Published Online: April 2, 1997

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Black-White Scoring Gap Not Due to Services Cut

To the Editor:

The gap in school performance between white students and African-American or Hispanic students continues to vex teachers, administrators, and researchers. Mark Simon and Joseph Hawkins accuse local school administrators of being "clueless" about the causes and cures for a recent drop in the SAT scores among African-American seniors in the Montgomery County, Md., schools, but they contribute no new understanding of the problem ("When Minority Test Scores Drop," Feb. 5, 1997).

Instead, they play a game of "Pin the Data" by applying factoids of unrelated material to their own agenda. Readers deserve a broader perspective on the data from this district of 125,000 students in order to appreciate the challenge of overcoming the performance gap among ethnic groups.

The single greatest difficulty with Messrs. Simon and Hawkins' analysis of the problem is their apparent disregard for the persistence over the years of the performance gap between white students and African-American or Hispanic students. Their phrases "growing gap" and the gap "threatening to become a permanent part of the landscape" suggest a sense of discovery of a recent problem arising from diminished resources for teachers, teacher training, or extra activities.

In fact, the gap in SAT scores between white and African-American seniors in this district, as well as statewide and nationally, has, over the past 10 years, stood at close to one standard deviation, plus or minus one-tenth standard deviation. Locally, over the past 10 years, the SAT averages of seniors from one year to the next shifted upward by double digits three times and shifted downward by double digits three times. Messrs. Simon and Hawkins provide no explanation for these oscillations. As long as 20 years ago in this district the achievement scores of white and African-American students were separated by about one standard deviation in the elementary schools and in the high schools.

Given the persistence and pervasiveness of this gap in school performance over the years, it would appear fortuitous to pin a single year's drop in SAT scores of African-American seniors on a class-size increase of one pupil per teacher, or on leaner teacher-training funds. These data point to a serious problem found in this district and elsewhere. Therefore, collaborative efforts among schools, parents at home, and within communities are needed.

But it would be wrong to conclude that Montgomery County has stood still in the face of this issue. Although discrepancies remain, the movement is in the right direction. For example:

  • The instructional staff (teachers and aides) per 100 pupils among schools highest in African-American or Hispanic composition (10.1 per 100 students) averages 50 percent higher than does the average for schools lowest in those student groups (6.6 per 100 students). Messrs. Simon and Hawkins do not explain how reducing the class size systemwide by a fraction would help close the racial gap in performance.
  • Students are not "placed" out of the honors "track" based on "skin color," as the writers would have readers believe. In fact, over the past 10 years the average number of honors credits earned by graduates has expanded for all racial groups, but the rate of expansion has been largest (a 116 percent increase) among African-American seniors. Also, the percentage of seniors taking the SAT increased by 15 percentage points for African-American students over the past 10 years, while that increase among white seniors was 7 percentage points.
  • The percentage of African-American 9th graders completing basic algebra or higher math expanded by 14 percentage points over the past six years, keeping pace with the 14-percentage-point increase for white 9th graders.
  • Analyses of local test scores and curricular progress of students show that students' placement and progress through the secondary school curriculum is largely a matter of their prior academic standing, not of their skin color. Regardless of racial group, students of similar academic-performance levels have about the same likelihood of future academic success.

These facts bring into question the reasons underlying Messrs. Simon and Hawkins' attempt to link a one-year drop in SAT scores with their argument for more "money and staff." True, the leaner budgets brought on by the recent recession have pared some school and staff services in this district as well as nationally. However, these fiscal realities, combined with the dramatic expansion in student enrollments, constitute a call for doing business differently than in the past, not necessarily a call for more teaching positions, more teacher-training dollars, and more teacher stipends for after-school activities.

These shibboleths, by tradition, belong more to candidates for local education-association elections. Meanwhile, the persistent problems of racial-group differences in school performance, even within a large, well-funded district, demand new collaborations with new ideas that former staffing formulas alone have not produced.

John C. Larson
Coordinator of Research and Evaluation
Montgomery County Public Schools
Rockville, Md.

Slight to Calvinists Seen In 'Leader as Learner' Essay

To the Editor:

I found Roland S. Barth's recent essay both surprising and ironic ("The Leader as Learner," Commentary, March 5, 1997). It was surprising to read the commonly held error from a previous generation that John Calvin and his followers, who included the Puritans in this country, were anti-intellectual prudes. So much new and respected scholarship has been produced in the past two decades that I found it surprising that Mr. Barth was not aware of this error in his reference to "Calvinistic" notions about learning.

I found this also ironic, in that Mr. Barth's own former institution, Harvard University, was founded in the 17th century by the same Calvinists he now characterizes as "non-learners." In fact, it can be shown that Calvin and his followers have had more direct impact on the founding of schools of higher education in Europe and America than perhaps any other movement.

James L. Drexler
St. Louis, Mo.

School Boards' Poll Results Invalidated by Response Rate

To the Editor:

As a long-time school board member, a former graduate school professor of research methods, and the president of an opinion-research firm, I was distressed to see the attention you gave in January to a survey conducted by The American School Board Journal and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University ("Ties Between Ideology, Education Views Probed," Jan. 22, 1997). Put bluntly, the information provided by this survey [which concluded that a majority of board members describe themselves as political and religious conservatives] is useless because only 20 percent of those contacted bothered to respond. Indeed, it should be characterized as misinformation.

Any serious survey researcher understands the statistical and self-selection factors that make a 65 percent response rate necessary before any valid conclusions can be drawn from a survey of this kind, and unfortunately, nobody at the National School Boards Association, Virginia Tech, or, for that matter, Education Week, seems to have understood the difference between good and, in this instance, very bad survey research.

