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Reviews Are Mixed for Advantage, Inc.

To the Editor:

Your fawning report on Advantage Schools Inc.—and the company's claims that it is fostering a "revolution in urban education" with schools that focus on order, quality, and efficiency—contrasts sharply with the experience parents, students, and teachers are having in one of New York's first charter schools, which Advantage Inc. is running in Albany, N.Y., for the Urban League of Northeastern New York ("Seeking a Competitive Advantage," Dec. 8, 1999).

Faced with a barrage of complaints, the New Covenant Charter School board of trustees has delivered an ultimatum to Advantage Inc. to shape up or ship out in the next two months. Parents and teachers have complained about inadequate staff, overcrowded classrooms, the mandated scripted lessons, and "a general sense of chaos."

The Albany City School District, which remains ultimately responsible for the 80 special education students at the 500-student elementary school, has twice contacted the state education department because special education students were not receiving adequate attention. A local newspaper report quoted one parent as saying, "Some days, people don't know who is in charge" at the school.

Advantage Inc.'s chief executive officer, Steven Wilson, responded to critical trustees by saying that "we recognize and entirely agree with you that we've done a poor job. ... " Mr. Wilson blames the school's problems on its failure to recruit a permanent school director, though the person running the school from day one, as interim director, was an experienced principal and an Advantage staff person.

The revolution in urban education touted by profit-minded efficiency experts, and by National Urban League President Hugh B. Price ( "Urban Education: A Radical Plan," Commentary, Dec. 8, 1999), is one based on three-decades-old pedagogical research, a penchant for union-busting, and the desire to privatize public schools for the advantage of the corporate class.

The big losers in Albany, to this point, are the families—whose faith and hope in public schools were eroded by years of failed promises and indifference and who have now turned to charter schools to meet their needs. Most parents and teachers at New Covenant are not ready to give up, but one wonders for whose advantage this and other charter schools are run.

E. Wayne Ross
Associate Professor
School of Education and Human Development
State University of New York at Binghamton
Binghamton, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Thank you for the wonderful article about Abby Kelley Foster Regional Charter School ("Seeking a Competitive Advantage"). As a parent of a new student at the school, I was so impressed by what I saw, I became a substitute teacher at the school. Your article captured the very special place this school is, and why we are so excited about being a part of this great step forward in education.

Christine Lee
Millbury, Mass.

Home Schooling: A Testimonial

To the Editor:

I was intrigued by your article on home schooling research ("Unexplored Territory," On Assignment, Dec. 8, 1999). For months, I've been cogitating experiments to assess the effects of home schooling. My favorite scheme is a variant of Solomon Asch's group-conformity experiments; I would use home-schooled subjects (plus a control group from the public school) to see if we are more or less resistant to peer pressure than are "school kids."

Yes, I did say "we." And as a 16-year-old home schooler myself, I'm biased in favor of the educational alternative that has allowed me to read Charlotte's Web at age 5 and Middlemarch at age 14; to score 5's on five different Advanced Placement exams; to run a Web-based math competition for elementary-age girls; to peruse the works of Plato, Locke, and Milton Friedman; to lead the first-ever Sleepover Shakespeare Society; and to write a novella about the great Pittsburgh fire of 1845. I had to laugh when you asked how home schoolers do when we get to college. I'm studying for my sixth, seventh, and eighth AP exams this year, and next Wednesday is the final of my French class at the University of Pittsburgh. My Pitt classmates were all college juniors and seniors, but my background actually left me better prepared for the class than they were. Since (for lack of a better word) "B.S." would have never slipped past my mother's undivided attention, I've always been taught to think critically, so I was ready for the level of analysis that the professor demanded.

Another gift of home schooling is that it has minimized the importance of grades in my education. My parents don't need to be updated on my progress through a report card, for obvious reasons, and a dinner-table argument expresses what I've learned better than a quiz ever could. Since I've never been distracted by the carrot-and-stick of relentless grades, I've found better reasons to study: I learn because it's fun, because the world fascinates me. I think school tends to foster extrinsically motivated learners, while home schoolers tend to be intrinsically motivated. Perhaps this is an area ripe for experimentation as well?

By the way, I'm thinking of becoming a teacher—yes, I know that's ironic—and last summer I was honored to attend the Pennsylvania Governor's School for Teaching. The school gave me a greater respect for public education, because many of my PGST friends thrived at public school. My home schooling friends, on the other hand, had usually left the public schools because their experiences had been negative. This made me grasp one of the basic problems with public school-home school relations. Just as we see the students who are home schooling because they hated public school, public schools see the students who are returning to them because they failed as home schoolers. The compelling horror stories that we each can tell represent only a minute fraction of all public-schooled or home-schooled students. We both need to remember that our images of each other are skewed.

