Published Online: November 12, 1997

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Union Critic, NEA Member Cite Peer-Review Flaws

To the Editor:

President Bob Chase of the National Education Association attempts a compelling case for his members to join him in his new-found support for "peer-assistance and -review programs," but between the lines, the old union demagoguery lives on ("Teacher vs. Teacher? Nonsense," Oct. 22, 1997).

Throughout his argument, the intent is clear: The NEA's current drumbeating for peer-review adoption is about the union "taking charge of their profession," not teachers. Since the advent of monopoly bargaining in the late 1960s, the transmogrified NEA has been resolute about anything and everything that will empower union officials to control the direction of the profession. With this, one has to wonder just how much of a "blessing" union officials would give to peer-review programs without the so-called "strong quality safeguards" they intend their local affiliates to build into these new policies--policies controlled at the bargaining table that include "demanding criteria for the selection of consulting teachers."

As always in education reform, the nea's longtime rival and soon-to-be partner in a predicted merger, the American Federation of Teachers, was way out in front of the NEA when it launched its peer-review programs two decades ago. Not only did it lead the way, but it set the terms, demanding that the union select the peer-review panel and generally control the process. What better way to whip recalcitrant nonunion teachers into joining the union that controlled their review, assistance, and dismissal recommendations?

Mr. Chase is absolutely right when he calls peer assistance and review "tough-minded unionism at its best." Adding one more link to the chain that will bind every teacher to the local union official and behemoth national union is the most basic union organizing tactic.

School directors, taxpayers, and competent teachers should view this newest bandwagon led by the NEA with a wary eye.

Susan Staub
President
Pennsylvanians For Right To Work Inc.
Harrisburg, Pa.

To the Editor:

The problem with Bob Chase's peer-review initiative is that it doesn't go far enough in transforming our union into a professional-model association, such as the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association. We need either to complete a transformation to a more professional association or retreat to a more union-oriented association. The peer-review proposal leaves the National Education Association in an awkward, potentially self-destructive position.

Although we teachers regard ourselves as professionals, our workplace is organized in most places on the factory model, in which management hires, evaluates, and fires; and workers organize to protect themselves against abuses in the latter two roles. Mr. Chase's initiative asks us to take on roles in evaluating and firing our own members, without empowering us with a role in hiring.

The ABA and the AMA are empowered to determine their own membership. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have no such power. We do have roles as unionists in peer assistance. In a factory, I have an interest in improving the person on either side of my position on the assembly line. In a school, I have an interest in assisting the teacher in the next classroom. I have no role, however, in placing that person there in the first place; so I have no role in evaluating and removing that person.

The NEA's peer-evaluation resolution suggests that it is OK for me to take on an assistance, evaluation, and termination responsibility without taking on the power to determine who my peers are in the first place. That is the fatal flaw in Mr. Chase's argument: I am asked to clean up a mess I did not make.

The NEA and the AFT must move to get the power to determine who is a teacher, simultaneous to assuming responsibility for evaluating and removing that teacher. Until they get me this power, I cannot willingly accept the responsibility of a peer-review program. As a local union president, I've often noted that school committees and administrators are usually happy to call us professionals when they want us to do something for nothing, while at other times they may treat us as hourly paid workers. Perhaps Bob Chase fell for this, but I haven't. When politicians and administrators hand over some power, I'll take on their responsibilities. Not before. Not willingly.

Paul J. Phillips
President
Quincy Education Association
Quincy, Mass.

Math Reform Backlash Misguided, Ill-Informed

To the Editor:

It is difficult to decide where to begin in responding to Tom Loveless' Commentary, "The Second Great Math Rebellion" (Oct. 15, 1997). In addition to missing most of the point of the mathematics education reform, he made several significant factual errors, as well as pandering to those whose agenda is to block needed improvements. In doing so, Mr. Loveless joins others whose opinions seem to be based less on a firsthand understanding of what the standards documents actually say, and more on hearsay spouted from the floor of the U.S. Senate or in conservative columnists' biased efforts to derail reform.

Mr. Loveless and others continue to labor under the impression that mathematics education before 1989 (the year the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards were published) was actually working for most kids. The implication is that if we would only go back to those days, everything would be fine. The fact is that only slightly over half of 12th graders met basic mathematics proficiency levels in 1990. That percentage has been rising steadily since 1990, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

A second impression is that kids are not learning basic computation skills nowadays and that this is the fault of the math reform. In fact, student scores on NAEP computation items are in the 80 percent to 90 percent range, without the use of calculators.

Mr. Loveless extols the traditional mathematics textbook as the publicly declared curriculum that links the home and school. He and others ignore the analysis by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which found that U.S. textbooks are repetitive, unfocused, and cover far too many topics for any real learning to take place. The "new math" program mentioned by U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd is in fact not "new" at all. It is one of the tired, traditional textbooks with new wrappings, marketed by major publishing companies under the guise of meeting NCTM standards. These 600-page monsters should be replaced, not only because they present "rain forest math" in misguided attempts to appear up to date but because they present 50 different topics without in-depth treatment of important mathematics skills and ideas.

