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Neither Boys Nor Girls Should Lag

To the Editor:

Cornelius Riordan nicely articulates the complexities that underlie what is rightly emerging as a prime societal issue: the development and education of boys ("The Silent Gender Gap," Nov. 17, 1999).

Such a statement might surprise some, coming from an organization dedicated to the development and education of girls. However, we are convinced that the overall effort on behalf of girls can serve as a model for improving conditions for all children in all settings, boys included.

That said, there is one key point that must be emphasized: Any changes in girls’ achievement relative to boys’ are decidedly recent, and by no means institutionalized within the educational system or in society as a whole. It is far, far too early to talk of scaling back efforts on behalf of, or redirecting resources away from, girls simply because we are seeing signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off.

Rather, the appropriate conclusion to be drawn is that boys deserve increased attention—but not at the expense of girls. Mr. Riordan clearly recognizes this; some analysts who are less even-handed than he might not. It must be stressed that there is nothing to be gained by pitting our children against each other, as if this were some sort of "either/or" situation. Instead, we must ensure that the attention paid to boys is brought up to the same level that has begun to benefit girls.

Whitney Ransome
Meg Milne Moulton
Executive Directors
The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools
Concord, Mass.

No ‘Rock Solid’ Violence Predictors

To the Editor:

I was troubled to read the essay on the prediction of violence by Dr. Neal D. Barnard and Karen M. Pirozzi, which asserted that early animal abuse is a "rock-solid sign of trouble" ("A Violence Predictor Schools Should Heed," Nov. 17, 1999). As the director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project and a psychologist who has studied juvenile homicide for 15 years, I have found no "rock solid" predictors.

It is true that a disproportionate number of homicidally violent youths and adults have a history of abusing animals, and repeated abuse of animals should surely be taken seriously. But this well-known observation does not mean that such a history can be relied upon as a predictor. There will be many false-positive predictions.

Many children mistreat animals—and some mistreatment crosses the indefinite line into cruelty and abuse—yet do not go on to commit acts of violence toward human beings. In the desperate search to understand and respond to the recent series of school shootings, we must be careful not to latch on to plausible but statistically unfounded predictors which raise hopes that will surely be disappointed.

The most important means of identifying potentially violent young people is through trusting relationships and communication with the large numbers of troubled, angry, and alienated youths in our schools. There is no substitute for caring teachers and counselors reaching out to young people who express their feelings quite clearly through their speech, dress, and behavior.

We need adequate numbers of well-trained staff members in our schools, and a staff-to-student ratio that permits our educators to know their students and have time to talk to them and understand them. No checklist of signs or symptoms will do better.

Dewey G. Cornell
Professor of Education
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Va.

Performance Pay and ‘Sabotage’

To the Editor:

It must have been disturbing to many teachers in places where results are considered key factors in determining how well they are doing to read that they had become "adept at deflecting or sabotaging reforms" ("The Illusion of Paying Teachers for Student Performance," Nov. 3, 1999). Here in New Jersey, at least, we tend to find that teachers embrace reforms that will help them help students learn more.

Wellford W. Wilms and Richard R. Chapleau extrapolate too readily from history. However irresistible teachers in 1890s Britain may have found teaching exclusively to the test, it is irresponsible to conclude that today’s American teachers—who generally are fairly compensated—would ignore such areas as character education, socialization skills, or research techniques in favor of teaching students only the curriculum to be tested on increasingly curriculum-centered state exams. It is especially unfair, given that incentives are proposed for only a small part of teachers’ compensation.

Many teachers receive compensation for earning additional degrees, yet presumably Mr. Wilms and Mr. Chapleau will not argue that these teachers are ignoring their classes. Teachers receive additional incentives for supervising various extracurricular activities, yet we don’t fear that they will focus class time only on preparing for football games or chess matches.

To argue that giving teachers incentives to help students improve their grasp of state curricula will somehow cause them to neglect teaching other areas is disrespectful to teachers as well as to the administrators who oversee classroom performance.

Mark Trentacoste
Cherry Hill, N.J.

Scholars’ Plea on Math Praised

To the Editor:

I applaud California State University-Northridge professor David Klein and the nearly 200 top mathematicians, physicists, and other scholars who urged the U.S. Department of Education to withdraw its recent seal of approval for K-12 math programs ("Academics Urge Riley To Reconsider Math Endorsements," Nov. 24, 1999).

As a publishing company with roots dating back to 1832, one thing we clearly understand is that teaching children "the basics" when it comes to mathematics is vital to their overall academic achievement. California is now leading the country’s mathematics renaissance by enacting world-class standards that exceed the demands of the most academically challenging countries in the world. These new standards will enable California’s schools and students to be the model for the rest of the nation.

Mathematics educators would do well to follow the Golden State’s example. As rigorous as the standards themselves was the California textbook-adoption process that publishers had to withstand to receive state approval. It included four separate reviews, conducted by university mathematicians, classroom teachers, administrators, other academic experts, and finally, the state board of education. All four California review panels unanimously approved our Progress in Mathematics K-6 program. We have made it our business to produce materials that balance tradition and standards while being beneficial to both the student and the teacher.

This debate doesn’t need to escalate into a full-blown "math war." The answer is simple: Students need the "basic" tools necessary to achieve mathematics success.

William Sadlier Dinger
Sadlier Publishing Inc.
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I read with interest your article, "Academics Urge Riley To Reconsider Math Endorsements," Nov. 24, 1999. I personally think the mathematicians’ "rebellion" has legitimate reasons, and therefore is highly justified. However, I was struck most by the following statement: "‘It’s a shame when mathematicians are criticizing other mathematicians,’ said Ann Watkins, who is one herself as well as an original architect of the Core-Plus Mathematics Project, another program on the ‘exemplary’ list."

