Published Online: June 20, 2001
Published in Print: June 20, 2001, as Letters

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Don't Judge Schools Solely on Test Scores

To the Editor:

FairTest has analyzed the test scores of Massachusetts schools that were selected by Mass Insight Education as "vanguard schools" on the basis of supposedly rising test scores ("Mass. Conference Examines Schools in 'Vanguard'," June 6, 2001). In fact, in many cases, the school-level scores have been erratic and not sustained, and in other cases, the number of tested students has declined substantially.

A few weeks ago, Education Week reported on a study of "test-score volatility" based on the work of researchers Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger, who delivered a paper to the Brookings Institution that casts great doubt on the accuracy of determining school improvement on the basis of short-term changes in test scores ("Study Questions Reliability of Single-Year Test-Score Gains," May 23, 2001). Many of the Massachusetts "vanguard schools" illustrated such volatility, further evidence both that rewards and sanctions should not be based simply on test scores, and that selecting "good" programs based on year-to-year test-score changes will eventually lead to almost all schools' and programs' being so selected.

Unfortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate education committee have already adopted the Bush administration's scheme to require states to "evaluate" all schools based solely on test scores and to impose severe sanctions, including school reconstitution or turning schools over to private management, entirely and solely based on year-to-year changes in test scores. Not even dropout rates will be included—an incentive for schools to push students out.

The FairTest report, now being revised and expanded, is on the World Wide Web at www.fairtest.org (look at the "what's new" column on the right of the home page).

Monty Neill
Executive Director
FairTest
Cambridge, Mass.


Safety, Sense, and 'Zero Tolerance'

To the Editor:

Kudos for your well-balanced story on safety measures being employed in urban schools ("School Safety Lessons Learned: Urban Districts Report Progress," May 30, 2001). The article did an excellent job of showing the importance of having balanced, comprehensive safety plans in place. I'm particularly pleased that it did so while still demonstrating that professional school security and school policing strategies are effective components of such plans.

It is unfortunate, however, that Pedro Noguera, a Harvard University education professor quoted in the story, apparently fails to understand the preventive roles school security and school policing play in making schools safe. His comments that security considerations equate to prison, and that schools would do better investing in counselors than armed guards, suggest that he lacks a true understanding of school security.

Mr. Noguera also equates security with "zero tolerance," although most school security professionals would not consider the two synonymous.

In fact, based on my 18 years of experience as a school safety professional, I can say that "zero tolerance" has little true meaning in the day-to-day actions of most educators. Instead, this vaguely and inconsistently defined concept appears to rest more in the minds and rhetoric of politicians and academicians than with school administrators.

A majority of administrators strive for firm, fair, and consistent discipline applied with good common sense. Unfortunately, the anecdotal incidents used to define zero tolerance in a number of media accounts appear to lack the common-sense piece of the equation.

Kenneth S. Trump
President
National School Safety and Security Services
Cleveland, Ohio


New Teacher Roles Are Often Stifled

To the Editor:

Thank you for your article "New Roles Tap Expertise of Teachers" (May 30, 2001), in which the practice of coaching teachers is explained and discussed. I work for the San Diego district mentioned in the article, and that's why I can hardly bear to read Education Week anymore.

When I read your marvelous articles about good teachers and principals who are working hard to bring education into the 21st century, I become dismally discouraged. Our district, as San Diego Education Association President Mark Knapp said, has launched an attack on teachers that is poison to our schools, our students, and the community we serve.

Our district is following the vision of Anthony Alvarado, the chancellor of instruction for the 143,000-student San Diego schools, who seems to see literacy as simply reading, and for whom the needs of elementary students and their teachers are no different from those of secondary students and their teachers.

I was a coach for Mr. Alvarado's literacy department. As a secondary teacher with advanced degrees in linguistics (with an emphasis in second-language reading theory) and as one who is also an avid reader of professional publications such as The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, I was astonished to find that the entire goal of the multimillion-dollar program was to raise test scores by teaching teachers to use a set of techniques similar to the balanced-literacy approach. These techniques are referred to as the San Diego Literacy Framework, or SDLF, ostensibly the silver bullet that will make all our students into high scorers on our state exams.

When I read in your article how David Chia, the Montgomery County, Md., staff-development teacher, "quickly realized that a school serving so many students deemed at risk of academic failure had little hope of improving its test scores unless its teachers were exceptionally well versed in the state's academic standards," my heart sank. I have been saying the very same thing for the last two years, and still, almost every week our entire faculty is subjected to a warmed-over rehash of "guided reading," this year's focus.