How mathematics is taught is indeed less important than the results. However, in a TIMSS analysis of mathematics teaching, 87 percent of 8th grade mathematics lessons were judged by mathematicians to have low-quality content--focusing on low-level skills. Sixty percent of teachers said their goal was to teach skills rather than thinking. These results indicate that reform has not really taken place. Those who are unhappy that mathematics education is "fuzzy" and does not emphasize skills are unaware that most mathematics classrooms teach mainly skills.

An open public discussion of change in mathematics education is welcome. But the current backlash seems to favor opinions and politics ahead of facts and evidence.

Gerald Kulm
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, D.C.

Bilingual Education Views: More Complex Than Report

To the Editor:

I have read with some concern your short report titled "Bilingual Education Curb Backed" (News in Brief, Oct. 22, 1997). This item reports on an initiative in California to create a ballot measure on bilingual education. You state that Californians polled by The Los Angeles Times "overwhelmingly support a proposed ballot measure that would virtually dismantle bilingual education in the state."

I understand that there have been two Times polls. Your news piece cites the second. The first one had decidedly different results. I strongly recommend that you research more carefully and in greater depth precisely what The Los Angeles Times has found on this topic in recent polling.

Over the years, I have been singularly impressed with your coverage of bilingual education, English-as-a-second-language, and language-minority issues. Education Week's reporting has been consistently characterized by its rich and careful attention to detail--an excellent example being your ongoing treatment of the complexities of student native language and President Clinton's national testing proposal, articles I regularly bring to the attention of my graduate students.

The piece I have cited on this California initiative is decidedly outside your norm. It is far too short and, I am afraid, misleading in its brevity. It reports on a complex topic that merits a much more complex treatment.

Fred Davidson
Associate Professor
Division of English as an International Language
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, Ill.

School Choice Fears Have Little Validity

To the Editor:

When Susan Jacobson talks about school choice, she displays two perspectives that are mutually exclusive ("School Choice: It's Still a Seller's Market," Oct. 1, 1997). She worries that since there are not enough schools to choose from, some children aren't going to get to choose, leading to an educational world divided between the "haves" and "have-nots." Her other perspective on school choice is that parents aren't going to know how to choose. She implies that choosing is all right as long as everyone gets to, but, on the other hand, that's not right either since parents will probably choose the wrong school anyway.

I would like to reassure Ms. Jacobson that any shortage of educational opportunities need not be a long-term problem if more of us are supportive of current trends. The charter school movement started six years ago, and this fall 700 of them opened their doors in 20 states to well over 100,000 students. Another 13,000 students are served in independent schools, through both private and state choice programs. And then there are the thousands of other public school students who are allowed to choose from among schools within an existing or neighboring district.

The kind of responsibility families are demonstrating in both choosing and creating the schooling they want for their children is certainly inspiring. With the evidence coming in slowly in the form of assessment data, it also looks as if these families do know what's best for their children. And, by the way, the majority of children benefiting from these educational opportunities are those Ms. Jacobson would describe as the "have-nots."

Lenore F. Broughton
Burlington, Vt.

Philadelphia Data Show Other Entry-Age Factors

To the Editor:

Re: Your article "Trouble Ahead for Older Students, Study Finds" (Oct. 15, 1997), which reported the findings of Robert S. Byrd and his colleagues that were published in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics.

As part of the Philadelphia school district's review of its kindergarten-admission policies, Barbara Holden and I studied two cohorts of 15,000 children each. All of the children who began kindergarten in the fall of 1989 and 1990 were followed until the school year when they should have completed the 2nd grade. Our results paralleled those of the Byrd study, in that we also found that children who were older than usual for kindergarten did not fare as well in school. But the details led us to different conclusions about the meaning of the finding.

We found evidence of older children's problems very early in their school career, as well as patterns related to income that suggest attitudes and beliefs among parents are playing a role. We suspect that some of the differences in the studies arise from the Byrd group's reliance on BPI, a parent report device, while we used district records that reflect educators' views.

The Byrd group concluded that being overage when starting school caused a problem for the child. Our data suggest that when a child is judged to be immature or has other problems that would affect school success, some parents delay enrolling that child. We found that older children were less likely than regular-age children to have reached 2nd grade on time, probably as a result of their needing a class that bridged kindergarten and 1st grade, or of their repeating 1st grade. Because this occurred very early in the children's schooling, it suggested to us that some parents delayed enrolling their children because they suspected a problem that the delay might, but did not, solve.

Among children who completed 2nd grade when expected, we found that older children had lower report card marks and standardized-test scores. Moreover, we found this pattern to be stronger among children who attended schools serving low-income neighborhoods than among those attending more middle-income schools. As the proportion of African-American children is highest in the low-income schools, our finding appears to contradict Dr. Byrd's conclusion that overage-student phenomena are only characteristic of white students.

We believe the community income pattern is also evidence of parents' decisionmaking. Financially comfortable parents had the option of following advice, common in the press, that the oldest child in a grade has an edge. Many low-income parents, on the other hand, find it advantageous to have children in school as young as possible because the school serves an important child-care function. The effect is to give middle-class parents two reasons to delay enrolling their children that tend to cancel each other out in group data, but to leave only one reason--belief that there is a problem that delayed enrollment could solve--to low-income parents.

Robert M. Offenberg
Research Associate
School District of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pa.

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