Published Online: May 9, 2001
Published in Print: May 9, 2001, as Letters



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Teacher-Testing Firm Operates in Secrecy

To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing "Teacher Tests Criticized as Single Gauge," (April 4, 2001). As a longtime subscriber and reader, I was happy to see some factual comments about teacher testing and current testing practices. I was especially delighted to read that even the powerful National Research Council was unable to obtain much information from the secretive National Evaluation Systems.

I am currently in the process of appealing a downscaling of my passing grade to a failing grade by NES in an examination for the Certification of Educators in Texas (ExCET). In my initial encounter with NES, officials would not divulge any data about its scale scoring methods.

NES does not provide a contact person for a simple communication. Thus, an applicant is at its mercy as to how passing or failure is determined in a multiple-choice test. Since "pass" or "fail" is a moving target, you have to continue taking the test until you pass, an obviously good income situation for NES.

My understanding is that thousands of Texas teachers have to take ExCET exams several times, never knowing why they passed when they do. It would seem that a clearer grading method would be appropriate and beneficial, not only to applicants in general, but especially to those in Texas, which has a serious teacher shortage.

Coming to teaching from industry at a later stage in life, I have been surprised by the fear that teachers have about questioning such systems or testing practices. "Don't make waves," is the common comment, "just take the test over." It is indeed a sad day when there is fear in questioning such firms as NES, whose sole purpose seems to be to make money by establishing standards that cannot be questioned.

Edward P. Pita
Houston, Texas

Teach For America: Do Alums Stay On?

To the Editor:

How many Teach For America alumni actually stay in the classroom and continue to do what the students need most from them, teach ("Most Likely To Succeed,"On Assignment, April 25, 2001)? My wife is a TFA alum who went on to Harvard University's graduate school of education and then went back to the school district TFA originally placed her in, where she continues to teach at-risk students as a high school English teacher.

As a parent and educator, I understand that the real measure of success for Teach For America should be how many of the program alumni remain "teaching" in the schools and classrooms where they started out. After all, one of the biggest reasons inner-city and rural schools continue to fail is because student- and teacher-transient rates remain high. I'd like to see a program that rewards TFA teachers who choose to stay, rather than complete their tours of duty and leave for bigger and better things.

While I don't think highly qualified individuals such as those selected to participate in the TFA program should be held back to earn below-average salaries in a demanding profession, I do think that school districts and Teach For America should do more to convince these individuals to stay. Perhaps incentives could take the form of student-loan forgiveness, graduate school scholarships, performance- based pay incentives, or help in purchasing homes at discounted mortgage rates.

Gregg Festa
New York, N.Y.

SAT Critics:'Either Naive or Crafty'

To the Editor:

The leaders described in your article "Corporate Leaders Decry Emphasis on SATs," (April 18, 2001), who echo the president of the University of California's call for reliance "on standardized tests that assess mastery of specific subjects," are either naive or crafty.

Naive if they fail to realize that the SAT (now SAT-I Reasoning) was instrumental in opening the floodgates to higher education after World War II in response to the GI Bill and the civil rights movement—and doing so by giving poor and minority students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to think critically, regardless of what they had studied or where they had gone to school.

Crafty if, by calling for a return to "the good old days" when college-admissions practices favored middle- and upper-class students with the right courses in the right (read "financially favored") schools, those corporate leaders are really attempting to look out for their own progeny.

George H. Hanford
President Emeritus
The College Board
Cambridge, Mass.

'A Slap in the Face' to Trained Teachers

To the Editor:

The growing shortage of qualified teachers has caused many states to change the requirements for people entering the profession ("Ark. Lowers Hurdles for 'Exceptional' Aspiring Teachers," April 25, 2001.) Are we fixing the problem or just putting a Band-Aid on the wound?

I went back to college at the age of 29. I will finally finish my degree in elementary education in the spring of 2002. I've had to jump through many hurdles, pay the cost of many tests, and spend an enormous amount of time in the classroom. But all the time, I've known that my skills as a teacher were being sharpened and that when I finished, I would have the skills needed to help children reach their potential.

