Published Online: January 13, 1999
Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as Letters

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Petty Gender Wars Get Us Nowhere

To the Editor:

You did your readers a disservice by printing Judith Kleinfeld's false accusations that the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation's research fails to recognize the different strengths and weaknesses that girls and boys bring to school ("Separate Worlds," Nov. 25, 1998).

Recognizing the different strengths and weaknesses of girls, as well as those of boys and other groups of students, is a central point in our latest research, "Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children." You even made note of this point in your Oct. 14, 1998, issue ("AAUW Study Finds Girls Making Some Progress, But Gaps Remain").

Basic fact-finding would have revealed that Ms. Kleinfeld, who is funded by the right-wing Women's Freedom Network, uses 1998 figures, which show girls improving in math and science, to critique our 1992 findings. That's like using today's lower crime rates to say that a 6-year-old study on rising incidents of crime created a false alarm.

The AAUW has always maintained that for all students to succeed we must address the needs of different groups of students--boys and girls; African-American, Hispanic, and Asian; wealthy and lower-income. Ms. Kleinfeld's attempt to reduce the problems of our children to this petty who-is-worse-off, boys-against-girls war gets us nowhere.

Maggie Ford
President
American Association of University Women Educational Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Medical Analogy Goes Only So Far

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch makes a lot of good points in her recent essay about how she was "grateful" that her pulmonary embolisms were treated by doctors who base their judgments on medical research as opposed to educational research ("What if Research Really Mattered?" Dec. 16, 1998).

But Ms. Ravitch fails to note that Western medicine has been in the midst of its own coming-of-age stage. The key lessons that many educators might have missed:

Yes, without a doubt Western medical science has developed the best research techniques for determining what are the best medicines and best treatment methodologies. Yet until recently, Western medical practitioners and researchers had forgotten that Eastern, Native American, South American, and other indigenous medical practitioners had spent millennia developing lots of good healing medicines and treatments.

Many of these practices were loudly dismissed at first. But a few brave Western-trained researchers have studied the various alternative medicines and techniques. And what are the Western researchers finding? Many of the "shamans" developed and promulgated quack methods that are now being debunked, one by one, while just as many other shamans developed and promulgated solid methods that need only minor refinements today.

Yes, let's bring modern research to bear on education. Like Ms. Ravitch, I too am tired of blaming the test instead of finding out how to help as many people as possible pass it.

But in our rush to improve the research methodology, please don't forget to give every teaching method a fair hearing. Plenty of these non-research-based methods will be found to be quackery, but we don't want to lose any of the good methods that merely need refinement.

I write this just to note that educational research must be vigorous, but it can't be so pompous as to dismiss the creative genius behind some ideas that were oversold and overstretched.

Richard M. Oldrieve
Westlake, Ohio

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch's recent essay is a witty and well-written but unfortunately incomplete analogy between the worlds of medicine and medical research and education and educational research. I suppose that it may be argued that physicians rely on "canons of scientific validity" to a greater degree than do we in education, but the differences between the two disciplines go much deeper than that.

Let's spin the analogy out a bit and compare Ms. Ravitch's top-notch and undoubtedly very expensive medical treatment with that of a poor 3rd grade student living in the same city where she was treated. Ms. Ravitch "happened" to live by a neighbor who just "happened" to be a radiologist. That was pretty convenient. The little boy in my analogy has no well-trained specialists in his neighborhood. Indeed, it is a neighborhood most of us would avoid if we could. As soon as the physician-neighbor alerted Ms. Ravitch to the seriousness of her problem, she immediately went to the local hospital for care. The student in my analogy may be very aware that he can't read or compute very well, but he does what all of his peers do--he goes to the only school he knows, and guess what? It's a really bad one. Maybe it's falling down. Maybe it's filled with a large number of teachers who are less than great. Maybe it's extremely underfunded.

While the "hospital's specialists gathered around" Ms. Ravitch's bed to "explain diagnosis and treatment," the student in my analogy is faced with budget cuts which reduce the specialists available to him. No counselors. No art specialists. While the "head of pulmonary medicine" worked with Ms. Ravitch, no similar highly skilled and highly paid person worked with the 3rd grader.

