Published Online: February 18, 1998



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Civics Framework Bridges Philosophies of 'Two Schools'

To the Editor:

I agree almost 100 percent with Larry Cuban's "A Tale of Two Schools," Jan. 28, 1998. I note especially his view that both traditional and progressive schools are expected to and can produce citizens who fulfill their duties in a democratic society. He is right in arguing that all public schools in the United States should operate under "a common framework." He says, "The common framework I refer to is the core duty of tax-supported public schools in a democracy to pass on to the next generation democratic attitudes, values, and behaviors."

He is also right in pointing out that this historic purpose of public education has been muted in most of the recent arguments and controversies about national education goals, standards, and testing. The emphasis has all too often been confined to the need for better teaching of science and math, a speeded-up technology, and better training for jobs.

But I wish he had reminded his readers that there is already available an excellent "common framework" devoted precisely to the achievement of the democratic purposes of education that he is extolling. They are set forth in two volumes: "CIVITAS: A Framework for Civic Education" (1991) and "The National Standards for Civics and Government" (1994). Both are products of widespread professional and public consensus achieved under the leadership of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Civic Education.

These volumes have been widely adopted or adapted by educational authorities throughout the United States and more recently in many of those newly independent countries of the world that are seeking to become truly democratic societies.

They spell out in great detail and with extensive scholarly grounding the democratic civic values, civic knowledge, and civic dispositions that all schools should promote. In addition to the values of freedom, the attitudes of open-mindedness, and diversity that Mr. Cuban mentions, they spell out the civic values of commitment to the public good, justice, equality, and (can you believe it?) truth and loyalty. Just think how important it is to teach the civic importance of truth-telling and patriotism these days.

So I give 2.9 cheers for Mr. Cuban and his main thesis that both traditional and progressive public schools can be good for democracy. Having settled that point, the next issue we must face is this: Should these same expectations and obligations apply to private schools, religious schools, and for-profit charter schools as well as to public schools? I believe they do.

All types of nonpublic schools should be held accountable to the standards of civic knowledge and behavior set forth in these two volumes, which already have been incorporated and will be tested in the "Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress."

Press on, good schools, no matter whether you are called traditional or progressive, or how you are supported financially. Preparing democratic citizens is your fundamental goal. American democracy is at stake.

R. Freeman Butts
Carmel, Calif.

The author was a principal contributor to "Civitas" (1991).

NCAA as Reform Obstacle: Minnesota Examples

To the Editor:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a major barrier to high school reform ("Reform Leaders Decry NCAA Requirements," Jan. 21, 1998). That's the unanimous view of the Minnesota state board of education. The NCAA has a worthy goal: Improve academics. But its methods are wretched.

Throughout the country, the NCAA has delayed or denied giving extremely able honors students the opportunity to participate in sports. What the students actually know seems irrelevant to the NCAA. Here are three examples from Minnesota:

Amber Hofstad, a Duluth National Merit Scholar, was not able to get full credit for several advanced high school courses, delaying her participation in cross country. The NCAA still won't allow her to participate in Division I sports.

Chris Rohe, a Spring Valley student with a 3.97 grade point average and high test scores, was denied permission to play football at the U.S. Air Force Academy as a freshman. Why? The NCAA rejected one-third of his required 10th grade English class.

Allison Rosholt, recently accepted for early admission by Yale University, has battled with the NCAA for months over whether she will be able to play tennis at Yale. This, despite a 3.77 grade point average and high test scores.

The NCAA is frustrating state efforts to move toward graduation based on demonstration of knowledge, rather than accumulation of credits. The athletic association rejects this approach, writing recently to a Minnesota school that "the self-paced and performance-based approaches are not acceptable methods for the purposes of NCAA initial eligibility."

In Atlanta to meet with NCAA delegates, a Georgia educator told me that her school has received a similar letter. The National Association of State Boards of Education correctly holds that the NCAA is "far behind the curve of education reform efforts."

The NCAA has agreed to let high schools determine which courses meet the organization's standards. High schools no longer will have to fill out lengthy questionnaires about each new English, social studies, math, and science course. That's progress. Unfortunately, the NCAA still will set (questionable) standards and can overrule principals.

Gov. Arne Carlson of Minnesota, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, and state Attorney General Skip Humphrey, along with University of Minnesota officials, school counselors and administrators, and the state's board of education and high school athletics league are challenging the NCAA. Recent news means that there is progress to celebrate--and plenty of work left to do.