Crucial factors such as student assessment and how the SDLF techniques can be used to address standards are seldom mentioned, and no training in these areas has been approved by Mr. Alvarado, according to the coach at our school. Our principal, a hard-working, intelligent person, agrees that state standards and student work should be a part of our professional-development program, but he cannot contradict the central-office agenda for fear of being fired.

I won't stop reading Education Week and all the other professional journals to which I subscribe, even though I'm drained and disheartened by comparing my district to others. Informed educators in our district tell me that when the test scores come in, things will have to change. I try to feel better, but I know that those scores are subject to interpretation, and that many will do their best to make the numbers match their paradigm.

And if they can't make the scores say their program is just what all urban districts need, they'll simply blame the teachers and fire the principals. Again.

Grace Stell
Teacher
San Diego, Calif.


Principals: Views on Restructuring the Job

To the Editor:

J. Casey Hurley makes a good point in his essay "The Principalship: Less May Be More," Commentary, May 23, 2001. Principals are being asked to manage and lead simultaneously, and this overburdens them.

Fair enough, but let's consider the corporate analogy: A chief executive officer in the business world must also manage and lead; however, the CEO has, in many cases, a chief operating officer, a chief financial officer, a vice president of human resources, a public relations director, and so forth.

In other words, maybe we need an organizational audit to figure out how principals can manage and lead simultaneously.

We at the National Executive Service Corps have done many audits of that kind with nonprofit organizations. One useful result is to get CEOs to think about what they must do themselves, and what they might delegate to others.

Gerald D. Levy
President
Education Group
National Executive Service Corps
New York, N.Y.


To the Editor:

The National Staff Development Council is always pleased to see its reports cited in an Education Week Commentary. But we are concerned that readers may conclude from J. Casey Hurley's essay (May 23, 2001) that the council exhorts principals to "do more, be more, and expect to be held accountable for more," as Mr. Hurley writes, an expectation that does not match the NSDC's view of the evolving role of school principals.

Mr. Hurley cites an introductory paragraph from an NSDC report, "Learning To Lead, Leading To Learn," as evidence that principals today are being held to unrealistic expectations. In that paragraph, the council describes the current challenges faced by principals, challenges that range from traditional management functions to advanced instructional-leadership skills.

The point of the NSDC's report, which can be found online at www.nsdc.org, is that the development of school leaders must be a priority if schools are to successfully implement standards-based reform. We advocate that principals be surrounded by continuous professional development through which they learn how to be instructional leaders, distribute leadership within their schools, and create a culture of collaboration and teamwork.

The report recommends the establishment of support networks for principals, and that principals be provided with coaches who not only assist them in the achievement of schools' instructional goals, but also help them maintain balanced, healthy lives.

"Shifting to this model of instructional leadership will not be easy for schools or for school leaders," our report concludes. "It will require substantial change in district practices that have caused administrators to be preoccupied with management issues."

The NSDC recognizes that the changes it recommends will not come easily, but we are encouraged by the experimentation and innovation that are now occurring in the professional development of principals and in the restructuring of their work.

Dennis Sparks
Executive Director
National Staff Development Council
Ann Arbor, Mich.


When IDEA Funds Go Elsewhere

To the Editor:

Some advocates for the Senate amendment you report on in "IDEA Funding Plan Draws Fire in Washington and Beyond" (May 16, 2001) said that without strict rules requiring schools to use the bulk of the money allotted for special education, schools would divert the money to other needs. (In Minnesota, it is rolled over into a general fund.)

But Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, said there should be no concern over how schools would use the money. "There are very few districts that could meet the requirement of serving all of their students with special needs," he said. "It's not like they would use the money to build roads. They're schools. They would use it to hire more teachers or a reading specialist."

In Minneapolis, they are letting teachers go. Seven million of the $10 million of special education money was not spent on special education students. It went to pay the salaries for all of the social workers and psychologists in the district, whether they worked with special education students or not—with the blame for special education's costing too much still being placed on the special education students, who were not getting the money.

If the state loses its federal dollars, the main customers of special education—"students with special needs"—will be the losers again.

Bonnie Jean Smith
Minneapolis, Minn.


Are 'Market Forces' Reflected in Charters?

