Published Online: April 1, 1998

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'Test-Basher' Logic Clouds More Than Standardized Tests

To the Editor:

I have just finished reading "Test-Basher Arithmetic," March 11, 1998, and was delighted with Richard P. Phelps' reasoning. I am not a big fan of standardized testing, but if we begin calling parts of a test tests themselves simply because scores are reported on them, then why not go one additional step further and call each question a test? Each question is scored, and those scores are reported. And why not call each at-bat in baseball, or even every pitch, a game? The results of these are also recorded and reported.

The answer is obvious. If the test-bashers had taken these additional mental steps, their faulty logic would have been readily recognized for what it was.

Much of the same type of reasoning is applied to other areas of education. The reporting of declining test scores nationwide is an excellent example. To compare the scores of today's student population as a whole to those of the student population 40 years ago is not logical. Today's student population consists of many students who would have been discarded from the student population of past generations. Yet this type of analysis is prevalent in today's educational research among anyone or any group wishing to denigrate the schools.

It is time that some of today's teachers began responding to the avalanche of poor and often untrue media assertions.

Donnie V. Robison
Monticello Independent School District
Monticello, Ky.

Will a Single 'Mega-Union' Actually Benefit Teachers?

To the Editor:

Bruce S. Cooper's Commentary "Merging the Teachers' Unions," March 11, 1998, did not address a central question involving the pending merger of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers: Will teachers benefit from it?

Mr. Cooper's omission is understandable given that the leadership of the NEA and the AFT has been conspicuously silent about how a merger would benefit teachers. In a joint press release announcing the proposed merger and a six-page, single-spaced document distributed to union chapter leaders, there is no discussion about how the merger would help teachers secure better pay or have greater hegemony in the classroom.

Furthermore, while practically every other merger in America results in greater operating efficiencies and cutbacks in overlapping administrative staff, the "mega-union" has ruled out any such action. That's good for the union hierarchy, but bad for the actual dues payers--teachers.

With this merger, American teachers will be in a unique situation: There will be only one major union to which they can choose to belong. By contrast, an average of over four unions compete for the right, indeed the privilege, to represent teachers in Europe.

In America, though, any teacher can choose not to belong to a union and instead join the burgeoning number of independent professional teacher associations across the country.

The hierarchy of the teachers' unions may feel that the interests of teachers are irrelevant to the merger. But don't be surprised if an increasing number of them decide that the union(s) has become irrelevant to them--and seek representation elsewhere.

Paul F. Steidler
Director
Education Reform Project
Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
Arlington, Va.

Principals' Responsibilities Include Managerial Expertise


To the Editor:

Your March 4, 1998, article "Tenured Principals: An Endangered Species," March 4, 1998 is a useful exploration of a difficult issue.

One quote (from a union official) got my attention: "Principals are master teachers. They are not managers."

I don't think there is much argument about the principal's ultimate responsibility to see that students get an education. After all, the term principal apparently derives from "principal teacher."

However, to deny that there is a vital management (and leadership) role for principals ignores some pretty heavy-duty facts:

A principal must have a vision for his or her school and have the leadership capability to sell all of the school's constituencies--teachers, cabinet, parents, kids, community, and so on.

A principal's needs, among others, are for the skills that enhance his or her ability to build consensus and manage time.

And a principal's responsibilities include those related to human resources and labor relations, food service, housekeeping, engineering, public and community relations, fund raising, management information systems, security, and, of course, budgeting and resource allocation.

In public school systems all over the country, we have found principals hungry for specific management assistance and for seminars and workshops to help them develop their leadership skills.

Gerald D. Levy
President--Education Group
National Executive Service Corps
New York, N.Y.

'Imaginary Drugs': The Moral of the Story


To the Editor:

Ted Williams' wry observations in "The War on Imaginary Drugs," March 4, 1998, unintentionally makes a very good point: Schools must invest considerable time and effort to develop, implement, disseminate, and publicize clear policies on drugs. Mr. Williams illustrates several pitfalls of policy and procedure.

This shouldn't deter schools from setting and enforcing policies. Effective school drug policies protect the health and safety of students and staff, as well as provide guidelines for appropriate behavior in the school setting. Policy development should be done in consultation with students, staff, parents, community members, health professionals, and the school lawyer. But even the best policy cannot be effective if it isn't distributed, publicized, and understood by all stakeholders.

Avoid trouble: Remember Mr. Williams' cautionary tale, and analyze and evaluate your school policies now.

Isabel Burk
The Health Network
New York, N.Y.

College for College's Sake: No Economic Guarantees

To the Editor:

Your article "Community Colleges Bask in Popularity," Feb. 25, 1998, perpetuates some interesting myths about education and includes some facts that, when delved into, should raise a number of questions.

