Opinion | What Really Causes Poor Performance in School

To the Editor:

Re “We’re Not Battling the School Issues That Matter,” by Nicholas Kristof (column, March 7):

I completely agree with Mr. Kristof’s column. The situation is serious, not only for education but also for our embattled democracy.

I would like to add some nuance. I have been working on a state-by-state analysis of the possible influence of racism, specifically anti-Black racism, on educational achievement.

What I have found so far indicates that some children are taught quite well: those in private schools, of course; Asian American children (particularly those whose families are from India); white children of families prosperous enough to be ineligible for the National School Lunch Program; children of college-educated parents; and Hispanic children who are not English-language learners.

Some students are in groups that are not likely to be taught to read effectively: Native Americans, children who are poor enough to be eligible for the National School Lunch Program and Black children.

None of this will be news to Mr. Kristof. What is surprising to me is the sheer extent and arbitrary nature of the failure by school authorities. Almost everywhere that urban schools, in particular, are failing, socioeconomically similar children are being taught much more effectively in the nearest suburban districts.

Part of the reason is money: Per-student expenditure is associated with educational achievement.

But part of the problem — most of it — is a matter of administrative decisions: placing the best teachers in schools with the “best” students; equipping schools, in effect, in accordance with parental income; offering more gifted and talented classes to white students — all the perhaps unconscious manifestations of everyday racism.

Michael Holzman
Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.
The writer is a former consultant for the Schott Foundation for Public Education in Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

Writers like Nicholas Kristof make a critical mistake when they assume that conservatives’ focus on issues like nudity, diversity and critical race theory in education is just a matter of misplaced priorities. Conservatives’ opposition to substantive improvements in American education is not a bug; it’s a feature.

Do politicians like Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump really want children to grow up with a better grasp of math, when they can instead persuade voters that inflation is an existential threat to their personal financial security, even when wage growth is comfortably outstripping inflation?

Do they want students to become better critical thinkers when they can use photos of migrants massed at the border to convince voters that immigrants are a threat to national security, even though most immigrants will provide needed labor in a rapidly growing economy?

Do they want students to be good readers who can use logic and analysis to evaluate an argument, when politicians can easily use social media platforms, with no evidence, to persuade voters that the 2020 presidential election was rigged?

Why would Republicans want America’s children to be well educated, when the voters with the most education will consistently vote for the other guys?

Lisa Elliott
Newark, Del.
The writer is a licensed school psychologist.

To the Editor:

Nicholas Kristof’s column miseducates by pointing out which states do better with schools.

In Massachusetts, one of the examples Mr. Kristof mentions, parents don’t move there because of the schools. They choose the town or city they think has the best schools — and the one they can afford.

Local property taxes, not the state, provide most educational funding, so the better schools tend to be in the wealthier towns. Per-pupil spending in Massachusetts varies greatly from district to district: According to recent data from the state Department of Education, that figure ranges from about $14,000 in Dracut to almost $37,000 in Cambridge.

More money means smaller classes and better-paid teachers. So Mr. Kristof’s argument about which states have better education mostly misses the mark about what matters.

Michael Jacoby Brown
Arlington, Mass.
The writer is a community organizer and former high school teacher.

To the Editor:

Nicholas Kristof makes some valid points in his column, but I have to wonder why he and most of the media skipped over Donald Trump’s promise that followed his vile remark about denying funding to schools that teach critical race theory.

Mr. Trump announced, “I will not give one penny to any school that has a vaccine mandate or mask mandate.”

Hello, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, pertussis, measles, mumps, hepatitis, rubella and more.

Surely, any worries over whether teachers choose to focus on phonics or address critical race theory will vanish when these diseases, which vaccinations prevent, invade the schools.

Susan Ohanian
Charlotte, Vt.
The writer is a retired reading teacher.

To the Editor:

Re “Trump’s Conquest of the Republican Party” (editorial, March 10):

I’ve been a registered Democrat most of my adult life, except for a brief time with the Green Party. I have campaigned for Bernie Sanders. Earlier this winter I changed my official party affiliation to Republican. I made that change solely as a way to vote against Donald Trump in the primaries.

My plan following Nikki Haley’s exit after Super Tuesday is to cast a protest vote in New York next month. In November, I’ll vote for Joe Biden.

That said, my registration won’t change again. I’m not going anywhere. The G.O.P. will be stuck with this lefty.

The party of Trump needs a new birth of freedom, however belated, within its ranks. That reconstruction must be seeded by individual voters like yours truly.

Donald Mender
Rhinebeck, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Re “John Kerry: ‘I Feel Deeply Frustrated,’” by David Wallace-Wells (Opinion, March 10):

John Kerry, America’s departing climate envoy, is “pissed off and frustrated” with the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda campaign to obstruct climate action and raise fears about its costs.

Just recently, the American Petroleum Institute launched an eight-figure media campaign intended to “dismantle policy threats” to the fossil fuel industry, with statements such as “Products made from oil and gas … make everyday living more mobile, comfortable and healthier.”

Most Americans — including our policymakers — are unaware that burning fossil fuels produces pollution that causes over eight million deaths a year.

Rather than bemoan the industry’s decades of disinformation, we need to proactively counter it. Exxon and other fossil fuel companies followed Big Tobacco’s playbook. Let’s build on lessons from successful tobacco control campaigns with a “truth” campaign on fossil fuels and health, enforcement of false advertising rules, and a Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Health Harms of Fossil Fuels.

Linda Rudolph
Oakland, Calif.
The writer is a consultant with the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health and on the steering committee of the Fossil Free for Health Coalition.

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