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Charter School Proponents Are Not Pursuing 'Agenda'

To the Editor:

In a belated response to the National Education Association's criticism of the Center for Education Reform (Letters, Jan. 31, 1996), I would like to express my resentment over the suggestion that I, and thousands of other charter school proponents across the country, are pursuing an "agenda" to erode public education.

Frankly, I've grown weary of the rhetoric and innuendo that paints education reformers as anti-public schools, and now, as anti-American. To explain: In a recent Education Week article ("Teachers Unions Appear To Trade Places on Reform," Dec. 6, 1996), I said that the NEA, and unions in general, have consistently worked, and are working, to water down charter school laws in state after state. That's true, and if you don't believe me, ask any of the charter proponents or state legislators who have gone head to head with the unions over charter laws.

In its Jan. 31 letter, the NEA responded by saying that I and other charter proponents "would use the charter movement to pave the way for vouchers," and are those "who really have a watering-down agenda--one that would erode the very principles [that have made] public education the foundation on which our great democracy has been built."

So now we're subverting democracy? What will the NEA say next--that Congress needs to reconvene the House Un-American Activities Committee, or that charter proponents be hanged for treason?

Although I've come to expect the sneering resistance of the NEA (and the other usual suspects) when it comes to advocating honest reform instead of the establishment's incremental tinkering, this latest attack-by-innuendo is a little too much. Not just because it smears the good names of so many people who are truly committed to giving children a better education, but because of the damage it does to the charter school movement.

First of all, proponents of strong charter schools are not working to "pave the way for vouchers," and the NEA knows it. In fact, the efforts of many charter school advocates are directed toward preserving public school systems so that there might not be a need for vouchers. They see charter schools as a huge leap forward in giving public school systems options for providing children with a variety of valuable alternatives, and for providing teachers with equally valuable opportunities for creative and effective teaching.

As an example of what the NEA sees as a solid charter model and what I, and many others, call a diluted effort, look at Arkansas, where you can only start a charter if you are an already existing public school, the teachers' union approves the proposal, and the school remains a part of the district's bargaining unit.

Is this really what parents and communities are looking for in the charter movement? No new schools, no new ideas not endorsed by the union, no latitude in hiring, no latitude in fairly compensating teachers?

Charters are intended to be unique and innovative. Strong charter bills, which are generally opposed by the NEA and other unions, allow that. Weak charter bills, which are embraced by the unions, don't.

I don't begrudge the NEA its interest in the charter school movement. I'm sure the association senses the winds of change and realizes they are far behind in their efforts to respond to the wants and needs of parents and children. But the NEA's Charter Schools Initiative is part of the charter movement in name only, and no amount of innuendo or name-calling directed at those who are working for strong charter schools will change that.

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

Test Publishers Support 'Multiple Measures' Approach

To the Editor:

Judging from Monty Neill's recent Commentary on assessment ("Assessment Reform at a Crossroads," Feb. 28, 1996), you would think that assessment reform stands with its back to an abyss. Progress, he suggests, is threatened by hobgoblins--test publishers and politicians who thwart the efforts of reformers to create state performance-assessment programs. A little push backward and whoops!, our nation's schools will fall into a sinister pit of poor testing practices.

Fortunately, the current status of assessment reform is not bleak, as Mr. Neill would have us believe. In fact, there is a great deal of light in the field--light in the form of the multiple-measures approach that many school districts and states are now taking.

Today, an increasing number of educators are understanding the real power and utility of creating testing programs that combine performance assessments, norm-referenced tests, and other measures. The multiple-measures approach recognizes that no single assessment can do the job. This approach puts the right kind of assessment to work for the right purpose. Norm-referenced tests, on the other hand, while they also provide instructional information, are used to generate baseline and comparative data.

Many of us who are engaged in educational assessment do not see the reintroduction or inclusion of norm-referenced tests in a state testing program as a "retreat" from progress. In fact, many educators and policymakers see it as a common-sense step in the right direction.

Mr. Neill fosters the impression that the "retreat" from performance assessments is being led by test publishers. However, there is no advantage to publishers' doing so. Most of the major test publishers have successfully developed and marketed a variety of performance assessments, as well as norm-referenced tests and other types of measurements.

At a time when the public's confidence in schools appears to be at an all-time low, it is not in our interest to shun measures that provide objective data.

There are many people in our universities, state departments of education, and local school districts asking questions about the ability of alternative assessments to provide valid and reliable data--information that is often required by governors, legislators, policymakers, superintendents, and parents. It is not a matter of whether performance assessments are "better" than other measures. When they are properly designed and used for their intended purpose, they are effective instruments. But we should not create assessment programs thinking that performance assessments will generate the type of objective data that norm-referenced tests do. Without objective, consistent data, how will people make decisions regarding their schools? Educators hoping to compare student progress across time, from school to school, district to district, and state to state will lack the mechanism to do so.

