There’s a lot of, to use Peter Sacks’s words, “heavy lifting” ahead of us on many fronts–including education [“A Nation at Risk,” Nov. 18, 2002]. Naturally, I’d have preferred unadulterated praise and assurances that this one book had done it all–Sacks seems to have wanted me to write a rather different kind of book. But there’s more to be done and he fairly lays out the tasks ahead of us all, tasks no single article or book will ever satisfy.

But I regret that Sacks missed entirely what I believe–and emphasize in the book–is the essential glue of my argument: that we cannot reform schools for democracy until we deal with the “relationship thing.” That includes the relationships between adults, but above all the fast disappearing relationship between our kids and the grown-up world in general. Kids aren’t keeping company with adults anywhere, and schools are one place we could change this–if we worked at creating the kinds of schools where we could work out the complex issues of trust. In the absence of such trusted adults, schools cannot serve as a counterbalance to the company kids do keep: their peers, the shopping-mall world and the ubiquitous marketplace metaphors that the popular media immerse them in.

I hope The Nation begins to cover more of the kinds of insider stories that bring to life what goes on in the many schools struggling to build an alternative vision, because until we can imagine a different future we can’t invent it.


East Hills, NY

Peter Sacks attaches appropriate importance to one of today’s primary political assumptions: that education reform should be based on a “market driven” philosophy. According to this belief, parents and students, as knowledgeable consumers, will choose schools that deliver the highest-quality products or services, as measured by standardized test scores. Sacks concludes that this approach is “a cynical ploy to privatize the nation’s public schools.”

Sacks omits from his review the mention of school vouchers, the financial mechanism that empowers parents to implement their choice of school. After all, the ultimate power of consumers is to pick up their marbles (in this case, their children) and shop (or educate them) elsewhere. Thus, the concept of government-provided vouchers entered the lexicon of school reform.

School vouchers became popular during the early 1990s, when the public’s frustration with the public schools was at its height, feeding upon the “Nation at Risk” report; the economic recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s; and the negative comparisons of US schools versus Germany’s and Japan’s. In the latter part of the decade, as the American economy improved, vouchers became less popular, and the term was dropped from political campaigns, but not the idea of using them as a tool to reform schools.

With this year’s passage of “No Child Left Behind” legislation, parents in “failing schools” became entitled to select a tutoring program at the public school district’s expense. Though the word “voucher” is omitted from the legislation, the concept of public money, directed by individual parents, to pay for private educational services has become institutionalized.


Los Angeles

Having taught for twenty-eight years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I find it laughable when I hear critics claim that the panacea for failing schools is to run them like businesses. First, public schools have to “hire” everyone who shows up at the schoolhouse door, regardless of skills, motivation or interest. Second, public schools cannot fire students who are chronically tardy, absent, disruptive and unprepared. Third, public schools are expected to increase productivity annually, despite Dickensian working conditions that include leaking roofs, no air conditioning, fetid restrooms and inadequate supplies and textbooks. Fourth, public schools cannot cite catastrophic events in the personal lives of students that impact performance. Fifth, teachers who fail to consistently boost standardized test scores are not rewarded with bonuses and golden parachutes. Critics have things turned around. Rather than running public schools like businesses, why not run businesses like public schools? Maybe then the absurdity of their argument will become apparent.



Peter Sacks notes that the head of New York City’s schools is promising hefty bonuses to area superintendents who manage to ratchet up scores on standardized tests. Isn’t this a little like awarding hefty bonuses to corporate CEOs for ratcheting up the stock prices of their companies? Both cases are predicated on the assumption that higher numbers reflect underlying achievement–increased learning for students, increased profits for shareholders. But as American investors have painfully learned, there can be a huge disconnect between stock prices and profits, and the same is bound to be true when it comes to test scores and real learning. As Sacks noted, improvements on targeted tests “typically cannot be detected in other tests of achievement.” The lesson here is that public education is not as susceptible to “corporate innovation” as policy-makers may think, and it would be wise for them to abandon their misguided faith in numbers.



Boise, Idaho

I’d rather not trade swipes with Deborah Meier, an educational innovator whom I greatly respect and admire. She’s written an important book that, in my view, occasionally falls short in some respects, and I felt duty-bound to state so in what I believe was a fair-minded review. That our society has relinquished to popular culture the trusting relationships that kids once had with adults–a broken bond that schools could work to mend–is an important insight that Meier might have made the centerpiece of her book and developed accordingly.

I did not specifically mention the “V” word in my argument about the Bush Administration’s covert strategy to privatize the nation’s schools. Indeed, the Administration has cleverly devised the cynical tactic to tone down the voucher rhetoric in favor of bureaucratic rules implemented under the “No Child Left Behind” law that quietly produce the same results as vouchers. As Bernstein seems to suggest, if it quacks like a voucher, it’s a voucher.

Walt Gardner’s phrasing is curious, suggesting to readers who might have missed the review that I’m one of the “critics” who contend that schools should be run like a business, which, as Howard Bluth notes in his letter, is the exact opposite of what I wrote.



Please get rid of Calvin Trillin
Whose meter and rhymes are less than thrillin’
Like this verse, you could do no worse,
If you signed up a right-wing villain

Yes, please get rid of Calvin Trillin
Whose limp quatrains would insult Dylan
And make one yearn, yea, verily burn
For, um, Ogden Nash, who’s far more fillin’.

Playboy magazine


New York City

Have you no shame, Mr. Black!
A sense of humor you sorely lack.
The reason we’re not willin’
To fire Calvin Trillin
Is that readers would rebel
And raise all kinds of hell.
So back off, Black
Trillin we’ll never sack.
That settles your hash!
(Who the hell is Ogden Nash?)



Washington DC

There is one saving tincture of truth in the verbose and complacent letter which you saw fit to publish from Studs Terkel [“Letters,” Jan. 6]. He and I did indeed have a cocktail “just a couple of years ago” in Chicago. And I did tell him with some pride that Gore Vidal had offered an overgenerous endorsement of my third volume of collected essays, Unacknowledged Legislation. (This is pretty easy to confirm, since the almost too-fulsome encomium is the only quotation on the jacket of the book, published as it was in the year 2000 and available in bookstores when I was in Chicago that day.)

I have since had some disagreements with both Vidal and Terkel. In the case of the former, I cannot think of anything excerpted from private conversation that would, if disclosed, strengthen my argument. In the latter case, it is something more than modesty, or even respect for my elders, that restrains me from replying in kind. But good luck to The Nation in circulating this kind of stuff. You have obviously reached a point where every little bit helps.