Published Online: January 10, 2001
Published in Print: January 10, 2001, as Letters

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Views on Testing's 'Political Pressures'

The so-called standards-based reform movement is starting to bump against the reality that government-set standards will always be subject to contradictory political pressures.

In Virginia, the Standards of Learning assessments are under fire for emphasizing fact acquisition too much ("Pressure To Pass Tests Permeates Va. Classrooms," Dec. 6, 2000). Some lawmakers want to make test scores less of an obstacle to graduation by adding points for grades earned in core subjects; for example, an A adds 20 points to an SOL score.

In Minnesota, the Profile of Learning assessment is under attack for precisely the opposite reason—for assessments' being based far less on knowledge than on performance at "real world" tasks. The staff of Achieve Inc., the standards clearinghouse set up by big-business panjandrums and governors, is recommending that Minnesota create tests of core academic knowledge that would be a big part of graduation requirements ("Minnesota's Learning Standards Receive Mixed Review," Dec. 6, 2000).

That there should be standards in education is incontestable. But to mandate accountability from political authorities is to invite school wars without end. The standards-based movement misses the crucial point that schools should be primarily accountable to their patrons, not to multiple layers of politically influenced bureaucracy.

Regular, objective testing of what children are actually taught is desirable, but the data ought to be one component of consumer information that parents can act on to choose better schools for their children when such a course is indicated.

Another consumer-friendly use of data would be a value- added approach that takes into account how much each teacher is able to help each child progress throughout a year. Some teachers perform heroically in bringing children up from a woefully weak foundation; yet a standards-based system pegged to an arbitrary criterion largely misses their good work.

Value- added assessment could get to the heart of education—the interaction between teacher and student—and lead to appropriate reforms in how teachers are trained, retrained, and rewarded.

Robert Holland
Senior Fellow
Lexington Institute
Arlington, Va.

To the Editor:

Regarding your stories on Virginia's Standards of Learning tests: Our group, Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs, is a network of more than 5,000 parents and grandparents formed to push back against the misuse of standardized tests. We are not surprised to hear that teachers are cramming, giving up creative teaching methods because they take too long, and teaching kids to work backwards from the answer in algebra because the test is multiple-choice. We see the negative aspects of this high-stakes testing program up close and personal.

The reaction of the Virginia state board of education, to tweak the timing of the tests, misses our whole point. These assessments should not be used as the sole or primary criterion for any important educational decision. Period. Not only are there growing numbers of experts nationwide speaking up about this practice, but parents like us across the country are also organizing to fight back.

The recently released report from testing experts on Virginia's program was "spun" by the state board of education, whose self-congratulatory press release positively glowed. But the report addressed only narrow technical issues. The experts were not asked to address the uses the SOL tests are being put to. Their silence on this issue, ignoring fundamental violations of accepted standards of proper test use, allows their report to be held up as a stamp of approval for what is happening to our children and schools.

As a parent, I can't be patient, as the board's president, Kirk T. Schroder, has urged. The classrooms of my children have changed since the tests' inception, and not for the better.

High-stakes tests do not lead to better education. The prediction of the teacher in your article who said that things will change when large numbers of parents are told their children won't graduate is accurate. But it's too bad we have to sacrifice children in such a political game.

Mickey VanDerwerker
Bedford, Va.


An Unclear Lesson on Parts of Speech

To the Editor:

In his Commentary "Progressive Education Means Business" (Nov. 29, 2000), which is otherwise so good, Daniel L. Black points to an exemplary 1st grade lesson on the verb that is anything but exemplary. The teacher defines the verb as "an action word" and elicits examples from her class.

First, the definition is worse than useless. Employing it, how are students to discover the verbs in such everyday sentences as "They had a fight," "Skipping rope is my favorite sport," and "People resemble their pets"?

Second, the teacher does her students a disservice by implying that words have only one part of speech. In the lesson, "go" is the first student-volunteered example of a verb. What are the kids to make of such common sentences as "My mom is always on the go," "All systems are go," and "Let's try to make a go of it"?

