Education Letter to the Editor


August 07, 2002 19 min read
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Voucher Decison: A Pandora’s Box

To the Editor:

Education Week‘s coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s school voucher ruling was pretty good, but some comments are in order (“Charting the New Landscape of School Choice,” July 10, 2002).

You listed the seven state referendums directly on vouchers, but there were, over the past 35 years, another 18 statewide referendums on tuition tax credits (a voucher analogue) and on proposals to amend state constitutions to permit vouchers or other forms of tax aid to nonpublic schools. In those 25 referendums, voters rejected vouchers, their analogues, or their precursor amendments by an average 68 percent to 32 percent.

You quoted one pro-voucher group as saying that it hopes to challenge the 37 state constitutional barriers to vouchers. That was tried in Missouri in the 1970s and failed in federal court in a decision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 in Brusca v. State of Missouri.

Fordham University Professor Bruce Cooper calls the ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris a great victory for Roman Catholics. I don’t think so. Exit polls in California and Michigan in 2000 show that Catholics voted against vouchers 2-to-1, about the same as non-Catholics. Then, too, in heavily Catholic Massachusetts, voters twice defeated proposals in the 1980s to remove the state constitution’s strong barrier to vouchers or their equivalent, by 62 percent to 38 percent and 70 percent to 30 percent. In any event, over the past 35 years, Catholic school enrollment has dropped from about 50 percent of all Catholic students to about 20 percent, which is a vote of confidence in public schools and an expression of declining interest in church schools.

Finally, champions of vouchers for faith-based schools may be celebrating prematurely. Do they really think that they can accept Caesar’s coin without inevitable government regulation or control? What happens when a faith-based school, having become dependent on tax support, is told by government it can no longer use a religious criterion in hiring staff members and must allow voucher students to opt out of the religious instruction that pervades the curriculum?

The court’s slim majority ruling on vouchers was dead wrong and opened a Pandora’s box of trouble.

Edd Doer
Americans for Religious Liberty
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Those who celebrate the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legitimizes vouchers seem to be unaware of the Pandora’s box the court has just opened. Proponents may see vouchers as a financial windfall for the cash- strapped Roman Catholic school system and other Judeo-Christian private schools, but it is important to note that many other, less familiar institutions will also be standing in line looking to reap public tax dollars.

When these less popular religions and less savory organizations start applying for voucher money to help subsidize the tuition costs of their students, where will voucher proponents stand? Are vouchers to be reserved only for certain religions and certain institutions? Presumably, such differences of opinion will be argued long, hard, and at great public expense in the courts.

Ultimately, the question is: Who decides what is a legitimate school? Other government tuition-subsidy programs, most notably postsecondary trade school initiatives, have long been used by con artists who create “trade schools” that teach little while collecting exorbitant tuition from the government via unsuspecting students.

Clearly, vouchers are tailored made for those who would make a quick dollar at the expense of our children and our public treasury. Lawyers also stand to do well by the recent Supreme Court decision. The general taxpayer, on the other hand, is certain to be financially fleeced by the voucher program.

As a citizenry, we need to take a long, hard look at the wide range of people who stand to benefit by opening up public coffers to private schools. Upon reflection, those who believe in quality education for all children may rue the day the court legitimized vouchers.

Jay Rehak
Assistant Director
Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center
Chicago, Ill.

Toy-Gun Photograph Was Inappropriate

To the Editor:

As an educator, I am furious and was appalled by the picture accompanying the article “Brave New World” (July 10, 2002). The photograph on Pages 52-53, with the two boys playing with guns, should not be part of this article, much less with the caption “Hanging Out.” The photographer used poor judgment in taking this picture, and Education Week showed even worse judgment in printing it. The picture also appears on your Web site in the photo gallery as one of your best photographs.

In light of the violence in society today and all the safety and security issues faced by schools, what were you thinking? This is not a message I want to see promoted, that it is OK to play with guns, even toy guns. You could have depicted these boys hanging out in a thousand other ways. Please use better discretion in the future.

Cindy Weber
Liverpool, N.Y.

‘Demeaning’ Report On 100 Black Men

To the Editor:

In my view, Education Week was needlessly offensive in its skepticism-laden article on the efforts of the group 100 Black Men to help reduce the overrepresentation of black males in special education (“Disparate Measures,” On Assignment, June 19, 2002). Is nobody allowed to help these kids?

Are we back in the days when blacks must be whipped (verbally, if not physically) for trying to teach other blacks to learn to read? To be successful academically? To contribute to the social and economic fabric of this country? To be human, for heaven’s sake?