Community colleges are one of this country's major resources and are not recognized for the valuable services they provide to students and the nation's economy. Although your article was ostensibly on community colleges, it appeared to drive home this main point: that a four-year college degree is the appropriate goal for all students.

Let's start with the experts troubled over the fact that "some students are veering from their original goal of a four-year degree." They are concerned because of the earnings gap between college and high school graduates. Based on this thinking, if all jobs were filled by four-year college graduates, everyone would earn more. While there is little doubt that a well-educated population can compete more readily in the international marketplace, the cause-and-effect relationship between pay and education is not that education creates higher-income careers, but that education allows one to qualify for higher-income careers. This is an important distinction. Were everyone to have a four-year degree, the laws of supply and demand would create the same situation in which high school graduates now find themselves.

The relationship between income and jobs is far more complex than simply more education equals more income. A Northeastern University study from the early 1990s found that vocational students who pursued the career for which they were trained out-earned college graduates with no job skills. The value of one or two years of college has more to do with the skills gained than with the number of credits earned. Your article noted this fact when pointing out that the earning power of community college medical-technology graduates is equal to that of four-year college graduates.

In Europe, the distribution of college-bound vs. career-bound high school students is the inverse of this country's: They have approximately 25 percent going to college and 75 percent starting careers. Interestingly enough, if all of their college students graduated from four-year programs, they would end up with about the same number of graduates we have.

Are we using our resources wisely when we send more and more of our students to college, especially when large numbers of these students have no idea of the careers they hope to pursue? College is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The notion of college for college's sake is reflected in the large numbers of four-year college graduates now attending community colleges to get the skills they need for gainful employment--because they graduated from college without them.

The real world is peopled by plumbers and mechanics, cooks and nursing assistants, store clerks and landscapers, printers and electricians, hairdressers and carpenters, tile setters and mold makers. Many of these people will out-earn the average college graduate. Others are maximizing their potential. It is folly to think that all of these people would be better off financially with college degrees. It is folly to think they would all even want college degrees. I cannot conceive of how a $10-an-hour, college-educated bookstore assistant manager is better off than a high-school-trained, $22-an-hour carpenter.

College is not the answer to all our ills. Learning for learning's sake is nice if you can afford it, but it is not the piece of parchment that provides economic benefits. The most significant contribution of community colleges is their orientation to vocational-skills development. And the data used to prove that more education produces more economic benefit should be disaggregated at all levels to very specifically define which education produces what economic benefit.

Joseph H. Crowley
Director
Chariho Career & Technical Center
Wood River Junction, R.I.

SATs, Multiple-Choice Tests: Hard Work Pays Off


To the Editor:

I read the Commentary "Affirmative Action and the SAT," Feb. 25, 1998, with interest, since I have a blended family consisting of both black and white children and I am also employed as an evaluator with a school district.

I agree totally with Charles A. Kiesler's assessment of the SAT and its impact on affirmative action. Differences in SAT performance are largely the result of the kind of courses my own children have taken advantage of at their school. The same is true of the school system where I work.

If students, with parental support, are willing to push themselves into more-difficult courses, they generally will score higher on tests such as the SAT and the ACT than those who take less-rigorous courses. This holds true for minority and nonminority students alike. Taking difficult classes, working hard, having persistence, practicing, and sticking to the task at hand are all methods of achieving high SAT and ACT scores.

Mr. Keisler's point about multiple-choice vs. essay questions is one I have repeatedly made to anyone willing to listen. Students who score well on multiple-choice questions are the same ones who score well on essay questions, and students who score poorly on multiple-choice questions score poorly on essay questions. We have simply purchased a more expensive and probably less reliable way of measuring what students know or do not know. This is just a case of "promote it and school districts will buy it."

It is not politically correct to say that low scores may be the result of the factors mentioned above. But the trouble is not in multiple-choice tests, and charges of bias do not ring true.

Barry Koestler
District Evaluator
Dayton Public Schools
Dayton, Ohio

National Reading Panel Won't Lack Objectivity

To the Editor:

I read with interest your Feb. 18, 1998, article on the National Panel on Reading Research and Instruction ("New National Reading Panel Faulted Before It's Formed", Feb. 18, 1998). The controversy over the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's research, described by Gerald S. Coles, continues to dichotomize reading research along the lines of the Great Debate ("National Reading Panel: Two Views on Objectivity,", March 11, 1998).

In fact, although many of the NICHD-sponsored studies support a role for explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle for beginning and high-risk readers, those programs used by NICHD researchers that have been most effective provide a balance of explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle as well as emphases on exposure to literature, application of reading and writing skills, and other components essential to a balanced approach to reading instruction.

