Education Opinion

Commentary: In The Press

March 27, 1985 9 min read
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Pressuring schools to improve by passing new performance standards for teachers and students will result in poorer education, according to Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

Writing in the March issue of Psychology Today, Mr. Deci declares that “the recent rhetoric advocating higher standards, [with its] heavy emphasis on control,” could actually hurt students’ motivation.

“When teachers are pressured and controlled to provide results, they respond with rigid, controlling behavior,” which dampens students’ enthusiasm and creativity, he contends in an article titled “The Well-Tempered Classroom.”

Mr. Deci and two colleagues studied the effects of various teaching styles on student motivation and self-image in 35 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-grade classes. They found that children in classrooms of control-oriented teachers showed less intrinsic motivation, perceived themselves to be less competent, and had more negative self-images than other children.

“I, too, would like to see greater excellence in our education system,” Mr. Deci concludes, “but to get it, I think we need to support systems that encourage teachers to be innovative and self-determining and to promote innovation and self-determination in their pupils.”

If black youths are given appropriate economic incentives to participate in the workforce, their “catastrophic” low rates of employment may improve considerably, according to an article in the Winter 1985 issue of The Public Interest.

In “Young Blacks and Jobs--What We Now Know,” Richard B. Freeman and Harry J. Holzer report on the factors related to limited employment, as disclosed by a 1970-80 survey of black inner-city youths conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Mr. Freeman is professor of economics at Harvard University and director of labor research at nber; Mr. Holzer is assistant professor of economics at Michigan State University and a faculty research fellow at nber

Data available from the bureau, which surveyed 2,000 black men ages 16 to 24 in poor, primarily black areas of Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, reveal “the severity of the problems faced by inner-city youths from families in poverty,” according to the writers. These youths are much more likely to be unemployed than white youths or black youths of higher socioeconomic levels. Black inner-city youths also tend to earn slightly lower wages and to come from backgrounds of greater family disruption, according to the survey.

“The overall picture of the black youth employment situation that emerges from this research effort is one in which black youths clearly want to work, but only at jobs and with wages that are comparable to those received by their white counterparts,” Mr. Freeman and Mr. Holzer write.

“Unfortunately, in a weakened economy, with increased job-market competition from women and other groups, and an increasingly disadvantageous family background, the youths have had trouble obtaining such jobs.” A solution to this population’s unemployment problem, the authors suggest, lies in the responsiveness of black youths to labor-market incentives.

As an example of an economic incentive that has proved successful, the authors cite a project that offers a guaranteed year-round, minimum-wage job to inner-city youths who continue to attend school. Such a program has a dual benefit, they point out: Not only does it provide jobs, but it prolongs students’ school attendance. And studies show that youths who stay in school longer have a greater chance of being employed and are more diligent employees than those who drop out.

The College Board says that coaching does little to improve results on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but a New York-based coaching school boasts that it can raisesat scores by hundreds of points in weeks if students follow the test-taking methods it espouses.

The school--the Princeton Review, developed three years ago by two young entrepreneurs, David Katzman and Adam Robinson--is the focus of a report in the March 28 edition of Rolling Stone on how students can beat the sat

The article was adapted from David Owen’s forthcoming book, None of the Above: Behind the Myth of Scholastic Aptitude, which will be published by Houghton Mifflin in May.

According to Mr. Owen, the founders of the school developed their coaching techniques by studying sat tests that were made public under New York’s 1980 truth-in-testing law. They analyzed the tests with computers and determined the blueprint the testing service uses to assemble the tests, which are taken by about 1 million college-bound students every year.

While most coaching schools and high-school teachers prepare students for the types of questions on the sat by constant review and drill, the Princeton Review takes a different approach. It helps students enter “the minds of the test makers,” showing them what types of “distractor” answers appear, how to budget their time, and what parts of the tests to skip or answer last, according to Mr. Owen.

The sat is written for an average student--Joe Bloggs--and by showing their students what test makers do to befuddle Mr. Bloggs, Princeton Review coaches give them the key to finding correct answers, according to Mr. Owen.

Mr. Owen cites the following test question as an example:

“In how many different color combinations can 3 balls be painted if each ball is painted one color and there are 3 colors available? (Order is not considered; e.g., red, blue, red is considered the same combination as red, red, blue.) (A) 4 (B) 6 (C) 9 (D) 10 (E) 27.”