What about costs? I can only guess what the bill will be for Ms. Ravitch's excellent treatment. Three times what most states spend on each student per year? Five times? Ten? More? How about the folks who worked with Ms. Ravitch and the student? I wonder how much money was devoted to training the head of pulmonary medicine compared to, say, the student's 3rd grade teacher. Let's talk about research. How much did we as a nation spend last year on research related to pulmonary problems compared to studies related to teaching reading? The differences between the two scenarios in my analogy could go on and on.

Medical treatment is "better" than educational treatment in our nation (if that is indeed the case, and many would argue that it is not) not principally because the research is more valid or better tested. The variables at work in Ms. Ravitch's original analogy are much more complex than that.

Sam Minner
James H. Quillen Chair of Excellence in Teaching & Learning
East Tennessee State University
Johnson City, Tenn.

Upping Cutoff Score Not Test Solution

To the Editor:

Throughout Texas, major newspapers (including the Austin American-Statesman and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) are reporting Commissioner of Education Mike Moses' intention to "raise the bar" on existing state assessments and to add more tests to the present battery at the secondary school level ("Commissioner Calls for Expanding Texas Assessments," Dec. 16, 1998). In addition, some lawmakers are proposing more frequent testing. Not one reporter or editorial has pointed out that the basic problem with the current reading and mathematics tests is the extremely low level of their content, as noted in the analyses we did for the Tax Research Association of Harris and Houston County, released to the public on Nov. 9, 1998 ("Report Says Texas Tests Aren't Tough Enough," Nov. 18, 1998).

The reading tests are below grade level at all grade levels assessed, and the 10th grade math test is at about the 6th grade level in content difficulty. (see the Web site //mathematicallycorrect.com/lonestar.htm for the analysis of the math tests).

Simply raising the cutoff score on existing tests or making students endure more hours of testing at more grade levels is not the answer to Texas' educational problems. Neither policy will result in higher academic expectations for all Texas students or higher levels of learning. The equity gap in its public schools will not be closed by policies that leave intact the low level of academic achievement now built into current tests.

Wayne Bishop
Professor
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
California State University-Los Angeles
Los Angeles, Calif.

Paul Clopton
Biomedical Research Statistician
School of Medicine
University of California, San Diego
San Diego, Calif.

David Klein
Professor
Department of Mathematics
California State University-Northridge
Northridge, Calif.

Sandra Stotsky
Research Associate
Philosophy of Education Research Center
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Mass.

Hearing Teachers on Self-Reliance

To the Editor:

I read Carolyn Bunting's Commentary, "Teaching With Self-Reliance," Nov. 25, 1998, with interest and curiosity. The first two paragraphs of her essay focus on the questions, "What does it take for teachers to improve as teachers?" and "Who usually answers this question?" She points out that, generally, it is individuals outside the classroom who attempt to answer the question about what teachers inside the classroom need to do in order to improve as teachers.

Ms. Bunting goes on to suggest that self-reliance, as evidenced by reflection, collegiality, and experience, could be "an important key to enduring teacher progress." Her Commentary on these elements of self-reliance is thought-provoking and clearly presented. I imagine that if her ideas were implemented in schools around the country, they could certainly have an impact on education--perhaps a significant one.

My question, however, is why an essay that asks, "Shouldn't we be interested in teachers' ideas on the subject?" was not written by a classroom teacher. It may be that Ms. Bunting has had classroom teaching experience, and I do not disagree with her suggestions. But it seems ironic that this particular essay, addressing the need to hear from teachers, was written by "a former university professor and school administrator" who is "now an independent educational writer and consultant."

I hope that classroom teachers reading Ms. Bunting's Commentary will recognize the wisdom of the call for teachers to share what they believe to be "the key to enduring teacher progress." I hope that some classroom teachers will find time for this type of sharing amid their efforts to correct papers, write lesson plans, consult with colleagues, communicate with parents, develop curriculum, serve on committees, teach the curriculum, enrich their students' learning experience, and motivate young minds and hearts. I really hope that this sharing can take place, but I fear that we will have to wait quite a while to hear or read any words of wisdom on the teaching profession from classroom teachers who are busy teaching students.