Most importantly, consider this: Using the definition, the students will not find the verb in any of my six examples (and I could give thousands more). In fact, they are certain to get the wrong answer. Yet kids process and even produce sentences like these every hour of every day. In doing so, they prove that they intuitively know far more about English parts of speech than their teacher or their textbook.

Edward Sapir, one of the greatest linguists America has ever had, observed more than three-quarters of a century ago that the part of speech in English is "a will-o'-the-wisp." American students would be better off if teachers everywhere were to hang that quote on their bulletin boards and stop teaching the parts of speech.

Edgar H. Schuster
Melrose Park, Pa.


Gauging Experience in the New Congress

To the Editor:

Re: Your article "Several New House Members Well-Versed in Education" (Dec. 6, 2000):

As an educator for 27 years, the last 14 in higher education, I would like to know your definition of "well versed," as that term relates to the experience of individuals described in your recap of election results. Mike Honda, the newly elected U.S. representative from California, is the only former public school educator identified in the article.

It is ludicrous to insinuate that simply because someone has "experience dealing with education matters," or "served on a school board," or served as the executive director of a private school foundation, or "worked week in and week out" on education, that person is "well versed" in education. Does this suggest that someone who has been a passenger on numerous commercial flights would then be qualified to be a commercial airline pilot?

The article also mentions former U.S. Secretaries of Education Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett. They are to education as William Howard Taft was to the pole vault. Their "experience in education" was to seek either to eliminate or diminish the stature of the U.S. Department of Education. Vouchers and charter schools are the legacy they left for several newly elected representatives to continue.

While I applaud the comments cited in your article that relate to increasing teacher salaries, lengthening the school year, and supporting the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, it seems to me that what some politicians forget to recognize is the significant difference between ideology and what is best for our children.

Stephen Dempsey
Emporia, Kan.


Krashen Retracts Immersion Citation

To the Editor:

In my recent letter to the editor ("Immersion Facts,"Letters, Nov. 15, 2000), I argued that evidence clearly shows that one year of structured immersion is not enough to bring English learners to the point where they can do work in the mainstream at the level of native speakers of English. Among the studies cited, I included one by Ann Goldberg, done in Bethlehem, Pa.

In her response to me ("Wasting Our Energy in Language Debates,"Letters, Dec. 13, 2000), Ms. Goldberg points out that in the Bethlehem program, special help is provided only for 75 minutes per day. The rest of the time children are in the mainstream. Although some of the curriculum is "adapted" for English learners, according to Ms. Goldberg's 1998 paper in READ Perspectives, for those who arrive at the beginner level, it is three to 3 1/2 years until they reach the advanced level, the lowest level in which children are able to "understand main ideas appropriate to grade level," even with additional English-as-a-second-language support.

I apologize to Ms. Goldberg: I was incorrect in including this study as evidence for or against my claim. Her study did not examine the impact of full-time structured immersion, but of ESL supplementation.

I maintain, however, that the other studies I cited clearly do support my claim that one year of structured immersion is not enough. Ms. Goldberg concludes her letter by saying that "bitter controversies over only one year of support vs. bilingual education polarize communities and waste precious energy." I must point out that the bitter controversy is the result of Propositions 223 (California) and 203 (Arizona). Both dismantle bilingual education and provide only structured immersion.

If a similar initiative were passed in Pennsylvania, Ms. Goldberg's program would also be dismantled. Propositions 227 and 203 also state that structured immersion will be done "during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year." This limit is unreasonable and ignores the empirical evidence.

Stephen Krashen
School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.


States Should Seek New Measurements

To the Editor:

When are state legislatures going to acknowledge that standardized tests measure district and school performance only indirectly? Under current laws, unconsenting children serve as the link between school performance and assessment of that performance.

Although I at first laughed at the methodology of studying students' drawings of themselves taking a state test in Massachusetts ("Study of Art Draws Conclusions on Tests," (Dec. 13, 2000), when I read your article on this research I was struck by the fact that 40 percent of the drawings included a negative feature conveying fears, anxiety, anger, or boredom. Even if only 1 percent of that 40 percent suffers real harm as a result of the statewide testing, the price is too high to pay.

