Published Online: June 25, 1997

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Year-Round School Calendar Affects Entry-Age Debate

To the Editor:

One vital factor missing in your article "Cutoff Date for Kindergarten Debated," June 4, 1997, is very specific to California but also very significant. California is the hotbed of year-round-calendar schools, with estimates that as many as one-third of the state's pupils start their school year in mid-July instead of around Labor Day. Given the state's Dec. 1 entrance-age cutoff date, this means that thousands of California children start school at a far younger age than do children in most states.

These same children, however, must compete with their older peers on all kinds of standardized tests throughout their school careers. This puts the California children further at risk.

Clearly, we need to change the primary-grade curriculum, as I was quoted as saying in your story. But we also need to be concerned about the children now in school as we move through the lengthy change process.

James K. Uphoff
Professor and Chair
Department of Teacher Education
Wright State University
Dayton, Ohio

Story on N.Y. Regents Test Left Out Local Confusion

To the Editor:

While Education Week accurately discussed New York state's efforts to "raise standards," your article on the subject failed to address much of the confusion emanating from Albany and hitting those of us in the trenches ("Tougher Tests Spur Debate on N.Y. Diploma," ("Harder Tests Spur Debate on N.Y. Diploma," June 11, 1997.)

Simultaneous with requiring more students to take regents' examinations, the state is apparently determined to overhaul the examinations as well. For the past two years, we have been pelted by sketch after sketch of what the English regents, mathematics regents, and science examinations may look like. To date, there is no definitive prototype for any of the examinations--though students currently in school will be responsible for passing them.

Among many of the proposals lie massive new testing requirements--an English examination which may subject 16-year-olds to six hours of testing, for example; mandating that students in science courses perform 30, rather than the current 20, laboratory experiments to gain admission to examinations--all of which makes some wonder whether "tedium" and "time" have come to define "higher standards."

In October, the state board of regents revised its definition of a "failing school" to that of any school at which 90 percent of the students do not pass the new examinations in English and math--tests which have not even been invented, let alone validated or field-tested. Finally, after a century of producing elaborate curricula and syllabi for local school districts, the budget-conscious state now says, "That isn't our job anymore"--a peculiar stance for an agency exerting increasingly more control over content, outcomes, and daily instruction.

Most states have approached reform by designing a program and then establishing implementation dates. We in New York seem to be approaching the task differently: The deadlines and mandates are all in place; what we lack is an adequate description of the program itself.

Stephen E. Phillips Superintendent
Alternative High Schools and Programs
Board of Education
New York, N.Y.

Solutions From Diversity, Not From Centralization

To the Editor:

The continued push for national standards, as exemplified by the American Federation of Teachers' new president, Sandra Feldman, should be viewed with great alarm ("AFT Elects N.Y.C. Leader as New President," May 14, 1997.) Her rhetoric that "the American public ought to be able to agree on what we want children to learn; we don't have to start out making it mandatory," looks too attractive to dismiss. It has great sound-bite qualities but is a disaster in the making.

The premise that all of America should come to common agreement on what is to be learned and that there are no adequate standards or measures of student learning available is flawed. The same edition of your paper addresses the controversy over Hispanic or Mexican-American curricula. Will the national standards have ethnic-centered measurements? Will they reflect the thinking of the religious right or the ethnic left? Will the percentage of content in the curriculum be decided by the percentage of the population or by contribution? Will unions, politicians, advocacy groups decide what is to be assessed?

There seems to be an unstated belief that educators in the field have not been bright enough to figure out what needs to be taught, and that there is a mystery about how to assess whether students are learning or not. If that is the case, then how can anyone be certain there is a crisis of learning? In reality, there are state syllabi, state assessments, nationally validated tests, and local tests. In fact, the last thing needed are national assessments. If there are national assessments, will they be normed by region, by gender, or by ethnic group? Will they be subject to litigation and legislation, all the while moving further and further away from the schools, students, and teachers?

It is a wonder that in a country prospering because it has rejected centralization and state-controlled businesses and private lives, and in which citizens are learning that technology can free them from traditional bonds, that the best answer to improving learning Ms. Feldman and much of the education establishment can come up with is a system based on centralization.