Whites are always wagging their fingers self-righteously at blacks for not doing enough for ourselves. So here comes a group that shows some concern and takes action—and Education Week chooses to spit all over their efforts.

The article was demeaning and contemptuous. I expect better from Education Week.

You should expect more from yourselves.

Jennifer A. Bell
Education Redesign and Assessment
Sacramento, Calif.

Drug Testing or Drug Prevention?

To the Editor:

Your article “Supreme Court Allows Expansion of Schools’ Drug-Testing Policies” (July 10, 2002) elucidated many sides of this contentious issue.

The ruling says that schools should be able to test students because that “serves the school district’s important interest in detecting and preventing drug use among its students.”

But does drug testing do this? How do we know? There is virtually no research-based, statistical data proving the value of school-based drug screening.

Suppose the school initiates drug testing and no one tests positive. Does this mean that young people are drug-free? Not at all. Every validated survey of youth drug use points to alcohol as the No. 1 drug of choice, by far. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey for 2001 (released June 28) shows that 78.2 percent of students had had one or more drinks of alcohol during their lifetimes, compared with 42.4 percent of students who had ever used marijuana. Yet the standard urine drug screen does not test for alcohol: A youth can drink and still test negative.

Schools considering adopting random drug testing should be aware that standard urine screens only reveal use of a limited number of drugs. Today’s savvy teenager can easily search the Internet and discover which drugs will not show up on the tests, and switch to those.

However, it is not all that difficult to “beat” the urine test, such as by purchasing products to drink or add to urine that can alter the results. Some young people will find it a challenge to beat the test and brag to their friends about it. Then, every time someone uses drugs and tests negative (clean), this will undermine the credibility of the test—and make schools look stupid. Using more sophisticated tests and laboratory analyses can reduce this possibility, but at very high cost.

And are schools prepared to deal with youths who test positive? Who sees the test results? How is student confidentiality protected? What happens to the student? How are parents involved? Is there a referral process? Is there an appeal process? How many staff members will need to be involved with the testing protocols?

Before adopting student drug testing, look at costs, proven outcomes, and consequences; and check with your school lawyer about any liability issues. Then balance that against investing in a research-validated drug-prevention program with proven results.

Isabel Burk
New City, N.Y.

‘Justin’s Genius': Essayist Responds

To the Editor:

I read with interest (and some amusement) the reactions published recently in response to my Commentary “Justin’s Genius” (May 1, 2002). Although my essay was the story of how this little boy is an example of the way giftedness is misunderstood and underappreciated in this era of Multiple Intelligences, the letter-writers chose to focus on aspects of the article that left Justin, once again, on the periphery.

Predictably, Howard Gardner defended his views of intelligence by calling my observation that giftedness exists in some people, but not others, “absurd” (“Defining Intelligence: ‘Mystical’ Tales of Genius May Do Harm,” May 15, 2002). Claiming that my “dubious theories of intellect” show a complete misunderstanding of what intelligence really looks like, he chides me for not buying into the most atheoretical view of intelligence I have ever encountered—his own.

Branton Shearer, a colleague of Mr. Gardner’s and someone who earns a living by developing rating scales to determine in which areas one is multiply smart, also criticizes me for not embracing the multiple- intelligences notion (“Conflating Abuse With MI Theory,” June 12, 2002). Mr. Shearer wishes that I had tossed out the 19th-century views of intelligence, adopting, instead, Mr. Gardner’s “21st-century thinking.” So, in order to embrace the multiple-intelligences idea, I must discard the psychological research on human intelligence that has existed for over a century? That idea is as absurd as throwing away the U.S. Constitution because it is “old,” and starting fresh with an unproven set of ideas—which is exactly what many MI disciples advocate. Charles Spearman’s “g” [the “general intelligence” factor of his two-factor theory of intelligence]? Irrelevant, I guess, in the eyes of Mr. Shearer.

The other letters, one written by a teacher from a private school in Connecticut and the other by a superintendent of schools in one of the wealthiest districts in Massachusetts, also espouse the benefits of a multiple view of intelligence. Again, how predictable, for in my frequent travels throughout the country, I have found that private schools and high-end public districts love the MI theory. Why? Because it is often used as a way to placate those pesky “gifted parents” who want to know how their highly able children are going to be served appropriately. By applying the MI template over human abilities, we are now able to tell many more parents that their children are intelligent in some special way, thereby avoiding the label of gifted altogether.

This may make for calmer school board meetings, but it does little for those kids who are gifted in the archaic, 19th-century, g-factor sort of way. Kids like Justin.

