Education Letter to the Editor


May 21, 2003 16 min read
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Teacher Turnover: Yes, It’s a Problem

Your article on teacher-turnover research (“Question of Teacher Turnover Sparks Research Interest,” April 30, 2003) overlooked some important points.

Social scientists have long characterized K-12 teaching as an easy- in/easy-out, high-turnover occupation, but there has never been much empirical data and research on this. In my own recent work, I have found that, as one might expect, teaching has higher turnover than some occupations (for professors and engineers, for example), about the same as for nurses, and less than for others, such as retail clerks.

But the key question is not whether teaching has higher or lower turnover than other occupations, but whether teacher turnover is a problem for schools. The data indicate it is.

Teaching is not a “stable” occupation. In any given year, almost a third of this large workforce is in transition between jobs. For example, the data show that in the 1999-2000 school year, well over a million teachers moved into, between, or out of school jobs. Some turnover is, of course, necessary and good. But a “revolving door” is not cost-free.

In contrast to the corporate sector, however, there has been very little attention paid to the consequences of employee turnover in education. One notable exception was a recent attempt to quantify the costs of teacher turnover in Texas; the researchers concluded that those costs to the state run into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Some costs and consequences of turnover are more easily measured than others. One type of cost less easily quantified includes the negative consequences that high turnover has for organizational climate and coherence. Another turnover “cost” I have discovered in my own research is the so-called teacher shortage.

The data show that if schools are ever to succeed in putting qualified teachers in front of every classroom, they will need to pay more attention to teacher turnover. In short, what we need is not denial, but research and policy that try to understand and address the causes, consequences, and cures of the staffing problems that plague many schools.

Richard M. Ingersoll
Associate Professor of Education
and Sociology
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pa.

Questions About Performance Pay

To the Editor:

So the Denver school system is “ready to link pay to student performance” (“Denver Aims to Expand Performance-Pay Plan,” April 30, 2003). That leaves me with two questions that I never see answered in print:

(1) How will the evaluators account for the estimated 150 to 200 variables that affect student achievement?

(2) Assuming that teachers will be judged on the basis of some kind of test the children take, will the teachers or administrators give the test? Or will they bring in some outside company to make sure the test is administered by someone with no stake in the outcome?

Elliot Kotler
Ossining N.Y.

Kudos for Essay On Reading Panel

To the Editor:

I have been an educator for more than 20 years, primarily at the elementary level. As I have watched young children develop the ability to read, and those who have struggled to do so, I have realized the importance of good early-reading instruction. That realization took me on an interesting path from the elementary classroom to my present position as teacher-educator at a major university. Along the way, I have seen dedicated teachers who have worked hard to develop educational philosophies that sustain them through changes in the popular methods of teaching children to read.

I wish every educator, parent, and politician would read and reflect on the work of Joanne Yatvin. Her Commentary (“I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of the National Reading Panel Report,” April 30, 2003) is outstanding. It is never easy to swim against the tide, but she and others like her continue to do so in an effort to salvage what we really know about good early-reading instruction.

Effective teachers know what works, and will need the strength of their convictions to see themselves through the rough times ahead. My plea is that they look carefully at the position taken by people like Ms. Yatvin and Richard L. Allington as it relates to the misuse and mistakes of the National Reading Panel’s report. I am privileged to have the opportunity to work with preservice and in-service educators, and you can bet they will hear both sides of the story.

My thanks to Ms. Yatvin and to Education Week for the informative Commentary.

Donna Fox
Teacher Trainer/ Guest Instructor
Central Michigan University
Mount Pleasant, Mich.

Teaching Character Is Not ‘Intervention’

To the Editor:

Your article reporting on the growing research base in character education (“Nice Work,” April 30, 2003) should help convince reluctant educators that character matters. And for that we thank you.

But the article addresses only one aspect of schools’ character education efforts, what might be called “intervention programs.” A comprehensive character education program includes much more than that.

As noted in the 1992 Aspen Declaration on Character Education, “effective character education is based on core ethical values which form the foundation of a democratic society, in particular, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship.” These and similar values are the foundation of such efforts in schools.

A second component is the integration of these values into the curriculum. Then come efforts to create a school and classroom culture that is caring, civil, and challenging. Next is the array of activities promoting the school’s core values. A fifth and essential component is service-learning opportunities, for students to practice the values they are learning about. (It was surprising that those you quoted missed the rich and informative research coming from this field.) Partnerships that teachers and administrators form with parents and the community make up the sixth component of a comprehensive program.

Add to these the findings of James Leming, a leading researcher in character education missing from your article. He has synthesized the research and reported that character develops within a social climate, and that effective character education programs include: clear standards and fair enforceable rules, orderly school and classroom strategies, mutual respect between teachers and students, shared governance, meaningful two-way communication, support by stakeholders (particularly students and parents), and cooperative-learning strategies.

