Education Letter to the Editor


June 04, 2003 22 min read
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Revisiting NRP Data On Value of Phonics

To the Editor:

The study by Gregory Camilli and colleagues discussed in your article “Analysis Calls Phonics Findings Into Question” (May 21, 2003) is just one more that propagates misleading and inaccurate ideas about what the National Reading Panel report says. Anyone who reads the report and its appendices carefully knows that the panel never suggested that phonics is the only way to teach reading. In fact, the report goes out of its way to emphasize that, while phonics is a critically important element of learning to read, it is only one part among many essential elements.

There is nothing in the report that would indicate, for example, that tutoring is not effective in helping struggling readers. Comparing tutoring to phonics instruction is an invalid premise in the first place. Tutoring is an intensive teaching method that can be used to teach any subject, including phonics.

It is unconscionable that so much of the debate about the value of recent research on the importance of phonics and the work of the National Reading Panel has focused on debunking ideas that neither the researchers nor the panel ever posed.

Until those who have a gut reaction against phonics begin to deal with the fact that scientific research can disprove even the most strongly and sincerely held beliefs, education in the United States will never be able to absorb the valuable lessons of the research and move on to the important work of integrating those findings into the much larger question of how best to teach reading, not only to children, but to education majors as well.

David R. Denton
Atlanta, Ga.

To the Editor:

In trying to defend their reputations as researchers, Professors Linnea Ehri and Timothy Shanahan gloss over the most important findings in Gregory Camilli’s reanalysis of the phonics studies used by the National Reading Panel in its report. These are: (1) The positive effects of systematic phonics instruction to students are small (0.24), not moderate (0.41), as reported by the NRP. (2) An unsystematic program of language activities works just as well for students as a systematic phonics program, even when assessed by tests that measure phonics-taught skills.

As one of three coders of studies in Mr. Camilli’s reanalysis, I was struck by another fact that the NRP researchers also play down. Only four of the phonics studies were done in regular 1st or 2nd grade classrooms with an ordinary mix of children. In three of those classrooms, language activities worked just as well as phonics, and in one worked better.

As a former teacher and principal, and now a teacher of classroom teachers, I am far more interested in what works in ordinary classrooms than what works for special populations in supplementary programs or reading clinics, which were the contexts for the bulk of the phonics studies the National Reading Panel analyzed.

The most serious flaw of the NRP phonics report, in my opinion, was its unscientific generalization of findings from studies of atypical children in specialized settings to all children at all grade levels in regular classrooms.

Joanne Yatvin
Portland, Ore.

Internet Filtering Goes Beyond Porn

To the Editor:

I understand that your headline “Anti-Censorship Tool Would Evade Porn Filters” (May 21, 2003) may have been designed to catch readers’ attention, but the problems of Internet filtering are more serious than simply preventing students (and teachers) from viewing pornography. You should investigate this problem in more detail than is captured in the prurient “evade porn filters” tone of this article.

In fact, such filters prevent students in my district from accessing appropriate sites that deal with controversial social issues. Two problems illustrated by our experience come readily to mind.

The district hires a company to provide the filtering, accepting that firm’s norms and values instead of working to establish those of the community as a whole. The company we hire says that it filters on “more than 20 social issues,” which is of concern to me, since I teach 20th-century U.S. history. My course’s subject matter often involves “social issues.” For example, when we studied the expansion of civil rights, the filtering firm— with the passive approval of my district—prevented my students from accessing information from groups and sites such as Hate Watch, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, and other similar organizations.

The district also filters all computers, at all school sites, the same way. That is, K-5 schools, schools for grades 6-8, high schools, as well as the adults who work in the district have the same (limited) access to material on the Internet. We wouldn’t set up identical library collections at each of those sites; why filter them identically?

Debra Schneider
Social Studies Department
Merrill F. West High School
Tracy, Calif.

Making Exceptions: Testing’s Paradox

To the Editor:

Passage by the Massachusetts House of an exemption for special education students to the requirement of passing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam highlights the paradox surrounding state-level graduation tests (“States Debate Exam Policies for Diplomas,” May 14, 2003).