Maybe legislatures will eventually wise up and measure school performance directly, without victimizing children. I hope assessment-hungry state legislators read a second article in the same issue of Education Week—the one that reports on efforts to measure school performance directly, through video analysis of international instructional practices ("Math, Science Study To Spawn Host of Research Projects" Dec. 13, 2001.).

Wenda Sheard
Attorney and Doctoral Student
University of North Texas
Carrollton, Texas


Those in Authority Need Questioning

To the Editor:

Besides criticizing reading-incentive programs that lead to principals' getting dunked or pied—a criticism I share with the author—Louis A. Chandler's essay "Who's in Charge?" (Commentary, Nov. 15, 2000) struck me as of little use or relevance.

Mr. Chandler's main point seems to be that we need to train children to be obedient. "The person in charge," he writes, "deserves respect and attention simply because of his or her special status."

I'd say that just the opposite is true. In a free and democratic society, we need to educate people in what Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner have called "crap detection." With television ads blaring at us and money now buying our politics, we couldn't have a greater need for people who know when they're being lied to and are willing and able to challenge authority.

Mr. Chandler also gets constructivism wrong. He says that constructivism "holds that there is no fixed knowledge or truth." I don't know that this is true, and it's irrelevant anyway to our use of the term in education. Teachers aren't arguing epistemology when they talk about constructivism; they are discussing pedagogy and the much-researched concept that children learn better when active in their own learning, as opposed to passively receiving knowledge from "adult authorities."

Mark R. Goldstein
Library Media Specialist
Howe and Keller Elementary Schools
Green Bay, Wis.


Certifying Teachers: Better Ways Exist

To the Editor:

I'm a California teacher originally certified in another state. The teacher shortage here has been making headlines for several years, with the latest statistics showing that 14 percent of California teachers are teaching with emergency credentials. This situation is a sad one for our students, and a frustrating one for teachers and administrators to try to address.

Unfortunately, California credentials are extremely difficult to obtain. As a teacher with a current, out-of-state credential from a state with which California has "reciprocity," I was required to take four exams and pay more than $500 in test and credential fees to even step foot in a California classroom. I have been required to take one more exam, and I am working to complete a total of 39 units beyond my B.A. in English education; 30 of those units satisfy the fifth- year requirement, while nine of them satisfy a health, technology, and mainstreaming requirement (one I met in my previous state and that California will not accept). In the end, I'm estimating that getting my clear credential in California will cost me from $10,000 to $15,000.

Teachers who go to school in-state in California face similar hurdles. The state does not allow the credentialing programs to be "bundled" with undergraduate study and an undergraduate degree. The majority of my colleagues credentialed here spent a year and a half to two years beyond their undergraduate study completing their coursework for a California credential—and the credential they earn is not always a clear credential! After getting through all of these hurdles, most California districts still pay only $28,000 to $32,000 to beginning teachers—a salary which does not go very far in areas like San Diego, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay area.

I understand the need for standards, and I want our children to have the best teachers possible. On the other hand, California needs to take a look at revamping its teacher-credential requirements. I know three very talented teachers who quit trying to finish requirements for their clear credentials because of the bureaucratic mess they faced; by my calculations, almost 20,000 students will never be able to learn from these very qualified teachers.

Somewhere along the way, California fell into the "more is always better" trap. If the state truly wants qualified teachers, policymakers need to realize that better ways of credentialing and retaining teachers do exist.

Shannon S. Churchey
English Teacher
Hayward High School
San Lorenzo, Calif.


Parent Involvement Is Good Politics

To the Editor:

Gregory J. Cizek's essay ("School Politics 101," Commentary, Dec. 6, 2000) is on target. But paying attention to parents is not just good politics, it's good education. It's all very well to talk about test scores, but we have to remember that we build test scores by building people, parents included.

When I am asked about the key factor that makes students like school, study hard, and stay in school, my answer is a "c" word, but it's not curriculum, it's caring. Students have to feel needed, just as parents and teachers do. This is the human element in education. Connectiveness is a protective factor in children's lives. Schools have to find ways of helping everyone, including parents, feel important, essential, and connected.