Daniel Goleman noted back in 1995 that a small investment in emotional- and social-development programs in schools will have a significant influence in reducing antisocial and high-risk behavior. So the class meetings, conflict-resolution strategies, and violence- prevention programs mentioned in your article confirm his hypothesis. But most students are not in these two categories. We should be careful not to imply that these programs are what character education is all about. They are not.

Character education is about helping the young learn what it takes to be good human beings, to make ethical decisions, to solve problems rationally and peacefully, and to develop positive personal and civic behavior.

Edward DeRoche
International Center for
Character Education
School of Education
University of San Diego
San Diego, Calif.

Virginia’s Test Gives No Aid to At-Risk

To the Editor:

While I don’t want to argue against “Aristotle and common sense,” if Herbert J. Walberg wants to make the case that high-stakes testing helps students at risk, then his use of Virginia as an example doesn’t help his case (“Accountability Helps Students at Risk,” Commentary, April 30, 2003). As other states attempt to emulate the “success” in Virginia, I would, as a parent, advise them to look before leaping

The pass rates on Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests have risen over the past five years. In the one case where they have not (history), state policymakers simply moved the cut scores. The practice of narrowing the curriculum and pushing out all things not measured by multiple- choice also improves the pass rate.

While pass rates have been rising, however, other measures of student achievement haven’t been quite so definitive, particularly for various racial groups.

The state’s average SAT scores have risen for students as a group, but SAT-participation rates have declined. Black males have lower scores than when the SOL tests were first administered.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests for 4th grade and 8th grade math in 2000, the percentage of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific-Islander students who performed at or above the proficient level did not differ significantly from what it was in 1990.

The percentage of Virginia public school students scoring 3 or better on Advanced Placement tests has declined from 65 percent in 1997, to 62 percent in 2002. Diploma rates (standard and advanced diplomas) have fallen off as well.

It should be noted, too, that the rise in “achievement” registered by our students on the SOLs has not been matched by their performance on the other test that all Virginia students take, the norm-referenced Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition. This is especially true in 6th and 9th grades. Between 1999 and 2001, average percentiles in 6th grade reading on Stanford-9 tests did not improve. In 2002, they went up by 1 percentile. In 9th grade reading and math, scores have simply not budged. Compare that with the rising pass rates on Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests.

For those who hold up Virginia as an example of rising student achievement, be warned that our definition of achievement is dubious at best. If the goal of education is to narrow the curriculum so that students can bubble-in a few more multiple-choice questions and allow policymakers to pretend students have learned more and better, then Virginia’s efforts are paying off.

But almost six years into SOL testing, and with more than $100 million in state money spent on the program, we have rising pass rates on these tests—and not much else.

Mickey VanDerwerker
Bedford, Va.

Catholic Gathering Given Short Shrift

To the Editor:

As a career Catholic school educator, it was gratifying to see an article about the 100th convention of the National Catholic Educational Association in St. Louis (St. Louis Catholic Educators’ Group Marks Centennial With Look Ahead,” Reporter’s Notebook, April 30, 2003.)

Each year, this convention is a wonderful opportunity for those who serve in Catholic schools to gather together in prayer, in celebration, and in commitment to ongoing professional development. Suffice it to say that though vouchers and sex abuse were the predominant interest of your article, these topics occupied very little attention among those in attendance at the convention.

We came to learn, to enjoy the company of fellow Catholic school educators, and to reinforce our commitment to schools where faith and knowledge come together. There were over 700 workshops, seminars, and speeches offered at the convention, and your article struck on only two of them. Certainly, a prudent reporting would call for a higher degree of balance.

Gerard Ragan
St. Paul School
Eugene, Ore.

Technology on Hold

To the Editor:

Your front-page article “Budget Crises Lead to Delays for Technology” (May 7, 2003) provides an excellent account of the unfolding impact that state and local budget deficits are having on school technology spending. Budget reductions at the school level for computer upgrades and technology support are indeed poorly timed. The 40 billion investment in school technology infrastructures made over the past decade is now in need of significant care and feeding. Schools in low-income communities will likely be hardest hit, since many are located in urban areas facing the most dire budget crises. This is particularly alarming, given that schools often function as the primary technology access point for low-income students. It is essential that we ensure that no child be left behind in the information age.

As one would imagine, a critically important aspect of this emerging problem is the potential impact that cuts in technology spending could have on the development of 21st-century skills. Without an adequately maintained technology infrastructure, schools will be incapable of providing educational opportunities for students to achieve technological literacy, as required by the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Schools can ill afford to postpone addressing these skills until the economic outlook brightens. To do so would be to turn their backs on the educational needs of the current generation of elementary and secondary students.