It is ironic that as the public calls for greater accountability, some education reformers continue to assert that we should forfeit the very types of assessments integral to a multiple-measures approach that can demonstrate whether our schools are succeeding.

Michael H. Kean
Vice President for Public and Governmental Affairs
Monterey, Calif.

The writer is the chairman of the test committee of the Association of American Publishers.

Bilingual-Education Story: Three Dissenting Views

To the Editor:

I am writing to protest the irresponsible article concerning bilingual-education programs in Bushwick, N.Y. ("Parents Worry Bilingual Education Hurts Students," Feb. 28, 1996). Although the article purported to report on the discontent of Bushwick parents with bilingual education, you apparently never spoke to more than two parents nor uncovered the deep divisions within the Bushwick community that the lawsuit has caused. In fact, many, and some would even say the majority, of the parents in Bushwick support bilingual education. In reaction to the lawsuit, another group of parents has formed the Committee in Defense of Bilingual Education, and neighborhood organizations and leaders have taken a stand against the lawsuit.

You also failed to discuss the fact that, although the two parents/guardians who were quoted in the article stated that they did not want to eliminate bilingual education, everything about the lawsuit they believe they support is aimed at doing just that. Did you stop to think about who is really driving this lawsuit? Parents or an organization with its own political agenda?

Sandra Del Valle
Associate Counsel
Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Regarding your article "Parents Worry Bilingual Education Hurts Students": While I agree with one parent's dismay at his child's struggling in a bilingual program (it appears that this child really doesn't even speak Spanish and has been misplaced), the fact is that students with limited English proficiency cannot survive in the regular classroom. The rare exception is the child who has a tremendous amount of support and tutoring outside of school.

Your article implies an all-day bilingual program, but many students remain in the mainstream and are pulled out only for content instruction in math, reading, and English as a second language. English-as-a-second-language instruction is done in English and is a requirement of all bilingual programs.

The native language is used to the degree necessary to teach reading and mathematics skills, so that these children stay at their appropriate grade level while they acquire English. Researchers agree that most youths need five to seven years to acquire enough English skills to be able to learn new material through English in the regular classroom and to be able to pass the state tests necessary either to exit the bilingual program or to meet the English-proficiency requirement for high school graduation. Thus, the main goal of a bilingual program is to keep the child at grade level while he or she acquires the necessary English skills. To just focus on English is missing the point.

We have bilingual programs for a reason, and that reason is to provide equal access to the high school diploma. I don't think that Latino parents want to deny their children this opportunity. What good is English only without a high school diploma?

Tom Parker
Mays Landing, NJ

To the Editor:

We are extremely concerned and angered by the potential message or intent of your article on bilingual education. Such press accounts fuel the fire of the misguided and misinformed attack on bilingual education, which is led by paranoia, hatred, fear, misunderstanding, misconceptions, and xenophobic individuals and groups whose selfish and isolationist beliefs cloud their vision and do not allow for an awareness of the proven benefits of a multilingual/multicultural society.

Your article unfairly emphasizes the emotional concerns of a limited few and does not counter those with the many successes and the research findings that support the need for and benefits of these programs.

We hope that Education Week does not have a hidden agenda in its coverage of this controversial issue. We believe that the paper has given undue space and emphasis to very specific and isolated incidences calling into question the advantages of bilingual-education programs.

Dan and Lupe Buell
San Diego, Calif.

Bored, Alienated Teens Are Really Nothing New

To the Editor:

In "Apathy and Anonymity" (Commentary, March 6, 1996), Gene I. Maeroff implies that it is more difficult for today's supposedly put-upon children to become self-satisfied teenagers than it was in the past. Yet adolescent dissatisfaction is an age-old phenomenon. Throughout time, teens have felt that they were not perceived by adults as "they would like to be known." It is not surprising, therefore, that today's teenagers believe adults do not see each of them as unique personalities. (Mr. Maeroff forgets to mention that the rage for peer approval by these youths, exemplified by intense conformity in dress, talk, interests, and other attributes, may lead adults to this reasonable viewpoint.)

Numerous teenage characters in historical chronicles and literature have felt, moreover, that their peculiar scholastic problems were all but ignored by adults. The enduring school stories attest to the timelessness of teenage feelings of boredom and alienation. Thus, Mr. Maeroff's version, that society today is especially guilty in stoking pubescents' discontent, is little more than antihistorical special pleading.

Neither are the solutions for these ageless feelings of unfulfillment offered by "Breaking Ranks," the recent Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching-supported study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (on which Mr. Maeroff bases his comments), novel or otherwise compellingly original. In substance, Mr. Maeroff notes, the study came to the unremarkable conclusion that adults should devote more "care" to teenagers (as if the present generation of them is not the most pampered and indulged of all time). There is nothing in the report about harried teachers finding it increasingly difficult to extend nurturing tutelage to today's especially unresponsive, hostile, and callous youths.

Patrick Groff
San Diego, Calif.

Vol. 15, Issue 27

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