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Civics Scores Were Amazing, In Context

To the Editor:

Deep in the midst of your article on the National Assessment of Educational Progress results for civics lies the surprising observation that the scores on the civics test are similar to those for other subjects ("Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students," Nov. 24, 1999).

This achievement by American students is especially remarkable given the fact that the area of civic education and social studies has not received much attention or support from traditional sources interested in improving education. While identified as a core subject in the Goals for America agenda, it receives little or no state or federal funding, is not normally included on state standardized assessments, and is neglected in a high-pressure, test-focused curriculum. The little attention it does receive comes from teachers with little time or preparation, working in an environment that discourages civic involvement.

Given its importance for our democratic society, some might think it curious that so few in positions of power, importance, or persuasion seem interested in lifting the level of civic knowledge and involvement in our country.

Civic education is the only school subject that helps youngsters develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good. It is where students develop a core of basic knowledge and ways of thinking drawn from many disciplines, learn how to analyze their own and others’ ideas and opinions, and become motivated to participate in civic and community life as active, informed citizens. It is one of the most fundamental programs in the schools, and it is time to give it some attention and support.

All things considered, those NAEP results were an amazing achievement. Congratulations to America’s students.

Tedd Levy
Norwalk, Conn.

That ‘Ideal School’ Won’t Be Public

To the Editor:

In Peter D. Relic’s ideal school, "the focus of the school is the student" and "the curriculum . . . is designed by the faculty to match the strengths and to meet the needs of the students" ("The Ideal School," Nov. 24, 1999). Dream on, Mr. Relic.

The increasing use of narrow, high-stakes testing to evaluate student and teacher performance is eroding the freedom of teachers to tailor their teaching to the needs of their students. In reality, Mr. Relic’s wonderful school will probably not be a public one.

Carl O. Olson
Retired School Administrator
Cary, N.C.

Sponsor Clarifies Title I Legislation

To the Editor:

I’d like to respond to comments made by Phyllis McClure in a letter to the editor regarding the recent changes to the Title I legislation ("Title I Standards: Already Required," Nov. 17, 1999).

My amendment requires states to include standards-based assessments in science as part of Title I by the 2005-06 school year. This focus on assessment will increase the attention given to science education and show results in improved programs. Given the importance of science and technology to our national well-being, the U.S. House of Representatives thought this increased attention was both appropriate and necessary.

I have long been a supporter of the Eisenhower professional-development program for math and science teachers, and have worked hard to ensure that this focus remain in federal legislation. I also believe we need to do more, particularly for new teachers. In January, I hope to offer new legislation, the National Science Education Act, that will, among other things, facilitate the recruitment and training of mathematics and science teachers, much as Ms. McClure suggests.

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich.
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.

Religious Partners: Where Are Muslims?

To the Editor:

Your article, "Closer Ties Sought Between Schools, Religious Groups," (Nov. 17, 1999) cites a same- page related story on teaching about the Bible in public schools ("Groups Endorse Guidelines on Using the Bible in Instruction," Nov. 17, 1999).

If indeed the partnerships touted in the first article include mosques, what happened to the missing Muslims in your related story? Where is the new book of guidelines entitled The Koran in Public Schools? Will it be forthcoming in a few months? Or is the alliance between schools and mosques a mere paper partnership?

Seems a bit one-sided to me.

Durrett Wagner
Evanston, Ill.

Why Do Women Fail To Apply?

To the Editor:

Your article, "Women Superintendents: Few and Far Between," (Nov. 10, 1999) fails to ask one very pertinent question: Why are females hesitant to apply for the superintendency? Women may actually attain the position at a rate greater than the percentage that apply. My experience over the past 10 years has found that the percentage of female applicants will seldom reach 10 percent.

Although I have seen no definitive research on this topic, the causal factors may range from relocation concerns to family obligations. But the fact remains even with the enormous pool of talent, females do not choose to apply.

Michael P. Stevens
Associate Professor
West Texas A&M University
Canyon, Texas

For Vouchers, Not Against Charters

To the Editor:

Your article, "Gathering of Mayors Focuses on Vouchers, Charter Schools," (Nov. 3, 1999) misinterpreted my support for vouchers to represent opposition to charter schools.

