School Violence and the Adult-to-Student Ratio
New York City's public schools are reflections of the neighborhoods in which they exist. Often school supervisors and administrators have to resort to "street savvy'' to keep their school buildings safe as more and more they come to resemble the mean streets that surround them ("'This Has To Stop': Coping in the Middle of a War Zone at Jefferson High,'' March 25, 1992).
In order for children to be able to learn, schools must be safe havens, but budget-slashing practices are turning them into battlegrounds. In their attempt at balancing the budget, both the city of New York and the board of education are resorting to reducing the number of adults in the school buildings. The motive may be to save money, but the result is a deteriorated school environment that in some areas translates into an unsafe school environment. Witness the recent tragic shooting in Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School, where reduction in the adult population of the school has led students to feel ever freer to bring their guns and their grievances into the school building.
During the current school year, the New York City public-school population has increased by 25,000 students--mostly new immigrants who bring special problems with them--while the adult population has dropped. This not only translates into larger classes, it also translates into less supervision and thus greater potential for danger. The students aren't safe and the staff isn't safe.
The number of assaults against staff members over the four-month period ending last December surpassed the number reported for the entire 12-month period the previous year. In only eight school days in one recent month, there were at least four assaults against school supervisors who were engaged in doing their jobs. A junior-high-school principal in the Bronx suffered facial fractures when attacked by an irate parent. In Brooklyn, a junior-high-school principal was punched in the eye (possibly resulting in permanent damage); in Staten Island, a high-school assistant principal's nose was broken by an assailant with a baseball bat; an assistant principal in an evening adult-literacy program was robbed at gunpoint by an intruder who also robbed a school volunteer and a security guard, and the principal in that school now needs police protection because of threats against his life made by the gun-toting perpetrator.
It is obvious that restoration of adequate funding for the appropriate number of supervisors and administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, and other support services is essential if we are to keep our schools safe enough for children to be able to come to them without fear and to learn while in the safety of the school building.
And there are other steps that must be taken. With this in mind, the administrative group I head has formed a School/Community Safety and Security Committee in New York City whose primary responsibility is to develop recommendations for improving safety in our schools. We have been joined in this effort by other municipal unions servicing the board of education and have received the cooperation of members of the schools chancellor's staff. We will be asking the chancellor to more closely monitor the impact of budget cuts on the violence in the schools against students and staff, and we will develop other remedies for this serious situation.
The Council of Supervisors and Administrators has also drafted legislation (which it has submitted to the state legislature) making it a Class-D felony for a person to carry a dangerous instrument or deadly weapon inside any New York City public-school building or on school grounds. Persons holding permits to carry such weapons (with the exception of police officers) will not be exempt from the restrictions of this legislation.
While schools may continue to mirror the social problems of the communities in which they exist, we can prevent some of that frightening reflection from overpowering and defeating the purpose of the school--to provide the best education in the safest possible environment. To achieve this goal, the schools need the commitment of government, the private sector, parents, and society in general. Working together, we can have education out of harm's way.
Donald Singer is president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators of the City of New York.
Beyond the Verbal Confusion Over 'Tests'
By Ruth Mitchell
A verbal confusion is muddying the debate about a national system of standards and assessments: The words "tests'' and "assessments'' are being used as if they were synonymous. Because the word "test'' fits better into headlines, the press is particularly prone to this confusion. It has to be cleared up if there is to be any clarity about what we can expect from national standards and assessments.
Briefly, tests are machine-scorable, usually multiple-choice and norm-referenced. Their essence is speed, cheapness, and psychometric respectability. Assessments, which is shorthand for "authentic,'' "alternative,'' or--my preferred term--"performance assessments,'' are not machine-scorable, and vary in length and in what they require students to do. Their essence is the active production of response by the student.
Almost no one concerned with the legislation which may result in a National Education Standards and Assessment Council now supports a national test. The prevailing notion envisages a system of assessments developed by states, regions, or organizations certified by a national body (possibly NESAC) to assess progress toward national standards, plus the National Assessment of Educational Progress performing the same monitoring function it does now. Both the assessment system and NAEP would use performance assessments.
Although even Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island has yielded as the last champion of national tests, the confusion infects the debate in the press and among educational stakeholders. It makes for strange bedfellows: In their "debate'' on the front page of the Washington Post Education Review on April 5, Chester E. Finn Jr., an important influence on Administration policy, and Monty Neill of FairTest both repudiated tests and endorsed assessments, although presumably their contributions were intended to illustrate polar opposites.
Clearing up this verbal confusion is hardly trivial in view of what is implied by the use of these words. We are talking about two incompatible models of education. The difference between the "factory'' model, which uses tests, and the "community of learners'' model, which uses assessments, is like the difference between the Ptolemaic and the Copernican views of the universe. As in all paradigm shifts, changed relationships rearrange the value system.