Jeanne Kling
Vice President
Minnesota State Board of Education
St. Paul, Minn.

For Non-English-Speakers, What Works May Vary

To the Editor:

It is always interesting to read articles on sheltered-English or English-immersion programs vs. bilingual education ("English Spoken Here," Jan. 14, 1998). However, it seems as though proponents of both cases can have a tunnel-vision approach.

From all indications in your article, Gloria Matta Tuchman is an excellent 1st grade teacher, and, although I am unclear if her class is totally limited in English or if it is mixed with native English-speakers, the type of "English only" class she conducts may work for that age level, yet be inappropriate for other ages and grades. Even though most of her instruction is in English, it also should be noted that Ms. Tuchman speaks Spanish and has the use of a bilingual assistant.

In any case, she is only dealing with elementary children. When a child enters the higher grades (middle or high school) having no English skills, it is much more difficult than entering in 1st grade, where even the native English-speakers are learning reading and other basic skills.

It takes five to seven years, on average, for middle and high school students to learn the academic English needed for success in school. If these students are placed in English-only classes, they will only fall further and further behind in content areas like math and science while learning English. Are these students to stagnate until they master another language? Are they to be left all day in classes where they don't understand anything the teacher says? Classes with some bilingual assistance (teacher or assistant) can be vital to limited-English students' education. The dropout rates for many of these students are three and four times higher than for native English-speakers.

Is it possible for these students to sit in a totally English-speaking environment all day and be successful? Have you tried immersion in a science class that is being taught in a foreign language? Workshops have been conducted locally for classroom teachers who might have limited-English students in their classes. In one session, a 2nd grade geography lesson was taught in Japanese. In a matter of minutes, teachers became upset, angry, frustrated, and threatened to leave. These were mature, educated professionals who had been told what to expect, and they could not handle it. How then can we expect children to? Instead of verbalizing their discomfort, as our teachers did, children could experience other symptoms, ranging from illness (headaches and nausea) to behavioral changes (bed-wetting, disrupting class, and so on).

It seems to me that the ideal situation would be to provide some bilingual classes in basic areas if possible. Of course, it is often difficult to do this because of the inability to find competent, bilingual teachers. Another problem would be if a system had to provide bilingual education and/or assistance to all students for which English was not their native language. What if 20, 50, or 100 languages were represented in one school district? Does the number of students increase or diminish their needs or rights? Would one Chinese student have less right to bilingual programs than 20 Spanish-speaking students? What makes the magic number? The cost of mandating or requiring such programs would be prohibitive.

The answer is that there is no answer, at least no definitive answer. Decisions must be made at the local education agencies, system by system. A state or federal law mandating a specific policy is ludicrous. There are too many factors to be considered. Systems should be given guidelines stressing the prime importance of learning English, if that is what the non-bilingual advocates want. Some bilingual instruction would be useful for older students if it is possible to provide it. As educators, we need to be more open-minded about issues and not so quick to polarize.

Activists in the English-only vs. bilingual education debate need to come together and learn in depth about each other's programs and understand that a range of options exists in each area. Most of these people already seem to have formed their opinions and closed their minds to the possibility of merging the two philosophies. Labeling all bilingual programs ineffective is wrong, and so is thinking that what is successful for a 1st grade teacher in an English-only classroom would also be successful for other grade levels. There should be a continuum between the two positions, with possibly the best answer in the middle.

Dianna M. Zadeh
English to Speakers of Other Languages Department
Warren County School System
McMinnville, Tenn.

Portfolios: Subjective Judgment Isn't the Culprit

To the Editor:

Peter Berger's critique of portfolios is half right ("Portfolio Folly," Jan. 14, 1998). In our effort to justify "performance" assessment we've invented a new system of pseudo-objective scoring to go with it. Mr. Berger is right that it makes sense to stick with cheaper and easier ways to administer tests rather than simply mimic them in another, more complex format. Alas, that wasn't their original intention. It's hard work to break out of the mold.

The growing criticism of norm-referenced multiple-choice testing, which led to the "portfolio fad," was many-pronged. It's not the standardization or multiple-choice factors alone that make commercial tests so pernicious. In fact, they suffer from the same pseudo-objective silliness that Mr. Berger dislikes about the latest round of portfolio assessments. In meeting psychometric criteria, traditional tests have told us precious little about how well students can really perform basic skills or understand important concepts or pieces of knowledge. Worse still, their design rests more on their success at sorting kids than on whether their criteria for choosing questions and answers are really the right ones. As long as the questions in a particular field are useful at neatly differentiating students into the right predetermined percentiles, a rank order that promises to predict with fair accuracy children's future school success, they are the right ones. It's hardly surprising then that the results so closely match the socioeconomic status of the students' families, give us only a guess at what our kids can really accomplish, and misdirect the intellectual life of school.

