Education Letter to the Editor


February 19, 2003 10 min read
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More on History and Social Studies

It is the case that “expanding horizons” has been a dominant pattern in the elementary school social studies curriculum since the 1930s for grades K-4 (“History Invading Social Studies’ Turf in Schools,” Jan. 22, 2003).

This pattern engages elementary students in learning about family, neighborhood, community, state, region, and nation, and weaves together key concepts from history and the social sciences. The pattern is held in place by state curriculum guides, district tradition, and publishers who publish to the pattern. Few have questioned the developmental appropriateness of this pattern.

You fail to note, however, that American history has had a virtual lock on the social education curriculum pattern since about 1920. This dominant pattern often mandates the teaching of American history at grades 5, 8, and 11, in addition to mandated world history in places at the secondary level. This represents more than 40 percent of the social education curriculum for grades 5 and above.

If historians are so concerned about their place in the curriculum, as well as student learning and commitment to citizenship, perhaps they should undertake a thorough self-examination, rather than castigating the National Council for the Social Studies.

In the past 40 years, several worthy content-based organizations have thoughtfully promoted the teaching of the social sciences—civics/government, economics, and geography—in the school curriculum through development of national standards, curriculum materials, and the provision of teacher training.

These organizations include the Center for Civic Education, the Constitutional Rights Foundation (Los Angeles and Chicago), Street Law, and the Close Up Foundation, in civic education; the National Council for Economic Education; the National Council for Geographic Education and the Association of American Geographers; and my organization.

We view ourselves as content providers who can make a powerful contribution to helping develop thoughtful, active, committed citizens.

It is unfortunate that Education Week has continued to revisit an invidious curriculum situation in the face of the overwhelming national attention to literacy and numeracy, which has marginalized history and social science education.

James E. Davis
Executive Director
Social Science Education Consortium
Boulder, Colo.

Considering Online Physical Education

To the Editor:

I have taught elementary physical education (K-8) in the Chicago public schools for 29 years. I hold a master’s degree in physical education, and two years ago was certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I was astounded by your article on online physical education (“Internet Spawns Online Physical Education,” Jan. 29, 2003).

What is America coming to? Look at the facts: (1) Fitness levels of young people have declined during the past 20 years at an alarming rate; (2) obesity in children is on the rise; and (3) lifetime sports and activities need to be included in all physical education curricula.

Using the cognitive aspect in physical education is, of course, important, which is why most in the field agree that including reading and writing in the program is a must. But to believe that a child will sit at home and perform exercise simply because it says so on his or her desktop computer is ridiculous. I am ashamed for the state of Florida and feel sorry for the students involved in this absurd venture. We can only hope that enlightened administrators will see this as the mistake it is and go back to physical education for the benefit of children and the country.

Gary Wojton
Peterson Elementary School
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

Online physical education should coordinate actual classrooms at distant venues. A program developed by the Special Olympics, called onlinesports.org, provides the opportunity for classrooms to actually do the physical education, but add value to what is happening.

There is no substitute for face-to-face student activities. Online resources should add value to what is happening in the classroom, not replace it.

Bob Craft
Douglas High School
Winston, Ore.

Teachers’ Voices Need to Be Heard

To the Editor:

I was encouraged to see that your reporters spoke with a number of teachers, besides me, to get our perspective on the question of how to attract and retain high-quality teachers in schools where they are needed the most (“Increasing the Odds,” Quality Counts 2003, Jan. 9, 2003). Too often, teachers’ voices are excluded from discussions on education—from the decisions made in our schools about curriculum, to creating national policy.

During my seven-year tenure at a hard-to-staff school, I tried to voice my opinion and bring about change to improve student achievement. Yet my voice and those of other teachers were frequently stifled by administrators reluctant to share authority and threatened by the idea of teachers’ talking to one another. I had to go outside my school to find the supportive environment I needed to grow as a professional.

As schools look for ways to improve the environment to attract and retain teachers, the importance of providing opportunities for teachers to pursue their professional interests and develop collegial relationships cannot be underestimated. Administrators should be aware that quality teachers neither evolve nor thrive in a vacuum. It is essential that teachers and administrators have opportunities to work together and listen to one another.

Carol Tureski
MetLife Fellow
Teachers Network Policy Institute
New York, N.Y.

Service Learning Is Beneficial to Pupils

To the Editor:

I agree with Peter W. Cookson Jr. that the genius of American education lies in the embrace of every student’s educational potential (“Standardization and Its Unseen Ironies,” Commentary, Jan. 22, 2003).

Young people and educators in every part of the country—urban, suburban, and rural districts—and from every level of school have found that service learning is the kind of learning opportunity that supports a complete vision for education. Service learning teaches students a culture of civic engagement, offers them the skills essential for 21st-century life, and helps them master core academic subjects.

Mr. Cookson’s Commentary reminds us what schools can be if we look to young people as critical thinkers and leaders. Engaging our children in the breadth of civic life through service learning is one way to make this vision a reality.

