Education Letter to the Editor


December 12, 2001 18 min read
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‘Clusters’ Improve Odds for Charters

To the Editor:

Your article on the National Council of La Raza’s charter school initiative makes the important point that simply creating a charter school is no magic solution to the crisis in urban education (“Hispanic Group Quietly Initiates Big Charter Push,” Nov. 21, 2001).

But a considerable amount of reliable data supports the notion that small schools, whether they are charter or regular public schools, have distinct advantages over the giant secondary schools now on many district drawing boards. It isn’t rocket science to conclude that when a principal ceases to know every student and every parent, something of value has been lost.

To enhance the likelihood of a small school’s success, it helps if the school is part of a network of similar schools, all struggling with similar issues. Adequate special education, for example, may be beyond the reach of one small school, but not beyond the capability of several small schools that pool resources.

In this connection, your article failed to mention a key aspect of La Raza’s strategy: to encourage the creation of small charter schools in “clusters,” primarily in the state of Texas and in Los Angeles, where the educational needs of the Latino community are most acute. The council’s grants will be accompanied by technical assistance and professional development to keep the new schools on track.

As you point out, most people underestimate how hard it is to create a new school; the National Council of La Raza doesn’t, and its initiative is one of the most critical factors in beating the odds.

Roger Lowenstein
Los Angeles, Calif.
The writer is the founder of the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a charter school opening next September, and is a National Council of La Raza grant applicant.

Reading ‘Immersion’ Works in Florida

To the Editor:

Reading the October essay by Derek Furr (“Leave No Child Behind?,” Commentary, Oct. 31, 2001) left me waiting for an appropriate remedy. He had the right issue; but he provided no realistic solutions. As a reading specialist, he should know that “time on task” is critical. Those students reading at the 3rd grade level in his 6th grade classes need triple time in school spent on reading improvement if they are ever to close the gap with on-level peers. And to obtain that triple time during the school day, other classes must be postponed or canceled.

Reading is that important. Some of us in Florida call this approach an immersion program, whereby double or triple time for reading and math is made available—with the best teachers—for those students well behind grade level.

Regrettably, Mr. Furr’s questions-as-solutions that concern school and class size are not financially feasible. To finance professional tutors for each of his 100 students, for example, is dreaming. His idea for nonacademic substitutions recalls a bygone era when our nation rationalized tracking. And his hinting about staggered school starting times runs afoul of costly school transportation systems.

If Mr. Furr e-mailed me at petekreis@yahoo.com, I could put him in touch with some public middle schools in Florida that are successful with immersion scheduling.

Pete Kreis
Retired Educator
Tallahassee, Fla.

Historical Questions for Voucher Backers

To the Editor:

Your article “Groups Weigh In as High Court Mulls Vouchers” (Nov. 28, 2001) left many questions unanswered.

I am an inner-city public high school teacher in Long Beach, Calif. For 25 years, my dad served as superintendent of public schools. For 35 years, my grandfather served as superintendent. So, how to run public schools effectively and efficiently has been a topic of consideration in my family for many eras.

You cite two reasons why advocates support vouchers:

1.) "[T]o lure middle-class residents back from the suburbs.” (Is this why vouchers are good?)

2.) Because “troubled school systems in cities ... have been holding back the full recovery of America’s cities.” (As evidenced by what?)

It is of the utmost importance that we realize the full implications of promoting religious schools through the government’s funding. Certainly, Taliban-style religious folks would be entitled to such money, if and when the U.S. Supreme Court gives it the nod. And perhaps satanic cults would also demand their fair share. While this may sound ludicrous, one person’s cult is another’s religion. There might even be religious folks asking taxpayers to fund education for kids who believe in a rain god.

My question to you is this: What do we really want from our education system?

Is not one of the primary goals of our educational system to Americanize our citizens? How better to do that than by separating citizenship from religious belief? We have seen many times—including on Sept. 11—what can happen when the two are inseparable. Where are your staff writers who can speak to the historical perspective?

Paloma Wheetley
Long Beach, Calif.

To the Editor:

Your headline “Groups Weigh In as High Court Mulls Vouchers” comes dangerously close to repeating the widespread misimpression that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of vouchers. I applaud you for not making that mistake in the article.