As many know, I have been working in parent involvement in education for over 30 years, and I've learned a lot. Here, from my experience, are three recommendations:

  • Remember the importance of relationships between the individual student and family and the school. Use programs and strategies that provide specific, practical ways to build on and maintain these relationships for learning.
  • Seek out programs that simultaneously build the capacities of adults and the abilities of children. Parents and teachers can help children more when they develop their own abilities to learn.
  • Focus on the real basics: building capacities and competencies for learning. Have the patience and commitment it takes to help children and their caring adults become stronger learners for the course of what will be longer lives.

The value of focusing on the family's educational role is that it combines politics and education in the most positive, constructive way. To forget that, in the rush for immediate test-score gain, is a dangerous diversion that will lead us away from where we all want to go.

Dorothy Rich
Founder and President
Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.


Would We Invent System We Have?

To the Editor:

It is ironic that your Dec. 13, 2000, issue, which features a front-page article on the dismal performance of American 8th graders ("U.S. Students' Scores Drop by 8th Grade"), also includes an advertisement paid for by the National Education Association, wherein the group's president, Bob Chase, says the following: "America's lowest-performing schools must be our highest priority."

Talk about red herrings! No one disputes the particularly horrendous conditions of most inner-city and some rural schools. But it is disingenuous in the extreme to gloss over the mediocre performance of the public school establishment that purports to "serve" 90 percent of the children in this country.

Mr. Chase tells us that the NEA is positioned to tackle the challenges of educating "children of poverty and extreme social disadvantage." As a case in point, he cites the Edgewood Unified School District in San Antonio, Texas, without mentioning that the challenge there came in the form of a private scholarship program that allowed close to 1,000 children to use vouchers to leave the public schools. That was all the incentive needed to spur those schools to improve.

But aside from that anecdotal instance, Mr. Chase is implicitly endorsing a 19th-century institution that has lost all relevance as we enter the 21st. If we were to invent a system today to properly educate all the children in this country to become contributing members of society, does any thinking individual imagine we would invent the existing one? Would we opt for a top-down, one-size-fits-all factory model? Would we prepare teachers in ivory-tower education schools far from the realities they must face in the classroom? Would we make large-scale investments in untested fads, professional-development activities totally unrelated to student performance, and bloated bureaucracies? Would we allow the education of our children to be determined by our ZIP Code and the ministrations of school boards ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the new century?

No, Mr. Chase, our highest priority must be to make available to all children in this nation an education that will enhance their strengths, inspire their love of learning, and equip them to be full participants in the society they will inherit. And having set that priority, we must devise a system that will do just that.

Gisele Huff
San Francisco, Calif.


Public and Private Special Education

To the Editor:

In his recent letter to the editor ("How Private Schools Lost IDEA Services," Letters, Dec. 13, 2000), Robert A. Teegarden asserts that, within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, the U.S. Congress "decided that children who attend private schools no longer have a right to [special education] services. They used to, but somehow they don't anymore." This statement is one of several inaccurate representations of the facts in Mr. Teegarden's letter.

The IDEA '97 and its implementing regulations promulgated in 1999 clarify the U.S. Department of Education's long-standing position regarding what is owed under the IDEA to private school children with disabilities. That long-standing position is that private school children with disabilities do not have individual entitlements to special education services at the private school. Rather, local educational agencies are to consult with appropriate representatives of private schools to make determinations about which children will receive services, what services will be provided, how and where the services will be provided, and how the services will be evaluated. This is not a new position of the federal government, but it is new to the extent that this position is now clearly articulated in the IDEA and its implementing regulations.

One of the reasons Congress and the Education Department added clarifying language about this issue was as a response to litigation around the country, most of which evaporated once the courts saw the statutory clarifications.

Mr. Teegarden goes on to say: "Congress invented new language to explain away old guilt. Districts must offer these [private school] parents what is termed 'free, appropriate public education [sic].' But nowhere in the law does Congress define what this means." In fact, the term free, appropriate public education, also known by the acronym FAPE, is not a new term at all, but is as old as the earliest incarnation of the IDEA: the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-142). The term was defined in that law, defined in that law's implementing regulations, defined in every subsequent version of the statute and implementing regulations, and has since been excruciatingly defined further in countless due- process hearings and associated court actions. We do know what "free, appropriate public education" means, and it is a 25-year-old term.

