School Choice & Charters Commentary


May 24, 2000 11 min read

Physical Abuse Differs From Taunts

To the Editor:

In your article “Homosexual Students: A Group Particularly Vulnerable to Suicide” (April 19, 2000), Peter LaBarbera of the Family Research Council defends that group’s opposition to in-school discussion of homosexual issues by saying, “We think it’s terribly wrong when any child is hurt or abused, but there are a lot of groups that get picked on, like skinny boys and fat girls, and we don’t have specific policies for them.”

During childhood and adolescence, I was one of those fat girls Mr. LaBarbera refers to, and while I certainly suffered repeatedly blows to my self-esteem at the hands of cruel or thoughtless classmates, I never felt in danger of physical harm. Over time, I developed emotional calluses that enabled me to ignore (mostly) the taunts and slures, but there are no calluses hard enough to repel actual physical attacks.

Mr. LaBarbera’s coy refusal to discern the many degrees of difference between verbal and physical intimidation gives the lie to his specious argument and exposes it for what it really is: the heartless abandoning of children who do not meet his standards, not to mere ridicule, but to physical abuse, and, as the subject of your article points out, even to death.

Paula Chavez-Talley
Los Lunas, N.M.

Everything Changes; We Stay the Same

To the Editor:

I must echo the thoughtful response of Barnett Sturm to Maurice R. Bérubé's April 12, 2000, Commentary “The Post-Millennium Blues,” April 12, 2000 (“Seeing the End of Education as Usual,” Letters, May 3, 2000). Although remarkable strides have been made in our educational knowledge base, they have been primarily in a system developed in the late 1800s.

If we had fallen asleep in 1900, a la Rip Van Winkle, and awakened now, we would be dazzled by the changes in industry, law, culture, and medicine. Yet, we would be quite comfortable in entering our churches and schools.

Just a week after “The Post-Millennium Blues,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reflected on the much larger context and vision of learning needed in our society and on the importance of rethinking our entire approach to learning, both in schools and in society (“Education for the 21st Century,” April 19, 2000.)

Then, in your May 3, 2000, issue, you reported that New Jersey’s academic standards have been altered, but actual teaching and learning remain substantially unchanged (“N.J. Standards Beginning To Alter What Is Taught, But Not How,” May 3, 2000.).

As Mr. Sturm observes, we need to see “the end of our current educational system” and to explore a vast array of dynamic alternatives. Student achievement, engagement, and support should be the pillars that guide those changes. In fact, it seems that in 2000 we have only just begun.

Russell J. Dever
Barnstable Public Schools
Hyannis, Mass.

States Target Funds More Effectively

To the Editor:

Regarding the paid advertisement by the heads of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals in your May 3, 2000 (print-only), issue (“Principals’ Perspective: ‘Straight A’s’ Fails the Test”): These leaders’ colleagues who still serve as chief state school officers could hardly relish being likened to irresponsible schoolgirls going off to college with a bag of money and no budget.

Vincent L. Ferrandino of the NAESP and Gerald N. Tirozzi of the NASSP both served as Connecticut’s commissioner of education. They should know better. This is 2000, not 1965. Beyond their constitutional responsibility for education, state governments today are more likely to target funds effectively. I submit that lockstep Title I expenditures have not solved the problems of disproportionate learning in our society, and that block grants can and will provide more meaningful programming.

Furthermore, their timing is terrible. As we speak, Congress is asking the U.S. Department of Education to account for billions of dollars of possibly improper loan write-offs and fraudulent expenditures. Why add to its burden?

The feds have no business telling us down to a gnat’s eyebrow how to run our schools. The federal government collects and redistributes tax money, oversees civil rights aspects, and uses its bully pulpit to help us focus on the right stuff. Public education, on the other hand, is the job of local society, under state auspices. Beyond performing its limited responsibilities, the sooner Washington is out of the way, the better job we’re going to be able to do.

Alan O. Dann
Brattleboro, Vt.

Choice Research: Results Are ‘Mixed’ Only in Degree They Are Positive

To the Editor:

Your article ” Charters, Vouchers Earning Mixed Report Card” (May 3, 2000), the second in a five-part series, obscures the positive consensus that is beginning to develop from the evaluations of voucher programs. The results from these evaluations are “mixed” only in the extent to which they are positive regarding benefits for program participants. Consider the facts:

There are two publicly funded and three privately funded voucher programs that have received eight different evaluations from four different groups of researchers. Every one of those evaluations finds positive effects to some degree, and all evaluators support the continuation if not expansion of the choice programs.

The first publicly funded program, in Milwaukee, has been the subject of three evaluations. One evaluation, by myself and Harvard University researchers Paul Peterson and Jiangtao Du, compared the winners and losers of lotteries to assign vouchers and found that choice students benefited by 6 points in reading and 11 points in math after four years of participation in the choice program. Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University also analyzed the random-assignment data and found that “students selected for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program likely scored 1.5 to 2.3 percentile points per year in math more than students in the comparison groups.” On her reading results, where she does not find significant benefits, she says that they “are roughly similar to those reported by Greene et al., although they interpret their results differently.”