State legislators and educational leaders have argued that a standardized test is an appropriate and necessary gauge to determine whether a student has the essential skills and knowledge to earn a diploma. However, as your article points out, legislators (like Massachusetts state Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch) believe that the hard work of special education students should not go unrewarded.

In light of the indispensable role that the MCAS supposedly plays in substantiating the value of a high school diploma, it seems strange that an overwhelming majority of state representatives would vote for this exemption. While special education students certainly work hard to achieve success in school—as do many other 15- through 17-year-olds who ultimately fail to pass the MCAS—government leaders have long measured high school proficiency in terms of students’ success on the MCAS. In fact, one of the chief reasons for the adoption of a high school graduation exam is the mitigating effect the test can have on the subjective judgments of local educators.

Clearly, however, permitting certain students’ exemptions undermines the gatekeeping status of the MCAS and creates further skepticism that one test can be fairly used to make high-stakes decisions for any student. Leaving the graduation status of special education students up to local decisionmakers supports the position taken by many anti-testing advocates in the state that the MCAS should not be used as the exclusive indicator for a student’s graduation eligibility. Thus, the potential passage of this bill would corroborate the value of district-level decisionmaking and could come to bolster the anti-MCAS position.

Edward Caron
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Ind.

Another Vote For Reading Groups

To the Editor:

Three cheers for J. Elizabeth Gladden’s Commentary “Where Have All the Reading Groups Gone?” (May 14, 2003). As an elementary school principal, I am amazed when I talk to some of my colleagues who do not insist that their teachers teach reading in groups.

We have seen significant improvement in our school’s Stanford Achievement Test scores and our scores on the Texas accountability system test (the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) since I introduced reading groups upon my arrival in 1996. Each year, more and more teachers bought in to this idea, due to the success their colleagues experienced when they used reading groups. We now require this of all teachers and have seen fantastic results.

My father was an elementary principal for 26 years. He taught me that if a teacher teaches to the whole group, then she is teaching to the middle; children who are above grade level are bored, and children who struggle are frustrated. You cannot meet the needs of all learners with whole-group reading instruction alone.

John Threet
West University Elementary School
Houston, Texas

Who Starts Behind Will Be Left Behind

To the Editor:

Why is it so hard to admit that our most difficult-to-educate population is driving education policy, yet is also failing to benefit from any appropriate solutions (“Jencks Reassessed, One Career Later,” Commentary, May 21, 2003)?

The reason for this may be that American values get in the way. Our educational institutions have reinterpreted “equal access” to mean equal education, and equal education means “same for all” practices. Eliminating grouping, setting standards, and relying on scripted teaching are all attempts at making each classroom just like its neighbor, regardless of the needs of the students.

Setting as a standard for 4th grade students who started kindergarten or 1st grade with no English that they should be able to write a story with “voice"—something professional writers struggle with—is not reasonable. Working college-level entrance expectations for all students, back through the grades, in incremental steps is illogical. So is the “gateway” algebra expectation. The logic that “successful” adults passed algebra, and so college-bound students should master a first-year algebra course in 8th grade, contradicts what we know about developmental readiness. It is as absurd as saying we want all high school graduates to be able to compete in Division I basketball and therefore expect them all to be six feet tall in 8th grade.

The most fundamental failing of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 and other plans for raising the performance of disadvantaged children is that the prerequisites for success are not there when a child starts school. A child with a limited vocabulary at age 5 is not going to be an accomplished reader at age 8. A child with limited problem-solving experience at 5 is not going to pass algebra in 8th grade.

It is inappropriate to expect children who start kindergarten significantly behind those who have educated and attentive parents to be able to catch up with these better-prepared peers at some point in their education. For such a child to catch up, he would have to be progressing at a faster pace than his counterpart who started ahead. Certainly most practitioners agree that rarely happens even in the best of schools.

When schools and programs are designed to be “equal,” it guarantees that the child who starts behind will be left behind, in spite of political pronouncements and pedagogical promoters.

Tim Willoughby
Crowley Lake, Calif.

International Study Is Seen as ‘Fluff’

To the Editor:

I found it curious that Education Week would accept at face value a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education ballyhooing the academic achievements of American 4th graders in comparison with their counterparts in countries around the world (“U.S. 4th Graders Are Among Top 10 in Reading,” April 16, 2003). Notably missing in the survey are some of the stalwarts in educational competency, including South Korea, Japan, Finland, Australia, Austria, and Ireland.