Maybe Ms. Watkins needs to indulge in some critical thinking, a skill much ballyhooed by many of those "exemplary" programs. If mathematicians do not criticize others, mathematicians or not, when they think others are wrong, they would be behaving unethically and immorally. It seems that in Ms. Watkins’ opinion, consensus is more important than the truth. I hope she does not reflect the teaching community in general.

Ze’ev Wurman
Palo Alto, Calif.

Milwaukee Choice: Accountability and Research

To the Editor:

Alex Molnar’s Commentary on evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program ("Unfinished Business in Milwaukee," Nov. 17, 1999) is right on target. As he notes, from 1990 to 1995, the Wisconsin state superintendent of public instruction had the authority to evaluate the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. These evaluations showed mixed results, but generally found that students in the choice schools did about the same as those who remained in Milwaukee’s public schools. After five years, the power to undertake an annual evaluation was taken from the state superintendent by the legislature and governor. Supporters of private school vouchers are some of the strongest critics of public education and invariably demand more and more accountability on the part of public schools. In Wisconsin (and elsewhere), they want tougher academic standards and high-stakes testing for students; state takeovers of poor-performing districts; more stringent criteria for teacher licensing (for example, teacher testing and using students’ test scores to make decisions about licensing); pay linked to student performance; and many other measures. Yet many of these same people oppose legislation that requires even the most fundamental accountability for private schools receiving public dollars.

This certainly is true in the Milwaukee parental-choice program, where schools are not required to employ certified teachers or to accept students with exceptional educational needs if significant adjustments to school programs or facilities are required. Their students also are not required to participate in state-level testing programs.

Once in the program, schools can continue to participate if they meet only one of four rather weak criteria: (1) 70 percent or more of the students must advance at least one grade level each year; (2) there must be an average attendance rate of 90 percent; (3) at least 80 percent of the students must demonstrate significant academic progress; or (4) at least 70 percent of parents must meet parent-involvement criteria established by each of the participating schools.

I’m not sure how to describe those who demand more and more of public schools while establishing weak or nonexistent standards for private schools using public dollars. But hypocrisy is one word that comes to mind. Mr. Molnar is correct. We need a thorough evaluation of what already exists in Milwaukee.

Russ Allen
Research and Professional Development
Wisconsin Education Association Council
Madison, Wis.

To the Editor:

Alex Molnar’s Commentary, "Unfinished Business in Milwaukee," Nov. 17, 1999, made a half-hearted attempt at neutrality on the issue of parental choice and vouchers in education. His references to rumor and innuendo about the performance of voucher students in Roman Catholic schools, however, were clearly disingenuous.

The evidence on the effectiveness of inner-city Catholic education for the poor and disadvantaged is at this juncture irrefutable. A plethora of studies prove that holistic education, which includes an inspirational ideology, a core curriculum, disciplined environment, and caring staff, is particularly effective in helping at-risk children achieve. This, along with the common-sense principles of competition and its resulting accountability, should be a guide to advancing choice.

Mr. Molnar should examine the Reason Foundation’s policy study "Given the Choice: A Study of the PAVE Program and School Choice in Milwaukee." It shows that students who were given private scholarships to parochial schools in Milwaukee significantly outperformed both public and private secular Milwaukee Parental Choice Program children on standardized tests of academic achievement.

People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the teachers’ unions would not support school choice even if we had thousands of studies proving its effectiveness. But evidence from other countries, from higher education, and from wealthy Americans who already have choice demonstrates its power and practicality.

Ronald T. Bowes
Assistant Superintendent
Diocese of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Women Chiefs: Notable Exceptions Overlooked

I share the dismay that only a small percentage of women have been able to crack the male-dominated superintendency’s glass ceiling ("Women Superintendents: Few and Far Between," Nov. 10, 1999). In the early 1990s, I conducted the superintendent search for a small district on Long Island, N.Y., and presented the board with five exceptionally qualified candidates, three women and two men. Diana Lam, presently the Providence, R.I., superintendent, and Beverly Hall, the current Atlanta superintendent, were among the candidates. Ms. Lam and two of the men were interviewed, but none of the candidates was hired. Instead, the district hired a man with no school experience, who remained in the post only a short time. I was surprised, however, that your leadership article failed to point out that, in spite of the difficulties women face in heading school systems, African-American women have been or are now the superintendents in many of the major districts in the country: Atlanta; Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; Hartford, Conn.; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Richmond, Va.; and Washington. I hope the continuation of your leadership series will explore the leadership of women of color in depth.

Donald H. Smith
Professor and Chair Emeritus
Department of Education
Baruch College, City University of New York
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Having been a superintendent for over 20 years—but thankfully no longer—I truly enjoyed your article ("Women Superintendents: Few and Far Between," Nov. 10, 1999) about the challenges facing female superintendents. I found the article especially interesting since I had the pleasure of working with two women featured in your article: Paula C. Butterfield, the superintendent of schools in Mercer Island, Wash.; and Evelyn Blose Holman, the superintendent of the Bayshore, N.Y, schools. I have often wondered why so many talented women with whom I have worked were not interested in being school superintendents.

A partial answer, I believe, comes from a comment made by a Providence, R.I., citizen regarding Diana Lam, the city’s new superintendent and, in my view, one of the best superintendents in the country. This citizen’s view of Ms. Lam’s coming in and making major changes as a threat to education is ludicrous. Is it possible that sexism still exists in education?

Stuart Berger
President and CEO
Alternatives Unlimited Inc.
Baltimore, Md.

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Pages 32-33

Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as Letters

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