Published Online: May 26, 1999

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'Prison of Time,' Logistics of Test

To the Editor:

S. Paul Reville's "Breaking Out of the 'Prison of Time,'" May 5, 1999, reminds me of Walt Whitman ("Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself ... "). Although the research is clear about the relationship between time for learning and how humans convert information to knowledge, the implementation logistics are fraught with adult-generated problems, as Mr. Reville pointed out.

Even those schools that use block scheduling have merely shifted their time element. That is, after 90 or whatever number of minutes, the kids still move somewhere else to spend more time learning something else. Longer or different blocks of time may accommodate those that need different amounts of time for learning, but the premise of on-task equity among teachers ultimately drives everything.

Even those schools and districts that are successful in overcoming the "prison of time" with extended periods, days, different pedagogy, and so on are reshackled by high-stakes testing. Mr. Reville's home state uses its home-grown Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, my state of Rhode Island and Vermont use the New Standards Reference Exam, and so on.

Although these assessments are a significant improvement over the norm-referenced standardized tests of days of yore, they still are clock-bound, as are the SAT and numerous other instruments used to filter kids, rank schools and districts, and determine political agendas, budgets, and real estate markets. Yet educators agree that assessment must reflect the learning environment. Go figure.

Vincent J. Hawkins
Curriculum Coordinator
Warwick Public Schools
Warwick, R.I.

Value-Added Testing Has Consequences

To the Editor:

It is probably a sign of the uncritical test mania currently infecting American education that your three-page article on "value added" testing does not even raise the question of how such a pervasive assessment program will affect teaching and learning ("Sanders 101," May 5, 1999).

If "value added" requires testing in all grades, then the following consequences are all too likely:

(1.) The cost of the testing program will increase dramatically. To keep costs down, a state probably would rely almost entirely on multiple-choice testing, as is the case with Tennessee. Despite protestations from its defenders, there is now little serious doubt that multiple-choice items are poor tools for measuring the ability to synthesize and evaluate information or apply knowledge to complex problems--that is, to really think and work in a subject area.

(2.) State tests are inevitably viewed as important, so schools focus heavily on teaching to those tests. If the tests measure only relatively lower levels of thinking in a subject area, that is what will be taught. The result is that many students will not learn to think and use knowledge, and those students will be predominantly low-income and of color.

While William L. Sanders' statistical approach does appear to have some value, testing all students with a norm-referenced, multiple-choice test that will substantially control curriculum and instruction is too high an educational price to pay for the information gained.

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

Teacher Manifesto's Dangerous Approach

To the Editor:

The "more good teachers" manifesto issued from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, summarized in this newspaper, and signed by such conservative luminaries as Jeanne Allen, William J. Bennett, Denis Doyle, and Diane Ravitch is worse than trivial ("How To Get More of the Teachers We Need," May 5, 1999). It and the "value added" approach to teacher evaluation it advocates are dangerous. Here is a true story that illustrates why:

During a break at a conference in Colorado, I was chatting with some teachers about problem-solving. One, a math teacher, recalled a time when his district's newly hired science teacher had to cancel out at the last minute. The math teachers scrambled to cover the sciences. This one took physics. He spent a year in a state of high anxiety, fretting that he was only a few pages ahead of the kids.

Eight years later, a young man walked into the teacher's classroom and announced his identity as a member of that fateful physics class. During the resulting conversation, the young man said that he was about to obtain a Ph.D. in physics. "In spite of that awful year you had here, huh?" said the teacher.

"No," replied the young man, "because of that year. You showed me the process of thinking. You showed me what kinds of things to try when you don't know what to do. It made physics intriguing."

Now, that is value-added. It doesn't show up on tests. Paying attention to the Fordham manifesto will cause it to disappear altogether.

There are some curious ironies here. Chester E. Finn Jr., who directs the Fordham Foundation, is on record as opposing large-scale adoptions of innovations until they are proven. Yet in their manifesto, he and his colleagues are proposing large-scale adoptions of practices found nowhere in the world. Another signatory, Ms. Ravitch, has unfavorably compared education research and practice to that of the medical profession. ("What if Research Really Mattered?," Dec. 16, 1998.) The medical profession is rather stringently regulated, yet Ms. Ravitch apparently sees no contradiction in calling for the deregulation of teaching.

A dozen years ago, a committee of the National Academy of Education pointed out that many of "those personal qualities that we hold dear--resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good in our communal life--are exceedingly difficult to assess. And so, unfortunately, we are apt to measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured. The shift is subtle, and occurs gradually."

Clearly, the time has arrived where the shift is neither subtle nor gradual. All the more reason to resist.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

Lens of Evolution Can Be Distorting

To the Editor:

In your recent article on the National Academy of Sciences' statement in support of teaching evolution ("Eminent Science Group Reiterates Importance of Teaching Evolution," April 28, 1999), you report that evolution has become a central unifying concept in biology. That may be true, but how does one test a "unifying concept?" Evolutionary theory has instead become a lens through which evidence is interpreted. Wear the glasses that form the boundaries of what is acceptable, and then find evidence that supports your theory. This is not good science.

Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, is quoted as saying that teachers need to make an "increased effort to tell what evolution really is," and then fails to tell us what it really is. Textbook publishers and editors, many of whom are biologists, often practice glaring omission and illogical thought when discussing the origins of life. It is not surprising that most people in the United States still reject evolution as it is presented in schools.

If one adopts a materialistic view of the world, evolution is the only conclusion possible. All I have ever seen, however, points to an incredibly intelligent designer of the universe. The science I have studied convinces me of the unsatisfactory nature of evolution as the lone correct interpretation of the data on life. We need to try on a new pair of lenses. Public school teachers have no business indoctrinating students in the belief that the lenses used predominantly by science are the only correct ones. That kind of determination belongs to the students, their parents, and their religious or philosophical convictions.

Christopher Gieschen
Science Teacher
Concordia Lutheran High School
Fort Wayne, Ind.

On the 'Comfort Zone' of Social Promotion

To the Editor:

I read with great interest and amazement Robert R. Lange's letter regarding the grade-retention-vs.-social-promotion debate ("Is Retention Policy a Form of Abuse?," May 5, 1999). Am I now to understand that holding students academically accountable is a new form of abuse? What are the facts that we are ignoring or are in the dark about? I think it is time to back the educational truck up and ask a few fundamental questions about our schools and temper our mission statements accordingly.

When all is said and done, what is the basic purpose of education in our schools? Is it designed to solve social, psychological, environmental, political, gender, home, peer, race, ethnic, and religious problems, or to provide an academic environment in which the student learns and retains information and skills?

Who should make critical decisions for schools: politicians, business leaders, education professors, or those trained in the discipline who work on the front lines daily?

I don't know what schools Mr. Lange is referring to, but in my 20 years of education, teaching at all levels, I have yet to see a school that can offer each and every student his or her own private curriculum and pace of learning. While it would be nice to have an education "tailored and fitted" according to each individual's needs, it is clearly impractical and economically impossible in nearly every district in the nation. Mr. Lange suggests that a student can succeed only when in the same group as others his age. While that is a politically correct statement, it lacks support and sound implementation and ignores the reality of our schools at present.

Mr. Lange uses the terms "abuse" and "torture" in discussing our present educational system and suggests that each student should be educated in his or her own unique way. He then violates his own educational philosophy by suggesting that social promotion is the only answer for all failing students and is a cure-all that will fit all students' unique and individual educational needs.

I, too, would like to see one-to-one student-teacher ratios but we know this will not occur anytime soon. It is time to make teachers and students accountable for learning, and when they fail the task, move in a different direction and start over. As Carl Rogers said, "True learning is painful," and any psychologist worth his or her salt knows that more is learned in failure than in the current comfort zone of education.

Maybe it's time that education professors remove themselves from a comfortable and secure higher education environment and teach at the elementary and secondary levels for a few years before suggesting that the rest of us are ignoring the textbook and educational "facts."

James Gardner
Division Chair for the Social Sciences
Ozarks Technical Community College
Springfield, Mo.

Out-of-Field Data and Terminology

To the Editor:

I would like to address the out-of-field teaching statistics attributed to the state of Missouri in your article "Out-of-Field Teaching Is Hard To Curb," March 31, 1999.

The matter of out-of-field teaching is typically defined through the use of terminology referring to college "major or minor" as the common denominator. The use of this framework as the base reference point for building a national argument concerning the preparedness of professional educators bears more examination.

Each state has developed its own system of defining the preparation, certification, and career expectations for its professional education community, based on the philosophical and societal values of its citizens. Subsequently, common definitions become difficult to apply across the board.

Missouri's precertification requirements stipulate that all candidates must complete a state-approved teacher-preparation program. Within the postbaccalaureate certification process, teachers may apply directly to fulfill state board of education requirements based on obtaining the coursework from a state-approved teacher-preparation program. The Missouri common-minimum-standard coursework requirement is 30 semester hours for a specialty area of concentration and 21 semester hours for limited endorsements, requiring a content-specialty area as a prerequisite. These requirements are comparable to the minimum responding specialty-area requirements within the preparatory institutions.

The absence of a common standardized terminology using easily understood parameters severely hinders the interpretation of quality preparatory standards for teachers. Subsequently, each state's certification authority must develop its own interpretation of the candidate's qualifications based on the data it has available to it.

Missouri's flexible approach to postbaccalaureate certification attends to the diverse requirements of our state's professional education community. The prospective candidate for postbaccalaureate certification may address approved state board of education standards by obtaining the appropriate coursework from any state-approved teacher education institution within the United States.

The professional preparation of our state, as well as the national teaching cohort, is of vital interest to Missouri. We applaud your efforts to bring the discussion of this issue forward. It is the challenge of all educators to provide the highest level of academic preparation for our teachers and instruction for our students.

John W. Miller
Director of Teacher Certification
Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Jefferson City, Mo.

Evil, Unexplained: Sometimes Horrible Acts Have No Logic or Reason

To the Editor:

The three essays you presented in " Reflections on Columbine," ("Standards for the Heart?,""A Metaphor for Parents," and "Pressing the Mute Button,") May 12, 1999, are examples of eloquent but misdirected responses to the Colorado high-school-shooting tragedy.