Significantly, these countries are more social democratic in nature than the United States and devote more of their resources to alleviating underlying poverty. Children who are not hungry and have access to medical care will naturally perform better than those that do not. In America, the Bush administration shows little concern for those on the bottom rungs, opting instead to build up defense and coddle the well-to-do. Education is being pushed down on the list of priorities. Churning out studies that are merely fluff is not helpful to solving the inadequacies we face in this country.

Walter Weis
Forest Hills, N.Y.

Virginia’s SOL Tests: Closer Examination

To the Editor:

In a recent letter to the editor (“Virginia’s Test Gives No Aid to At-Risk,” Letters, May 21, 2003), Mickey VanDerwerker faults Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, or SOLs, which were cited in my recent Commentary “Accountability Helps Students at Risk” (April 30, 2003). She does this even though, despite initial hand-wringing about tough standards, Virginia’s achievement levels rose substantially. Although I mentioned the SOLs merely as an example rather than formal evidence, as provided in the several cited large-scale research studies, Ms. VanDerwerker’s points about Virginia’s standards program are worth rebutting, since others may be misled .

Mickey VanDerwerker concedes that SOL scores rose, but, citing no sources, says scores on other tests did not. Actually, if true, this may be taken as evidence that the standards produced effects the legislature desired, since they reflect knowledge and skill gains that duly elected officials and their agents think important.

Virginians, for example, may believe the standards tests should include items about Thomas Jefferson to raise students’ knowledge and interest in their state’s history, but we might not expect to find them on the Stanford Achievement Test, nor on the New York regents’ examinations. No one can master all knowledge and skills, and one legislative purpose of standards is to focus attention on what policymakers value.

Ms. VanDerwerker also criticizes Virginia’s use of multiple-choice tests, which allegedly narrow the curriculum and are easier to pass. Actually, such tests can yield far wider curriculum information, because many items can be employed, in contrast to one or a few essay questions that time limitations usually allow. Universities’ graduate and professional schools, the military, and employers use multiple-choice tests because they can tap deep knowledge and advanced skills. They are widely used because they are objective, reliable, and far more time- and cost- efficient than the alternatives.

Even so, Virginia and other states could, if convinced of the contrary, incorporate essay, laboratory, and other “constructed response” examinations, even though these are usually better employed at the classroom level.

Herbert J. Walberg
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
Stanford University Hoover Institution
Stanford, Calif.

More on the Value Of Catholic Schools

To the Editor:

Edd Doerr, the president of Americans for Religious Liberty, writes, in a response to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory’s statement that Catholic schools save taxpayers $20 billion a year, that this “assumes too much” (“Do Catholic Schools Save Tax Dollars?” Letters, May 14, 2003).

Actually, the bishop is being too conservative in this estimate because he does not factor in the needed capital expenditures and additional staffing, should Catholic schools close en masse. That figure would bankrupt most states, especially in the Northeast, where the Catholic school population is large.

Mr. Doerr goes on to make broad statements such as, “Catholic school enrollment has declined by well over half since 1965, for reasons that have little to do with money.” I agree that there are a number of factors, such as demographics, that contributed to a drop in Catholic school enrollment. But numerous market studies demonstrate that tuition costs and school availability are the major reasons for Catholic parents’ not sending their children to Catholic schools. This makes sense, because most Catholic schools are located in urban areas, where parents are the poorest.

These urban Catholic schools date back to the turn of the 20th century, when they served immigrants to this country so well. They continue to be cost-effective, high-quality institutions that contribute to the common good, preserving neighborhoods, keeping property values up, and turning out productive and moral citizens.

But rising educational costs are pricing these quality educational institutions out of business. If parents would be given some assistance, they would choose these schools.

This was proven recently when the Children’s Scholarship Fund announced that 10,000 grants were available in Philadelphia for children to attend the schools of their choice. Over 41,000 families applied. These figures were similar to those in other cities where the scholarships were initiated. There is only one conclusion: Parents want choices of schooling for their children.