The correct answer, Mr. Owen says, is something that Bloggs wouldn’t think of. “To find it, all we have to do is eliminate everything Joe would think of. Doing this doesn’t require any real computation.”

There are two numbers in the problem, three and three. “Joe Bloggs would have added them together and got six. That means answer (B) is wrong. Then he multiplied them together and got nine. That means (C) is wrong. Then he raised three to the third power and got 27. That means (E) is wrong. Now that we’ve narrowed it down to (A) and (D), we can actually read the problem. Unless we’re careless, we’ll realize that we can easily think of four more color combinations, so the answer can’t possibly be (A). That means it must be (D).”

“One of the great misconceptions about the sat is that the words on it are drawn from a pool nearly as large as the English language,” he writes. In fact, the coaches say, one need know only about 3,000 words for the s.a.t.

To prepare for the vocabulary section of the test, therefore, students are given a list of words that most commonly appear on the sat

“The advantage Princeton Review students have,” writes Mr. Owen, “is no different from that which certain privileged students--those who are testwise, who share the social and cultural values of the test writers at ets [the Educational Testing Service, developer of the College Board’s tests], or who come from private schools where ets tests are a way of life--have always had on the sat”

Students, parents, admissions officers, and guidance counselors, he concludes, would be wise to “stop listening” to the agencies that make the test and say that coaching is ineffectual and pay more attention to people who “actually understand the sat”

Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, takes the National Education Association to task in the March issue of The American Spectator. His article, “Among the Educationaloids: Teachers’ Tabloid,” is a harsh review of the 1984 issues of nea Today, the main publication of the 1.7-million-member teachers’ organization.

Mr. Finn criticizes the publication for unabashedly promoting what he sees as nea’s expansive political agenda. He also questions specific items on that agenda, which include positions consistently at odds with the Reagan Administration’s in domestic and international affairs.

A prominent figure in the education-reform movement, Mr. Finn is reportedly in line for a ranking position at the U.S. Education Department.

Among other issues, Mr. Finn questions the nea’s opposition to merit-pay plans; its support last year for Walter F. Mondale’s Presidential campaign; its criticism of the Administration’s civil-rights policies and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Grove City College v. Bell; and its sympathetic view of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.

For example, Mr. Finn sarcastically paraphrases the nea’s position on the Sandinistas and offers his own observation:

“If, in other words [according to nea Today], the United States would abandon its misguided support for the opposition and leave the Sandinistas to work their will in Nicaragua, literacy programs would flourish and, one supposes, Nicaraguan children would not be distracted from learning exactly what their government wants them to know. Presumably resources would also be freed up for the other domestic and international pursuits of the Sandinista regime. If the National Education Association of the United States has any reservations whatsoever about those pursuits, it has certainly managed to conceal them from its own members.”

The Reagan Administration recently found an unlikely ally in its fight to cut the cost of federal financial-aid programs for college students.

That ally is the weekly columnist for The New Republic, writing under the nom de plume of trb, who can usually be counted upon to excoriate the Administration for one thing or another. In the magazine’s March 18 edition, trb writes: “The Reaganites are right about this one. It’s time that student-aid programs were trimmed back.”

Under the President’s proposal, students from families earning more than $25,000 would no longer be eligible for federal grants; those from families earning more than $32,500 annually would no longer be eligible for subsidized federal loans or work-study jobs. In addition, the Administration’s plan would limit to $4,000 annually the total amount of subsidized federal assistance that a student could receive.

The President’s proposed cutbacks in student aid “deserve to be measured against the reasons we tax some people in order to help pay for other people to go to college,” argues trb. “Why should the average taxpayer, including the college-age guy who’s already working, finance an above-average-income student on his way to becoming even more above-average?”

As a practical matter, he concedes, many families who send their children to private colleges “will end up saddled with huge debts” if the President’s proposals become law.

While agreeing with the Administration’s proposals in theory, trb advises his readers to “keep in mind that if it had been up to conservatives, there would be no student-aid programs at all.”

“If liberals are smart, they will let the conservatives trim back some over-luxuriant growths,” he concludes. “After they do the groundwork, it will be time to plant anew.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1985 edition of Education Week as Commentary: In The Press

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