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Attack on 'Privatizers' Protects Unions' Monopoly

The attack by the National Education Association's president, Keith Geiger, on education entrepreneurs willing to risk their own money and company's reputation on the belief that they can do the job better for less cost to the taxpayer is pure demagoguery (related story ).

For all intents and purposes, our schools are already in the hands of "privatizers"--privatizers called unions that have gained monopoly control over the lion's share of school budgets, school policy, and school decisions of every kind.

Mr. Geiger's accusations of privatizers ("the original idea was to skim a share of their clients' wealth") rings hollow indeed to the hundreds of thousands of teachers across the country whose paychecks have been summarily "skimmed" by union officials through forced-dues contracts--contracts that have made the sole criterion for teacher hiring or firing whether or not they wear the union label, not competence.

If public education is "best managed by the public and with full public accountability" as he contends, then he should be willing to give up those monopoly bargaining and "agency shop" compulsory-unionism laws that have made the N.E.A. the largest and richest union in the nation.

Let's trust the locally elected officials who are "driven by desperation" to decide what the best education program is for their own communities. It worked before union coercion and it can work again.

Susan Staub
Pennsylvanians for Right To Work Inc.
Harrisburg, Pa.

Labor-Intensive Restructuring Can Take Toll in Burnout

I read the feature on school restructuring in the March 22, 1995, issue with great interest and great concern (related story ). My interest stemmed from my own experiences as a teacher, administrator, and researcher in small- and medium-sized schools enthusiastically taking on the challenges of student-focused reform, restructuring, and continual improvement. Interest gave way to concern, however, when it became clear that these admirable efforts are not immune from the disease I have witnessed in other schools--burnout of the enthusiastic, dedicated teachers and administrators leading the charge.

Your story described leaders in restructuring schools as tired. I found the same problem plaguing other schools leading the restructuring movement when I attended a Danforth Foundation-sponsored meeting at the end of March to hear from teachers and administrators in the Coalition of Essential Schools, Accelerated Schools, the League of Professional Schools, and other reform networks.

Last year, I challenged the notion that continual-improvement efforts were overburdening faculty members in the school at which I was principal. When faculty members complained that they just could not do any more, I suggested we document what people really do, convinced, of course, that we would uncover exaggerated claims and frivolous activities.

What we found was startling to everyone who insists that schools can improve if only the staff would be a bit more flexible, creative, and collaborative. We found that, indeed, more than 60 percent of the faculty were incredibly overloaded. The rest were "only" doing a single, full-time job. Forty-seven people performed the work of nearly 70 people.

About an equal percentage of the overloads were in paid extracurricular assignments and in unpaid academic and organizational committees. All of the overloads were impossible to eliminate without stopping either extracurricular student activities or school-improvement efforts. Both require time outside the classroom--unless, of course, we stop all classes for a few months so that we can engage in extracurricular and school-improvement activities full time. Yes, a few committees can and will be eliminated as a result of this study, but most cannot be abandoned at this time. Restructuring is labor-intensive.

Unfortunately, the study of faculty loads at our school is not atypical. I wager that most schools, if they engage in such a study, would demonstrate to their communities that teachers and administrators are running as fast as they can. My greatest concern is that the "exemplary" schools about which you've written are in danger of eventually lapsing to "above average" or losing leadership (people can drop out without leaving a system) unless we find real ways to improve schools and reward faculty with time to concentrate on areas of specialization, including restructuring and continued improvement activities.

This will require investing resources that buy time and organizational experts to work in schools. Unless we convince local, state, and national purse holders to do so, we will continue to reform, relapse, and retry. We will also condemn our best teacher and administrative leaders to the life of Sisyphus, continually pushing the boulder up the hill, only to wear out and be run over by that same boulder.

Dianne Ashby
Assistant Professor
Illinois State University
Normal, Ill.

N.Y. School-Aid ProposalSent 'Venomous Message'

On behalf of the Conference of Big 5 School Districts, representing 41.4 percent of New York State's public school students from Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yon-kers, I would like to respond to your article "N.Y. Unions' Ad Blitz Targets Governor's Education Budget" (related story). In particular, I was astonished by the assertion of Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, that districts will not suffer if Gov. George E. Pataki's proposed budget plan is adopted.

The facts are clear. The school-aid "freeze" Governor Pataki has proposed represents a cut in funding to the Big 5 school districts and sends a venomous message to our children that the current state administration does not recognize equitable and high-quality education as the means by which our children may build their futures. This budget proposal presents us with the difficult choices of reducing staff, increasing classroom size, cutting programs and services, reducing transportation services, and delaying needed capital and repair projects.