James R. Delisle
Professor of Education
Kent State University
Twinsburg City Schools
Twinsburg, Ohio

Test Questions: In Defense of the MCAS

Walt Haney makes one correct statement in his July 10, 2002, Commentary (“Ensuring Failure”). He says that improved achievement on statewide student assessments is meaningful “as long as the tests in question are good-quality, criterion-referenced exams.” On that point, we agree.

We in Massachusetts have a high-quality, criterion-referenced system of student assessment known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, and we are proud of the gains in learning that students have demonstrated on it over the last five years. Our successes are also reflected in Massachusetts students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the SAT, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, and Advanced Placement tests, as well as in locally administered standardized tests such as the Stanford Achievement Test, 9th Edition, and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

Mr. Haney goes on to make two allegations that miss the mark. First, he says that a jump in a school’s average score from one year to the next is unlikely to continue, and therefore “does not signal real improvement.” In fact, no one is surprised if a school’s scores fluctuate from one year to the next, especially if the group of students tested is relatively small. What counts, however, is the trend over a period of years. In Massachusetts, we have seen overall improvement in many schools and in statewide results over the five years of our testing program. On the 2001 MCAS test for grade 10, virtually every district in the state showed significant improvement over previous years’ results in both English and math. In all, 82 percent of 10th graders passed the English test and 75 percent passed the math test on their first attempt in 2001. Students who do not pass on their first attempt have four more retest opportunities before the end of their senior year. We also have a performance appeals process for students who meet the standards in English and math, but for some reason do not demonstrate their knowledge on the MCAS tests.

Second, Mr. Haney alleges that the MCAS is really a norm-referenced rather than criterion-referenced test, because when piloted questions “answered correctly by more than 70 percent of students are systematically excluded from the exam, this guarantees continuing failure.” The implication that Massachusetts has “systematically excluded” such questions or that the MCAS is something other than a criterion-referenced test is wrong. The MCAS is indeed a criterion- referenced test. Further, on the 2001 MCAS English tests at grades 4, 8, and 10, there were 60 (out of 108) multiple-choice questions that 70 percent or more students answered correctly, and on the math test, 18 (out of 90) such questions. Similar statistics exist for each of the MCAS tests since 1998, when it was first administered.

I am proud of the progress we are making in the public schools of Massachusetts, although we have a long way to go. Our current success is a direct result of the strong, valid, and achievable standards we have set, and the corresponding hard work and focus of teachers, other educators, and students. We have much work left to do. While we welcome constructive criticism, distractions like the allegations in Mr. Haney’s Commentary do a disservice to the goal of improving student achievement.

David P. Driscoll
Commissioner of Education
Massachusetts Department of Education
Malden, Mass.

To the Editor:

Boston College professor Walt Haney’s assertion that the MCAS tests are not criterion-referenced is wrong.

Massachusetts law mandates that the statewide assessment instruments be criterion-referenced, assessing whether students are meeting the academic standards in the state’s curriculum frameworks. The state has gone to great lengths, therefore, to produce criterion-referenced assessments.

The basis of Mr. Haney’s claim is that questions included on the tests are selected and rejected for their usefulness in differentiating among test-takers. He asserts that “questions answered correctly by more than 70 percent of students are systematically excluded from the exam,” and that consequently the MCAS tests are norm-referenced. Neither proposition is correct.

It is true that questions for MCAS tests are selected and rejected for their usefulness in differentiating performance. But this is a necessary step in the construction of criterion-referenced tests, so that students will be assigned to performance categories on a consistent and accurate basis. The literature is extensive on this issue. Contrary to what Mr. Haney asserts, this practice does not limit how well (or how poorly) students can do on the tests. Students’ performance on the MCAS tests is strictly a function of how well they have mastered the curriculum.

Second, the question- selection process does not entail “systematic exclusion” of questions answered correctly by more than 70 percent of students. The fact is that 70 percent or more 10th graders answered 21 of the 36 multiple-choice questions correctly on the 2001 MCAS English exam, and five of the 32 questions on the mathematics exam.

The single most important step in the development of criterion- referenced tests is to establish that they are content-valid (Sharon Shrock and William Coscarelli, 2000). For the MCAS tests, this is established by teachers and curriculum specialists serving on assessment-development committees. Committee members confirm that each test question is developmentally appropriate, matches a state learning standard, and promotes effective instructional practices.

Further evidence of the content validity of MCAS tests can be found in the reports of independent organizations. For example, in October 2001, Achieve Inc. evaluated the grade 10 MCAS English and mathematics exams and found that “Massachusetts has made substantial progress in developing and implementing two essential components of standards-based reform—strong standards and assessments that measure what the standards expect.”

