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Taxpayers Favor Performance Pay

To the Editor:

Winston Churchill once remarked that democracy was a terrible form of government, except that it was less terrible than any alternatives. Wellford W. Wilms and Richard R. Chapleau strongly criticize pay-for-performance plans, but they don't proffer a less terrible alternative ("The Illusion of Paying Teachers for Student Performance," Nov. 3, 1999).

They offer pabalum that "only teachers, parents, and students working together at teh schoolhouse levele can improve the systems by which teachers teach and students learn." Unfortunately, they omit a critical member from their reform party that has clamored loudest demanding pay for performance: the taxpayers.

Taxpayers are weary of professional educators' truculent opposition to any empirical instrument of accountability and their endless pleas for more money to solve recurring "crises" decade after decade.

In response, I developed pay-for-performance legislation in California that would ameliorate most of the defects of past plans. This plan awards cash grants directly to parents whose children (not attending schools) receive passing scores on tests by public schools to their own students.

Separating the roles of funding recipient from test administration removes the major institutional conflict of interest that afflicted the historical examples cited by Mr. Wilms and Mr. Chapleau. It also places discretionary power for curriculum choice in the hands of parents, who would be less apt to tolerate sending their own children to schools that drop science, dance, and art classes than the educational establishment in charge of public schools that "teach to the test."

David Barulich
Los Angeles, Calif.

The writer is the founder of EXCEL (the Excellence through Choice in Education League), and the author of various school choice initiatives and legislation in California.

'Good Old Boys' Do the Hiring

To the Editor:

I applaud you for highlighting the blatant inequity of women in superintendency positions ("Women Superintendents: Few and Far Between," Nov. 10, 1999), but I have to ask, what took you so long?

This underrepresentation, when women dominate the field, has existed far too long. And while studies support your findings, I have seen, in my 20 years in the field, little that addresses changing the situation. In fact, as prospective administrators, I and many of my female colleagues have been so turned off by the state of educational administration that even with the right qualifications, we won't go after many administrative jobs. The politics of the "good old boy" network still rule.

Often, when a woman does become an administrator, and especially if she makes it to the superintendency, she gets tagged unfairly with a derogatory label, while her male counterparts are praised as "hard workers." Who needs it?

I have been so discouraged by the pool of administrators currently out there that "effective leadership" became part of my dissertation topic. Higher education is contributing little to solve the problem. Too much focus in educational administration programs is on "management" and not enough on "leadership qualities."

So, now that we are becoming aware of the problems, what are the solutions? I fear that today's administrative shortages will only add to the already troubled state of overpopulated schools by continuing to foster the hiring of unqualified administrators—mostly male and from an unsatisfactory pool of candidates—simply to fill a position.

As long as the trend of male superintendents' hiring administrators in their own image is accepted, we will continue to have leadership that is not representative of the majority of people working in the field or serving the students. This is the reality that keeps women and minority-group members from entering the candidate pool. Let's step up to the challenge and start considering changes.

Gwynne Schapiro
Chicago, Ill.

Amused in Wisconsin Over Reform Claims

To the Editor:

As a teacher from Wisconsin, I was amused by your Commentary commemorating the 10th anniversary of the National Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va. ("'Continuity of Purpose and a Common Vocabulary,'" Oct. 13, 1999). The essay, co-authored by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, infers that some part of the "solid, incremental approach to education reform" cited for our state is due to the leadership of the governor's office. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Wisconsin elects its state superintendent of schools. Voters have been prudent in their choices, and people with sound educational backgrounds have held the post for all of Gov. Thompson's tenure. Attending governors' conferences and bragging about what those superintendents have accomplished has been Mr. Thompson's primary contribution to education in our state. And, furthermore, the accomplishments have taken place in spite of the roadblocks the governor has thrown into the path of education reform.

Gov. Thompson's agenda has been strongly pro-business, resulting in tax breaks for businesses in a state that is one of the most highly taxed in the nation. Education is very costly in today's world, yet these tax breaks have produced a "solid, incremental approach" to cutting funds to education. The governor has imposed revenue caps that have kept deteriorating schools from fixing roofs and maintaining school properties. We allot less than half of promised funds to special education (a mandated program). And Mr. Thompson's formulation keeps the average teacher's salary increase at around 1.3 percent per year.

The result? We have crumbling schools with disenchanted teachers and overworked business managers who are trying to make ends meet with neither the money nor the legal means to repair the schools and pay the teachers.

Our state's high graduation rate, innovative early-learning programs, and exceptional test scores have little to do with the governor. Those successes are the direct result of the blood, sweat, and tears of those of us who man the trenches daily—and of a succession of good state superintendents of schools.

Jo Gehl
Kaukauna, Wis.

Arguments Undone: On Grammar, Films, and Absolute Stands

To the Editor:

Two attempts by writers in your Nov. 3, 1999, issue to score knockouts fail to lay a glove on their opponents.

Carol Jago's Commentary ("To View or Not To View?") advocates excluding films from English classes because, among other reasons, "every moment in an English class is precious." Having taught and observed English classes for several years, I can say that there is a considerable amount of downtime to be found in English classes, particularly in the 90-minute block periods, one of the current panaceas for educational ills. (Ms. Jago fails to acknowledge these double periods in calculating how many class days one can waste showing a feature film.) Further, much of the rich substance of English courses is mined outside the classroom, at home or in libraries, where students read analytically and work to develop a writing voice.

In comparing texts from Great Expectations and The Age of Innocence with the film directors' visions of the same scenes, Ms. Jago maintains that the comparison is a no-brainer because the films lack the subtlety of the printed works and because they are, in effect, substitutes for the real thing. In fact, they are only substitutes if the teacher presents them to classes that way. In using unwarranted generalizations and ignoring points that would weaken her argument (for example, why not show original films, such as "Dead Poets Society" and discuss their values, instead of staying with film adaptations of classics?), Ms. Jago allows her opponent to "move to a neutral corner."

Martha J. Cook's letter chiding Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, for a grammatically incorrect statement, also takes an absolute stand ("A Grammar Update for Literacy Experts," Nov. 3, 1999).

Ms. Cook, who admits to developing her own grammar reference book because she couldn't find one that suited her, is a prescriptive grammarian in a world that has become increasingly descriptive. I'm sure she rues the day, shortly after World War II, when the eminent linguist C.C. Fries revealed that educated people--in their letters to formal organizations--were disregarding the initial "whom" to begin questions in which the grammatical construction would prescribe the objective case.

Nor would it please her to know that "week day" (n.) and "week-day" (adj.), which I taught 7th grade spellers years ago, have both evolved into "weekday."

I'm not sure whether Mr. Farstrup's comment was spoken or written, two modes of expression that accomodate different degrees of informality. I am sure, however, that Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, under the entries "epicene pronouns" and "he," refuses to condemn this usage [the plural pronoun "they" for the antecedent "someone"]. Clearly, many educated people, men and women, resort to this phrasing to escape from a corner that our masculine-referenced language has driven us into. One of the charms of language is that it's flexible and that old grammatical logic doesn't necessarily apply today.

Not surprisingly, neither excluding films from English classes nor teaching prescriptive grammar is part of Mike Schmoker's formula for improving student achievement, which also appears in the Nov. 3 issue ("The Quiet Revolution in Achievement").

Henry B. Maloney
Troy, Mich.

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Page 34

Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Letters

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