The choices we face are not the result of distorted facts or political ramblings, but rather the clear and ever-so-real design of the Pataki administration's budget proposal.

Mr. Grumet's position does not reflect the needs and interests of the large city school districts of New York State. The fiscal pressures on our districts are the result of a chronically underfunded base, a declining local commitment, prior state-aid cuts, regulatory constraints, and federal reductions.

The Big 5 districts are facing annual enrollment-growth rates of up to 4.5 percent, representing thousands of new students every year, many of whom are immigrant children in need of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language instruction and of transitional support services.

It does not take thousands of dollars and slick commercial campaigns to demonstrate that the Pataki budget proposal will have a deleterious effect on our school districts. Neither should school board representatives delude themselves and mislead others in stating that this budget proposal will not have a negative impact upon the education system in New York State.

Luis O. Reyes
Conference of Big 5 School Districts
Albany, N.Y

To Build Public Engagement, Be Specific and Listen

I applaud Andy Plattner's call for schools to focus on building new relationships with their communities (related story ).

It has been our experience at San Francisco School Volunteers that the more specific a school is about its needs and how the community can get involved, the more likely the public is to respond. For many people, the idea of schooling is abstract and impersonal because it may have been years since they set foot inside a public school. By articulating clearly and specifically how community members can participate in their local school, working directly with teachers and students, we have been able to make schooling both personal and concrete for volunteers.

While it is discouraging that public engagement in civic life is declining, we believe that by asking questions, listening, and responding to people in the community, school-volunteer groups like ours can build a successful model for drawing the public in.

Sandra Treacy
Executive Director
San Francisco School Volunteers
San Francisco, Calif.

Virginia Standards Process:Governor's 'Political Game'

I could not help but snort when reading the comment (related story ) of James Parmelee, the head of Virginia's Young Republicans, that with the current draft of state standards "what Governor [George F.] Allen is doing is trying to remove politics from the schools." As someone involved for a time in Virginia's standards-development process, I can say that if Mr. Parmelee is sincere, he must be a very young Republican indeed.

For the English standards, public meetings were first held around the state to learn what local educators and parents wanted done with the current standards. The overwhelming desire expressed was for their revision, not their replacement: Make them more specific, less preachy in terms of suggested methods, and more technologically inclusive. A group of teachers and specialists selected by local superintendents and guided by a chosen local school district began work on revision. I was a liaison to this group from the state department of education as it grappled rather successfully with some difficult issues.

However, the work of this group was with little warning submitted to a subcommittee of the largely conservative Champion Schools Commission appointed by the Governor as a follow-up to his election campaign. At that point, the task was summarily removed from the teachers and specialists and handed over to a very small task force that included a couple of commission members, several state-education-department and executive-branch personnel, and two or three carefully selected local educators. (When I voiced my discomfort with this process, I was removed from further work on the standards; my department position was later abolished, and I began unexpected early retirement as of May 1.)

Although a couple of members of this small group tried to resist the barrage of directives from commission members, the standards rapidly began to lose most of their resemblance to the representative group's previous work, and also to lose touch with much of the current research on reading and writing. Changes were made to satisfy this or that ideologically inspired demand, resulting in the proverbial horse designed by a committee. It is this sort of camel-like creature that language-arts (and social-studies) educators around the state are now bitterly complaining about.

The Governor hasn't the slightest intention of removing politics from the schools; he just wants his particular ideology to control curriculum and instruction and assessment in the state. ~Unfortunately, what should have been a search for better standards to improve students' thinking and learning has now turned into a political game, with publicity and power as the prizes.

J. Kenneth Bradford
Richmond, Va.

Kentucky Assessment Plan Tackles Multiple Objectives

This letter is to clarify information reported in the article "New Forms of Assessment Receiving Scrutiny" (related story ).

The article indicated that Kentucky, Maryland, and California, all of which have developed innovative assessment programs, did not report individual scores for individual students. While that is true for Maryland and for the design of the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS), it is not true in Kentucky.

While Kentucky does not report something which would be called a student's score on its assessment, it does report a student's result, which is based on a combination of common and matrix-sampled items. This result has been found by school officials in Kentucky to be reliable enough to report on individual students.

This information is important because it demonstrates that assessments can be both innovative and able to tap deeper kinds of learning on the one hand and generate results at the level of the individual student on the other. It may not be particularly easy to do at this point in time, but at least one state is doing it.