Understanding that the debate is about different systems, not merely exchanging tests for assessments, will explain why otherwise clear thinkers seem to be taking contradictory positions when they write about national standards and assessments.
I've often heard people say that the form of tests doesn't matter, that the real issue is the uses to which they are put. But the form of multiple-choice, machine-scorable tests is in itself a statement about the purposes of education, and therefore it affects the uses of testing. In the educational model that uses multiple-choice, machine-scorable tests, value is placed on ability to recognize discrete statements, to distinguish the "right'' from the "wrong.'' "Information'' is defined as what can be recognized easily in textbooks and memorized.
Naturally, if what is valued is passive recognition of information, then teaching is bound to mean transmission of information in pellet-like form. The act of teaching is devalued by testing, because of the vast disproportion between the hours spent acquiring facts and algorithms in strict order of difficulty and the few minutes taken up by bubbling in a few ovoids.
The purpose of this system is essentially gatekeeping, selecting and sorting students for access or denial of access to educational advantage, which, in the case of early tracking, means simply learning more interesting material than skill-and-drill. The concept of the "correct'' answer at the heart of machine-scorable, multiple-choice testing is a metaphor for the purposes of the factory model: You're in or you're out.
The demands made on students by performance assess
ments are quite different: Active application of knowledge and skill to problems, as much as possible drawn from the world outside the school. The definition of information reflects that of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics: "To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man's inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.''
The consequences for teaching are profound, as teachers who understand the changes are discovering. They have every reason to complain that they are being asked to do too much without adequate compensation, since their pay scales and professional duties are based on the old model's assumption that they are essentially textbook jockeys. Now they are expected to design assessments, participate in group-grading sessions, organize portfolios, read students' writing no matter what subject they teach, and recast their own classroom activity from lecturing to coaching.
The purpose of this system is the development of each student's intellectual, social, and emotional ability to function in the world. It is a noble and lofty ideal. I would be the last person to claim that any American school comes close to embodying it. But some schools (especially those belonging to the Coalition for Essential Schools), some districts, some states have begun to realize that changing from tests to assessments entails a change in purpose and attitude throughout the system.
I have drawn this contrast in models not only for its own sake, but also to make the point that using tests to measure progress in schools where change is taking place is wrong-headed. So too is the claim that accountability requires a different kind of measurement than classroom assessment. When the Arizona reformers who had rewritten their state curriculum guides looked at the state's commercial tests for accountability, they found that only 26 percent of the curriculum was covered by the tests. From that discovery arose the Arizona Student Assessment Program, which is designed specifically to perform the two functions--accountability and modeling of desired instruction--that some think incompatible.
If students keep portfolios and engage (for example) in investigations about the water quality in their community, what information can a multiple-choice, machine-scorable test provide about their abilities and experiences? For accountability, it is only necessary to sample portfolios as Vermont has done.
Furthermore, since we all agree that fewer assessments should occupy students' time (although many performance assessments are indistinguishable from ordinary classroom activities), an assessment which gives students individual grades could be calibrated to the national standards to report on progress at that level, and samples from the same assessment could be culled for state accountability.
Adopting a national system of standards and assessments--not a national test--implies a national endorsement of the "community of learners'' model. Performance assessment should be seen in the context of the model: It is by no means a panacea and should not be regarded as more than a useful instrument. It is one of many factors (for example, cooperative learning, whole language, active learning, the community as classroom, the student as worker) which undermine the factory model, and provoke the asking of fundamental questions about the purposes of education. If we want to ensure that the paradigm shift happens in time to save American public education, we must focus our vision on the gestalt and not oversell individual features.
To fulfill its promise as a signal of profound change, a national system of standards and assessments must be supported by resources. Otherwise, the imposition of sophisticated assessments without the means to prepare students for them is simply national cruelty. Apart from large infusions of materials into schools which now lack photocopying machines (let alone computers), the major resource needed is the professional development of teachers.
As I mentioned above, teachers are presently squeezed between paradigms. They need to become fully professional, to work year round as other professionals do, with at least two months of time free from students in order to realize their place at the center of the development, administration, and scoring of national assessments. Questions about the quality of tasks--and therefore the quality of teaching--must be raised when there is time to consider them fully.
There is no guarantee that any of this will happen. National standards and assessments could be an empty political promise with no resources to realize them. Unfunded programs, greedy test publishers, public indifference, opportunistic politicians, business shortsightedness all threaten to abort positive change. But without it, Americans will be stuck with the educational equivalent of the flat-earth model.
Ruth Mitchell is associate director of the Council for Basic
Education in Washington.