The court’s decision is an important, but not critical issue. We can have vouchers and competition even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of choice opponents. Just because church-run schools dominate the current, tiny, anemic private sector does not mean that they would or should always dominate the private sector. That depends on the choice program. A Milton Friedman-style voucher or tax-credit program, for example, would greatly expand the secular share of the private sector, even if the court allowed church-run schools to cash vouchers. And it would certainly do so if the court ruled that church-run schools could not cash vouchers.

The Supreme Court will decide how effective small voucher programs can be as “escape hatches,” and whether Friedman-style voucher programs will have to discriminate against parents who prefer a religious education (it would be sad, but not devastating).

Because many parental-choice advocates are preoccupied with escape-hatch programs, a court ruling against proponents of the Cleveland program could eventually prove to be a blessing in disguise. It would force choice advocates to focus on programs that can bring about the much-needed transformation of the entire system, including the private sector.

The Supreme Court’s decision, then, should prompt neither euphoria nor despair.

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

Specialized Schools Are Science Models

To the Editor:

The National Center for Education Statistics recently reported that, in science, 12th graders had “lower scores than in 1996, when the last test was conducted.” This offers confirmation for your Nov. 7, 2001, Commentary by Ray Ann D. Havasy (“Getting a Clue,”) and your front-page article “Progress Lacking on U.S. Students’ Grasp of Science” (Nov. 28, 2001).

Speaking as one whose school is a member of the National Consortium of Specialized Secondary Schools for Science, Mathematics, and Technology, I can say that we are not surprised. Since 1988, our schools have been busy making connections, infusing new science topics into the curriculum, and trying to create synergies for learning that will transform the what and how of science, mathematics, and technology education.

The consortium has grown in that time from 15 schools to over 70, with more than 80 college and university affiliates. Our strong points address the needs voiced in both of your articles.

While it is important to be realistic about the lack of progress in science achievement on a national scale, it is equally important to know that there are highly successful models that seem to be a “best-kept secret” and, thus, are an untapped resource in public secondary math and science teaching.

The premises of Ms. Havasy’s essay are sound. Yes, American students are not excited about science. Yes, we need a revolution in the way we teach science. Yes, students need to make connections between science and the real world. Yes, fresh methodologies and strategies are lacking. But there are schools out there that have anticipated a new vision of science education. And they can serve as incubators for a transformation of mathematics, science, and technology education.

The critical elements of such a transformation include a completely new look at what we teach, how we teach, our valued habits of mind, global and societal frames of reference, uses of technology, modes of assessment, new expectations of teacher and student behaviors, and new models of staff development.

Many of the consortium schools have offered instructional initiatives, outreach, and collaboration with schools in their regions. They have become places where teachers are encouraged and enabled to take risks, share cutting-edge professional-development ideas, and put into use concrete strategies for such activities as inquiry- and problem-based learning, use of innovative instructional technologies, and collaboration with professional peers.

Moving “new science” into the bland, decades-old menu of secondary science and mathematics represents a challenge these schools have avidly accepted. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Richard W. Shelly
Governor’s School for Science and Technology
Roanoke, Va.

Push for Social, Not Just School, Reform

To the Editor:

Your article “Study Links Income Boosts, Academic Success” (Nov. 28, 2001) illustrates the need for education advocates to push for social reform, not just school reform.

Instead of focusing primarily on the development of better classroom interventions for at-risk students, education advocates need to ask why these children are at risk in the first place. Research consistently demonstrates that parents’ socioeconomic status is the most powerful predictor of student academic achievement. Until we develop strategies to attack economic inequality on many levels, the achievement gap between the children from families with low incomes and those from families with higher incomes will persist.

If education advocates are committed to equal educational opportunity for all children, then they should join labor activists in calling for higher wages, better benefits, and more job-training programs. School reform alone is not the answer.

MaryBe McMillan
Raleigh, N.C.

Reading Teachers Need Skills and Help

To the Editor:

Teaching children to read, as Mike Schmoker suggests, is not just about busywork or coloring (“The ‘Crayola Curriculum,’” Commentary, Oct. 24, 2001). Learning to read and write can be fun, while at the same time giving students the tools they need to succeed.