If we do hear from the teachers, I certainly hope we are listening very carefully to what they say.

Marilyn McKnight
Teacher
Forest Home Avenue School
Milwaukee, Wis.

School Sexual Abuse in Black and White

To the Editor:

Is there an explanation for the photograph of George Crear III, a black man, on the front page of your Dec. 9, 1998, edition ("A Trust Betrayed: Cost Is High When Schools Ignore Abuse").

What were the criteria for this front-page story about school employees' sexual abuse of students? Were all of the accused persons mentioned Caucasian save Mr. Crear? Do you think this graphics approach is one of cultural competency or cultural sensitivity? Are there editors on your staff who could give the rationale for placing this man's photograph on the front page as opposed to the photograph of one of the other accused?

Asabi S. Yakini
Doctoral Candidate
Jane Addams College of Social Work
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

Editor's Note: Education Week gives careful consideration to the selection and content of photographs that appear both inside the newspaper and on the front page.

In a series of articles about sexual abuse of students by school employees, George Crear III, who is serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting a female high school student, provided one of the most compelling examples of this serious problem.

The details of his case, which involve allegations by several students, lawsuits, and criminal charges in two states and which were the impetus for a new state law in Michigan, were the overriding consideration in the decision to use his photograph on Page 1.

The three-part series, "A Trust Betrayed," included photographs of more than two dozen school employees convicted of crimes involving sex with students. In the first installment, nine people were pictured on the front page. They represented a range of school occupations, geographic locations, and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Brain Research The Good, the Bad, and the Already Known

To the Editor:

David A. Sousa's Commentary, "Is the Fuss About Brain Research Justified?" Dec. 16, 1998, comprises the usual overreaching claims about the application of neuroscience to education. Such claims have, unfortunately, convinced many educators that they can somehow apply "brain research" to instruction. Let me quote a 1997 article by John T. Bruer, "Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far" (Educational Researcher), that sums up the actual situation: "Currently, we do not know enough about brain development and neural function to link that understanding directly, in any meaningful, defensible way to instruction and educational practice."

Claims such as Mr. Sousa's have been around for a very long time. One of the most popular books among those making them is the 1991 treatise by Renate and Richard Caine, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, in which the authors acknowledge that they realized "from the very outset ... that direct translation from the neurosciences into educational practices would be impossible." Nevertheless, the Caines, Mr. Sousa, and others "take the liberty of extrapolating the educational significance of the research [they] have explored." In other words, such promoters of "brain-based education" make up their own connections, very tenuously connected to something they have read about brain research. I challenge any of them to find actual neuroscientists (people who do research on the workings of the physical brain) who will vouch for their claims.

Mr. Sousa alludes to this lack of support from those who actually do and understand neuroscience when he says: "Some neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists say that it is premature to apply brain research to practice, and that educators are not trained for this role. I don't agree." He, of course, is able to "extrapolate" whatever he wants to promote.

None of this means that neuroscience has not made great strides in the past 20 years. It only means that none of this work has produced anything approaching sufficient findings on which to base changes in instructional practices. Cognitive psychology (not the study of the brain but study of what the brain does, in the words of Steven Pinsker--a distinction that eludes Mr. Sousa) actually has produced findings on which changes in instructional practices can be based. But, in the words of John Anderson, Lynne Reder, and Herbert Simon, three top cognitive psychologists at Carnegie-Mellon University, "A number of claims that have been advanced [in education] as insights from cognitive psychology are at best highly controversial and at worst directly contradict known research findings."

The nonsense about "brain-based learning" and other bogus ideas that are abroad in our profession are symptomatic of the weakness of many of education's intellectual underpinnings. I will be teaching a course at George Mason University next fall called "Critiquing the Intellectual Foundations of Education" in hopes of giving some of the thinking and evidence contrary to received opinions a hearing. For those unable to enroll, I recommend E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them and a new book by Robert R. Spillane and myself, Superintendent of the Future. I hope that increasing numbers of educators will open their minds to the responsible criticism of some of our profession's intellectual foundations.