The third evaluator, John Witte of the University of Wisconsin, did not focus on the higher-quality random-assignment comparison and found that choice neither substantially improved nor harmed student test scores. But Mr. Witte has still endorsed the choice program as beneficial, saying: “Choice can be a useful tool to aid families and educators in inner-city and poor communities where education has been a struggle for several generations.” He continues: “If programs are devised correctly, they can provide meaningful educational choices to families that now do not have such choices. And it is not trivial that most people in America already have such choices.”

The second publicly funded choice program that has been studied is in Cleveland. After two years of operation, Indiana University’s Kim Metcalf concluded that “scholarship students in existing private schools had significantly higher test scores than public school students in language (45.0 vs. 40.0) and science (40.0 vs. 36.0).” Paul Peterson, William Howell of Stanford University, and I also analyzed a different group of scores from Cleveland and found that after two years, choice students may have benefited by as much as 8 points in reading and 16 points in math.

There are three privately funded programs (New York City, Washington, and Dayton, Ohio) where scholarships were awarded by lottery, allowing for the high-quality random-assignment comparison. After one academic year, Patrick Wolf (Georgetown University), William Howell, and Paul Peterson found significant benefits for choice students in all three cities. In New York, choice students benefited by between 2 and 6 points in math and reading, depending on the grade level. In Washington, African-American students in grades 2-5 gained 7 points in reading, but students in grades 6-8 lost 8 points in math. In Dayton, African-American students gained 7 points in math. All of these benefits, and one loss for one age cohort in one city, occurred after only one year, a very short time to expect to see any effects.In light of the controversy surrounding school choice programs, it is easier to describe the results as “mixed,” avoiding the wrath of teachers’ unions and their allies. But when the facts show a positive consensus among evaluators, Education Week needs to report that accurately.

Jay P. Greene
Senior Fellow
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research,
New York, N.Y.

English Immersion: California’s Proposition 227 Has Produced Incoherent Policy and Teacher Restrictions

To the Editor:

I read with interest your article “Prop. 227 Makes Instruction Less Consistent, Study Says” (May 3, 2000). I agree that Proposition 227’s voter-approved mandate on how to educate public school students in California who have limited English proficiency has made the inconsistencies in program implementation for these students much worse. This is due to the ambiguities in the law itself and its lack of a sound pedagogical and research basis in effective schooling practices for language-minority students.

Proposition 227’s Article 2:D contains the following definition of the mandated program for limited-English-proficient students: “‘Sheltered English immersion’ or ‘structured English immersion’ means an English language acquisition process for young children in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language.” The law goes on to describe procedures for placing English-learners in structured immersion “classes” or obtaining a “parental exception waiver” to take them out.

Is structured English immersion a language-acquisition process, a program, a technique, a method, a curriculum, a presentation, or a class? This definition is all districts have to go on based on the language of the law. In other published materials, the proponents of Proposition 227 have stated that structured English immersion is “simply teaching English by teaching in English.” Educators are left to guess how to translate this amorphous and unsound policy into a coherent curriculum and programs with no clear guidelines or objectives, other than to get students in and out of structured English immersion in one year.

In reality, structured English immersion is just a catchall term adopted by the English-only movement to convince the public that there is a coherent plan for educating language-minority students, when in fact there is none. A recent study by Stanford University’s Kenji Hakuta (Hakuta, Butler, and Witt, 2000) examined how long it takes students to learn English in bilingual and immersion programs and concluded that Proposition 227’s one-year mandate is “wildly unrealistic.” As your article points out, prior to passage of Proposition 227, only 29 percent of the limited-English-proficient students in California were in bilingual education programs. Now, only 12 percent receive instruction in their native language in a bilingual program. Proposition 227 has done nothing to improve educational opportunities for the remaining 88 percent of the state’s language-minority students.

Furthermore, Proposition 227 works in conjunction with other laws and educational policies, such as one requiring retention in cases of low standardized-test scores in math and reading, to further damage language-minority students’ opportunities for long-term academic success. These laws have seriously aggravated the glaring educational inequities suffered by California’s students who are not proficient in English. Proposition 227 has failed to address the dual challenges of educating language-minority students: language learning and learning of the academic content. How do educators teach children English and also keep them from falling behind academically while teaching them in a language in which they are not proficient?The proponents of English-only instruction offer only platitudes and vague program definitions to guide educators. Proposition 227 has served its political purpose as the flagship of the English-only movement. Now it is left up to school administrators and teachers to deal with the grave consequences of inadequate programs and risks of academic failure for one-quarter of California’s school population.

The proponents of Proposition 227 wish us to believe that the only obstacle to solving this problem was the use of children’s native language as a medium of instruction in bilingual programs. They attempt to assure educators that familiarity with the new law and “diligent” compliance will solve the problems of implementation. In reality, Proposition 227 has given California’s public schools an incoherent policy and restrictions on local schools and teachers to design and implement the most effective and appropriate programs for their language-minority students. This is a clear violation of the civil rights guarantees to equal educational opportunity to 1.4 million of California’s most vulnerable students.

Jill Kerper Mora
Assistant Professor of Teacher Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters


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