The use of people without education majors in the classroom is a slap in the face to those of us who have spent the time and done the hard work to learn what it takes to be a good teacher. Life experience is great, but a teacher needs to know some of the theories and reasoning behind why and how children learn. If states are really concerned about the teacher shortage, they should help aspiring teachers pay for college and increase the incentives for existing teachers to stay in the classroom.

Matt Fridley
Salem, Mo.

Keep Choice Minimal in High School Work

To the Editor:

Reforming high school is a difficult topic. If it were easy, we wouldn't be talking about it ("Getting Serious About High School," April 11, 2001).

I know that all students are not college-bound and don't want to be forced to take classes they are not interested in. But I also know that if I had been given the choice to take classes that were easier and less stressful, I would have done so.

I didn't know I would be going to college before I graduated from high school. Had I not been required to take the classes that would get me into college, I probably would have chosen the easy way out and not gone to college.

I have been teaching for 23 years, and I have a master's degree. I'm glad I was not given the choice, and that I went to a high school that required everyone to take the classes to get him or herself into college.

Mary Jane Morris
Ballard High School
Seattle, Wash.

Start Remediation in Elementary School

To the Editor:

Remedial efforts aimed at helping students meet a state's graduation standards have to start in elementary school ("A Quiet Crisis: Unprepared for High Stakes," April 18, 2001). You can't possibly make it all up in high school. Lack of content, lack of standards, and lack of homework in intermediate and middle school are the real problem. Kids must be prepared early on to meet the requirements—not simply to pass a state graduation standard, but also to achieve a standard of excellence needed to be prepared for college.

Karen Schrum
Crown Point, Ind.

Dual Enrollment Offers Plenty of Rigor

To the Editor:

As one of the teachers mentioned in your article "Dual-Enrollment Programs Spreading," (April 25, 2001), I take exception to the implication that high school teachers are not capable of teaching college-level courses. This is an idea fostered by a few college teachers, some of whom are not exactly the best teachers ever encountered.

I challenge anyone to spend time in my classroom and compare the input—and output— taking place during class time. As long as the concurrent-enrollment teacher insists on rigorous standards, there is no reason for the class to be less challenging than an on-campus course.

Jane McBride
Tooele, Utah

To the Editor:

As one of the Indiana University program's high school teachers, I can assure you that our program is every bit as rigorous as any freshman writing course in college. I speak to my graduated seniors yearly when they come back for visits, and the university's dual-credit classes in English composition and literature measure up favorably.

Linda Harkleroad
Syracuse, Ind.

Advanced Placement: Kudos and Questions

To the Editor:

In your front-page story on Advanced Placement ("AP Program Assumes Larger Role," April 25, 2001), Bard College President Leon Botstein expresses the view that Advanced Placement courses are test-driven. I'd like to respond.

The test is the assessment of a yearlong study in which students delve deeply into a topic. The students from our local high school (three are my sons) are articulate, higher-level thinkers who appreciate being given the opportunity to use their thinking skills, rather than waiting for the "gods" at the university level to bestow their wisdom.

I was surprised to discover that the AP program has been around since the 1950s. As a 1968 high school graduate, I would have loved the opportunity to show what I could do. Instead, I spent four years in mediocrity waiting for the hour and minute hands on the clock to give me freedom from boredom.

Susan L. Miller
Jefferson College
Hillsboro, Mo.

To the Editor:

I would like to see some specific standards put on high school courses before they can be listed as "Advanced Placement." Too many high schools list a variety of courses as "AP this" or "AP that," when the content is not of AP caliber, and the students are not passing the test, if the test is even offered to them. It looks good on paper for the course-offering guide to list 10 AP classes available at a high school, but the harsh reality is that the courses are not AP-level. It is merely a paper inflation.

Karee Sowards
Albuquerque, N.M.

To the Editor:

When I was in high school, I took three Advanced Placement courses: biology, history, and psychology. My scores on the exams were 4, 4, and 3, respectively. Not only did these scores save me almost $3,000, but they also helped me graduate in four years. I was taking sophomore-level classes my first semester in college. The teachers I had were superb, and taking those classes really helped lay a foundation for when I studied history, biology, and psychology later on.