Paul Regnier
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

David A. Sousa's Commentary is right on the mark. His reflections on field reactions to his research provides us with a poignant look at a major problem. Basically, there are two types of educators--engineers and mechanics. According to Webster's dictionary:

Engineer: A person who carries through an enterprise by skillful or artful contrivance; to lay out, construct, or manage as an engineer and craft; to contrive or plan out, usually with more or less subtle skill and craft; to guide the course of.

Mechanic: Of or relating to manual work or skill; a manual worker; done as if by machine; seemingly uninfluenced by the mind or emotions; of or relating to technicalities or petty matters.

Educational engineers encourage, respect, and nurture research, exploratory behavior, and curiosity by constantly building bridges between theory and practice. Their classroom staples include cooperative learning, Socratic seminars, student-as-worker, nontraditional assessments, and a plethora of what Mr. Sousa refers to as sensory engagements. Educational engineers improve their craft by paying attention to what cognitive science is telling us about the most effective ways the brain converts information to knowledge. They respond knowledgeably to questions about "windows of opportunity." They know that students' short attention span to lecturing and the fact that they (or we) only learn about 10 percent of what we hear are related. If some pedagogical device is not working, give it up. I am reminded of a 6th grade student's response to the teacher's request that the class write a report on a famous Greek. One student wrote, "Socrates was a teacher. He talked a lot. They killed him" (NEA Today, September 1996).

Educational mechanics, like water, gravitate toward the path of least resistance. Their students are not emancipated to engage in the level of knowledge acquisition they will need for lifelong learning because their classrooms represent a linear learning environment. Educational mechanics have disenfranchised their learners and provide daily evidence of ignoring what is known about the most effective way humans learn. Their pedagogy is driven by three principles: (1) Only experts create knowledge; (2) Teachers deliver knowledge in the form of information; and (3) Children are graded on how much information they have stored. They have deluded themselves into thinking that (their) experiential wisdom is sufficient to drive student achievement.

With all due respect to Socrates, who modeled and mentored as well as lectured, standing and delivering to students has become so institutionalized that educational mechanics find nothing wrong with it. Yet, as Mr. Sousa and others have pointed out, the research is quite clear that the brain does not recognize this as the primary learning method.

Vincent J. Hawkins
Director of Curriculum
Warwick Public Schools
Warwick, R.I.

To the Editor:

Curious about what I had been missing in recent brain research, I read David A. Sousa's Commentary hoping for enlightenment. I was pleased that he and I agree on a great many issues in educational practice. However, I was not pleased to be chastised for being a "skeptical teacher" who was questioning very important research. I gather that Mr. Sousa feels that no one is taking him seriously, but I must tell him that there is nothing in his essay that I have not known for the last 27 years, with the exception of a piece of academic jargon: "window of opportunity."

Browbeating and chastisement of those who do not sport the latest jargon is congruent with "reforms" that do nothing except promote "eroding confidence in teachers and schools." In 27 years, I have seen a great many "reforms" come and go with the winds of politics and research. They are a standard bitter joke in the profession. Is brain research just one more?

In case Mr. Sousa has never read any of the basic works of educational literature, including John Dewey, he should know that it is a given among the teachers I know that the early years of a child's education are crucial; that meaning is important (whole-language proponents have been saying that since the '70s, but they did not invent the idea); that emotion is important; that schools should be safe places (I did not even need a degree in education to know that one); that learning should be interesting and experiential; that the time of day affects how students learn; and that not making people sit still too long is a good teaching strategy (any successful teacher has figured that out from observation; I don't think I needed a brain researcher to point it out to me).

I will grant Mr. Sousa the hope that brain research may give us useful and non-obvious approaches to learning disabilities. Let us all hope so. But to condescend to assure me that I am qualified to determine if brain research can be applied in the classroom? Please.

Jack Briggs
Wynnewood, Pa.

