Published Online: June 14, 2000
Published in Print: June 14, 2000, as Letters

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'New Ground' Is Already Plowed

To the Editor:

Your recent front-page report that the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education will now base its accreditation on evidence that education school graduates can actually teach overlooks the fact that the Teacher Education Accreditation Council required such evidence three years ago ("NCATE Unveils Standards Based on Performance," May 24, 2000).

NCATE's "new" performance standards are so similar to TEAC's previously published quality principles and standards that accepted practice of scholarly citation demands acknowledgment of the fact that NCATE's "new" ground has been plowed by others.

You also report that several states require that their education schools attain NCATE accreditation. It would be more accurate to report that these states require accreditation by any agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. TEAC is currently in the process of being recognized by both bodies.

Frank B. Murray
President
Teacher Education Accreditation Council
Washington, D.C.


Mere Rivalry Is Not Genuine Competition

To the Editor:

Please don't use misleading headlines like "Gauging the Impact of Competition" (May 24, 2000, The Changing Face of Public Education). Providing a second choice, and perhaps some limited rivalry, doesn't create "competition" in schooling. That's why you found only "modest changes" and no "dramatic responses." Indeed, the headline is contrary to your finding that "competitive effects may be muted."

Competitive markets contain several key elements that are not present in any of the programs discussed in your article, or any other U.S. parental-choice program. Genuine competition is more than potential rivalry. In a genuinely competitive setting, the following are true:

(1) Market share is contestable without having to get the permission of a sponsor. There are no caps on the number of producers, and the right to choose is universal. Only customers determine success or failure.

(2) The government must not favor some producers over others, but in every program, traditional public schools receive more public money per child than any voucher user or charter schools. Some charters get equal operating funds, but they don't receive separate capital funding as traditional schools do.

(3) Flexible prices reflect constantly changing market forces. Public schools don't control the price of their services, and except in the tiny Cleveland program, the voucher amount is a de facto price control. In Milwaukee, and in Florida, private schools cannot charge more than the voucher amount. Market-determined price change is a critical process. Prices must reflect production costs, and signal buyers' priorities to producers. Both change constantly, so efficient, competitive behavior occurs only with market-determined prices.

Until those key elements are present in a parental-choice program, only the historical examples cited in Andrew Coulson's Market Education can help us "gauge the impact of competition."

John Merrifield
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas


Attitudes, Esteem, and Expectations

To the Editor:

Janine Bempechat expressed in her Commentary "The Burden of Faulty Attitudes" (May 10, 2000) exactly what I have felt over 51 years of teaching. She says it much better than I.

I have seen the evolution of attitudes over the years propagated by such parents as Ms. Bempechat's "mother of 4th grade twins." And I would make, as an analogy to that mother's thought process about schoolwork, how she would react when taking her twins to a doctor who advises medication. Does she decide to disagree with the doctor and refuse to buy or administer the medicine because it inconveniences her and makes her children do something they do not wish to do? What a lesson for future health—or success.

Ms. Bempechat's five particular needs for academic excellence were succinct and "to the core" of today's educational problems:

1. Minimize the importance of self-esteem.

2. Teach to the top of the zone of proximal development.

3. Allow children to solve problems with minimal adult interference.

4. Revere education.

5. Minimize competition.

Ms. Bempechat, if I have incorrectly paraphrased your points, please set me straight.

Martha B. Cook
Professor of Education
Malone College
Canton, Ohio

To the Editor:

I agree with many of Janine Bempechat's statements in her Commentary "The Burden of Faulty Attitudes" (May 10, 2000). In particular, I support the position that we should expect more from our children and help them successfully confront difficulty.

It is important, however, to think critically about what having higher expectations means in real terms. In a classroom, for the teacher to promote high expectations amounts to a small revolution in classroom management, method, and assessment practices.

Children learn the game of low expectations early on. And those students who have participated in special education programs know even better than most how to shift into low gear and distract teachers and fellow students with uncooperative behavior to avoid work. Anyone who implements high standards should be prepared to face the following:

Expect to increase your workload by one-third to one-half. As you monitor assignments, two issues will emerge: compliance (did the student do the work at all?) and rigor (did the student complete the work to a satisfactory degree of quality?). The first addresses the student's ability to commit to work of any kind. Teachers who insist on completed assignments and quality work need good tracking and negotiation skills. They need more time.

Expect to face high resistance in the classroom. Children, like adults, fight change. Raised expectations mean that students must relearn engagement with intellectual tasks. If their curiosity has been dulled early on through poor classroom practices or low standards, their habits of inquiry, perseverance, and analytic thinking will be weak or non-existent. It becomes the teacher's mission to reactivate these qualities by motivation, example, and scaffolding. Again, teachers need more time than is provided in the school day and the school year.

The call to implement higher standards is a complex issue, not a simple call to action. We need for policymakers as well as practitioners to realize the implications of this current mantra.

Antonia Lewandowski
Largo, Fla.