In fact, I support both vouchers and charter schools. I just don’t think that school choice involving only charter schools is enough.

To keep charter schools and district schools from being crushed by excessive central-government regulation, we need for parents also to be able to choose religiously affiliated schools. U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the First Amendment prohibit governments from excessively entangling themselves with religious institutions. If district and charter schools are forced to compete with these less regulated religious schools, there will finally be an incentive for public- sector unions to support decreased government regulation.

Instituting a voucher system will not just result in improved district-run schools; it will also save charter schools from ever-increasing regulation.

Bret Schundler
Jersey City, N.J.

Keep ‘Public Schools’ Under Public Control

To the Editor:

Stephen R. Bartlet, in a recent letter to the editor, writes, What is happening in Milwaukee is a redefinition of public education into government schools, private schools, and religious schools ("Voucher Analysts Ask the Wrong Questions,"Letters, Dec. 1, 1999). And that is precisely what is wrong in Milwaukee.

The term public school should apply only to schools under public control that practice no discrimination in admissions or hiring and that do not indoctrinate students with a religion or ideology. Private and sectarian schools simply do not measure up, and support for them through vouchers can only fragment our school population along religious and social class lines, increase educational costs without commensurate gains, and destroy real public education.

Government schools is a buzzword used by voucher advocates to denigrate public education and promote their undemocratic cause.

If Wisconsin voters had the chance to decide whether they want to support nonpublic schools, they would reject it as readily as electorates have already done in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

Bilingual Education: Clarifying the Population and the Policy

To the Editor:

Your recent front-page article on bilingual education ("For Bilingual Ed. Programs, Three Is Magic Number," Nov. 17, 1999) raises three important points that merit further discussion.

There is great variability among the population of limited-English- proficient children and youths there is no typical LEP child. One feature that describes their heterogeneity is where they are born: Some are foreign-born and others are native-born Americans (some are second- or third-generation Americans).

For example, approximately 45 percent of the current LEP school-age population are foreign-born immigrants. Some are recent immigrants who grew up speaking a language other than English at home and do so when they arrive in this country and at school. Often, their parents immigrated to the United States while these children were very young. Many others arrive at school as teenagers and young adults. Further, a growing number of immigrant students have had limited educational experiences in their native countries; consequently, many arrive at school ill-prepared to learn.

Approximately 55 percent of the remaining school-age LEP students are U.S.-born. Like their foreign-born peers, they are unevenly distributed across geographic areas, in schools, and within school districts. For example, the highest concentrations of LEP and non-LEP language minorities, including Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians, are found in the West, followed by the Northeast. Further, Asians and Hispanics are more likely to live in central cities of metropolitan areas. Depending on the characteristics of their households, some of them enter school speaking mostly a language other than English.

Others in this group are monolingual English speakers, but they are apt to speak distinct social dialects of English that are influenced by their cultural backgrounds, by their poverty, and by the non- English languages spoken by adults at home or in the surrounding community. Many of these children arrive at school with poorly developed literacy skills in either their native language or English, or in both languages. In short, many native-born language-minority students are limited-English-proficient, but not in the same ways or degrees that their foreign-born peers are.

The probabilities are high that most LEP students in American schools will be exposed to a broad array of other significant factors that place them at risk of educational failure throughout their school years. Most of the risk factors, moreover, have a relative, but negative, impact on each LEP student’s readiness to learn in general; to learn English in particular; to learn grade-appropriate subject matter; to stay in school; and to go on to college and secure a meaningful career. These students represent a schooling dilemma of national proportions.

Every child is born with an innate ability to acquire language, but there is great variability in the length of time it takes to acquire language and learn how to use it to acquire academic content. In other words, there is no predetermined or fixed time frame for acquiring language, whether it is the child’s first or second language. Nor is there a fixed period of time for native speakers of another language to learn a second language at home or in school and to learn to use it for academic purposes. Further, the research evidence strongly supports the proposition that the acquisition of second-language arts for children, youths, and adults who are termed limited-English-proficient is tempered by many interrelated factors, including full access to a high-quality education.