As Mr. Schmoker notes, children should be engaged in their lessons, not merely distracted by them. This is best accomplished through explicit, systematic, and thematic instruction, which gives students a context within which to practice the skills they are learning. Improving literacy also requires a focus on the fundamentals: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension. Children generate language when their beginning efforts are accepted and reinforced.

The classroom should provide an environment in which teachers become responsive listeners—not only does this improve a student’s chance of learning, but it also allows the teacher to tailor the lessons accordingly.

We cannot, however, expect teachers to shoulder the entire load. Children’s attitudes about literacy practices are developed at home. Parents, other family members, and caregivers play powerful roles both as models and sources of encouragement. And we must give them the tools and the encouragement to do so.

William Sadlier Dinger
William H. Sadlier Inc.

New York, N.Y.

Small-Schools Data, Cause and Effect

To the Editor:

Re: Your recent article on small high schools (“Research: Smaller Is Better,” Nov. 28, 2001):

Two lessons I have learned in 11 years of school board service are: first, that cause and effect in education are very difficult to measure, and second, that educators often ignore this and reach conclusions about cause and effect that really aren’t warranted.

Your article begins with a review of popular assertions on the benefits of small schools, quoting studies that typically fail to address the myriad other factors that affect learning. Little hard evidence is offered to support the small-school premise.

One particularly sensational statistic quoted is the claim that “violent incidents are eight times more likely to occur in schools with 750 or more students than in schools of fewer than 350.” Are these all public high schools? The only similar study I have seen apparently lumped all students together—including those in elementary schools.

I agree that large high schools, run poorly, are terrible. I also agree that it is hard to know everybody in a large school. But I maintain that a large school, if well-planned and well-run, offers huge advantages that economic realities may deny small schools. Why are comprehensive high schools accused of using a “factory model” when it is the small schools that have little choice but to treat our children, in terms of curriculum, as if they were all pretty much the same?

And how insulting it is to suggest that teachers and staff members in a well-staffed large school cannot or will not create a caring, nurturing environment for the students assigned to them.

To your credit, you do include near the end of the article comments from at least one expert who suggests that evidence supporting the superiority of small schools is spotty, at best. My hope is that educators will go back to focusing on what’s happening in the classroom, not how big the building is.

C. David Stasny
Board Member
Bryan Independent School District
Bryan, Texas

To Urban League, Advice on Reading

To the Editor:

It is gratifying to find that the National Urban League has publicly recognized the reading-achievement gap that exists between white students and their African-American, Latino, and Native American peers (“The Preparation Gap,” Commentary, Nov. 28, 2001). However, it is an exaggeration for the current president of the National Urban League to claim that “I’ve certainly done my fair share of ... advocating ever more aggressive measures to reform [the teaching of reading in] public schools.”

In this regard, I suspect I am not the only reading-instruction specialist who repeatedly has pleaded with the National Urban League (and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to go conspicuously on record in support of the kind of reading instruction that scientific studies consistently indicate is the most time-effective way to develop economically deprived children’s reading ability. I refer to direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive (also known as DISEC) instruction of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete reading skills.

In his Commentary, Hugh B. Price reiterates the wishful thinking that society must “make certain all children read at grade level by the 4th grade or earlier.” However, he unfortunately will not accept the advice that DISEC teaching is the most effective means to get as close as possible to meeting that highly optimistic goal.

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Test-Takers’ Plight: We’re All to Blame

To the Editor:

I feel I must respond to your September Commentary titled “A Proctor for the Testers?” (Sept. 12, 2001). The authors insist that mandatory truth-in-testing legislation is called for to prevent calamities. They mention that 20 states have a recent history of critical lapses in the construction, administration, and scoring of high-stakes tests.

If they are referring to the May 21, 2001, article that appeared in The New York Times, I agree that the situation is troubling. But the problems they address are related to the process of scoring, and not to the test questions and answers.

Test-takers have the right to take tests that meet high professional standards, such as those described in Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement, 1999). Testing professionals, which would include the companies that make the tests, ethically must follow those guidelines as well.

My experience in using standardized tests is with occupational-competency testing. The company I work with provides both written and performance-based tests. It has outlined procedures that test administrators must sign and agree to follow, to protect the rights of student test-takers. The assessments are developed using industry professionals and national skill standards. Proctors at testing sites also have a prescribed process to follow if they find any irregularity in the content of the test.