Literacy Debates Research and Hyperbole

To the Editor:

In his Dec. 2, 1998, Commentary "No End to the Reading Wars,", Gerald Coles attributes certain views of children's development and literacy to me. Citing only two newspaper articles, one of which was published in 1989, he suggests that I advocate for something he terms "direct code" instruction and that my view of child development is managerial and autocratic. What Mr. Coles actually portrays is his own careless scholarship in quoting only newspaper articles and attributing certain positions to me that don't represent my views and research on literacy. In addition, he displays a characteristic passion for perpetuating literacy debates that have impeded effective reading instruction in children.

For the record, I am an advocate of balanced approaches to reading instruction. I do not accept extreme positions on either side of the so-called "Great Debate." The research syntheses in the National Reading Council Report, to which I contributed, as well as in the recent book by Michael Pressley, Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching, clearly indicates that children learn reading skills most effectively when explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle is combined with application in literature and teaching for meaning. This is the message of the NRC report. It is a message that extremists reject because, like Mr. Coles, they feed off the energy generated by the so-called reading wars. Particularly objectionable is the notion that because I advocate for explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle as a necessary but not sufficient component of beginning-reading instruction, I have views on child development that associate me with conservative political views and with autocratic, managerial approaches to classroom management.

The 1989 article in The New York Times, cited by Mr. Coles, stemmed from a discussion with a reporter concerning differences in child-rearing and education practices in Japan vs. the United States. The comments on cooperative learning reflected my view that cooperative learning was effective in Japan because it was consistent with cultural ideals and less effective in the United States because it was not consistent with cultural expectations. The context is completely left out of the newspaper article, which is all too common in the media. The second commentary, from the Los Angeles Times report of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's education summit, is only a sound bite of a much longer comment that I and other members of the NRC committee made after Catherine Snow's introductory remarks. Predictably, Mr. Coles left off the first part of the quote: "We're not going back to skill and drill." Mr. Coles' inference from his adulterated sound bite to suggestions that I am an advocate of "direct code instruction" and implying that I view such instruction as a "magic bullet" for what he interprets to be the difficulties with literacy characteristic of too many of our children simply reflect his own impaired scholarship.

Mr. Coles' deficient scholarship is apparent elsewhere. I do not dispute that issues such as equity are relevant to the literacy development of children and am attempting to expand my research program to incorporate more information on these types of variables. But suggesting that there is divergence in Mr. Coles' two questions is an illusory contrast. Our research did not address issues involving "What is the best way to teach reading?" Rather, it addresses the broader question of under what conditions and for what types of children do certain types of reading instructional methods work, and for how long. Mr. Coles' two research questions are encompassed in this larger, more comprehensive question.

In many respects, Mr. Coles appears to enjoy the role of a gadfly, taking points of view that simply place him in opposition to prevailing viewpoints. This certainly may enhance some readers' interest in his work. Nonetheless, it simply stirs the literacy pot. As far back as 1987, Mr. Coles provided the following analysis of the research evidence: "First, the ability to analyze words phonetically does play a causal role, if not the only one, in reading development. Second, preschool instruction in this skill can improve grade-school reading abilities. Third, children have difficulty with phonemic analysis in the preschool years and can learn how to do it....It is notable how little time and effort appeared to have been needed to help preschool children with phonological deficits so that they could benefit from later reading instruction."

Mr. Coles goes on to discuss the difficulty that teachers often experience with their understanding of phonological-awareness skills, the need for more teacher training in this area, and the role of early experiences as factors that promote or retard the development of phonological-awareness skills. Now we read in his current essay that he questions the causal influence of phonological-awareness skills despite the continued accumulation and overwhelming convergence of evidence since he wrote those words in 1987.

Our research takes place in minority populations that are at risk for reading failure. We presume that these children have environmental experiences that fail to promote the development of literacy-related skills, including phonological awareness--a meta-linguistic skill that presages the development of many aspects of literacy. Our interventions are designed to facilitate this development. One approach to the equity issues decried by Mr. Coles is to teach children to read, which in many children will allow them to overcome the burden introduced by the lack of equity apparent in many aspects of our society. Our suggestion to Mr. Coles is to get to work and contribute to research on these issues as opposed to maintaining a parasitic acquaintance with the research of other individuals. Irrationality is certainly interesting, and helps sell books, but we are more comfortable with evaluations supported by empirical investigation. Research--not hyperbole and media reports--is the key to both literacy and equity issues.