To the Editor:

The Thomas J. Lasley and William L. Bainbridge leap from "capitalism" and "market forces" to charter schools is breathtakingly heroic ("Unintended Consequences," May 2, 2001).

"Capitalism produced a great America" through a critical market mechanism: changing prices that reflect market forces. Charter schools cannot adjust the price of their services to reflect market forces, and even the strongest charter laws lack other key elements of competitive markets. Genuine competition through charter schools is wishful thinking on the part of their proponents, and a phantom bogeyman of charter skeptics and opponents.

In the cited study of New Zealand, it is both. The government owns 96.5 percent of New Zealand schools and strictly controls the supply of schools. The right to choose any government-owned school does not establish a market or genuine competition. Limited rivalry is all that can occur.

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


Summer School: An Option, Not Sentence

To the Editor:

I recently read Marilyn J. Stenvall's Commentary on mandatory summer school ("Is Summer School the Answer or the Problem?," May 23, 2001). I agree with her when she says that summer school is the problem, and a big one it is.

Summer school is definitely a term that confers a stereotype. Those who go to summer school are said to be dumb or failures. Is this how we want our young people to feel about themselves? Do we want to lower struggling students' self-esteem even more by enrolling them in a program viewed as a punishment? I think not.

We wonder why students are bringing weapons to school, and we wonder why students are not showing up for school. Why would they want to come, if we single them out as failures? We threaten them with summer school as a consequence all year, letting them know that we think they cannot succeed. If we want students to succeed, summer school should be an option, not a mandatory sentence.

Julie Grinnell
State University of New York at Cortland
Auburn, N.Y.


Standards vs. Bell Curve

To the Editor:

Douglas B. Reeves obviously doesn't know what he's talking about when he says it's standardized testing or the bell curve ("If You Hate Standards, Learn To Love the Bell Curve," Commentary, June 6, 2001). Standardized testing is the bell curve.

One only has to look at this month's news to see examples of this. In North Carolina, state officials are saying that the passing score for the end-of-grade math tests was set too low because too many students passed! They don't think all the students really learned the material. They need an even distribution of scores, passing and not passing (the bell curve), to show that the test is neither too easy nor too hard.

In California, officials are trying to decide where to set the passing score for their tests. They can't set it too low, because it will look like the test was too easy; and they can't set it too high, because it will look like it was too hard. They're not talking about which score will show that the students have learned the material—they're talking about comparing the students (what Mr. Reeves was railing against) so that there will be an expected number of passing and failing ones.

Mr. Reeves should have read more about the testing process he is promoting before basing his main argument on a false premise.

Angie Sauer
Muscatine, Iowa


To the Editor:

As a science teacher currently involved in aligning curriculum to state standards, the reality is that the word "all" is causing us to lower standards for the vast majority. One cannot teach chemistry or physics at an appropriate level for "all" to classes of students with math backgrounds ranging from pre-algebra to calculus. One can only continue to lower standards until students can no longer trip over them.

John A. Wilson
Omaha, Neb.


To the Editor:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with standards-based education, and little right about the uses to which standardized tests are being put by politicians. Douglas B. Reeves' Hobson's-choice argument is simply wrong. For one correct answer to our supposed educational problems, I refer you and all politicians to Robert J. Marzano's Transforming Classroom Grading and Assessing Student Outcomes.

Joe Reilly
Tampa Bay, Fla.


To the Editor:

Douglas B. Reeves is making a serious error in the argument that standards and testing are conjoined. The problem with standardized tests has little to do with standards. If the author understood the basic assumptions of standardized tests, he would clearly see that it is possible to support standards and oppose the mindless use of a system of testing that never had a good foundation. To dismiss the critics of testing as being opposed to standards is simply wrong.

Phillip Harris
Bloomington, Ind.


Virtual Dissection

To the Editor:

I teach in a public Montessori school, and I fully support the abolition of dissection in schools ("Technology Aids Dissection Foes," May 30, 2001). The lesson of respect for all life is so much more important than the experience of cutting into an animal—I myself did an extensive "virtual dissection" report a couple of summers ago for a teacher-training program, and except for the smell of the formaldehyde, I don't feel I missed a thing.

