Published Online: April 23, 1997

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More Letters!

See our two supplemental letters pages this week:

Essay on Dull Schoolwork Hits Mark, Misses a Target

To the Editor:

Eleanor Dougherty and Patte Barth are on the mark--nearly to the point of stating the obvious--in their observation that much schoolwork is pointless and "mundane," and that students are "systematically bludgeoned" by "educators who ... do not recognize that they are setting low expectations" ("How To Close the Achievement Gap," Commentary, April 2, 1997). Too bad the authors have cast such a small net.

The "educators" accused of this dumbing-down, one surmises, must be classroom teachers. But aren't there some other actors here? Why leave out parents, politicians, school board members, administrators, and education pundits who howl about dropout rates, graduation rates, and failure rates?

In my New Hampshire public high school, student grade results for each teacher are charted and compared and distributed to the staff, on whom the message of such comparisons is not lost. Although there are few uniform grading standards even within departments and specific courses, the expectation is that everyone's "failure" rates ought to be in line with school averages. Teachers are criticized by administrators and subject to warnings of dire consequences when they have held to grading standards which result in higher failure rates. And why not? Administrators themselves are judged by these same brutal, meaningless numbers. The public has shown repeatedly it cares far less about what kind of learning takes place than that dropout and graduation numbers are acceptable.

The authors are correct in their gloomy observation that many teachers are unqualified and inept. But gloomier still is the thought that just as many teachers guilty of "low level" assignments and standards know exactly what they are doing, and why: They want to keep their jobs.

Daniel Deneen
Etna, N.H.

Prelude to College Needs President's Main Attention

To the Editor:

I do not doubt President Clinton's good intentions when he advocates two years of college for all ("Town Vs. Gown?," Commentary, March 12, 1997). Few would argue that more isn't better when it comes to education. But simply housing reluctant scholars longer, while good for unemployment figures, will not necessarily make ours a more intellectual society. Shouldn't we figure out how to make the most of the time we already hold students captive before extending their sentence? Twelve years is a long time.

I wonder how many 17-year-olds Mr. Clinton talked with about his idea. His daughter and her friends may have offered one point of view, but many of the seniors I know are sick to death of school. Their interests have run counter to curriculum for years. Why would two more years in a desk be a good use of their time? Given the terrifying statistics of how few high school graduates here meet California State University minimum requirements for college-level math and English classes, it seems obvious to me that instead of focusing on higher education, we should be thinking about what is and isn't happening in elementary and secondary education.

There are many who worry that in the rush to raise academic standards we will penalize those children who, through no fault of their own, have not been adequately prepared to meet them. Mr. Clinton's answer to this was a good one: "Raising standards will not be easy, and some of our children will not be able to meet them at first. The point is not to put our children down but to lift them up." Maybe we should re-examine the whole notion of what we mean by the word. The traditional mental image of a standard is one of a crossbar, a barrier that students must break through if they are to be deemed proficient, a finish line of sorts.

But the first definition of standard in the Oxford English Dictionary describes a standard as "a flag, sculptured figure, or other conspicuous object raised on a pole to indicate the rallying point of an army; the distinctive ensign of a king, commander, nation, or city." Why not replace our old image with this one? Picture the impact it would have if we thought about academic standards as a national rallying point and really made education America's first priority.

This would mean that when children are not making the progress we expect, resources are marshaled to make sure that they do. Schools where large numbers of children have historically been underprepared could be targeted for special attention and the finest teachers, paid on par with experts in other fields, brought in to turn the tide. The military metaphor is apt. It's time to declare war on ignorance.

On the front lines we need reinforcements, crack teams of teachers and librarians, highly trained, committed professionals willing to work under fire. We also need more ammunition: science equipment, computers, textbooks. It is hard to get involved in a lesson on dissecting when there is only one frog for 35 students. The battle must also be waged on the home front. Let's impose rationing on television-viewing and plant neighborhood "literacy gardens." Imagine public libraries, teeming with recent acquisitions, fully equipped for Internet access, open round the clock. We can win if we put our minds to it.

It is not until the 10th entry for "standard" in the Oxford English Dictionary that you come to "an authoritative or recognized exemplar of correctness, perfection, or some definite degree of quality." Identifying exemplars in education is easy; the difficult part is making sure all students achieve them.

If President Clinton means what he says about lifting up America's children, he is going to have to do more than make it possible for them to spend two more years in school. He needs to make sure schools get the first 12 right.

Carol Jago
Santa Monica, Calif.

Report on Chapter 1 Failure Echoes Findings From 1993

To the Editor:

I read your report "Chapter 1 Aid Failed To Close Learning Gap," April 2, 1997, with interest but without surprise.

As I said in a 1993 RAND study of Chapter 1: "Presenting improved schooling as the primary means of improving educational achievement ignores the other forces that affect students and their achievement. These forces include parents, siblings, and peers; hunger and nutrition; local and national values; violence and drugs; and television. They influence educational achievement, far more often negatively than positively, at all economic levels. And they especially influence the achievement of students from low-income families. ...

"In my opinion, until all the forces that affect educational achievement are attacked in a coordinated manner, it is doubtful that any substantial and lasting result will occur. Schools cannot solve the educational problems independent of the rest of society. ... And they should not act as though they can."

E.G. Sherburne Jr.
Washington, D.C.