Anthony Welch
Board of Directors
National Service-Learning Partnership
New York, N.Y.

Public vs. Nonpublic: ‘As the Words Fly’

To the Editor:

Perhaps there should be little wonder that the debate over public vs. nonpublic education gets more confusing as the words fly. Consider Frederick M. Hess’ Commentary (“What Is ‘Public’ About Public Education?,” Jan. 8, 2003).

When Mr. Hess says there are three ways to understand what it means for educational services to be public, he is providing a prime instance of someone expressing a point of view while forgetting that even points of view are not exempt from the rules of logic. As a result, he is limited to merely being a purveyor of undefined and unsupported assumptions.

To ignore the requirements of logic by labeling all other thinking on the subject “rhetoric” seems particularly dismissive and a somewhat hollow excuse to avoid the rigors of scholarship. It smacks of political doublespeak.

Mr. Hess’ subsequent attempt to use if-then logic to “illuminate” the prevailing rhetoric is woefully inadequate. For example, when he compares systems of education to systems that produce textbooks, he obviously has forgotten some basic rules of logic, particularly those concerning the making of logical inferences. Nothing is “illuminated” except the bias of the writer.

Renald C. Eichler
Executive Director
Institute of Learning Research
Nashville, Tenn.

High-Stakes Duress: Disagreement on the Harm Testing Holds for Children

To the Editor:

In his Commentary “Does High-Stakes Testing Hurt Students?” (Feb. 5, 2003), Laurence Steinberg does his level best to throw statistical stones at the controversial new study by Arizona State University researchers that suggests high-stakes testing may be doing more harm than good. Mr. Steinberg pulls out the old “coin toss” example of drawing probability from chance occurrences as a way to prove that the results of the study are not to be trusted.

I would like to remind him that high-stakes- testing days come with their own series of coin tosses for each and every student. Did the students get a good breakfast, or were they rushed out the door? Did their parents yell at them or give them a big hug on the way out? Are they in peak physical condition, or are they destined to throw up all over their test booklets? There are thousands of kids all over the country suffering unnecessary feelings of anxiety, depression, and failure because they lost a coin toss or two.

Mr. Steinberg might see these children as statistical anomalies; I view them as victims of child abuse. If Mr. Steinberg can tolerate this kind of needless emotional suffering as an acceptable cost of a testing experiment he admits might never bear any fruit, I would suggest that psychology may not be his true calling.

Sue Allison
Lusby, Md.

The writer serves as the coordinator of a grassroots advocacy network, Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing, or MAHST.

To the Editor:

In response to Laurence Steinberg’s Commentary, I can only express amazement at his analysis and the rationale he uses for justifying, in general, the policy of high-stakes testing. Mr. Steinberg is correct in pointing out the shortcomings of the Arizona State study, but his blanket conclusion that a policy of high-stakes testing and teaching to the test may be a good thing, so long as the test is a good one, is way off base.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss the poor quality of many of the tests used in “high-stakes testing.” The major negative involved in the philosophy and practice of high-stakes testing is that the test results have been used punitively in many cities and states to fire teachers and principals and close schools (usually those in the inner city, of course). In Chicago alone, hundreds of teachers from inner-city schools have been fired for their students’ poor performance on test scores, and several schools have been closed down in the seven years since high-stakes testing became the mantra of the top politicians and their handpicked education administrators.

These punished schools are all located in economically depressed areas where the seemingly simple act of getting a child to school on a daily basis is a difficult task. On the other end of the scale, “magnet schools,” and other restrictive-enrollment schools that exclude any student with below-average test scores from admittance, have been rewarded for high achievement, without any mention of the fact that their students were at or above the national average on standardized tests on the day they entered.

There is also the not insignificant fact that these restrictive-enrollment schools, now accompanied by “charter schools” and their ilk, have siphoned off the few above-average students who at one time attended the inner-city schools, thus effectively lowering these schools’ average test scores. Most often, it has been the lure of higher test scores that pulled these students out of their neighborhood schools and into the “better-performing schools.” In effect, inner-city students, teachers, and principals have been punished for having the audacity or the bad luck, take your pick, to live or work in economically depressed areas.

And then there is the issue of cheating by schools and individual teachers and students, both to avoid punishment for low scores and to get promotions, bonuses, good placement, and national recognition for high test results. This phenomenon was recently documented in Chicago in an April 2002 report by Brian Jacobs and Steven Levitt, titled “Rotten Apples: An Investigation of the prevalence and Predictors of Teacher Cheating.” Numerous other investigations have shown that test cheating increases in proportion to the awards and punishments linked to the test results.

Until the playing field is level, the benefits of high-stakes testing will flow disproportionately to schools that have a predetermined formula for success: Exclude the low-scoring students. For the remaining schools, especially those in economically depressed areas, the punishments will flow inexorably in their direction.

Tom Sharp
Chicago, Ill.


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