Ramsay W. Selden
State Education Assessment Center
Council of Chief State School Officers
Washington, D.C.

Creating a 'False Dichotomy' In Arts-Education Depiction

I have always found your newspaper enormously informative and helpful. But I must take exception to the implied message conveyed by the juxtaposition of the two photographs and the story "Different Drummers" (related story).

The photographs suggest that there is an either/or choice here: Either children learn basic skills (traditional) or they learn through the arts (progressive).

In fact, as one who has spent the past 15 years researching the connections between learning basic skills and the arts, I suggest that you have inadvertently created a false dichotomy in the minds of some readers. The arts have proven to be an extraordinarily effective vehicle for teaching such basic skills as critical thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, and, yes, even reading and mathematics, provided the manner of instruction and the arts curriculum are geared toward those goals.

The arts can be taught in a so-called progressive or a traditional manner, although I no longer subscribe to these distinctions in a world where the hard edges between educational approaches is increasingly blurred.

I consider myself one of arts education's strongest advocates, yet by no means would any of my colleagues accuse me of being "soft" on structure, time on task, high performance standards, and even drill-and-practice when the occasion warrants.

At the same time, the ~successful educational programs I have evaluated over the past 15 years are indeed taught by nurturing teachers and artists, who provide many opportunities for student-initiated projects relating the arts to some other aspect of the required curriculum. My research, as well as that generated by others at places like Harvard Project Zero, suggests that creativity and the acquisition and application of basic skills must be taught interactively, more like a double helix than a ladder. Creative people need order and structure in their lives; likewise, classrooms where creativity is taught as a process for living need to be orderly and structured as well. The content of order is what needs to be examined, as well as the teacher's tolerance for rumination and speculation.

Your story paints attractive pictures of both the Hoover and Ohlane schools in Palo Alto, Calif., and it is clear that the arts are vital parts of both schools. Let us not suggest that in comparing traditional and progressive philosophies, however, the arts become a distinguishing element. And while we're on the subject, let us not perpetuate the old canard that progressive education leads to a kind of sentimental anarchy, while traditional education leads to an intellectual utopia. Such thinking diminishes the value of both educational approaches.

I recommend to your readers a forthcoming publication by the Morrison Institute of Arizona State University which describes in detail the hundreds of studies that confirm a positive relationship between the arts and learning not only basic but secondary and tertiary skills as well.

Carol Fineberg
Educational Consultant
New York, N.Y.

When Egalitarianism Is Co-Opted by the Elitists

Many thanks to Stephen Barone for his Commentary "The Egalitarian Virus" (related story), exposing the misuse of egalitarian rhetoric to emasculate decisionmaking processes. I only wish he had qualified the term "egalitarian" with something like "bogus." After all, the sensibilities and the ideological and class implications of the virus Mr. Barone so brilliantly describes are bureaucratic-libertine and elitist, not egalitarian.

Let us not confuse the rhetoric of egalitarianism with reality. The latter is suggested by the phrase "from each according to his abilities," not "from each according to his desperate need for self-esteem and freedom from decisionmaking responsibility."

Dennis McNamee
Lee, N.H.

Ruminations on Pedagogy, Technology, Newt Gingrich

Thank you for the refreshing skepticism regarding Mr. Speaker's pedagogy (related story ). For some time, I have involuntarily ruminated on his words concerning the college course he taught until recently at a Georgia college. When reporters asked Mr. Gingrich when he would offer the course again, he replied that it was videotaped and that he would not offer it again as it "could not be improved upon," so just buy the tapes.

Laying aside for the moment the controversy surrounding the funding and the partisan nature of his course, educators must tremble at the assumptions underlying Mr. Gingrich's belief that a videotaped course suffices as education. The Socratic method is replaced by lecture without discussion. Even correspondence courses offer more feedback and assessment (never mind higher-level skills and collaboration) than his does.

In my city of Hartford, Conn., the new budget offered by Education Alternatives Inc. would require the firing of over 300 teachers and their replacement by computers in order to make money and increase profits for E.A.I. shareholders. The Speaker's pedagogy would make even more money, as VCR's are cheaper than computers.

Charles Scanlon
Simsbury, Conn.

An Inquiry That May Stump Even the Standards-Writers

A question: Can anyone tell me the origin of the phrase "what students should know and be able to do"? Where did it come from? Who used it first?

Thomas James
Education Department
Brown University
Providence, R.I.

Vol. 14, Issue 34

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