Education Letter to the Editor


March 13, 2002 7 min read
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Graduation Rates: Honing the Statistics

To the Editor:

In response to the recent Commentary by Jay P. Greene on graduation statistics that focused on differences between the completion-rate statistic typically released by the National Center for Education Statistics and a public high school on-time graduation rate by Mr. Greene (“Graduation Statistics: Caveat Emptor,” Jan. 16, 2002): While we do not agree with all of Mr. Greene’s points, his essay does provide an opportunity to discuss different measures used to study high school progress.

The NCES completion-rate statistic is designed to describe the proportion of the young adult (18- to 24-year-old) population with sufficient high school credentials for entering jobs or postsecondary education requiring a high school credential. The rate recommended by Mr. Greene was designed to show how many 8th grade public school children graduate on time from a public high school. Differences between the two estimates are to be expected, given their different purposes.

Several years ago, the NCES developed a measure of high school progress, similar to the one suggested by Mr. Greene, that used data for grades 9-12 over four consecutive years to show how many public high school students left school with a high school credential. Plans were to annually report this rate once a sufficient number of states provided the necessary data. By early 2001, enough states had done so, and we developed a report focused on this grade 9-12 rate.

The report, “Public High School Dropouts and Completers From the Common Core of Data: School Years 1991-92 Through 1997- 98,” will be released in April, and the rate will be incorporated into future NCES annual dropout reports.

Gary W. Phillips
Deputy Commissioner
National Center for Education Statistics
Office of Educational Research and Improvement
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, D.C.

Personal Filters and Objective Research

To the Editor:

As I read “Researching the Researchers” (On Assignment, Feb. 20, 2002), I had to smile at the suggestion that “objectivity” is even remotely possible in education research. To be sure, “dispassionate analysis” is within reach, but objectivity would require superhuman perspective over human affairs— an absurdity!

Is education research useful? More or less. More, when researchers specify up front what personal filters may be at work in their own research. Less, when researchers and consumers forget that social science is not so much a finely woven fabric of truth as it is a colorful quilt of well- considered perceptions.

John Northrop
Executive Director
Alabama School of Fine Arts
Birmingham, Ala.

Michigan Governor Vs. His State Board

To the Editor:

Gov. John Engler of Michigan seems to need reminding that we still live in a democracy (“Engler Digs in on Tax Breaks Despite Gloomy Fiscal Horizon,” Jan. 30, 2002). His party controls the state Senate, House of Representatives, supreme court, numerous other court seats, and untold appointive boards. The one elective statewide entity it does not control is the state board of education. Surprise, surprise, that is also the one entity whose abolition the governor has called for.

What’s the problem here? The state board is mandated by the constitution to have leadership and general supervision over all public education. The board has never been accused of being irresponsible, uncaring of children, neglectful, self-serving, attention-seeking, or spendaholic. We are simply eight people who are concerned about children and seeing that they get the best public education possible. We are eight people with children (and some grandchildren) who have agreed to serve in totally thankless positions simply because we care.

Of course, there are always others who believe they can do our job better, and often we gladly work with them to further our joint educational ideals for Michigan. The state legislature has superseded the board in many educational areas on many occasions. Then there was the governor himself, who in 1996 transferred many of the board’s duties to the state superintendent.

But that wasn’t enough for Gov. Engler. Still, he felt the board was left with too many reasons to exist. So he reached into the Michigan Department of Education to pluck the Michigan Educational Assessment Program and relocate it in the state’s treasury department. But wait, still that wasn’t enough! So he came back to the education department for its vocational education and higher education components and yanked them away to become the basis of his newly created and costly department of career development. The DCD is so costly because it is such a duplication of roles. The millions spent there could well have stayed in the real department of education, earmarked for programs that were providing much needed services to Michigan’s children.

The governor says the elected state board of education needs to be abolished. The question the media and others should be asking is: Why does he go to so much trouble to obfuscate our influence? And why does he want so badly to eliminate us? The problem is that we do still have some influence. The board is exercising some clout without his permission, and apparently no one in this state is allowed to do that.

Marianne Yared McGuire
State Board of Education
Lansing, Mich.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not reflect the position of the state board of education or the Michigan Department of Education.

Science Supports Whole Language

To the Editor:

Those who maintain that whole language lacks scientific support (“Whole Language and the Black Arts,” Letters, Feb. 27, 2002) have not examined the research. In addition to Kenneth Goodman’s empirical and scientifically valid studies (“An ‘Inquisition’ for School Research?,” Letters, Feb. 13, 2002), and the many studies reviewed in detail in Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, current research firmly shows that the core hypothesis of whole language, the hypothesis that literacy is developed by understanding texts, is correct.

Those who read more read better, write better, have larger vocabularies, and have more control over complex grammatical constructions. This conclusion is not based on “unreliable anecdote,” as Lisa Leppin, one of your letter writers, claims, but on scientific research.

In their review of the reading research, the National Reading Panel has concluded otherwise, but the NRP’s conclusions do not match what the studies actually say. This has been thoroughly documented in recent papers in the Phi Delta Kappan by Elaine M. Garan (see also her recent book, Resisting Reading Mandates: How to Triumph with the Truth), Gerald Coles, and myself.

Comparing research supporting whole language to the black arts, as David Ziffer, another letter writer, says, and to research on hairspray and bubble gum, as Ms. Leppin adds, is not just unprofessional. It is also dead wrong.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Unionized Professionals: Can Teachers ‘Get There From Here?’

To the Editor:

Lloyd H. Elliott’s Commentary (“Restructuring American Education,” Feb. 13, 2002) reminded me of the story of a local inhabitant advising a lost traveler that it was impossible for him to get to his destination from where he stood. Sadly, Mr. Elliott’s lament of a struggling educational paradigm is a lot like that. His solution of more money that will mean increased teacher respect is little more than a tired old bromide that has been in play for nigh on to a century now.

Here’s the rub. Teachers want desperately to be looked upon, treated, and paid as “professionals” in the narrow sense of say doctors, lawyers, or engineers. The dichotomy comes when they realize they can’t live without their working-class union affiliations. This, of course, is not to say that teachers’ unions have not played instrumental roles in advancing both educational job benefits and job security. Most assuredly, the unions have done this and more for their membership.

Mr. Elliott’s dilemma, however, is answering how one might become a free-market and competitive professional from a closed-shop environment predicated on collective bargaining and seniority rights. Some, but certainly not all, doctors and lawyers are greatly rewarded for managing to thrive in the free market. Teachers, on the other hand, are limited to whatever ceiling their unions negotiate for them. It is an all for one and one for all proposition. This is undoubtedly a good thing for most teachers. Security is, after all, not a thing to be underestimated.

For better or worse, the bond between the unions and their membership protects the whole at the expense of the individual who would seek to rise above the status of a highly educated and well-paid skilled worker. Moreover, it is doubtful that teachers would ever seriously consider abandoning what has been up to this point an extremely efficient organizational model. So, you are left with thinking that you just can’t get there from here.

Patrick F. Gould
Center on Education and Work
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, Wis.

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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