Jennifer McCauley
Perry Elementary School
Perry, Ohio

Watch Comparisons of Scoring Data

To the Editor:

Re: "A World-Class Education Eludes Many in the U.S.," (April 11, 2001): One doesn't need the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat to know that there is wide variation among students' academic performance in districts located almost side by side. Simply reviewing the results of the Ohio Proficiency Tests for one county, Cuyahoga, in northeastern Ohio, shows this variance. The critical question, however, is what "causes" it? And here, there is both "bad" and "good" news.

The bad news is that at least since the Coleman Report in 1966, researchers have shown over and over—and still do today— that the defining characteristic of most high-achieving schools and districts is the influence of students' families. In Cuyahoga County, for example, by using the average "federal adjusted gross income" for each district, we can say that generally speaking, the higher the income, the higher the scores. This socioeconomic factor is especially strong when we include the educational level of the mother as an independent variable.

The good news, however, is that it doesn't have to be this way. Schools and districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students can and do score high on achievement tests of all kinds. The Coleman Report also launched what is known as "effective schools research." Researchers working in this new field of study in the 1970s and '80s found that there were schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students that did score at or above national norms. In looking more closely at them, they found a set of common characteristics, factors known as the "correlates of effective schools." Subsequent research has shown these characteristics' positive effects on student outcomes.

A second point I would make about your story regards the interpretation of the assessment results. Comparing a select group from the United States—Napersville, Mich., for example—with the aggregated average score for an entire country, Singapore, for example, is questionable. How would they compare with a select group of schools or students from Singapore? Results like these and the interpretation of them don't serve American education very well.

William P. Deighan
Broadview Heights, Ohio

Polling Questions

To the Editor:

Regarding the poll sponsored by the Public Education Network and Education Week on public engagement in the schools ("Poll: Public Lacks Time for Schools," April 18, 2001): How can people not feel daunted by the time it would take—on their own—to investigate and evaluate their local school situations and then figure out what it is that they could offer that would not be inconsequential or intrusive? At this burping point of knowledge on what constitutes comprehensive improvement, isn't it up to the education community to give a caring public some specifics on what would be of most help now?

Think how valuable true national guidance might be. Imagine a guide that included accountably objective reporting of how the big problems got to be such big problems; a general, across-the-board vision of continuous improvement for all; and a tried-and-true, priority-ranked "to do" list toward achieving that vision. Imagine a guide so sensible that it could be adopted anywhere, and so accommodating it could be adapted by parent-teacher-student associations around specific school situations. Then imagine a World Wide Web hub of models, and resources for adapting and distributing them, with experienced people ready to offer consultation. And imagine a presentation that invites without overwhelming a desire to help.

What's stopping this kind of leadership? Why aren't we all working on this? Why won't someone qualified out there just start writing up something akin to this kind of public directive and forward it to others until everyone's gotten a chance to weigh in and get on board as soon as possible?

Don't you think people would engage and respond more helpfully if they understood exactly how they might be of most help? I, for one, don't know. But when the public is on record as caring more for kids and education than tax breaks, our next step has got to be making practical sense out of what we do know.

American children cannot afford to wait, or depend on these various come-hither poses all over the dance floor to work on a commitment-phobic public.

Allison Kuttner
Silver Spring, Md.

To the Editor:

I think the question of why parents lack the motivation to become involved in schools is much more complex than the simple "they lack the time and expertise" answer that you offer would suggest.

In a small community, for example, the school district is often the largest employer. When people have children in school and want to question the "professionals," the fear of retribution—by an individual teacher, the school, or the district administration—is overwhelming, even to many who would normally ask questions and demand accountability.

So some, if not most, parents prefer to use their time in more constructive and less threatening ways.

Susan J. Esvelt
Snohomish, Wash.

To the Editor:

The West Town neighborhood of Chicago has several excellent community-based organizations training parents to be involved in their children's education, promoting active volunteerism, and encouraging the construction of strong after-school programs. It takes time, yes, but the payoff is worth the effort.

In a recent study by the Chicago Consortium, students in our city were tracked through five years of high school. By the end of their freshman year, more than half were failing classes. The dropout rate for four schools was more than half. Is this not a crisis?