Viewing Accreditation From Inside the Process

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to your recent article on school accreditation ("Once Status Symbol for Schools, Accreditation Becomes Rote Drill," March 26, 1997.) Although I am only 17 years old and a college freshman, I have quite a bit of experience with accreditation. I was a member of the most recent accreditation team at a San Francisco Bay area high school and, because my mother was a commissioner for two years for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, I attended quite a few conferences with the commission and am familiar with both the individuals running the WASC and the entire accreditation process, start to finish. Besides that, I watched my high school go through the process when I was a sophomore. Essentially, I've been on both ends of the process, and inside, too.

One of the first things you imply as a problem with the system is that "the accrediting agencies are ultimately operated ... by the school officials they monitor." Well, who better? You wouldn't send a lawyer to evaluate a plumber, nor a baker to judge the performance of a shoe salesman. The people who evaluate educators are, sensibly, educators (and, occasionally, an educatee) themselves.

Another fault found with the process is that schools rarely lose accreditation and are often given years to clean up their acts. Of course they are: Almost all of the problems encountered are either related to money or poor leadership, and both of these take time to change. Stretching an already-tight budget to try and cover equipment for established programs and training for new ones cannot be done overnight, just as replacing poor administrators and implementing new policies is a long-term task. The schools that need help in these areas are given term extensions only on the condition that each visiting team (at least one a year for schools in big trouble) see improvement and, most important, effort on both the part of the school and the community.

One of the problems that you mentioned actually does exist: whether the visiting accreditation team's role is that of "strictly objective auditors" or of people with clout who should use it. I believe this role varies from case to case. My last day at the Bay-area high school, we (the team) were trying to decide how long a term to recommend for the school. After a while, the rest of the team agreed on a six-year term with a review at three years (commonly called a "6-R"). I, however, was of the opinion that a three-year term was more appropriate. My argument was that a 6-R would let the school and community believe that they were doing all right, when in fact they were not. They had received a 6-R from the last team, and had not shown much effort or improvement in many of their problem areas. Although for the most part the school deserved a 6-R, I felt that they needed a powerful kick in the pants (in the form of a three-year term) to tell them they couldn't slack off like the last time without landing in some serious trouble.

The team ended up recommending a 6-R, but when the commission read the report, they agreed with my reasoning and changed the term to a three-year one. I could imagine cases where a team could be manipulated into misusing their power, but this is one case where clout was properly used.

The main problem I have with your article, though, is the fact that the WASC's methods and policies are never mentioned, probably because they turn your pillar-of-wisdom argument into a pile of dust and rubble. The WASC has recently adopted a new process, Focus On Learning, that evaluates schools in a more practical, sensible way. The process is no longer as concerned with what schools have (although, of course, having a stocked library and safe gym equipment is still important), as with what schools do. Education is all about teaching future generations what they need to know to do what they want to in life. What matters most isn't that a school has 10 copies of the Theogony, but that its students are doing well on tests, are able to demonstrate what they have learned, and are succeeding in life. Focus On Learning evaluates a school's ability to do just that. You are doing the WASC and all the people who labored to create this new process an injustice by implying that such an innovation does not yet exist, and, furthermore, is not even being given serious thought.

Had you done all of your research, you would have realized that although your argument was true a few years ago, the face of accreditation is changing. Those who agree wholeheartedly with your article will be left behind while the accreditation commissions' new processes and methods of evaluation help carry the schools and students of this nation into the future.

Eileen Webb
Whitman College
Walla Walla, Wash.

Yes, Interim Superintendents Can Be Subtle Manipulators

To the Editor:

Joseph Sanacore's essay, "Interim Superintendents: Select With Care," Commentary, March 26, 1997, was on target. In fact, many interim administrators are tightly connected to an inner circle of practicing and retired superintendents. As one would expect, these temporary administrators work in subtle ways "behind the scenes" to manipulate boards of education into hiring members of their inner circle. Once appointed, the new superintendents guarantee the interim administrators future roles as interim chiefs. Thus, the cycle of potential mediocrity continues endlessly.

Fortunately, Mr. Sanacore's courage and insight concerning this important issue have revealed some of the negative underpinnings that not only are dominant forces in school systems but also are negative influences that prevent schools from attaining their true potential.

Terri Careri
Hauppauge, N.Y.

Sports, Physical Education Deserve Greater Coverage

To the Editor:

In my position as the supervisor of physical education, recreation, and athletics in a large district in western New York state, there have been times when I've wondered, reading Education Week, if I could be spending my budget dollars elsewhere. Rarely did I see anything of substance covering physical education or athletics in your pages. But I must commend you for "Physical Attraction," April 2, 1997.

Standards are increasing nationwide in all curriculum areas, not just the core areas. Your writers cover topics dealing with character education, discipline problems, research suggesting the importance of ethics, values, teamwork, integrity, problem-solving skills. What curriculum area speaks to these concerns as a whole better than physical education? What co-curricular area better than athletics covers these areas?

Please consider more coverage dealing with physical education and athletics. Much is being done in these areas, and you have a responsibility to share with educational leaders worldwide the importance they have in our children's education. You are a pipeline to some superintendents or school boards who do not see the importance of these programs and risk cutting them out for the sake of saving dollars.

Brett Banker
Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District
Tonawanda, N.Y.

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