At a time when good educational policy research is desperately needed, it is depressing to see such shoddy work being given any credence whatsoever.

J. David Colfax
Trustee and Past President
Mendocino County Board of Education
Boonville, Calif.

Young, Gifted, and Lazy: Who Deserves Honor Status?

To the Editor:

Re: your story titled ("Mother Seeks Honors Status for Daughter in Spec. Ed. Classes," (March 12, 1997). As educators, we are fond of saying that one of the purposes of education is to ensure that students achieve as close to their potential ability as possible. Consider this scenario: Student A has an IQ of 160 and scored very high on the SAT; in fact, was a National Merit Scholar. However, this student ranked 43rd out of 75 in terms of grade-point average and barely met the 3.0 required to be an honors student.

Student B, on the other hand, has an IQ of 70 and obtained a 2.75 GPA, which is too low to be an honors student. Which student is achieving closer to his potential? Who is making more of what he has? Who is working harder to be successful in school, the cognitively impaired student or the bright, gifted (and lazy) student? The cognitively impaired student should be permitted to wear two gold tassels.

Norman E. Bowers
Evanston, Ill.

Phonics Findings Discounted As Part of Flawed Research

To the Editor:

Your front-page announcement that Barbara R. Foorman's study is scientific evidence of the need for direct phonics instruction at the outset of beginning reading is the latest instance of widespread press coverage of this purported finding ("Study Stresses Role of Early Phonics Instruction," March 12, 1997.) Having read the actual research report, I wonder why the hosannas. Because of the influence this investigation might have on beginning-reading policy, it merits a close appraisal.

First, the test results: The students taught with direct instruction of phonics did score higher on skills tests; however, not reported in your article was the similar group test scores on "a test of reading comprehension using narrative and expository text and multiple-choice questions." To quote Ms. Foorman and her colleagues: "The groups did not differ on average." Since learning to read is ultimately about "text comprehension," what is the meaning of skills-test scores if they are unrelated to this fundamental purpose of literacy?

Important questions must also be raised about the precise nature of the whole-language instruction in the study. For instance, a substantial portion of the whole-language teachers were trained and monitored by the "project director," who I assume is Ms. Foorman or one of the co-authors of the research. Because Ms. Foorman has long supported skills instruction and has been critical of whole language, how objective could this "scientific" study have been in training whole-language teachers?

A portion of the teachers were trained and monitored by district school personnel, but there is no description of what the training was. Here, of course, the training would likely have been more objective, but the report offers no evidence for that conclusion or for determining if the training was thorough.

The whole-language teachers taught by the project director received 30 hours of training during one summer week. This is not scant, but as someone who has taught and has taught teachers, I know it is barely sufficient time to acquire the knowledge and sophistication to ensure whole language will be done right. You cannot simply bank the information in the summer, then withdraw and apply the deposits in the fall. Becoming a competent whole-language teacher requires a constant theory-practice-observation-reflection-critique-reapplication interactive process.

Research that truly wants to evaluate whole-language instruction must be dedicated to ensuring that the approach is applied competently. This dedication is not demonstrated in the study (if only for empirical purposes), in Ms. Foorman's other work on beginning reading, or in the work of her collaborators.

Consider too that according to Ms. Foorman, the teachers' instruction was monitored approximately twice a month throughout the school year. If we accept, at face value, the criteria for success (word-attack skills, spelling, etc.), we must assume that one or more of the following occurred:

(a) The children in whole-language classes were relentlessly sliding into neverland month after month, but none of the "monitors" recognized this growing failure and, therefore, offered no supervision or advice for halting the slide and promoting success. If so, the monitoring was worthless with respect to improving teaching ability, the whole-language teaching was unnecessarily poor, and the so-called monitoring contributed to the final results of the study. (b) The monitors recognized the growing failure but did nothing because they did not want to interfere with the instruction, and thereby contaminate it. If so, the monitoring again was worthless with respect to supporting whole-language instruction. (c) The monitors did attempt to intervene and improve whole-language instruction but their efforts failed because inherent in the instruction is an incapacity to teach children letter identification, word identification, simple comprehension, and spelling.

"C" of course is what one is supposed to conclude from this study. However, if this is a hypothesis of this study--or of any such study--the way to go about testing it is not through Ms. Foorman's design. Contrary to this design, a study must do everything reasonably possible to ensure that the whole-language teachers and students obtain all they need to achieve the literacy goals. Only then could one determine anything informative about explanation (c).

Since Ms. Foorman says nothing about whether a, b, or c depicts the monitoring and its impact, there is no information or logic for accepting "c" as a conclusion.

At best, this is a "garden variety" investigation commonly found in professional journals: It suggests an answer, but its many flaws make it an inadequate effort that other investigators (and perhaps Ms. Foorman) might try to correct and build upon in future research designs. Considering its serious scientific limitations, the study certainly rates neither front-page coverage nor credibility in policy decisions on literacy education.

Gerald S. Coles
Ithaca, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Since Barbara R. Foorman's work hasn't yet been published, it is difficult to judge the value of its design or the strength of its findings.

Readers may, however, be interested in Ms. Foorman's views on a related education controversy. In 1989, she was quoted in The New York Times as declaring that cooperative learning "is doomed to failure" because "it goes against the American grain, the individualism that creates the entrepreneurship we as a people have historically espoused."

"In a utopia," she goes on to say, "it would be wonderful. But education should prepare kids for life in a particular culture. In reality, the name of the game is dog eat dog. Kids have to learn that you get something through your own smarts."

Alfie Kohn
Belmont, Mass.

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