Where the literature posits an apparently fixed time frame for learning English for the whole group of these second-language learners, it is based on an average length of time. But averages mask very real variability in students’ abilities, motivations, readiness, and opportunities to become sufficiently proficient in English to effectively succeed in mainstream, all-English classrooms.

Depending on home and schooling conditions, one individual LEP student might acquire English as his or her second language to native- like proficiency levels in a relatively short time from one to three years. Another might take much longer from six to 10 years. Collectively, the two students might take an average of as few as 3½ years to as many as 6½ years. Such proficiency includes the high levels of academic English necessary for learning core subject matter at grade level.

While benchmarks and goals should be a necessary condition for awarding program funds, they should be used in tandem with other benchmarks related to access to high-quality programs and teachers to ensure effective teaching and learning.

Gilbert Narro Garcia
Senior Research Analyst
National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

I am writing to clarify a statement in your article "For Bilingual Ed. Programs, Three Is Magic Number." The article concerned the Clinton administration’s position on the assessment of limited- English-proficient students, and stated that the proposed legislation would require English-language learners to take state academic tests in their new language within three years.

The proposed legislation for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act works to ensure that students with limited English proficiency are both mastering challenging academic content and learning English, and that schools and districts are accountable for their progress.

The suggested change is an extension of current Title I law, which requires the inclusion of all students including those with limited English proficiency in assessment and accountability systems. Current law requires the assessment of students with limited English proficiency to the extent practicable in the language and form most likely to yield accurate and reliable information on what such students know and can do, to determine such students’ mastery of [academic] skills in subjects other than English.

The U.S. Department of Education continues to support the assessment of limited-English-proficient students in the manner most likely to describe students’ abilities and skills in the academic subjects. We have not, contrary to the article, recommended tying a three-year provision to either math or any other content-area exams. The proposal’s requirement is that lep students who have been in public schools for three consecutive years or more be tested in English on reading and language arts assessments.

In addition, the administration’s proposal would require Title I schools and Title VII grantees to annually assess the English proficiency of lep students. Results would be used to provide information to parents on their child’s progress and inform improved instruction.

This proposal takes a further step toward holding schools accountable for the achievement of English-language learners and enables schools and states to determine the effectiveness of their instructional method in the hopes of improving learning opportunities for English- language learners.

Heidi Ramirez
Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, D.C.

Skeptics Should Come to Vermont

To the Editor:

If Alex Molnar and any other voucher skeptics are really serious about looking at the long-term effects of vouchers, they should pack their bags and fly on over to Vermont and Maine ("Unfinished Business in Milwaukee," Nov. 17, 1999). For more than a century (since 1869 in Vermont’s case), these states have operated what amount to pure voucher programs in the towns that have no public schools. Students in those towns can go to the public or private schools of their choice using public funds. Until 1961, Vermont students could choose religious schools as well.

This system harks back to an earlier day when Americans viewed public education not merely as what goes on within the walls of publicly controlled schools, but rather as the public’s responsibility to educate all children, wherever their needs are best met. The real experiment that we should be fretting about is our current, monopolistic public school system.

A good place to start is with this question: Why did America abandon a diverse system of voluntary (independent) and public schools working together to educate all children the system that exists in Maine and Vermont’s tuitioning towns? The answer is found in an unsavory period of American history when anti-immigrant policymakers sought to use the new common schools as a tool to squelch diversity (mostly Roman Catholics) and create a homogeneous Protestant culture.

[T]he long tradition of voluntary/public cooperation in education came to a dramatic end in the United States in the 1850s, a casualty of the Protestant-Catholic struggles, writes Lloyd Jorgenson, a prize- winning education historian, in his excellent book The State and the Non-Public School.

Vouchers and other school choice programs are merely corrections to mistakes made in an earlier, less enlightened time when our current public school experiment began to take hold.

Libby Sternberg
Executive Director
Vermonters for Better Education
Rutland, Vt.

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Pages 43-44

Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as Letters

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