Back to School

Chillicothe, Ohio
As a retired teacher, union officer and reformer, I appreciated "A New Vision for School Reform" [June 14], your special issue on education. But deeper exploration is needed. Schools have not "failed" in their mission. They were designed as inculcation factories; their job was to keep the kids off the street, teach them work skills and turn our nation of immigrants into one nation—e pluribus unum. They did that job pretty well. After Brown v. Board of Education, schools had the task of integrating our society, with which they’ve struggled mightily and had some successes.

Those schools were more humane, more student-centered than today’s, which aim merely for high test scores. What’s been left out of the story is the meanspirited retaliation from the right for teachers having entered the political fray, endorsing Carter for president and getting an Education Department. Reagan promised to abolish the department and created A Nation at Risk, which blamed the schools for the failures of business. That report was thoroughly debunked, but the press bought the idea that our schools had failed.

Make no mistake: public schools and teachers have become targets. Sadly, some Democrats, including, apparently, President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, are using bribe money to get cash-starved school districts to agree to rate their teachers by student test scores—as ludicrous as that is—firing people, responsible or not, for our society’s neglect of the poor. Creative, conscientious teachers will be leaving in droves. Good recruits will be harder to come by. And the poverty that kills kids’ chances will still exist.





As an educator, I am fascinated by your excellent articles referring to the negative impact of No Child Left Behind. The comments by Diane Ravitch, who changed her mind about "school choice," resonates especially with me. She calls Congress’s stubborn support of this law "puzzling." It is not puzzling at all if you consider the education budget, hovering around $800 billion and rising. NCLB has been used to create new and innovative ways for the business community to latch on to education dollars through charter schools, test publishing and prepping materials—even through the fallout of a poor education, the exploding prison population. There is gold in educational entrepreneurship, and the Obama administration has done nothing to curb this trend.




Morristown, N.J.

Bravo! for your critique and analysis. Yes, the Obama administration is pursuing yet another futile and simplistic path of "reform" with its emphasis on charters, teacher demonization and more testing.

Boo! to the hopes for top-to-bottom "bold" reforms that mirror those of ministates like Finland and Singapore. Why? Because, once again, the roots of the problem have been ignored. We have known for decades which children will be ill served by public schools: they are poor, they go to school with other poor children and they live in a family where English is not the first language. The gap at kindergarten with children of the middle class is nine to eighteen months, and they are only 5! They lack the vocabulary, language, general knowledge and familiarity with books they need to have a fighting chance of leaving kindergarten with the knowledge required to be strong readers by third grade.

To narrow this kindergarten gap, every poor child must be provided high-quality preschool, followed by an intense focus on literacy in K-3. Look to the schools that produce literate third graders, and you will find schools that emphasize the needs of poor kids. Readers have a chance. Nonreaders don’t.

The Century Foundation



Columbus, Ohio

Your special issue on education gave a pass to Barack Obama’s dastardly public school policies. If continued, they will further privatize K-12 education on the backs of taxpayers. Obama is more effective than Bush in undermining public education. Under Bush, school districts lost federal funds if they failed to meet specific benchmarks. But Obama’s Race to the Top program won’t give fiscally strapped states money unless they remove caps on the number of charter schools, force teachers’ unions to allow the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation and adopt the new national teaching standards. These requirements have been pushed by right-wing business interests, although there is no empirical evidence that they work. If implemented, they will further erode the public education that’s needed for a free people.

THOMAS M. STEPHENS, professor emeritus
College of Education and Human Ecology
Ohio State University



Tarzana, Calif.

The Nation brings together the best and wisest to present its case for the "change we need" in education to an administration that is not listening. Why? Among the contributors, Linda Darling-Hammond "served as the leader of President Obama’s education policy transition team." Like many progressive Americans, we’re asking, What happened in the transition from Obama’s campaign to the White House? Why are such respected voices not at the table making policy? We need not simply a new vision but a moral one. That America has become, as Darling-Hammond observes, the world’s "prison nation," willing to spend untold billions on incarceration rather than invest in its schools, shows a moral poverty that no quick-fix education innovation will alter. To restore our public schools requires a moral restoration; a different kind of great awakening, a public one.

California in a Time of Excellence:
School Reform at the Crossroads of the American Dream


Old Glory, Hallelujah!

Amherst, Mass.

Patricia J. Williams’s July 5 "Semaphore" ["Diary of a Mad Law Professor"], on the US Flag Code, brought me a smile and very fond memories. I’ve been a Girl Scout for fifty years. I learned flag etiquette as a Brownie, but complete knowledge of the Flag Code came from ceremonies, badges and raising the flag each morning at Camp Bonnie Brae. I could not have become a First Class Girl Scout (the equivalent of Eagle Scout for Boy Scouts) without complete knowledge of the Flag Code.

I have watched Tea Partyers break every section of the Flag Code. Their abuses of the flag are patriotic in their eyes. Meanwhile, if I arrived at a Tea Party demonstration in my Scout uniform, badge sash, Arrow & Star, and First Class pin and set fire to the flag, they would label me a traitor, although the Supreme Court has ruled it my First Amendment right to burn the flag.

Jane Eastwood Weisner