In addition, the NICHD studies have indicated that explicit instruction is most important for children who are at high risk for reading failure, largely because of the impact of such instructional programs on phonological-awareness skills. There is, in fact, considerable agreement among reading researchers concerning the most effective approaches to teaching reading skills, particularly in high-risk readers. The common portrayal of NICHD research as supportive of an exclusive emphasis on phonics is misleading, and many of us lament the manner in which our research has been portrayed by political-activist groups (both conservative and liberal) as well as in the media.

As far as the panel is concerned, I don't see how anyone can make a determination of potential bias until it has actually been appointed. Dr. Duane Alexander is not selecting the panel alone, and the legislation clearly stipulates that the U.S. Department of Education must be involved in the process. If Mr. Coles' concerns about conflict of interest are taken seriously, the same would apply to the research program on reading by researchers supported by the Education Department. Mr. Coles' definition of "conflict of interest" would simply eliminate everyone as a selector or selectee. The attribution of motives and biases should certainly extend to all parties with an "interest."

Fortunately, eliminating reading researchers and reading professionals because of the conflict-of-interest stipulation hardly eliminates everyone in the field, and I don't believe the panel will be diminished because of this criterion. The mechanism being used to support the panel is one that comes with support. Richard L. Allington, quoted in your story on this subject, is simply not familiar with how these panels are conducted at the National Institutes of Health.

As for what reading research shows, I'm afraid that some reading professionals would wait until the icebergs begin to melt to worry about greenhouse gases, or until their first heart bypass surgery to begin worrying about their diet. They don't accept what research on reading shows, nor support the use of research in educational decisionmaking. This is the crux of the problem. The issue is not NICHD research or Education Department research, but how research is used in education. We can hope that the national panel will provide guidelines not only for evaluating the status of reading research, but also on how research should be used to influence educational decisionmaking. This would be a truly significant contribution.

Jack M. Fletcher
Professor
Department of Pediatrics and
Center for Academic and Reading Skills
University of Texas-Houston
Houston, Texas

New Accrediting Council Is Serious About Standards


To the Editor:

As members of the board of directors of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, we wish to set the record straight with regard to misconceptions that may develop as a result of the letter written by Paul Shaker ("Accrediting Group Threatens Teacher Education's Unity," Feb. 11, 1998). First, TEAC is not a "putative creation" of the Council of Independent Colleges. TEAC exists. It is incorporated and in the process of seeking approval through the U.S. Department of Education ("Alternative Accrediting Organization Taking Form With Federal Assistance," Jan. 21, 1998). TEAC was created in response to a need expressed by educators for an accreditation system that would focus on high expectations for professional education programs and address the capacities inherent in the tremendous variety of institutions across the nation.

Whereas the Council of Independent Colleges was primarily responsible for the impetus that led to the development of TEAC, the organization's board of directors comprises representation from public and private institutions, elementary and secondary teachers, and the corporate world. Yes, there are college and university presidents on the TEAC board; however, contrary to Mr. Shaker's assumption, they represent public and private institutions and they do not "control" TEAC. A majority of the TEAC board members have had experience in teacher education and/or accreditation comparable to or exceeding that described by Mr. Shaker.

Mr. Shaker's letter offers no evidence to support his statements that "TEAC is a vehicle for divisiveness" and "will be an escape from real standards." On the contrary, the preamble to the organization's "Principles of Quality," which will provide the basis for accreditation decisions, stipulates: "TEAC seeks to affirm and enhance the capacity of colleges and universities to hold themselves accountable to rigorous expectations in the education of educators. Programs that qualify for TEAC accreditation focus on the professional capabilities of their graduates, marshal needed resources, collect and examine data that demonstrate success, and work continuously to raise their expectations and achievements."

We invite Mr. Shaker and others interested in TEAC's innovative approach to accreditation to join with us in working toward the goal of recognizing and promoting high-quality professional education programs in colleges and universities.

Joseph A. Caputo
President
Millersville University
Millersville, Pa.
Norene F. Daly
Dean Emerita
College of Education
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa
Jerrold Ross
Dean
School of Education and Human Services
St. John's University
Jamaica, N.Y.

'Don't Know Much About History': Opinions on Out-of-Field Teaching

To the Editor:

I take exception to the view of out-of-field teaching put forth in Diane Ravitch's recent Commentary ("Why Students Don't Know Much About History," March 4, 1998). Ironically, teachers themselves are blamed for their lack of preparation, when assignments out of field have more to do with the economic law of supply and demand.

Will Rogers once remarked, "You can't teach what you don't know any more than you can come back from where you ain't been." This common-sense advice has been overlooked by many school districts that must fill empty slots. Administrators routinely assign teachers to classes for which they are not fully prepared because teacher salaries--and respect for the profession--are still not commensurate with the expectations for the job.