Fact vs. Speculation in Choice Reporting

To the Editor:

While two of your recent articles give credence to the suggestion that school choice will increase racial segregation, a growing literature shows that the opposite result is likely when expanded choice is targeted to low-income families.

Two examples illustrate the main themes of your recent reports. In "Charter Schools: Choice, Diversity May Be At Odds" (May 10, 2000, The Changing Face of Public Education), you write that "observers worry that charter schools and other forms of choice, such as voucher programs, will [exacerbate] the racial and class separation already rife in the current system." In "Conflicting Views on the Effects of School Choice on Integration" (Reporter's Notebook, May 31, 2000), you describe a conference on choice and racial diversity where researchers "warned that free-form educational choice could lead to greater racial isolation of students."

Omitted entirely from your description of the May 22 conference was the finding by Robert W. Fairlie of the University of California, Santa Cruz, that racial isolation can be reduced when "private school vouchers are targeted towards low-income families, such as the experimental programs implemented in Milwaukee and Cleveland." Also at this conference, hosted by the National Center for the Study of Privatization at Teachers College, Columbia University, Hamilton Lankford and James Wyckoff drew essentially the same conclusion, noting that if "enhanced choice [were] targeted to low-income families," the result "may well [be] increased integration."

Your May 31 report also omitted a discussion of my research, with George Mitchell, showing that Milwaukee's expanded choice program has achieved precisely the potential effect suggested by Mr. Fairlie and Messrs. Lankford and Wyckoff. Similarly, no mention is made of Jay P. Greene's comparable findings in Cleveland.

As for your May 10 article, aside from a long anecdote about an atypical small town in Arizona, almost no evidence is presented to support the suggestion that school choice undermines integration. A sidebar to that article barely mentions Mr. Greene's Cleveland study ("Research on Charters and Integration Is Limited"). There is no mention whatsoever of the Milwaukee findings.

In summary, while you devote many column inches to the speculation of "observers" that choice might increase racial isolation, you avoid almost entirely substantial evidence about the two largest and longest-running tax-supported programs of school choice. I look to Education Week to provide a fuller and more balanced description of the various studies on important education policies. In these instances, I was disappointed.

Howard Fuller
Distinguished Professor of Education
Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wis.


Curriculum Casualties: Bureaucracy and Self- Interest
Often Trump Effective Alternatives

To the Editor

Education Week, at its best, reports what works. One example was your story on the Sacramento schools ("Sacramento Mayor's Legacy: Improved Schools," Feb. 2, 2000), where "average gains were triple the state average in reading, and double the state average in math" after citywide adoption of the Open Court phonics curriculum and the Saxon Publishers math sequence.

I was disappointed, however, that your four-part series on "The Achievement Gap" (March 15, 2000-April 5, 2000) cited so few examples of schools that have significantly improved academic results for at-risk children.

The recent report "No Excuses" by Samuel Casey Carter, a Heritage Foundation fellow, found 21 schools which were achieving exceptional results with high-poverty student populations. In these schools, 75 percent or more of the students qualified for federal lunch programs, yet median test scores on nationally normed tests were above the 65th percentile. Eleven of the 21 schools scored at or above the 80th percentile.

What did all the schools have in common? A rigorous curriculum. Virtually every school focused intensely on phonics-based reading in grades K-3, using curricula such as Open Court's or direct instruction, accompanied by rich literature at all grade levels. Frequent testing evaluated student progress. Principals either attracted and retained experienced teachers, or spent heavily for staff development in their curricula.

I was suspicious, reading "No Excuses," of ideological bias, since the study was sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation. What is presented, however, is solid, measurable data. Mr. Carter states that he looked for exceptional private or parochial schools with high-poverty populations, but found very few. Of the 21 schools recognized for their performance, 18 are urban public schools, though several operate under charters that allow them to make their own curriculum decisions.

Mr. Carter's data on the importance of curriculum, assessment, and highly trained teachers, especially in teaching reading, are consistent with numerous peer-reviewed, scientific studies funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, which cite "advantages for reading instructional programs that emphasize explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle for at-risk children" (Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 90, No.1, 1998).

Given these findings, why is curriculum so often ignored in studies of student achievement? Is it a radical proposition that teaching methodology may have some impact on student learning?

Could not what was done in Sacramento and in the "No Excuses" schools be done anywhere? Principals featured in the Heritage report were exceptional in their willingness to defy state and local curriculum mandates, but why should such courage be required to use curricula that work?

Perhaps the answer is "bureaucratic self-protection." Allan Odden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has noted that in Madison's K-12 district, local administrators studied minority-achievement problems for two years, but somehow ignored issues of curriculum and instruction for which they shared responsibility. It took outside analysis to show that many schools had no coherent instructional sequence, and that the whole-language approach used in most schools just wasn't working for at-risk children.

In my own school system, Fairfax County, Va., curriculum administrators banned "reading series" textbooks in grades K-6 from 1987 to 1999. Phonics was forbidden and ridiculed.