Home schooling may be an "unexplored territory" today, but for my fellow home-schooled students and me, it lies literally in our own back yard. I can't wait to join the crusade to chart this wilderness.

Molly Richman
Kittanning, Pa.

Teachers' Expertise and Union Priorities

To the Editor:

Now let's see if I've got this right: The National Education Association says a retired U.S. Air Force officer, who was a 15-year resident of Europe, experienced the Gulf War firsthand, and investigated war crimes in Bosnia, is not certified to teach a class entitled "Conflict in the 20th Century" ("Volunteer Teacher Leads to Conflict With Vermont Union," Dec. 1, 1999)?

Your story spotlights the fact that an NEA monopoly on public education is more important to that union than student access to high-quality instruction. It also reveals the union's desire to hold certification above impeccable qualifications.

Even when the certification argument didn't work for the union, Vermont-NEA President Angelo J. Dorta suggested that the teacher, Bill Corrow, violates the "spirit of the law," since he's teaching students and is also a school board member.

These charges are baseless, since Mr. Corrow is a volunteer. His own superintendent says that this complies with laws against board members' being district employees. Nevertheless, the charges show that the NEA will apparently stoop to any level to keep its grip on the reins of public education, even at the expense of the young students benefiting from Mr. Corrow's expertise.

Christopher Prawdzik
Education Research Fellow
Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
Arlington, Va.

On Libraries' Plight: Criticism and an Idea

To the Editor:

I was disappointed in your article "Era of Neglect in Evidence at Libraries" (Dec. 1, 1999). As one of the key people called to testify at the Philadelphia City Council hearings discussed in the article, I used my position as president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, and my 25 years of experience in both public and school library service, to shoot holes in Superintendent David W. Hornbeck's contentions on two fronts.

On his claim that he supports the cutting of library services when necessary to support other, "research-based programs," I indicated that neither the superintendent's beloved "cluster" system of expensive, scattered- site administration, nor his mandated "small learning communities" have any basis whatsoever in research that indicates they improve students' academic performance. In addition, I reminded the panel that elementary school principals, given block grants of money to spend as they please, have often chosen to fund extra support personnel for themselves rather than fund a library and a certified librarian that directly serve children.

Unfortunately, your reporter appears to have left the meeting after hearing only Mr. Hornbeck, who is simply not interested in the volumes of research our organization has provided, and Free Library President Elliot Shelkrot, who is eager to obtain the excess city funds for the public library.

Mary Jane Zimmerman
Philadelphia, Pa.

To the Editor:

Regarding the situation you uncovered at school libraries ("Era of Neglect in Evidence at Libraries"), I have a suggestion that seems obvious. You do not need a teacher's credential or a degree in library science to shelve books according to the Library of Congress catalog system.

There are thousands of high school students who will be graduating this year. Many high schools have implemented requirements for community service. What better community service could be provided (and what better example could be set) than high school students' choosing to spend their time helping organize a library center for elementary school students?

There is no easy solution for underfunding, but there is an easy solution to a shortage of manpower.

Lauren Eve Pomerantz
Montclair, Calif.

NAEP Is Invalid for High School

To the Editor:

I read your article about the National Association of Educational Progress' efforts to encourage local districts to participate in this year's testing program ("Board Offers States More Opportunity To Give NAEP," Dec. 1, 1999). My experience is that the assessment is a total waste of time. We had to pull out high school students and then give the test. Many students got up and walked out when they read it. Of the ones who stayed in the testing room, I estimate that about 90 percent finished within half an hour.

The high school NAEP results are totally invalid and, if I were a superintendent, the test would never be given in my district.

Ernie Knobloch
Terrytown, La.

'Ideal School' Needs Foreign Languages

To the Editor:

Peter D. Relic's vision of the ideal school glaringly omits the need for foreign-language instruction ("The Ideal School," Commentary, Nov. 24, 1999). It is a regrettable oversight that reflects the common arrogance of Americans that they need not know another language to be well-educated. I expect that in any other country around the world, a respected educator describing the ideal school would not omit foreign-language study from the curriculum. While Mr. Relic's rosy vision of arts, English, and harmony for all is warm and fuzzy, one wonders where basic skills are being learned in his model.

Donald Austin
New York, N.Y.