Training the parents and actively involving them is crucial to students' success. But, woefully, schools are not always the most user-friendly places. If English is your second language and your country of origin doesn't encourage family involvement in schools (which is true for a large segment of our population), getting involved may seem impossible. It takes training, persistence, and, of course, time to overcome these obstacles, but it can be done.

Every city school in the country has a surrounding neighborhood of businesses, churches, community groups, libraries, and senior citizens who can be tapped to volunteer. Grant money that can pay for innovative literacy and family-involvement projects, after-school programs, and a host of other educational initiatives is readily available to organizations. Any time volunteered, even one hour a week, can help build better schools.

Candace Gomez
Chicago, Ill.

Special-Needs Conundrum

In "The Special Education Conundrum," (Commentary, April 18, 2001), Bruce Marlowe blames, among other factors, "increasingly adversarial, uncivil, and litigious parents" for the crisis-level problem of finding and retaining teachers in special education. While the crisis is quite real, I'm sure that parents of students with disabilities were surprised to now find themselves included in the growing list of disincentives to becoming a special educator.

Let me assure Mr. Marlowe and others who might share his views that parents of children with disabilities don't engage in such behaviors and actions for sport. Parents want only one thing from special education: results. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in research on effective teaching, the percentage of students with disabilities who complete high school with a standard diploma has improved only marginally, from 21.2 percent in 1992-93 to 24.5 percent in 1996-97. And that meager increase is sure to be quickly obliterated by the advent of high-stakes assessments and accountability measures.

The field of special education does a miserable job of moving research into practice. Despite solid research, educators (both regular and special) still can't teach all children the most basic skill of all: reading. Parents are weary of fighting schools to get research-based instructional practices for their children with disabilities. Increasingly knowledgeable and impatient, parents are too often forced to be "adversarial, uncivil, and litigious" in their efforts to have their children receive services that deliver results. While this type of behavior is most unfortunate, parents need not apologize for their attempts to get the most effective education for their children. It is both their obligation and their job.

Candace Cortiella
The Advocacy Institute
Burke, Va.

To the Editor:

Thanks to Bruce Marlowe for his excellent Commentary. Special education laws are a boon for lawyers and the legal establishment and a disaster for kids and their families, who are the pawns in the system. Just as millions of smokers have died and will die from tobacco, to the enrichment of tobacco lawyers, millions of kids are withering, educationally, due to the new breed of school lawyers and their snake oil.

As a nation, we have become so enamored with getting our way—and not taking no for an answer—that we have raised litigation to a fine art. By being so focused on litigation, however, we completely miss the point of being educated, reducing it to compliance, technicalities, procedural issues, and monetary enrichment. That's not what it's all about.

Ed Conseri
Meriden, Conn.

To the Editor:

Conducting teacher workshops on the benefits and strategies of inclusion, I must deal continually with the frustrations and negativity of a small but vocal group of teachers who are unwilling to change their repertoires.

And special education teachers do sometimes echo the concerns Bruce Marlowe highlights in his essay about inordinate amounts of paperwork, and fail to envision the positive, inclusionary outcomes that lie ahead. But not everyone is abandoning ship, as Mr. Marlowe implies. Most dedicated teachers are eagerly and diligently trying to accommodate students and help them succeed in their classrooms. They also willingly collaborate as professionals to make inclusion work.

Being involved in the field of special education for the past two decades has afforded me the opportunity to watch students given proper educational nourishment thrive and become productive members of the community. The new laws try to align student goals with curriculum standards and establish accountability with measurable outcomes. Maybe we need more fine-tuning, but the direction is a positive one for parents, teachers, and students.

Toby Karten
Marlboro, N.J.

To the Editor:

I have been in this business since 1966; I lobbied for the original federal legislation, PL 94-142; I have trained hundreds of teachers. I can tell every teacher out there: "It was never supposed to be like this."

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was designed to help children and families. It was to be a bridge and not a barrier. Sadly, the opposite is happening throughout this country. The problems Bruce Marlowe describes in Vermont are shared by 49 other states. The states must come together, as a unit, and restore the vision and the dignity to the IDEA.

Marty Meyer
Indianapolis, Ind.

Vol. 20, Issue 34, Pages 34-35

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