I presume that Mr. Teegarden's real complaint is that he wants that education to be delivered to children with disabilities whose parents unilaterally enroll them in private schools. That was never the federal government's interpretation of the IDEA. What individual states decide to do over and above federal requirements is up to individual states. It may well be that California, prior to the IDEA '97, offered more special education services to private school children with disabilities than was federally required, but has now decided to align its practices with the (now) clear federal requirements.

Whether or not that is the case, some states, like Pennsylvania, always adhered to the federal government's long-standing policy interpretations of its own statutes and regulations: that is, private school children with disabilities do not have individual entitlements to FAPE at the private school. Consequently, when the IDEA '97 clarifications unfolded, Pennsylvania practice in this regard did not have to change.

Nowhere do the federal regulations implementing the IDEA '97 imply that private school children aren't disabled or eligible under the IDEA, as Mr. Teegarden implies. To the contrary, the regulations now require that local educational agencies conduct an annual count of private school children with disabilities, similar to the annual child count required for public school children with disabilities. This count is necessary for local educational agencies to compute the amount of funds that they must expend on special education services to private school children with disabilities. Prior to the IDEA '97, there was no requirement that local educational agencies expend a certain amount on special education for private school children with disabilities. Now there is. More importantly, private school children with disabilities, since 1975, have had and continue to have FAPE available to them at the public school.

Parents who choose private over public schooling are making a choice between the two. They cannot expect the full benefit of public school at the private school, just as they do not expect the benefits of a private education at the public school.

On one point, I agree with Mr. Teegarden: All private school children with disabilities are not receiving all the publicly funded special education services that such children need at the private school. However, to ensure they do would require not only a significant increase in federal funding, but also a change in the IDEA requirements. On the other hand, private school children with disabilities have been and continue to benefit from some special education services, provided under the IDEA by the public education system.

When private school advocates like Mr. Teegarden attempt to effect a change on this front with strong rhetoric that is simply not accurate, it can only serve to harden the political positions of policymakers and educators who, by and large, want to do what's right for children with disabilities, but have a finite amount of resources to do so.

Richard E. Dale
Director of Special Services
Capital Area Intermediate Unit
Summerdale, Pa.


Facts vs. Knowledge: The Middle Ground

To the Editor:

Bruce Shaw's well-written essay ("Dickens and the Competency-Based School," Commentary, Dec. 6, 2000) spelled out important premises arguing against statewide graduation tests as the measure of a student's worth (competence), but failed to emphasize an additional conclusion. There can be a middle ground between competence and the broader definition of what a well-educated person is.

Rather than portray competence in its Dickensian form, and then play it against a broader life view, one might conclude that both are needed. Therefore, the problem is not inherent in desiring competence. The problem is desiring it to the exclusion of everything else, as evidenced by requiring a competency test for graduation. It would be much more difficult to argue against competence if it were not for the extremist views of those committed to high school graduation tests. If the tests were removed from the discussion, who would be against competence?

Laurence M. Lieberman
Boston, Mass.


S.C. School Boards'Set Record Straight'

To the Editor:

I would like to set the record straight regarding a letter to the editor from Jeanne Allen about state associations of school boards and charter schools ("Boards Are Source of Suits Against Charters,"Letters, Nov. 29, 2000).

The Lighthouse Charter School in South Carolina, which Ms. Allen used as an example in her letter, did not open because its announced enrollment did not comply with statutory requirements under the South Carolina Charter School Act of 1996. The South Carolina School Boards Association was not involved in litigation concerning the Lighthouse Charter School.

The association has supported the charter school act since its inception and through various amendments. Indeed, it has been supportive of the charter school movement in South Carolina and has afforded its membership opportunities to learn more about charter schools at a number of Boardmanship Institute workshops.

Like the National School Boards Association, the SCSBA is committed to improving all public schools.

Scott T. Price
General Counsel
South Carolina School Boards Association
Columbia, S.C.