Barbara R. Foorman
Director and Professor
Center for Academic and Reading Skills
University of Texas-Houston Medical School
Houston, Texas

Using a Wedge Issue

To the Editor:

I found Gerald Coles' Commentary informative, well-argued, and refreshingly honest. It has been my suspicion that many previous educational reforms were in reality attempts at societal reform that used children's education as the wedge issue.

Mr. Coles' question--"What needs to be done to ensure that children learn to read?"--is a good one, even though his answer would exceed any district's resources. However, it generates two even more basic questions that every school board must address before sharpening its policy-writing quills. Ultimately, I think, the education wars revolve around these two questions. First, What is the purpose of public education? At the risk of sounding sarcastic, I submit that purpose is to educate the public. When education becomes diluted by other agenda (such as redistributing wealth, defining societal policy, redrawing power structures), there is great risk of failing at the main task and alienating critical constituencies. I suspect such failures explain the recent calls to improve student achievement and to re-engage the public.

The second critical question is Who owns the public schools? At the risk of sounding "non-child-centered" and politically conservative, I submit that the public owns the public schools. That is not to say there are not many stakeholders; there are. However, boards of trustees ultimately represent the public's educational interests and set the mission, vision, and goals of their districts. The superintendent, administrators, faculty, and staff are hired to accomplish those ends.

The preceding paradigm places great responsibilities on the board of trustees. First and most obviously, state and federal requirements must be met. Second, the board must provide a quality education to every child who comes through the door; if at-risk children need more resources to meet educational objectives, then so be it. (The school must also expect a quality product from every child; low expectations will condemn a child to the tyranny of poor achievement as readily as inadequate resources.) Third, the board must not let extracurricular activities, including athletics, drive the agenda. Fourth, it must realize that state-mandated testing ("bunch o' facts" or whatever) is important (because the state says so) but not all-inclusive. The arts, global languages, physical education, and appropriate technology are just as important though not usually measured.

Finally, the board must be a strong advocate, a moral voice in the community, to bring attention to those sweeping societal problems that impair children's ability to learn. These issues cannot be solved in district boardrooms; they require communitywide efforts. It may take a village to raise a child, but the school district is only one part of that village. Any effort to assume the whole responsibility will impair the ability to do what the public requires--educate its children.

Charles R. Robertson Jr., M.D.
Tupelo, Miss.

Not Enemies of Poor

To the Editor:

The Commentary by Gerald Coles is a classic demonstration to the layman of the frustration provoked by the many critics of what is describes as "skills training" or "direct instruction." On the one hand, Mr. Coles seems to concede that such an approach produces higher scores on measures of skills, word identification, and certain types of reading comprehension. He then asserts, with no evidence or even a hint of evidence, that children so trained are more compliant, more conformist, and (strangely) at the same time more competitive than those trained in the whole-language method. He even accuses advocates of direct-skills instruction of seeking those behavioral outcomes.

Without citation, he goes on to assert that advocates of skills-based learning discourage written-language activities and experience in making choices and solving problems; discourage the explaining of multiple views on stories read; constrict creativity in written language, et cetera. He then jumps to the assertion that direct instruction does not encourage challenges to the distribution of wealth and power in society, that it accepts poverty as a given, and that whole-language advocates are more concerned with reducing poverty.

His essay is almost a caricature of much writing on education. No research is cited; various straw men are erected and demolished; unsubstantiated assertions are made; and issues are blurted. As a liberal who has devoted much of his adult life to efforts to decrease poverty, it is insulting to be labeled as not caring as much about the poor as persons who favor an alternative approach to reading instruction. If a child cannot read, he cannot succeed in school, he cannot get a well-paying job, and he remains in poverty.