In the final analysis, Catholic schools are proud and productive partners in educating children in America. They save the taxpayer untold millions by preserving urban landscapes, providing community service, and producing successful outcomes. Mr. Doerr’s agenda is to preserve the current monopoly in education, no matter what the cost to the taxpayers. Our side supports competition, accountability, and choice, which we know will save the taxpayer money and produce better schools.

Ronald T. Bowes
Assistant Superintendent for
Public Policy and Development
Diocese of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Judge Block Periods On What’s Learned

To the Editor:

In Patrick F. Gould’s Commentary on what research tells us about the learning outcomes in high school block periods, vs. the outcomes in short periods (“Scheduling Choice,” May 7, 2003), he refers only to outcomes measured by “mandatory state exams, voluntary ACT tests, [and] grade point averages.” Such assessments tell us little or nothing about profound qualitative changes that can take place in the high school classroom when teachers take advantage of the block-period learning environment.

In the 1990s, I supported and supervised action research conducted by about 60 high school teachers in western Washington state who examined teaching and learning in their own and, in some cases, their colleagues’ classrooms. These studies are documented in three volumes: Action Research on Block Scheduling, Encouraging Student Engagement in the Block Period (both published by Eye on Education), and Improving Teaching in the High School Block Period (published by Scarecrow Education).

Most of the teachers in the studies found that the block period in high school provides an environment that allows and supports teaching and learning activities that can both increase student engagement and generate and nurture student initiative and responsibility.

Most of these teachers provided their block-period students with increased independence from direct adult control as they held them to higher standards of responsibility. Most wanted more from students: more engagement, more caring about learning, more effort, more willingness to be responsible, more initiative. Each offered students more: more choice, more control, more respect for students’ interests and capabilities, more collaborative effort and common cause.

And to a significant extent, the majority of students taught by these teachers accepted the new arrangements offered by their teachers and performed as learners at new, higher levels of engagement and initiative, and of accomplishment and sophistication, as perceived by both students and teachers.

These kinds of outcomes are mostly not measured by the assessments cited by Mr. Gould.

My belief is that Patrick Gould’s judgment is premature. We need to look a lot more carefully at the kinds of learning being undertaken in block-period and short-period classrooms and the qualitative differences between such classrooms and their outcomes.

Even if our ignorant and myopic policymakers only care about test scores these days, presumably we as educators know that there are some more important things that young people can learn in high school.

David Marshak
Associate Professor
School of Education
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

Community Schools: Conflicting Reports Hold a Deeper Lesson

To the Editor:

Your May 14, 2003, article “‘Community Schools’ Earn Plaudits, But Face Perils” is a tale of two reports that seem to come to diametrically opposed conclusions. The report of the Coalition for Community Schools finds that after-school and related programs are achieving their objectives and should be expanded. The findings on after-school programs by Mathematica Policy Research allowed the Bush administration to claim that proposed cutbacks in federal funding of these programs was justified by the research conclusion that they were ineffective.

This is more than a matter of two sets of researchers disagreeing. The Mathematica group was asked to assess the impact of a diverse and broad-ranging set of evolving initiatives in 1,400 communities, most of which were only in their first or second year of operation. They were just beginning to explore and act on their understanding of the connections between the outcomes they hoped to achieve and the activities that would help them get there. No one who has experience with community-based efforts expects significant outcomes to change during the first few years, or before a program—in the words of the evaluation guru Donald T. Campbell— is “proud.”

The programs that were the subject of the community schools report, on the other hand, were older and more stable. They had been able to learn from each other and from their mistakes over time, and were becoming ever clearer about their objectives and the routes likely to reach them. They were able, therefore, to document improvements in a number of important measures, including better attendance, reduced discipline problems, and improved grades and test scores.

As I noted in my conversation with Education Week, from which you quoted in the story, the community schools movement as a whole has also learned from experience and is fully aware of its important role in supporting and not diverting schools from their academic mission.

There is a fundamental lesson here that we, as a society, seem to find very difficult to learn and act on: We should use the research and experience we so painfully accumulate to figure out what it takes to reach valued social objectives, rather than draw on inadequate information to make mechanistic yes/no judgments that interfere with making sound investments of public and philanthropic funds, and ultimately make it impossible to attain the goals we share.