England's Reforms: Other Thoughts on Their Impact and Applicability

To the Editor:

By choosing to be selective in their own cause, the authors of "The English Reforms Are Not for Us" (Commentary, Dec. 13, 2000) paint an unfair picture of education reform in England. Focusing narrowly upon what they perceive to be the effects of national tests and the open reporting of school performance data, as if these were the only reforms in place, they fail to inform American readers about genuine improvements made in the quality of teaching and student achievement in the vast majority of our schools. They make no mention of such key reforms as those aimed at improving the quality and quantity of preschool provision, modernizing teacher training and professional development, and raising standards of education in inner cities.

Our systems of national tests and open reporting to parents, policymakers, professionals in schools, not to mention taxpayers who pick up the tab, are somewhat akin to the audit style of site visits and school evaluations carried out by some American school districts. These systems may have weaknesses, but they also have considerable strengths and deserve a more thorough analysis than the authors allow. But even if they have persuaded themselves that the data from these sources are flawed, the authors of your Commentary ought to acknowledge the value of the professional judgments of those who have been responsible for implementing the major structural and curricular reforms in our schools and classrooms.

A more balanced picture emerges, for example, from large-scale surveys carried out this year which show that over 90 percent of principals and teachers judge that their schools have improved significantly in recent years. Their judgments associate this improvement with several key reforms. Foremost among these are the national strategies for raising standards of literacy and numeracy and the much higher levels of delegated funding within the control of schools. In the elementary school sector, where these reforms have had longer to settle down, over 80 percent of those surveyed judged that the impact had been favorable.

Earlier surveys of the eventual impact of introducing a national curriculum have yielded similarly favorable comments from principals and teachers. The words "eventual impact" are important. Since it invariably means changing entrenched practice and the status quo, we should not expect the road to reform to be either easy or rapid. The authors of the Commentary risk falling into the trap of presenting an outdated view of obstacles that have either been overcome or are being tackled successfully.

To describe the English reforms as "centralist" is another sleight of hand much used by those who oppose them. It is, surely, time to break free from the sterile "top-down bad"/"bottom-up good" debate. Those who care to look carefully at the stream of reforms in England will soon discover that most of them stem from leading-edge practice in our most successful schools, many of which serve areas of considerable economic disadvantage. The curricular reforms, in particular, involved widespread consultation with thousands of teachers. The construction of curricular, instructional content, moreover, was very largely carried out by panels of well-qualified and experienced teachers.

We did not emerge from that process unscathed, however, because the hard won "bottom up" consensus about what to teach proved impossible to deliver. We gave ourselves an enormous and costly "quarts into pint pots" headache, which was eventually eased by central decisions to do less in order to do better. We now have a far more manageable national curriculum. It may not be perfect but, as the great majority of school principals attest, it is a good deal better than what was there before.

All of which suggests that neither the center nor the rim of the educational wheel has much chance of going it alone, and that it's a good idea if they work together in the best interests of the students.

I should add that I have considerable respect for the performance-indicator work of Carol T. Fitz-Gibbon and Peter Tymms. Their overview of our reforms in your Commentary section, however, leaves much to be desired and compares poorly with the far richer analysis by Michael Barber ("Large-Scale Reform Is Possible," Commentary, Nov. 15, 2000), which it seeks to refute.

A. J. Rose
Surrey, England

The writer is a former member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate. He recently retired as the director of inspection in the office for standards in education, and has continued to contribute to policy evaluation as a consultant to the department for education and employment in England.

To the Editor:

Using a blend of standards-based reform and decentralization, the English are creating a system of education much more tailored to the realities of the knowledge economy than our own. In addition, they are demonstrating that school autonomy and national standards are complementary rather than exclusionary goals. England has devolved decisionmaking about most educational inputs to the school level but is supporting higher academic performance through national standards and support. There are lessons for our current choice deadlock in this synthesis—namely, that public school choice coupled with standards can reconcile public accountability with choice and competition.