Portfolios and performance assessment were designed to redirect teaching back into what matters--what kids do with their minds in areas of importance to our society and to kids' future real lives. They are trying to do for teaching what a good driver's test does for knowing how to drive. While there's often a short "objective" test, the real test is driving a car in the company of an expert. No one is interested in where a testee stands in comparison to other testees.

In fact, throughout the history of schooling, teachers have been measuring students by subjective judgments of their work--for example, testing writing by subjectively giving grades to kids' writing. If the actual writing that kids produce doesn't provide "meaningful, useful data" in making judgments, as Mr. Berger suggests in his conclusion, then we're in deep trouble as a species. How a bunch of numerical stand-ins for real written work, based on tests that never tap student writing at all, can provide more "useful" data is even more puzzling. That's what we were stuck with for a long time, before we made the effort to return the field to an even older tradition--portfolios and the exercise of judgment.

The culprit isn't judging people by what they can do--that's what employers, college professors, and friends do all the time. The culprit is our worshipping psychometric definitions of "validity" and "reliability" independent of judgment. We're educating people for judgment--that's the bottom line purpose of schooling. (It's what driving is all about too.) There just isn't a good substitute for judging the use of judgment than to test it in use. It's another case of means and ends going nicely together. We decide life-and-death matters this way (juries, judges, and democracy itself, for example). Maybe we need to bite the bullet and judge schooling the same way. At the Central Park East Schools in East Harlem, portfolios are not an added expense, since learning to do real work and to make judgments about that work is central to the school's purposes. It can't be done if we don't look closely and frequently at real work, and get better at it over time.

I never did find out from Mr. Berger why he believes teachers should keep students' work, as promised in the headline ("We've Forgotten Why We Keep Students' Work"). I think he forgot too.

Deborah Meier
Mission Hill Public School
Boston, Mass.

The author is the founder of the Central Park East Schools in New York City.

To the Editor:

Peter Berger's attack on Vermont's portfolios is characterized by multiple omissions of important facts and severely flawed reasoning.

Factually, he asserts that portfolios cannot attain a level of reliability adequate for use in a state assessment program. He cites an older report on Kentucky to this effect. But, in the past year, an array of nationally prominent measurement experts, including Robert Linn, Edward Haertle, and Anthony Nitko, have examined Kentucky's system and found it to be sound. Mr. Linn explicitly noted that the portfolios have improved sufficiently in reliability to be used. Mr. Haertle referred to the system as a "model for the nation." FairTest's evaluation in our state-by-state report, Testing Our Children, found Kentucky's to be among the nation's better programs, but Vermont's to be superior.

Mr. Berger apparently believes it is impossible to establish valid and reliable group judgments. Thus, he rejects not only the idea of developing standards for judgment but of selecting examples for such judgments. If he is correct, we live in a world in which group agreements about quality and achievement cannot be obtained. By this reasoning, Olympic events such as ice skating and gymnastics cannot be judged. If Mr. Berger is correct, we are logically left with no means of judgment, for behind the supposedly "objective" multiple-choice tests is the group subjectivity of deciding what is important and how good is good enough.

As suggested by the Kentucky experience, as well as that of various districts and research projects, this is simply incorrect. No one is arguing that the process of learning to use portfolios, projects, and other performance assessments is easy or fast. Rather, it is educationally necessary if large systems want to signal to students and teachers that learning in depth is important and want to report to the public about such learning. For this reason, far-reaching assessment reform is a process of changing teaching to encourage students' acquisition of content and ability to understand and thoughtfully use knowledge.

Mr. Berger argues that Vermont's portfolio-assessment program has not had these positive effects. But the RAND Corp. studies he quotes also found portfolios had a valuable impact on instruction, even in the program's first few years. It is these positive effects that are the most important aspect of Vermont's assessment program, though they do not occur simply as an automatic result of portfolio assessment but through professional development linked to them. Increasingly, Vermont's approach is being used as a model by districts around the nation, precisely because of the important support for improved teaching provided by the portfolio-assessment program.

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

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