Lisbeth B. Schorr
Pathways Mapping Initiative
Harvard University’s Project on Effective Interventions
Washington, D.C.

Writing’s ‘Revolution': Shouldn’t It Begin With Reading?

To the Editor:

The orange alert has been displayed for the state of written composition. Two of your recent articles (“Survey: Instructor Views Differ on Import of Grammar,” April 16, 2003, and “Panel Calls for Writing Revolution in Schools,” April 30, 2003) indicate that the two big precollege testing groups are moving to improve student writing. The May issue of The Council Chronicle, an official publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, reports that the NCTE is “mobilizing” a campaign to support writing. The task will not be easy.

The ACT program’s modest three- page news release, referred to in your “Survey” article, pinpoints one of the problems: High school English teachers and those who teach entry-level college courses have a huge disagreement on which writing skills are most important for students to master. The high school teachers maintain that, on a six-point checklist, “writing strategy” is most important; the college instructors claim “grammar and usage” is most significant, whereas the high school teachers rank it last.

The ACT release fails to define “writing strategy,” but it seems that it is connected with the prewriting steps in the “process writing” fad that was supposed to cure writing ills a few years back. If so, that suggests that the high school teachers surveyed believe that the proof of the pudding is in the pudding-making. Equally disappointing, if the product being striven for is a thoughtful essay, is the college teachers’ fix on “grammar and usage.” Since experts on composition have referred to these elements as “cosmetic dimensions” of language, one wonders what became of the heart of the text, the idea. Indeed, if “grammar and usage” is such a glaring problem, the criteria used to decide that these writers are college-ready need reviewing.

As befits a 40-page report that calls for a writing “revolution” in schools, the 25-member panel assembled by the College Board, the sponsor of the SAT, is top-heavy with presidents, superintendents, chancellors, and the like. Some suggestions about launching the “revolution” include: revising state standards; doubling the time students spend on writing; using political leadership to invoke the power of the “bully pulpit” to develop a National Conference on Writing; and obliging all teachers, regardless of discipline, to take courses in how to teach writing.

These certainly are noble intentions, but I must confess to some questions about the efficacy of most of them. Moreover, the last recommendation is so far removed from the reality of the fiscal crisis that is strangling education nationwide that it has no chance of implementation in the foreseeable future. It reads: “States and the federal government should provide the financial resources necessary for the additional time and personnel required to make writing a centerpiece in the curriculum.”

Several years ago, I was engaged in a research project that identified superior 9th grade writers based on organization, maturity of insight, word choice, and style. A number of background variables were checked to ascertain which ones may have helped mold superior writers. The most significant common strand was that the students were avid readers. They read some “good” books, but the quality of their reading was less important than the amount of reading they did.

This finding is pertinent, I think, as the College Board panel attempts to launch its revolution. How are kids whose primary language inputs are a substandard verbal environment and the frequently pedestrian language of television, films, and rap recordings going to learn to use written language with precision?

It is sad to see kids for whom writing an essay is a crapshoot because they have not developed the internal criteria to determine whether their compositions are satisfactory or not. And even when teachers tell them stories of personal acquaintances who were unable to move up a career ladder because of writing inadequacies, the students are probably thinking of people they know who appear to be prospering, even though writing is not one of their strong suits. If they do buy into our pitch and recognize writing as a humanizing influence as well as a leg up toward a career, how quickly can they read enough to assimilate the fluency a well-written piece requires?

There is an irony in this situation. More good books are being written today than ever before in our country’s history. Those of us who like to read also like to read about reading. Each week when I open The New York Times Book Review, I hope that there aren’t more than two or three books that appeal to me, because I don’t have time to read them. And there are scores of future professional writers out there. Some 300 college creative-writing programs have many more applicants than they can accept. In high schools, assigning more papers under present conditions is like putting a few more spikes in an iron maiden and inviting English teachers to step in and close the door.

One hopes that, as a new Harry Potter book is about to be released, Harry Potter fever will become contagious, kids will be inspired to read other books, and through their reading, transform their writing into a more acceptable expression of their ideas.

Henry B. Maloney
Troy, Mich.


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