On a recent visit to England to study the reforms, I found teachers expressing frustration with the rapid pace of change and concern about some aspects of the new program of standards and accountability. Overall, however, the teachers and administrators I spoke with were supportive of the English reform model and believed that the increased focus on academic achievement was benefiting their students, and that they could see the results of this in their classrooms. In addition, the achievement gap in England is narrowing, something we would do well to emulate here.

For a variety of reasons, including the structure of our government, not every reform England has undertaken is transferable to our schools. Nonetheless, there is much we can learn from their experiences with increased flexibility for schools in the context of greater student performance and nationally defined standards. And rather than rote attacks on reform models, we would be well served to use their experiences to inform our own. Winston Churchill famously said of the British, "We do not covet anything from any nation except their respect." A close look at their education reform effort illustrates that, contrary to the authors' assertions, they deserve that.

Andrew Rotherham
Director
21st Century Schools Project
Progressive Policy Institute
Washington, D.C.


IDEA at 25: Learning-Disabled vs. Teaching-Disabled

To the Editor:

As a special education teacher and reading specialist for over 35 years, I agree that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has helped millions of students with disabilities receive an appropriate education ("IDEA Opens Doors, Fans Controversy,"Nov. 29, 2000). The fact that the number of students referred for special education services continually increases, however, is not necessarily good news.

Special education teachers are overwhelmed, finding that they are no longer responsible for teaching small groups but rather classrooms full of students with many types of disabilities. A majority of special education students, and the group that has increased most dramatically in the past 15 years, are those classified as learning- disabled.

Why are the numbers of learning-disabled children in special education increasing? Clearly, there is a heightened sensitivity to the educational needs of this hidden handicap, and more children are being appropriately identified and served. But there are also many children in special education solely because the instruction they are receiving in the mainstream is either inappropriate or inadequate.

Children are referred to special education because they are not learning in mainstream classes. To the extent that mainstream education meets the needs of the learning-disabled, they do not require special education placement. Unfortunately, the educational trends of the past 20 years have adversely affected the ability of schools to educate learning-disabled students in the mainstream.

Since the 1980s, there has been a movement away from skills- and content-based instruction toward a child-centered approach in which less time is spent on direct skills instruction. Students often decide what they are going to study and spend more time interacting with each other than with the teacher. Teachers have become facilitators rather than directors of the learning process.

There are groups of children, including, but definitely not limited to, the learning-disabled, who require direct instruction if they are to learn to read and succeed academically. Far too little time is spent in the critical early grades teaching and practicing basic skills. When children cannot get appropriate instruction in the mainstream, they are referred for special education. These students are curriculum-disabled, and they are swelling the special education numbers. There has been a steady decline in reading scores and a corresponding increase in special education placements that parallel the movement away from focused, teacher-directed instruction.

The critical component in educating the learning-disabled is methodology—how you teach them. The research is clear, for example, that the best way to teach learning-disabled children to read is through intensive, multisensory phonics. To the extent that mainstream programs provide such instruction and meet the needs of the learning-disabled, we will reduce the number of students in special education and better allocate our resources to educate the more disabled.

Phyllis Bertin
Chappaqua, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Congratulations on your article on the Individual with Disabilities Education Act and special education. I was the executive director of the National Advisory Committee for the Handicapped when Public Law 94-142 was passed. Unfortunately, too few people realize that prior to the enactment of P.L. 94-142, far too many children were simply excluded from any educational program.

I am pleased to see the emphasis on quality education now being supported in education for disabled learners. I also agree that too many children are classified as learning-disabled. In many instances, it would be better to talk about teaching disabilities than learning disabilities. This is especially true in the area of teaching reading. We do not emphasize an understanding of linguistics and phonetics among teachers of young children to the degree needed to reach every child. If a child does not learn to read in the first three years of school, he or she is almost universally doomed to failure.

English is one of the most developed and universal languages in the world. However, the phoneme-grapheme relation is one of the worst among the world's written languages. Those of us who become mature, literate beings do not bother to examine the root causes of poor literacy rates. The Roman alphabet is simply a poor scientific instrument when it comes to transcribing the English language.