The outcome? For children who had college-educated parents who could fill in the fundamentals night after night, the "rich literature only" approach worked in many cases. On this year's Stanford-9 for 4th graders, in "Total Reading," white students in Fairfax scored at the 72nd percentile. However, black students scored at the 38th percentile. Hispanic students scored at the 40th percentile. Our district has 30,000 black and Hispanic students, more than 20 percent of our enrollment. When teachers were forbidden to use phonics with students who needed a more structured approach, many children, especially those at-risk, became curriculum-disabled, curriculum casualties.

Teachers are "on stage" for six hours a day. We are expected to "write the script" for six hours on stage the next day, every day. Given that reality, good textbooks and tested, proven methodology are essential for all but the most experienced teachers.

Consider math. In 1987, our local curriculum administrators ordered elementary teachers to teach "math processes," but not "math facts." No more flashcards. Curriculum officials told the press, "Drill and practice discourage curiosity."

On the 8th grade Iowa standardized tests, from 1988 to 1996, our students went up 4 percentile points in "math concepts," up 1 percentile point in "problem solving," and down 17 percentile points in "math computation." Is it possible that the curriculum change had something to do with the scores?

Teachers in Fairfax are now being threatened with sanctions if scores don't improve. Notably lacking, however, is any talk of central-office accountability for the results of their mandated curriculum experiments.

Our district has added resources to schools with at-risk populations. But utilization of proven national curriculum models has been repeatedly delayed by local administrators, who seem eager to avoid any evidence that their own curriculum decisions were a factor in declining student achievement. Evaluation of administrative initiatives, on the rare occasion it is attempted, is performed by the administrators themselves.

This year, our local administrators recommended de-funding a limited Core Knowledge pilot after only two years. Then again, if a proven national curriculum works "off the shelf," many curriculum positions might disappear, a not-too-pleasant prospect in tight-knit school bureaucracies.

Bureaucratic structures run school systems. They do so with little real oversight of their institutional self-interest or the effectiveness of their initiatives. School boards, in reality, do not have the time, nor the independent staff, needed to perform oversight of the results of public spending.

There is strong evidence of what works in schools, but given the realities of school governance structures, curriculum changes to improve student performance will be very difficult to achieve without strong, external pressure.

Rick Nelson
President
Fairfax County Federation of Teachers
Fairfax, Va.


Retention: Base the Decision on the Student

To the Editor:

I would like to respond to your article on "Ending Social Promotion" (Research, March 15, 2000). My information is anecdotal, based on my 34 years in education—both as a teacher and an administrator, and at all levels, K-12. Generally, I have opposed having students repeat a grade. Doing so often had short-term benefits for the students during the elementary grades, I found, but when they reached middle school, the benefits often became detriments. The worst situations would occur when a student had repeated a grade more than once and then, at age 14, felt out of place as a 7th grader.

In one such instance, I talked with a highly disruptive 15-year-old 7th grader who was "marking time" until he reached the legal age to drop out of school. I asked him if he would behave the same way, were I to place him in grade 9. This seemed an impossibility to the boy, but when he realized I was serious, he agreed to try to change his behavior. This student was no instant angel as a 9th grader, but his behavior did improve, and he graduated from high school four years later.

Experience also has taught me, however, that decisions such as this can never be made purely on the basis of favoring or opposing retention. They have to be tailored to the needs of each student.

At another school, for example, I discovered that a well-behaved 8th grade girl was actually 15 years old. Without consulting her, I arranged with the nearby high school for her to become a 9th grader there. As I proudly announced this turn of events to the girl, she broke down in tears. She had no desire to advance to high school before completing her 8th grade year. Being two years older than her classmates did not bother her. I had created a solution where no problem existed. She remained with her class and graduated five years later.

As an elementary school principal, I tried to involve all stakeholders in such decisions. If a student were to be retained, there first had to be agreement among the teacher (s), the parents or guardians, the counselor, the student, and me. Date of birth and size were factors considered, in addition to academic performance and social behavior. The boy moved to the 9th grade, for example, was not only three years older than his classmates; he was also much larger. The girl, on the other hand, was more like an 8th grader physically than a 10th grader, even though she was two years older than her classmates.

We also considered retention in kindergarten or grade 1 far less traumatic for the student than retention later in a higher grade. And, finally, we regarded retention—and acceleration—as trial decisions. When we retained or accelerated a student, we also set a follow-up meeting in the first months of the next school year to assess the immediate effects of our decision.

Something I considered but was never able to implement was a system that would afford students alternative ways of receiving credit. It puzzled me that when a middle or high school student failed a course, he or she automatically had to retake the entire course. For some students, repeating the course made sense. But for others, the secondary school equivalent of an "Incomplete"—the grade that most of us received at one time or another in our college studies—would have made more sense, if followed up by after-school or summer school sessions designed to help the student complete the missing assignments and master the content of the course.

In any case, rather than having an absolute policy either favoring or opposing retention, educators need to base each decision on evidence that it will benefit the individual student.

Robert Hillier
Honolulu, Hawaii

Vol. 19, Issue 40, Page 35

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