It is all too obvious that all teachers should teach in their fields of expertise. But in reality, that doesn't always happen. In my own case, I was assigned to teach a geography class during my first couple of years as a teacher, when I had not taken a single geography course in college. To this day, I shudder to think of the disservice that was done to my students and to myself those first few years.

The National Education Association has long deplored the practice of out-of-field teaching, and has called for comprehensive changes in recruitment, preparation, licensure, and other areas to raise the quality of the teaching profession. At the state level, NEA affiliates are taking the lead to redesign and implement professional-development programs to help teachers who need additional knowledge and skill to teach in their fields of assignment. And in local associations, teachers are taking risks with peer-assistance and -mentoring programs to help their colleagues who are struggling because they are assigned out of field.

No teacher wants to be thrust into a classroom to teach outside his or her field of assignment. Teachers deserve better. And more to the point, so do the children they teach.

Bob Chase
President
National Education Association
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

When I finished reading Diane Ravitch's Commentary, I was concerned about my training as a high school history teacher. I am one of those 71 percent of social studies teachers who took an undergraduate degree in education. I have a bachelor's degree in curriculum and instruction. I decided to check my training against that of the "history" majors at a local university. Well, it seems that my undergraduate degree in education, which trained me to be a social studies teacher, required more hours in history courses than a "history major" at the university.

Obviously, the assumption by the National Center for Education Statistics that teachers who lacked a major or a minor in their main academic field are teaching out of field is a false one. One would assume that a professor of education would know a little more about the course requirements of education degrees before taking stock in such useless data based on "majors."

All of the middle school and high school history teachers I have worked with had enough history coursework to meet the requirements of a major in history. A majority of them were education majors.

Incidentally, as I was pursuing my education degree, I was elected to the national honor fraternity for students of history. I was also among those "underqualified" history teachers who had an advanced degree in education. While only 12 graduate hours of social studies were required in the degree, I did manage to accumulate 39 graduate hours in social science courses before I left the high school classroom.

It should be obvious that the title of "degree" or "major" does not give valid information about an individual's training.

There are many reasons why American students don't know much about history, but lack of college courses in history by history teachers is not one of them, at least not in my state.

Jimmy Roberts
Temple, Texas

To the Editor:

Certainly Diane Ravitch's probes into the challenges facing public education are without rival as examples of on-target and precise research. Rightly founded on the principle that there exists a core body of knowledge that every student should learn, such as American and world history, her trenchant work takes no prisoners. She is correct in pointing out the futility of expecting students to acquire serious historical perspectives from teachers whose formal training has little or no roots in history.

And yet, to a great extent, local school policy virtually guarantees that this professional malpractice will continue not only in history but in math and science as well. Many school boards have the constitutional authority to take determined steps to remedy this slight to the children under their auspices by structuring local supplements to teacher salaries according to degrees earned in academic disciplines. No longer should more degrees in education earn teachers more money.

Tomorrow, boards of education should begin rewriting teacher-salary schedules to reward that training most valuable to children's acquisition of knowledge: bachelor's and advanced degrees in math, science, history, and English. While it would be glorious for federal and state governments to take the lead, predicating reform on state experts who feel compelled to debate whether or not 3rd graders ought to learn multiplication dooms next year's students to this year's mediocrity.

Armed with insights from this and other studies by Ms. Ravitch, members of school boards need not acquiesce to established practice, but champion a rigorous liberal arts education for all students, led by correspondingly trained professionals.

Leon J. Leonard
Former Chairman
Rockdale County Board of Education
Conyers, Ga.

To the Editor:

I am writing to correct an error in a letter written in reply to my Commentary, "Why Students Don't Know Much About History." Thomas M. Sherman ("On History-Teacher Analysis: Simplification, Politicization," Letters, March 18, 1998) claims that I am "incredulous that 65 percent of history teachers have an undergraduate degree in social studies education" and then criticizes my proposal that future history teachers should study history in college.

But Mr. Sherman misquoted the Commentary. I wrote that "among the 81.5 percent of social studies teachers who did not major or minor in history, 14 percent got an undergraduate degree in social studies education, and 65 percent have an education degree that is not related to any academic discipline. ... " In other words, 14 percent--not 65 percent--got an undergraduate degree in social studies education.

A second letter in that issue, from James K. Uphoff, accuses me of having a "political agenda." Mr. Uphoff is right. I confess that my political agenda is that every classroom should have a well-educated teacher who knows the subject well and knows how to teach it.

Diane Ravitch
Research Professor
New York University
New York, N.Y.

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