There is no simple solution for sustaining adequate levels of school technology in tough economic times. One avenue that merits serious exploration is the mobilization of students to address the area of on-site technical support. As reported in the National School Boards Foundation’s recent survey “Are We There Yet?,” 54 percent of districts surveyed reported having students performing technical-support work.

There exits a tremendous potential to expand and improve the quality of student-based technical support in our nation’s schools through the identification and sharing of best practices being implemented by local schools, nonprofit organizations, and corporations. A key element of this strategy would be aggregating expertise in order to develop and support industry-sanctioned standards for student training and the establishment of student technical-support systems.

Although the pervasive use of high- quality student technical support will not eliminate the need for professional technical support and for ongoing investments in school technology, it could very likely result in freeing up scarce resources for investment in these areas. In New York City, where Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools & Education, or MOUSE, operates the MOUSE Squad, a student-run technical-support program in 32 public middle and high schools, serving 2,600 teachers, and over 38,000 students, an estimated $423,000 in cost savings has been generated for participating public schools.

Similar programs nationwide could go a long way toward addressing the current technology funding crises, while helping to ensure that our nation’s schools continue to support the development of 21st- century skills and are aligned with the vision articulated in the U.S. Department of Education’s emerging National Education Technology Plan.

Carole Wacey
Executive Director
Calvin Hastings
Managing Director
Making Opportunities for Upgrading
Schools & Education
New York, N.Y.

Certifying Diversity

To the Editor:

The recently published report “NBPTS Certification: Who Applies and What Factors Are Associated With Success” frames some important challenges not only for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, but for the education community as a whole (“Blacks Apply, But Unlikely to Win Certification,” May 7, 2003).

In the study, researchers found that African-American candidates fail to achieve national-board certification in greater numbers than their white counterparts, and that those who achieve certification are more likely to teach in more-affluent districts, often those that offer support structures and incentives.

The national board has always been, and remains today, deeply committed to providing America’s teachers with an assessment of accomplished teaching that is valid, reliable, and fair. To this end, the board has developed and implemented a broad array of policies and procedures that encourage racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in every aspect of our work. In particular, the NBPTS closely monitors the outcome of all assessment administrations for evidence of adverse impact on racial/ethnic and gender minority groups.

The national board has faced these issues head-on by developing and supporting an extensive research program designed to identify and eliminate all potential sources of adverse impact that could threaten the fairness of the national-board-certification system. For example, in 1998, the NBPTS conducted a study funded by the Spencer Foundation in which researchers carefully looked at possible sources of bias that could be present in the national board’s standards, certification requirements, or in the manner in which candidate work is scored.

In their findings, researchers determined that the differential rate of certification for African-American candidates could not be attributed to flaws or biases in the assessment system itself. However, until equitable certification rates for African-Americans and other minorities are achieved, the national board will support and encourage research around all aspects of our certification system.

While the NBPTS remains committed to understanding the causes of adverse impact, we want to do more than simply study this issue. We currently have a number of initiatives that are helping us reach out to both minority teachers and those who teach in high-need areas. Our strategic-partnerships department works closely with historically black colleges and universities, the Council of the Great City Schools, and the National Alliance of Black School Educators to both recruit and offer high-quality candidate support to African-American teachers seeking national-board certification. We have also established a federally funded recruitment and support program targeted to teachers in urban, rural, low- income, and high-need areas.

In addition, we have encouraged states and districts to create financial incentives specifically for teachers in high- need areas to seek national-board certification. California, for example, offers a $20,000 bonus to teachers who achieve national-board certification and teach in low-performing schools.

While the main causes of adverse impact may be traced back to larger societal factors, its results cannot be ignored within the field of education. All students should have access to highly qualified teachers regardless of the schools they attend. Likewise, all teachers should have access to high-quality professional development regardless of where they teach. The NBPTS is committed to achieving both of these goals.

Treopia Washington
Vice President, Strategic Partnerships
National Board for Professional
Teaching Standards
Arlington, Va.

To the Editor:

In response to your article on the low percentages of minority teacher applicants receiving national-board certification, I’d like to share the following.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County school district, 51 percent of the teachers receiving certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards during the 2000-01 school year were white non- Hispanic; 5 percent were black non-Hispanic; 41 percent were Hispanic; and 3 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander. By the 2001-02 school year, the percentages were, respectively, 48 percent, 7 percent, 42 percent, and 3 percent.

The increase in national-board certification among minorities was due to the support provided by the district and the teachers’ union, United Teachers of Dade. More minority candidates are applying and achieving board certification because they have mentors available to guide them through the process.

Valda McKinney
Miami, Fla.


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