Sir James Pitman tried to remedy some of the problems of written English by introducing the Initial Teaching Alphabet. However, he failed because of the problem of republishing in the Initial Teaching Alphabet format. Today, with modem electronic-publishing formats, it would be a simple matter to use both traditional Roman alphabet and International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, publications. Consequently, initial-reading programs could use IPA materials. Such materials would have a one-to-one sound-to-letter relation.

We know that the average child comes to school with a 2,500-word spoken vocabulary. Research tells us that 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds have the visual acuity to distinguish among the letters in an alphabet. Therefore, it should be a relatively simple learning task to associate sounds to consistent letters in IPA published materials, enabling very young readers to use their full range of spoken vocabulary.

I believe the poor quality of teaching reading to young children results in an increasingly large number of learning- disabled children. While I have talked about "learning-disabled teachers," I do not believe these teachers are not working hard. They simply have not been given the linguistic and phonetic understanding of the coding and decoding of a written language.

Again, my congratulations on a well-balanced discussion of special education and the IDEA. The struggle was a long and hard-fought battle to have all disabled children included in education. I would like to see general education adopt the concept of individualized education plans for all children.

Frank B. Withrow
Director of Development
A Better Learning Environment Company (ABLE)
Washington, D.C.


TIMSS Rivalry: Competitiveness and Quality Are Often Antithetical

To the Editor:

Your front-page article on the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study—Repeat ("U.S. Students' Scores Drop by 8th Grade,"Dec. 13, 2000) emphasizes the disappointing state of U.S. students' achievement in math and science. But the information used to draw that conclusion does not speak to whether students are doing well or poorly. It does not tell us how much students know. The only question it answers is how the scores of American students compare with those of students in other countries.

This is not a trivial distinction. In itself, a nation's ranking offers no useful information about how good its schools are. If, for example, all the countries did reasonably well in absolute terms, there would be no shame (and, perhaps, no statistical significance) to being at the bottom. If all the countries did poorly, there would be no glory to being at the top. Exclamatory headlines about how "our" schools are doing compared with "theirs" are based on the fallacious premise that what matters is relative performance, which in turn suggests that we are less concerned with the quality of education than with whether we can chant, "We're number one!"

The only justification for gauging the success of the United States' achievement in relative terms is if we viewed students in other countries as enemies to be sized up and ultimately defeated. If, however, we would rather collaborate with educators in other nations—in the hope that children become more proficient and enthusiastic learners regardless of where they call home—then there wouldn't be much point to figuring out who was doing better than whom. In fact, the process of ranking countries may actually play a causal role in fostering a poisonous competitive orientation, one in which we are led to celebrate when students who live elsewhere do poorly.

But never mind the effects of TIMSS-R. And never mind other concerns about its methodology. The simple fact is that we learn nothing about how much mathematics our students understand merely by knowing how many other nations did better or worse. The late W. Edwards Deming taught business people that competitiveness and quality are two completely different (and often antithetical) ideas. This observation carries even more weight in the field of education.

Of course, the same confusion of excellence with competitive standing shows up in charts that compare schools, districts, or states by their standardized-test scores. Another noteworthy example occurred two years ago, when Education Week ran a front-page story under the ominous headline "U.S. Graduation Rates Starting To Fall Behind"(Nov. 25, 1998). That article warned: "The relatively low U.S. graduation rates may be a symptom of deeper problems in the quality of the nation's schools." But the study in question actually reported no slippage in absolute terms; on most measures, the United States was actually doing better than ever in terms of how many students graduated from high school. The drop in rank simply reflected the improvement of other countries, a development that would be regarded as bad news only by someone who was more rivalrous than rational.

Next spring, you tell us, the U.S. Department of Education will release the TIMSS-R results of individual states and even some districts, so that each can see how it ranks against the 38 countries that participated in the study. Let's hope the educators in those states and districts—as well as reporters—will resist the temptation to engage in more pointless comparison. And if that is too much to ask, if these rankings are again going to be published and to elicit expressions of relief or distress, let's hope the people involved are candid enough to admit that the whole exercise is about winning rather than learning.

Alfie Kohn
Belmont, Mass.

Vol. 20, Issue 16, Pages 55-58

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