  • Hired consultants should be required to submit reports and findings to the administration so an appropriate response can be given before the report is released to anyone, including the media. This would be similar to the customary and equitable practice used by auditors.
  • There should be clear understanding and written guidelines about the relationship and obligation between the consultant and the district and the consultant and the funder(s). This could help minimize potential conflicts and undue political or other influence of funders on the content of the report.

Most of the criticisms in the CTAC report are so vague that they could apply to almost any large, urban school district in the nation. In fact, as an 11-year member of the Palm Beach County school board serving with two administrations, I can attest to the fact that concerns about top-down management and "fear of retribution" have always been expressed.

While our district is not beyond constructive criticism, it is unfortunate that the center's report failed to acknowledge any of the significant reforms made in the district. Some of our programs have been recognized nationally and by the state of Florida.

Donald B. Gratz, CTAC's coordinator of national school reform, who according to our records spent approximately nine days in our district, was quoted in your article as saying that because of its obligations to its funders, the center decided not to simply withdraw quietly. Too bad the center didn't show a similar sense of obligation to our district--with which it also had an agreement--by dealing with concerns in a professional manner. CTAC obviously wanted to leave with a "bang" and it did. Now we are left to deal with the fallout.

Gail Bjork
School Board of Palm Beach County
West Palm Beach, Fla.

Wisconsin Governor Plans To Create New Department

To the Editor:

In an article about proposals to overhaul state education agencies, you noted that Wisconsin, the only state without a state education board, is considering a bill to create one ("Fervor Spreads To Overhaul State Agencies," March 8, 1995). While a state commission earlier this year did recommend the creation of a state board, no legislation has been introduced to do so. Instead, Gov. Tommy Thompson in his biennial budget is seeking to create a new department of education, headed by a governor-appointed secretary.

I believe your article left the impression that Wisconsin is swimming against the tide by creating a new department--and hence a new bureaucracy. Quite the contrary is true. The Governor's proposal would dismantle the current department of public education--headed by an elected superintendent--by transferring most of its duties to other agencies. For example, teacher licensing would go to the department of regulation and licensing, and school-aid distribution would go to the department of revenue.

The current elected superintendent of public instruction, a constitutional office, would continue to exist with a small staff and be responsible for such non-duties as stimulating public interest in schools, advocating for the needs of children and school districts, providing information to the public and schools, and preparing plans for improving schools and academic achievement.

The new secretary of the department of education would assume all the powers and duties of the old state superintendent except for those transferred to other agencies.

Critics of the Governor charge that he is engaging in a power grab and is attempting to silence those who don't share his views on education. The current state superintendent is perceived as friendly with the state teachers' union and is receiving support from Democrats.

Eliminating the post of elected superintendent would require changing the state constitution, which the Governor is avoiding through his reorganization plan.

A Republican re-elected by a wide margin this fall, Governor Thompson is committed to changes in education that the union and state superintendent oppose. The Governor has generally shrugged off the power-grab charge and has reminded critics that he will not seek re-election after his current term.

What is going on here seems very much in line with what Republican governors and legislators are doing in other states--contrary to the impression created by your article.

Kathy Derene
Wisconsin Association of School Boards
Madison, Wis.

Harvard Museum Project: Thanking the Benefactor

To the Editor:

Harvard Project Zero's Project MUSE (Museums Uniting with Schools in Education) is grateful for your interest in our research ("The Science of Art Appreciation," Focus On, March 29, 1995). We would just like to add one important point to your otherwise thorough overview.

Since its inception, Project MUSE has benefited from the courage, insight, and vision of the Bauman Foundation, on whose support it relies. We could hardly enjoy so much ink among your pages with no mention of our most valued mainstay.

Jessica Davis
Principal Investigator
Project MUSE
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

We Need More Reflection, Fewer Half-Thought Plans

To The Editor:

I do not agree with Ralph Mohr's view (Letters, April 5, 1995) of Peter Rutkoff's "Reading a School Like a Book" (See Education Week, March 8, 1995). I found Mr. Rutkoff's observations about the detectable sadness in some schools sincere and refreshing. I remember my early education in this kind of light.

Mr. Mohr seems to think that individuals who do not teach high school should "put up or shut up" if they are not armed with a plan of action. How often in education do we rush in with plans that are premature? Years of failed reforms answer that question. Who is to judge that Mr. Rutkoff is contributing less to schools' problems than Mr. Mohr just by virtue of Mr. Mohr's currently teaching high school while Mr. Rutkoff teaches college students? What kind of nonsense is this?

I am convinced that observations such as Peter Rutkoff's are essential and can lead to action, but that they don't necessarily need to. They stand on their own. If anything, we need less action and more contemplation, less frenzied activity and more thoughtful reflection when it comes to school remediation. Mr. Rutkoff has every right to comment on his educational perspective; Mr. Mohr's education should have taught him that much.

Barbara Alward
Atascadero, Calif.

Interaction With People Beats Computer Facility

To the Editor:

Yes, "Four Million Computers Can Be Wrong" (See Education Week, March 29, 1995), and I hope teachers keep right on neglecting them.

Computers may be great for spewing out information, but so are teachers, books, parents, kids, TV's, newspapers, experiments, and radios. Information is not knowledge; knowledge is not education.

We used to frown at the image of millions of kids facing toward the front of a room, staring at the teacher. Now, we're trying to make them all sit staring at a computer--or worse, encasing them behind "virtual reality" machines.

When will we visualize kids facing each other, listening, sharing, cooperating, problem-solving, resolving conflicts together? Personal life, work life, citizenship are almost all about face-to-face relationships. Monkeying with computers will never educate students on how to get along with each other in life.

Hurrah for the teachers who have resisted the world's greatest advertising campaign, which tries to convince us the emperor really does have clothes.

Rachel M. Lauer
Professor and Director
Straus Thinking and Learning Center
Pace University
New York, N.Y.

Vol. 14, Issue 30, Pages 40-42

Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as Letters To the Editor
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