The shootings at Columbine High School cause us all to search for meaning where there really is none. Our psychological need for closure and logical order impels us to try to make sense out of the senseless and to attempt to rationalize the irrational. When we seek to go beyond the perpetrators to find causation for their horrific acts, what we are really trying to do is to understand how these things could possibly happen. Human nature requires that we try to explain the inexplicable, and through that explanation perhaps regain the security of predictability and the hope of future prevention.

If we must search for some comprehensible truth amid these traumas and tragedy, we would perhaps be best served by reference to "Occam's razor," the 14th-century philosophical principle posited by William of Occam (also known as Ockham), which states that "terms, concepts, and assumptions must not be multiplied beyond necessity." What Occam was suggesting is that the best answer to complex questions is often the simplest. The simple truth is that there can be unspeakably evil acts in all parts of society. And as difficult as it is to accept, there is ample and incontrovertible evidence that the propensity to do evil can be fully developed even in the young and immature. It is important to point out that in almost all cases this evilness is not a manifestation of madness, but rather, simply a conscious choice by the involved perpetrators.

The eminent psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, in his attacks against what he called the "Therapeutic State," pointed out that "psychiatrists and other behavioral scientists continue to pour out an uninterrupted stream of articles and books allegedly demonstrating that man has no free will. By debunking free will and responsibility ... they also try to endear themselves to politicians and the public by promising to control crime."

It is we, urged on by the proponents of the Therapeutic State, who have created the need to shroud simple, untreatable evil acts in the complex cloak of mental illness or insanity because such labeling gets us back to the "logic" of causation and/or the potential for control. Unfortunately, by debunking free will and responsibility, we also provide those who do the evil the opportunity to avoid full responsibility for their acts.

Accepting the simple truth that there are people, young and old, who choose to do evil does not mean that the purveyors of society's filth and violence, the inane laws that allow children to easily obtain weapons of war, and the uninterested and dismissive practices of some parents should escape our condemnation. Indeed, it is likely that such cultural artifacts do play their individual and collective parts in exacerbating or making easier certain types of antisocial behavior.

But it is rare when such external influences overwhelm and dictate the choices that each individual ultimately must make regarding his or her own behavior. Dr. Szasz argues that, absent any provable physical damage or organic disease of the brain, there is no logical basis for accepting any claim of mental illness or insanity.

By placing responsibility for abhorrent behavior outside the control of the involved individual, we tend to excuse the inexcusable. And when we lament the fact that at Columbine, like high schools everywhere, the social cliques of adolescence can often result in hurtful practices of taunting, labeling, and ostracizing outsiders, we come dangerously close to showing empathy for the murderers by casting them as the victims of such practices. Already there are adults and adolescents wringing their hands and suggesting that they can "understand" what the killers "went through" and that they "feel sorry" for them.

Let us be very clear on this: These perpetrators were not victims. They were not conditioned or forced by any feature of our culture, or their treatment by others, or their family environments to commit the acts that they did. Rather, they were nothing more than cruel, merciless killers who chose to do their self-absorbed evil without regard for anyone but themselves.

The very first thing we can do to reduce the probability of anything similar to this occurring again is that whenever there are attempts to excuse, explain, or somehow externalize these obscene acts beyond the responsibility of the killers, these attempts should be immediately repudiated by reminders of the innocent victims and the countless loved ones from whom they were torn. And such reminders must always include the simple truth about the killers: They, and they alone, created their evil.

Dennis L. Evans
Director of Credential Programs
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, Calif.

Best and Brightest Are Not Wanted

To the Editor:

Gary R. Galluzzo's Commentary "Will the Best and the Brightest Teach?," May 5, 1999, produced interesting reading. He touched on the types of teachers we need and the failures of schools of education, but he avoided two other extremely relevant issues school districts consider when hiring.

The first is political. Districts often fill vacancies based on candidates who know someone who knows someone. This type of politics is a fact of life everywhere. A second form of politics can be based on belief systems. If someone doesn't adhere to the common and assumed "given" theories of teaching and learning, that person is judged not suitable for the school system. Belief in the "correct" school or classroom process is awarded far greater weight than product: student learning.

A second consideration is financial. Districts will hire a person straight out of college with a bachelor's degree before hiring a person with years of experience. Applications for these recent or pending college graduates are held for months, and contracts eventually are offered. Individuals with graduate degrees, experience, and the expertise that only a combination of college work and experience can develop are not wanted because they are considered "budget busters." Their applications are placed "on file" in case any position develops.

Mr. Galluzzo is on the mark when he describes the desired teacher as one who seeks to be autonomous and creative. Administrators in the private sector who are successful generally hire those who will make them look good. Workers who produce, regardless of their style, are rewarded. Administrators in public education generally hire those who believe the "right things" and do not cost much. The ability to teach or administer is not the primary consideration.

In too many instances, the best and brightest will not teach. But this is not because the best and brightest are not selected at the college level. It is because they are not wanted.

Frederic M. Muse
Asheville, N.C.

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