There should be no doubt that the MCAS tests are criterion- referenced, assessing the standards in the state’s frameworks, and providing information on the extent to which students have mastered those standards.

Jeffrey M. Nellhaus
Associate Commissioner, Student Assessment
Massachusetts Department of Education
Malden, Mass.

Skeptics Challenged By NBPTS Teacher

To the Editor:

Your decisions to report on the J.E. Stone study of teacher certification, and to publish the letters that supported it, were irresponsible (“Critical Study of NBPTS Spurs State Advisory Group to Act,” May 15, 2002; “Is Any Certification Worth Continuing?,”“NBPTS Favors ‘Progressivism,’” Letters, June 5, 2002).

In his letter, John Tuepker’s emotional accusation is another example of a professional educator’s inability to provide clear, concise, and consistent evidence on the impact the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has on teachers’ practice and on students’ learning. And Mr. Stone’s claims were unimpressive and inconclusive because his sample was so small. The study’s only benefit is that it serves as a call to national-board-certified teachers to speak up about the validity of the program and its impact on their students’ ability to achieve.

The question that made me think twice about responding to both gentlemen was this: Is defending my certification really an admission of my skepticism? I engaged in this process as a personal and private journey to see how I measured up to the NBPTS’ rigorous standards, and because I was unsatisfied with the quality of feedback I received from my supervisor. However, I did not anticipate challenging individuals, like J.E. Stone, Chester E. Finn Jr., and John Tuepker, who are blatantly undermining one of the most empowering, relevant, and sustainable professional-development experiences available to teachers today.

I am incensed by people who spread dangerous misinformation to the public. I know pursuing my certificate was, and continues to be, the most powerful professional-development experience in my career, one that dramatically improved my ability to teach and my students’ ability to learn. Therefore, my call to action is a genuine invitation to the skeptics out there: Make me your case study. I have an empty room in my home and would love for you to show me, and the public, how national board certification does not impact my students’ ability to learn.

This is a win-win situation for everyone. If doubters can prove to me that the NBPTS has not impacted my students’ ability to learn, while revealing all of the weaknesses in my practice, then I will be able to reflect upon their feedback, refine my teaching practice, and provide my students with a better education.

Jaymie Reeber Kosa
Roosevelt, N.J.

Pledge of Allegiance: Ruling Starts Debate

To the Editor:

In response to your article “Pledge of Allegiance in the Legal Spotlight” (July 10, 2002): We cannot pledge that our nation is under all Gods without threatening all God-believing Americans with the anathema of worshipping false Gods. We cannot pledge that our nation is under one God without threatening most God-believing Americans with the anathema of worshipping a false God.

Under whose God is our nation? The only spiritually secure solution is not to pledge that our nation is under any God.

Richard Tracey
Carlsbad, Calif.

One Reason for the Rise in Learning Disabilities

To the Editor:

Jay P. Greene’s Commentary “The Myth of the Special Education Burden” (June 12, 2002) offered several reasoned explanations for the significant increase in the proportion of children identified with “learning disabilities” during the past two decades. However, in my opinion, he missed a primary reason for the significant increase.

During my 30 years as a public school administrator, I have repeatedly observed a phenomenon that I’ve labeled “avoidance interpretation.” It always starts with the goals of minimizing confrontation and staying out of legal harm’s way.

At each level of the educational bureaucracy, the well-intended Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is interpreted. The law is interpreted and reinterpreted. The regulations are interpreted and reinterpreted. Folks at the federal, state, and local bureaucratic levels interpret the law and regulations.

Every interpretation is designed to reduce the risk of making someone unhappy and/or to stay out of court. The state-level folks begin their interpretation by looking at the federal folks’ interpretation. The local folks use the state interpretation as the basis from which they apply their interpretation, and so on.

If you throw into this mix the pressure from the special interest groups and interpretation of court decisions, why would anyone be surprised that the “avoidance interpretation” has led to significant increases in the numbers of children diagnosed as learning-disabled? Likewise, it helps explain why scarce funds are being redirected from regular education budgets to support the burgeoning numbers of students with special education labels.

One reason we fund special education programs at the expense of regular education programs is because the “interpreters” have advised us that we need to do so to keep ourselves and our districts out of trouble. This is not necessarily the best reason for making policy and budgeting decisions.

Some may remember the bygone days when students that were having difficulty learning (yes, Virginia, there were children back then who struggled in school) were served by regular classroom teachers who could modify the curriculum and differentiate instruction. Today, instead, we identify, label, and provide special education services at a significant additional cost with marginal results.

David L. Cronin District Administrator Swallow School District Hartland, Wis.

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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