Jan Herzog
Wichita Falls, Texas


To the Editor:

With the wonderfully engaging CD-ROMs that allow students to toggle among animation, video footage, and rotating 3-D images, and to collect, graph, analyze, and interpret data, there is no need for schools to risk U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration violations with formaldehyde, suits about students' rights to alternatives, and turning students off to science careers. (Not to mention contributing to the decline of frog populations.) It is time, at least, for an "opt in" situation, where dissection is offered as a not-for-extra-credit, optional activity for those really interested.

"Alternatives" should be the norm. Almost all studies show that students using these alternatives score as well or better on tests of knowledge as students who do dissection. (And honest teachers will admit that most do dissection very poorly.) Maybe the "opt in" group will be so small that the students can instead do something more meaningful, like observe an actual operation at a local animal shelter. If teachers want students to develop manual skills, let them suture a cut in a leaf, as medical students do at the University of Pittsburgh.

Patty Finch
Tempe, Ariz.


To the Editor:

Thanks for running an article on this issue. It is important, in that it includes, at intersection, both animal rights and student rights. Many people quoted in the article commented that dissection alternatives were not an equal learning experience, because they do not have that "hands on" nature. Yet, how can students learn, hands-on, when they are too afraid, disgusted, or offended to touch their lesson? Teachers, please take note: Even if you think dissection is superior, it is nothing if your students refuse to do it.

Mikhail Lewis
Helena, Mont.


To the Editor:

Whatever benefits might arise from dissections are far outweighed by the associated costs. Approximately 7 million animals are killed every year for dissection in U.S. biology classrooms. Investigations into the dissection trade have documented, among other abuses, cats' being drowned 10 at a time in burlap sacks, rats' being embalmed with formaldehyde while still living, and dozens of live frogs' being piled into sacks for days or weeks without food.

A principal goal of life-science education is to teach respect for life. Dissection is an intrinsically violent exercise; it involves killing, mutilating, then throwing away an animal. However well intentioned an instructor's desire is to teach respect for animals, dissection will undermine it by devaluing the lives of animals to the level of expendable objects.

Megan Wampler
Canadian, Texas


To the Editor:

Thank you for a great article on a "cutting" edge issue. And kudos to Vermont high school student Lauren S. Skaskiw, who learned not only about the internal workings of an animal, but also about the way our government operates. Perhaps more students would request vivisection alternatives if they were given the opportunity. Currently, only the compassionate and the bright dare to question the status quo.

As to the comment by Wayne Carley, the executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, that you have to pull and tug on a muscle to understand how it works, I would suggest that his students have much more imagination than he gives them credit for. And he, obviously, has much less.

Susan Oakey
Dallas, Texas


On Teacher Quality

To the Editor:

Sam Minner's "Our Own Worst Enemy" (Commentary, May 30, 2001) was refreshing. He wonders why, in any serious discussion held by leaders in education or in government, the topic of teacher quality is "off the radar screen."

"Why are we so silent on the issue that matters most?" he asks.

I'll offer two answers, both as obvious as the central question the educationists so routinely duck: The discussions are not serious, and the leaders are not leaders.

Mr. Minner's essay is a reminder to all of us that, when we read of some leadership initiative that has not made the quality of teachers its central issue, the clap-trap bell in our heads should make a painful sound.

Based on what I am reading these days in the educational and popular press about educational "leadership" initiatives, we are living in resounding times.

Bruce E. Buxton
Headmaster
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.


To the Editor:

The argument in "Our Own Worst Enemy" is complete hogwash. Anyone who has been in a classroom longer than five minutes knows that the best teachers have superlative people skills. They may or may not have superlative knowledge in their subjects. The big demand in teaching math, for example, is for someone who can inspire and instruct students who struggle with the basics because of cultural differences. And I know teachers with superior knowledge in their subject areas who can't teach because they they are failures in maintaining classroom discipline.

What we need as teachers is support and focus. There are so many standards by so many different entities, so many tests, and so many goals, that teachers don't know what is up. Things change too rapidly and for no reason. We need support for our discipline programs, instead of administrators and counselors looking for the easy way out. We need board members who care more about academics than athletics.

Steve Wimer
San Bernadino County, California


To the Editor:

Thanks so much to Sam Minner for stating the problem of teacher quality so eloquently and succinctly. As a former elementary and K-8 school principal, I have always supported the notion that teachers are the most critical element in a child's education. I know from experience that hiring the very best teachers is where a principal makes his or her most important decisions and shoulders the greatest responsibility to children.

Peggy Prescott
Laurens, S.C.

Vol. 20, Issue 41, Pages 49-51

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