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Anti-Desegregation Bias in Urban Education Report?

To the Editor:

Congratulations on the 1998 edition of Quality Counts, Jan. 8, 1998. It is a great piece of work, and the wide attention it has already received is bound to spark new interest in urban education reform.

As with any report this comprehensive, there are bound to be a few clinkers, and that unfortunately is the case with the Missouri segment of your report, which contains factual errors and reflects a transparent bias against desegregation to anyone familiar with the St. Louis situation.

The metropolitan plan in St. Louis did not come about through the proposal of a federal judge (although a three-judge appeals panel did mention it as a potential remedy), but through settlement of a lawsuit brought by representatives of black schoolchildren and the city board of education. U.S. District Judge George Gunn did not appoint an "arbitrator" in 1996, but a settlement coordinator, William Danforth, who, unlike an arbitrator, does not have authority to impose a remedy on the parties.

As to state Attorney General Jeremiah W. Nixon's September 1997 offer, the report says that some unidentified parents expressed support on "grounds that more money might be used for magnet schools instead of busing." If there were such parents, they were sadly misinformed, since the proposal would have phased out funding for magnets as well as all other forms of desegregation and educational improvement. Your terminology is also revealing, since magnets, like other forms of desegregation, involve busing. Sometimes reporters use the shorthand of busing to contrast magnets with mandatory forms of desegregation, but that doesn't work here because the metropolitan program also enrolls only parents who volunteer.

Your account also distorts the reasons that the state attorney general withdrew his proposal. While his breach of the confidentiality requirements of the settlement process was a small factor in the criticism, it was the storm of protest by black elected officials and black and white educators and parents that led Mr. Nixon to conclude that his proposed return to segregation would not serve his aspirations for higher office. The fact could not have been hidden from you, even though you chose not to speak to me or any other representative or plaintiffs. It was reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other newspapers on an almost daily basis last fall.

Finally, even when you choose to report some facts, you insist on mischaracterizing them. So, you inform us that whether desegregation has been "truly effective is open to interpretation." This is followed by citations to the findings of Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain that the metropolitan desegregation program in St. Louis has led to improved achievement, higher graduation rates, and increased college attendance for participating black students. The findings are uncontradicted. Nor do you see fit to mention the recent report of the Joint Interim Committee of the State Legislature--a bipartisan group of legislators that represents rural, suburban, and urban areas and that contains more conservatives than liberals. That report found that students benefit from the metropolitan school program--"both those who are commuting to county schools and those who attend school with transfer students."

You are entitled to your own negative views about the value of the desegregation settlement in St. Louis. But by injecting them into what is supposed to be a fair and objective account of what has happened in St. Louis, you have done a disservice to your readers and obscured one of the few pieces of good news about what has worked to improve educational opportunity for poor and minority children in urban areas.

William L. Taylor
Attorney for the Caldwell/NAACP plaintiffs
Washington, D.C.

Accusing Lauded Principal of 'Reverse Midas Touch'

To the Editor:

Doris Alvarez, the principal at Hoover High School in San Diego, has an amazing ability to make her reverse Midas touch look like progress and hope for urban children ("High Schools: No Quick Fixes," Quality Counts '98, Jan. 8, 1998.)

The fact is that in the latter portion of her tenure as principal at Hoover High (1992-1996, including the recentering adjustments), the school's SAT scores sank a full 90 points, 53 in mathematics alone, to go from the bottom 9th percentile among California schools to the bottom 4th. The San Diego Unified School District's board of education was absolutely justified in designating the school as one of the bottom 20 in the district and in need of immediate academic-performance attention on the basis of this information alone. The 1997 numbers came up 17 points to 788 total, which, though abysmal, is a long-overdue reversal of their downward spiral. But that information was not available to the school board.

To quote your story, "Many reformers believe that providing 9th graders with a structured introduction to high school, as Hoover has done, is a crucial first step in turning around urban schools." Why? For the national praise it generates at the expense of the academic performance and future educational opportunities of the students?

Wayne Bishop
Professor of Mathematics
California State University, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, Calif.