If there is a problem with high-stakes testing, it has to do with the philosophy that ascribes such importance to the high-stakes tests, and not with the companies that produce them. Too often, the government and the media use the results of tests to judge and rank schools, rather than assisting schools with the creation of performance assessments, teacher education and staff development, and the development and dissemination of model curricula, standards, and assessments.

The true calamity is that we have permitted the emergence of an “evaluative zenith,” wherein the quality of schooling is being determined in a moronic way. We have allowed this situation to continue for the sake of accountability, because we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. And in the final analysis, we are all responsible for the plight of the test-takers.

Edward Haynor
Secondary Career and Technical Education Administrator
Newaygo County Intermediate School District
Fremont, Mich.

Learning Styles Intuitively Appealing Nonsense

To the Editor:

I have serious concerns about the logic used in the essay by Maj. Lenna Ojure and Tom Sherman to defend the concept of learning styles (“Learning Styles,” Commentary, Nov. 28, 2001). Yes, getting teachers to be more reflective is a worthwhile endeavor, but having them reflect on unproven and misleading constructs does no one any good.

Rather than discount the learning-style critics as ivory-tower types who can’t relate to the day-to-day reality of the schools, consider the following serious issues that these critics have raised:

  • We have no reliable and valid instruments to assess learning style. Consequently, any conclusions derived from these assessments are untenable.
  • People (especially children) are notoriously poor at the self-analysis and self-reporting skills that would be needed to respond reliably to a learning-style assessment.
  • There is no evidence that matching modality with instructional approach works.
  • I don’t know of any evidence that having teachers reflect on their students’ learning styles makes them better teachers, or produces higher levels of achievement in their students.
  • Teachers seldom use ongoing assessment techniques to determine if experimental techniques such as learning styles are working with their students.

There is no other professional discipline that encourages its members to believe in unproven constructs as a fruitful way to advance their field. We are now at a period of history when we finally have some research-based ideas about what works instructionally. Sadly, many teachers have not been exposed to these methods in a systematic way. The time we spend on intuitively appealing nonsense is time taken away from the pursuit of strategies and techniques that are likely to work if performed with a high degree of teaching precision.

Joseph F. Kovaleski
Director of Pupil Services
Cornwall-Lebanon School District
Lebanon, Pa.

Multiple Measures And the Ironies of Centralized Power

To the Editor:

S. Paul Reville’s essay on multiple measures was fascinating for its underlying assumptions as much as for any point it made about assessment (“Multiple Measures?,” Commentary, Nov. 14, 2001).

First, it assumes that standardized testing, including testing for high-stakes decisions, such as we have here in Massachusetts despite the Reville-chaired Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission, is “easier” than other forms of assessment. Perhaps it is this ease that makes the current standardized-testing craze so attractive, especially to centralized-power entities.

Nonetheless, there are serious questions, similar to those Mr. Reville proposes for judging multiple measures, about our state’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing program. These relate, as Mr. Reville would have it, to validity, reliability, transparency, practicality, affordability, and political feasibility. Yet, according to him, such questions are meant to be answered before one embarks on an accountability program other than standardized testing. Why were they not answered in Massachusetts before embarking on the standardized-testing program?

The essay’s second assumption is that such assessment, indeed all assessment, along with the accompanying accountability measures, must be a function of the state. A major feature of the current reform movements and accountability movements has been the consolidation of power away from local entities. The fact that this consolidation of centralized power has been achieved, at least here in Massachusetts and in many other places, by conservative political governments and forces that are elsewhere “anti-centralized power” is one of the ironies of the current educational landscape. The same folks chanting “trust localities, trust individuals” want us to “trust the state” when it comes to education.

Mr. Reville doesn’t even consider that many of these “authentic” measures of achievement can be determined, administered, and maintained by local systems and authorities. The involvement of state, and even federal, forces in this movement merely ensures that we will impose one-size-fits-all multiple measures of assessment, much as was done with standardized tests.

Public education is less and less responsive to a student’s needs, and more and more responsive to a state’s “Mandate of the Month” program. Children are the losers; as, eventually, are we all.

Paul J. Phillips
Quincy Education Association
Quincy, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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