An old saying holds that generals who fail in today's battles continue to fight the last war. National standards are based upon failing models. To address today's problems requires an honest look at the current issues and a willingness to shake up politically powerful constituencies. The significant problems of inner-city schools won't be solved by national standards. The great success of many suburban schools will not be enhanced by a national curriculum. Complexity and diversity define our country and our schools. Meaningful solutions come from those qualities.

Barnett Sturm
Superintendent of Schools
Cairo-Durham Central School District
Cairo, N.Y.

Architects of Louisiana Desegregation Plan Cited

To the Editor:

I would like to make a correction to the column item headlined "Retribution or Reassignment?" ("State Journal," June 11, 1997.) Victor C. Kirk is characterized as having been "a chief architect" of the new desegregation plan operating in the East Baton Rouge Parish school district in Baton Rouge, La. That is false.

The major architects of the plan were myself, Robert Carter, Superintendent Gary S. Mathews, several top staff members of the district, and the members of the board of education.

Christine H. Rossell
Professor of Political Science
Boston University
Boston, Mass.

Don't Generalize Lessons From Prison 'Detracking'

To the Editor:

It is with some astonishment that I read Susan Olsen's Commentary, "Detracking Helps At-Risk Students," June 11, 1997. What is amazing to me is that Ms. Olsen jumps to conclusions about the desirability of heterogeneous public school classrooms from her experience with a prison school program.

Although Ms. Olsen never mentions what age group she is teaching, I wonder if she has looked at her students' school experiences to see what kind of classrooms they were in prior to incarceration. It is likely they came from heterogeneous classrooms if they attended public school in the last 10 years. Some of her students may well have been ill-served in a heterogeneous classroom, either left behind without personal attention or unchallenged as a gifted student.

Instead, Ms. Olsen makes some broad statements about her concept of "detracking." (I should note she is not alone in doing this.) Ms. Olsen states that detracking involves developing a meaningful curriculum for all students with less emphasis on basic skills.

There are many educators who would respond that this definition is partially wishful thinking and partially wrong. Providing each child with a "meaningful" curriculum does not necessarily mean placing all children in the same classroom or giving them the same curriculum. Instead, an appropriate and challenging curriculum must take into account the fact that children learn at different paces and in different ways.

Although I agree that tracking students is not appropriate, because it sorts all children into fixed layers in the school system with little attention to content, motivation, past accomplishment, or present potential, the opposite of tracking is not necessarily establishing all-heterogeneous classrooms. Ms. Olsen's concept of what goes on in a "detracked" classroom--lower-ability students given support so they can stay in class with more successful students--is often not the reality.

Further, even where there is a challenging environment for the lower-ability students, what does Ms. Olsen suggest the more successful students do during this time? Are they treading water while waiting for the less successful students to catch up? If her students-in-prison program is her model, Ms. Olsen would have the high-ability students act as tutors to the other students. While this may be of assistance to the classroom teacher, it rarely benefits the high-ability student. What is that child learning that extends his or her education?

Ms. Olsen also implies that when confronted with a heterogeneous classroom, teachers will somehow "begin to use exciting [teaching] methods." Although I agree that teaching approaches such as the use of interdisciplinary curricula, modifying curricula for varying student ability levels, and emphasizing critical-thinking skills are important techniques to increase student achievement, these are skills that do not suddenly emerge in teachers, depending on the type of classroom to which they have been assigned. Rather, these are methodologies that teachers must be trained to use. Unfortunately, not all teachers have these skills.

I congratulate Ms. Olsen on her success. Working with students to achieve their high-school-equivalency degrees is very important. But please, let's not make generalizations to the general school environment about the value of heterogeneous classrooms from this setting. Don't our schools and students have enough problems as it is?

Peter D. Rosenstein
Executive Director
National Association of Gifted Children
Washington, D.C.

On Standards and Equity: 'You Can't Push on a String'

To the Editor:

Paul Houston's essay, "Raising the Caution Flag on the Standards Movement," June 4, 1997, makes the excellent point that leveling up the bulk of our schools to the standards of our best schools would go much of the way to increase student performance in the country as a whole. Our schools, in fact, have similarities to our medical-care system, in that at its best, American medicine delivers unrivaled care, while too many Americans receive patchy or no care. Unfortunately, Mr. Houston is to some extent playing the role of "Harry and Louise," the television-ad characters whose criticisms were partly responsible for the failure of the Clinton health-care-reform effort.