On National-Exam Tyranny: 'Tired, Provincial Arguments'

To the Editor:

I found Marc F. Bernstein's Commentary, ("The Tyranny of a National Curriculum," Jan. 21, 1998), to be little more than a compilation of tired, old, provincial arguments that have plagued education for decades. The central question is and always will be, "Are there skills and knowledge that everyone should have as a result of 12 years of public education?" Of course there are.

Who would not argue that everyone should know how to calculate addition problems, understand the nature of electricity, or be able to identify the subject and verb of an English sentence? These examples and thousands more are noncontroversial and taught every day in all American public school systems. There is knowledge, and a set of academic skills, that all could agree should be taught and tested during 12 years of school. Leave anything that truly is controversial out of a national assessment. Even a short test is better than what we have now.

There is no "tyranny," and if we think like Mr. Bernstein and throw in the towel, we'll never get the chance to arrive at consensus.

Douglas M. Hill
Elkton, Md.

Progressive-Math Peril Is Less Than Advertised

To the Editor:

Please permit me to respond to Tom Loveless' letter of Dec. 3, 1997 ("Math-Reform Critic: 'The Rebellion Is Real'"). When he refers to my letter of Nov. 5, 1997, Mr. Loveless misrepresents what I said ("'Math Rebellion' Essay Amuses, Disappoints, Tires").

I did not say I was unaware of any unhappiness with the 1989 mathematics standards. I made, and still make, two points:

There is no teacher I have met who fits Mr. Loveless' description of what he refers to as the "progressive math educator" ("The Second Great Math Rebellion," Oct. 15, 1997).

Neither is there an "army," of which Mr. Loveless is a part, that is rebelling against math reform.

I made these particular points for a reason. Mr. Loveless would love nothing more than to win the reader over into a sort of math-reform-fearing militia. What better recruiting technique than to invent an enemy--the progressive math educator--and then invent an army fighting him? "Are you with us?" he asks.

Oh, come on. There is no progressive-math peril using national standards to foist its ideology on unsuspecting schools. There are no legions of evil math educators, tossing facts and formulas willy-nilly out of their lesson plans. There is a change under way in math education and education generally, brought about by a changing world and economy, and by advances in our understanding of how young people learn.

The world is changing. Here in the age of computing and communication, there isn't a single simple set of facts to teach our children. There is rather a torrent of information, and we must prepare our young people to use math, science, and language to navigate through it. We must also teach them to communicate their understanding well to others, and build on their understanding well with others.

We have advanced in our understanding of how young people learn. On this I refer Mr. Loveless and the reader to the first program in a remarkable television series, "Minds of Our Own," produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Mr. Loveless' home institution. By the way, I don't think the words "progressive" or "constructivist" appear anywhere in the program.

Finally, regarding the Time magazine article, "This is Math?" I do wish Mr. Loveless hadn't mentioned it. But since he did, and since he encourages the reader to look to that article for a "full account of the critics' objections" to math reform, let me encourage the reader to do the same. There you will find the same shallow and silly objections that Mr. Loveless put forward in his original Commentary--along with the whole of Mr. Loveless' math militia.

Scott P. Roberts
The Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project
Washington, D.C.

Lack of Bilingual Program Not a Performance Booster

To the Editor:

Taft Elementary School Principal William Hart notes that his school had the highest test scores in the Santa Ana (Calif.) Unified School District last year, and clearly credits the school's English-immersion philosophy for some of this performance ("English Spoken Here," Jan. 14, 1998).

Taft children did indeed do well in Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills reading last year (a mean of 48, compared with the district mean of 22.5). They also, however, were far below the district mean in percentage of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch (Taft, 44 percent; district, 80 percent), an indication of socioeconomic status, as well as in percentage of limited-English-proficient children (Taft, 36 percent; district, 78 percent). For the 31 schools in the Santa Ana district, reading scores and percentage of children with free or reduced-price lunch were nearly perfectly correlated (r = -.93): Higher-socioeconomic-status schools did better.

A simple regression analysis predicts that a Santa Ana school with 36 percent of the children on free or reduced-price lunch will score 43.3 on the CTBS; Taft's actual score is not significantly different from that figure.

Taft's success has, most likely, nothing to do with the absence of a bilingual education program. In fact, some of it could be due to the fact that higher-socioeconomic-status immigrant children are more likely to have had quality education in their first language before coming to the United States, what can be called de facto bilingual education.

Stephen Krashen
Professor of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif

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