Schools must teach children how to read. Can we not agree on what it means to know how to read and determine what method does that most successfully? If it is alleged that direct instruction or skills-based learning produces better readers but more docile and obedient adults (who are also more competitive), then let's determine whether that allegation is true (not just assert it), the degree to which that is true, and then choose what we as a society expect from our schools.

Let's not obscure and polarize the debate by blanket false assertions that portray direct-instruction advocates as enemies of the poor. I would hope everyone could agree that a true enemy of the poor is someone who prevents the poor from learning to read when it is possible for them to do so.

Robert C. Embry Jr.
President
The Abell Foundation
Baltimore, Md.

High-Stakes Reform: Parents Are Confused

To the Editor:

Ronald A. Wolk's measured missive about standards-based reform and high-stakes student accountability may just become the quintessential wake-up call that can save the current educational reform movement from itself ("Education's High-Stakes Gamble," Dec. 9, 1998). Mr. Wolk reinforces that the perspective of public education seen at 30,000 feet from the national and state levels provides a different view than being at the ground-zero classroom level. If the two are not appropriately coordinated, the victims are likely to be the same children that the standards are purported to help.

In addition, the culprit here is not necessarily the standards or high academic expectations, although it is difficult to understand how 50 sets of differing state standards can ultimately assure "equal academic outcomes." Correcting what Mr. Wolk calls "a serious setback and loss of credibility" around standards-based reform lies in their implementation, and in adult commitment to provide the schools that children need to succeed.

First, states have adopted academic standards without the knowledge or participation of many parents and teachers. Expecting that the local community will "buy in" to a top-down model of expectations is a fatal flaw that states arrogantly neglect at their peril. If the public is not a full partner, not merely a passive party to the dreams and visions educational policymakers have for America's children, those dreams have no chance of ever becoming reality.

Second, parents are confused about what constitutes "model" or baseline standards. Three major organizations, the American Federation of Teachers, the Council for Basic Education, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, each evaluated the state standards recently, and all three graded the states differently. Where a state received an A from one organization, it may have received a D from another. Parents will support the pursuit of high academic expectations. But if the experts can't come to an agreement about what these are, how are most parents able to do this?

Third, schools must assure that the dynamics for academic success are in place before we test students and give them the news that because of adult inability to produce the systems that guarantee success, a lot of kids will fail. Producing a plethora of data comprising test scores, school comparisons, and report cards before a school is ready to change is an exercise in providing information about what we already know. For the school that understands this dynamic, standards are forcing positive change. For school systems that don't, standards will produce student victims strewn all over the community landscape.

Fourth, adults must set high standards for themselves. At present, it should not be lost on the kids that they often will suffer high-stakes consequences for low adult commitments. High standards for all children of teacher performance and competency, testing and assessment, school structure, curriculum and technology, adequate resources, and high standards of parent and community involvement equal high standards of student outcomes. I contend that if adults commit to high-quality public education for all children, then the high-quality student outcomes will surely follow.

To the extent that standards become a source of opportunity for all students, they will have prodded a very positive change in educational excellence. And if we end up setting higher standards for our children than adults are willing to set for themselves, we build a public education cynicism that the students we fail will not forget. In essence, our children end up shaming us into providing the quality schools that should have been our collective responsibility to provide in the first place.

Fair play is that maybe we will end up having to shame our children into providing for our social security. There is still time for policymakers and standards creators to pass the "public test," but the standards movement must catch up with what's going on at ground level. If it doesn't, the governors will be meeting a few years from now at a third summit, wondering why the first two did not work.

Arnold F. Fege
President
Public Advocacy for Kids
Annandale, Va.

Dread and Nausea

To the Editor:

As I read Ronald A. Wolk's Commentary, all I could think was, finally, finally, finally, finally. Someone finally expressed, in a most perfect way, all the dread and nausea being felt by most educators (and apparently by none of the politicians and bureaucrats) as standards-and-tests reform has gripped the country by the throat. Most educators know that there can only be one true standard: whether or not the needs of the student, at any given point in time, are being met.

Laurence M. Lieberman
Boston, Mass.

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Pages 41-44

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