We do need to do all the things Mr. Houston advocates, including applying higher standards to all of us. However, I read him as saying wait on implementing performance standards for students until the rest of the educational system has been upgraded and much greater equity achieved. There is no logical or systemic reason why we can't endeavor to make progress on all fronts simultaneously. In fact, standards-upgrading provides a powerful motivation for other reforms, which may not happen without some external pressure. As economists have said for a long time, you can't push on a string.

Stephen E. Baldwin
Senior Economist
KRA Corp.
Silver Spring, Md.

To the Editor:

Paul Houston's warning about the dangers of excessive focus on standards in the school reform movement is a much-needed correction in the widely troubled effort to improve the education of American children and youths. The overemphasis on standards has robbed the movement's effectiveness in many ways. Here are a few of them:

1. It has resulted in seeing the pupils in schools mainly as receptacles for academic learning rather than as human beings requiring emotional development along with intellectual growth.

2. It has narrowed judgments about the nature, quality, and value of education to excessive dependence on test scores which cannot measure many significant human attributes.

3. It has supported a limited view of the purposes and mission of education by extolling the economic benefits of learning and starving educational concerns about civility, service to others, and the importance of understanding the backgrounds of people with differing cultures.

4. It has tended to ignore the rich background made available over the current century through the study of child development.

5. Too much of its activity has been an affront to the developing teaching profession, as teachers have been neglected in the processes of defining standards. The idea that schoolteachers should have elements of academic freedom built into their classroom routines has been largely ignored in the public schools, even though it is alive and well in many private schools.

6. It has offered no serious leadership to the sad fact that poor and minority children get the worst schools.

7. More important, it gives only limited attention to the reality that education is a more widespread aspect of children's lives than schooling. Unless children can have decent lives in terms of family support, health, recreation, and association with adults, their prospects for school success are dimmed. The moguls of the standards game back in the late 1980s gave some attention to this large problem as they talked about an even playing field. Today, they don't even mention it, as their attention narrowly promotes tests and standards.

8. Finally, the banner of standards is flying so high that it is giving protection to resegregation of both schools and colleges. Recently, both Texas and California have chosen to evade the Brown v. Board of Education decision and to remove any consideration of racial and cultural backgrounds in developing the student makeup of their highly selective public institutions. The ultimate results of these ill-conceived actions will be a decline in the status of the universities involved and probably a review of Brown by the U.S. Supreme Court. Neither of these outcomes is useful in a country with rapidly growing minority groups that are destined to become majorities in our schools and colleges in the next century.

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

To the Editor:

Paul Houston is right: Standards have been oversold as a magic bullet to solve the nation's educational problems. So too have the other half of the reformers' mantra: assessments.

Across the country, "standards and assessments" have been packaged together as the key to school improvement. In reality, standards and assessments often have been reduced to multiple-choice tests, yet these exams do not adequately assess critical thinking, deep understanding, or the ability to apply and use knowledge--the very things standards are supposed to foster. Thus, reform remains stuck where it started: using traditional tests to rank and compare schools and make decisions about students.

At best, states have modestly improved their exams--but more fundamental change is needed. Equitable funding properly used so that all students have a real opportunity to learn to high standards is fundamental. Preparing teachers to use high-quality classroom assessments to help each child is essential. Assessing students in ways that truly reflect what they should learn based on high-quality standards, such as by sampling from portfolios and performance exams, is necessary.

More tests of the same old kind, which is what President Clinton has proposed, will not solve any major educational problems. As things are now going, most students will just get more tests. Then what?

How many years will we have to wait before the next "Lake Wobegon" report finds a raft of inflated scores on narrow tests? How long before studies find that in too many schools serving poor kids, education is still limited to drilling for tests, but in schools serving rich kids it is not? How long before longitudinal research finds that too many of those poor kids have been cheated out of a rich and engaging education? How long before we recognize that the standards movement has been hijacked by narrow conceptions of accountability designed to cheaply service political expediency?

Monty Neill
Associate Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.

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