Observations of Note on Bilingual Students

To the Editor:

Regarding your Nov. 17, 1999, article "For Bilingual Education Programs, Three Is Magic Number": Of important note is that, of the 1.4 million second-language learners in California in 1998, about 73 percent of the students were taught all day or overwhelmingly in English. In 1999, the figure was about 78 percent. Also important is that about 20 percent of these students receive no bilingual education. Of the 22 percent of students receiving subject-matter instruction in languages other than English, about 25 percent are taught by teachers who speak only English.

Frank Ohnesorgen
Hanford, Calif.

Public-Private Funds: Something To Consider

To the Editor:

Your article on funding for private schools ("A Parish Offering,"On Assignment, Nov. 10, 1999) caught my eye. I have taught in public and private schools in Louisiana and have wondered how the Roman Catholic schools managed to get public funds.

I mentioned this to a Catholic colleague. She said that when she was in elementary school, the public school administration decided to stop letting the Catholic schools use their buses. The parents of the Catholic school students organized and took all their children to the public schools on a set day.

Of course, chaos erupted with all the extra children to accommodate. The public school administration quickly saw that it would be much more expensive to provide a full education for all these students than to provide them with transportation, so they backed down.

This might be something to consider. From what I read and saw when I lived in Louisiana, the public schools were always short of funds, even while using taxes from the parents of private school children. They would be in an even worse state if funds were cut to the private schools and those students started attending the public schools.

Glenda Boone
Early-Childhood Coordinator
Emmanuel College
Franklin Springs, Ga.

On Teacher Quality, Forget the Rankings

To the Editor:

While reading your Nov. 17, 1999, article "Fordham Issues Low Grades to States on Teacher Quality," I noted with a chuckle that the foundation ranked Montana dead last and Wyoming not much better. (Montana students consistently score significantly above the national average on the ACT and SAT and on school achievement tests.)

Two weeks later, the Billings Gazette came out with a summary of the report from the National Education Goals Panel rating the states on 14 measures of progress. Their article was titled "Montana Scores Among the Top in Education." It showed that in Montana:

•The high school dropout rate has decreased in grades 9-12 since 1990.

•Students would place seventh in the world in 8th grade math achievement. In science achievement, only 8th grade students in Singapore would outperform Montana's.

•Thirty-eight percent of 8th graders are proficient in math, and 41 percent are proficient in science.

•Fifty-two percent of minority students earned college degrees in math and science.

Wyoming also was among the top-performing states in student readiness for school, teacher education and professional development, math and science, adult literacy, school safety, and parental involvement.

The National Education Goals Panel was established in 1990 by the government for the improvement of public schools. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is a private organization with a private agenda which supports deregulation and market-driven school improvement efforts. Many good ideas have come from the private sector to help public education, but there are also some fundamental concerns.

First, we must keep in mind that schools are not factories and children are not assembly- line products. Many cost-cutting techniques and incentives that work well in private industry have a negative effect in public education. High-quality teachers are caring individuals dedicated to children and the art of teaching. They cannot be manufactured by a system of rewards and punishment, school choice, or plucking people out of other professions. While school choice and charter schools have their merits, they have very little impact on teacher quality.

A good teacher of course should be well-versed in his subject area, and practical experience in the field helps bring reality to the classroom. But we must always remember that a teacher's primary responsibility is to teach children. Genius in physics does not necessarily equate to an effective teacher in the classroom. The genius who can't teach needs to find something else to do.

Teacher evaluations based on student performance are another pitfall that often leads to "teaching to the test." It can have some other interesting consequences, such as the students in a California class who asked their teacher, "How much is it worth to you?" The most meaningful way to monitor student success and achievement would be a longitudinal study done about five to 10 years after they graduate. But few people are genuinely interested in long-term effects—instant gratification and a new quick fix every couple of years is the name of the game.

Unions don't help either by creating an adversarial climate in an otherwise cooperative profession. The bargaining system used by teachers' unions was originally designed for factory workers. Eliminating tenure would probably be the single most effective means of enabling schools to improve their teaching staffs quickly and efficiently.

Pay that is commensurate with their professional status would be a big factor in attracting more quality people to the field. Teacher education programs need to weed out "those who can't" earlier in the program so more effort and time can be spent with "those who can." The attrition rate for the first five years is about 50 percent. Mentoring and a broad support system for first-year teachers are also critical to developing and retaining these quality teachers.

Private enterprise can have positive effects on improving public education. However, long-term outcomes and unintended consequences must be carefully studied. It's very easy for the power of the dollar to take precedence over what's best for kids, because what's best for kids in the long run is not always the most cost-effective at the present time.

Karla R. Christensen
Superintendent, Garfield County Schools
Jordan, Mont.

Vol. 19, Issue 17, Pages 39-43

Published in Print: January 12, 2000, as Letters

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