Education Letter to the Editor


April 07, 2004 20 min read
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Goals of Federal Law May Be Unattainable

To the Editor:

Although the intended goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are admirable, they are, in fact, unattainable as written (“The Contentious ‘No Child’ Law: Who Will Fix It? And How?,” Commentary, March 17, 2004).

The law attempts to legislate performance levels that would require every student in our country, regardless of disability, ability, or family income, to be 100 percent proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. Schools “failing” to achieve these levels would face a series of sanctions ranging from pejorative labels to closure.

Setting unreasonable and arbitrary educational benchmarks to measure student progress is both unfair and unproductive. Accurate assessment of student growth must take into consideration the educational level at which a child enters school, the barriers to learning he or she may have, the amount of progress the child makes from year to year, and the crucial impact that parents and home life can have on achievement.

Dedicated educators welcome the opportunity for their endeavors to be scrutinized and evaluated in a reasoned and valid manner. The procedures of the No Child Left Behind Act could, with reasonable changes, offer this opportunity. In its present form, the law masquerades as a panacea that will “leave no child behind.” This will not occur unless we are also willing to recognize those societal failures that have an impact on education—failures that teachers have no ability to control.

Labeling and punishing the very people who have dedicated their lives to the growth of students merely provides an easy avenue to lay blame.

True educational improvement lies in the more painful exercise of examining all the factors that affect the learning of our children. Teachers are but one.

Richard Marotto
Director of Elementary Education
Neshaminy School District
Langhorne, Pa.

Correcting Figures Cited For ’94 ESEA Funding

To the Editor:

We apologize to your readers for misreporting, in our Commentary (“The Contentious ‘No Child’ Law: Money Has Not Been Left Behind,” Commentary, March 17, 2004), the 1994 authorization and appropriation levels for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In 1995, Congress appropriated $6.7 billion of the $7.4 billion that was authorized. The numbers we reported for 2002 are correct: Appropriations were $10.4 billion of the $13 billion authorized for Title I. The substantive point remains unchanged: Congress regularly appropriates less than it authorizes.

Paul E. Peterson
Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government
Director, Program on Education Policy and Governance
Education Next
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Martin R. West
Research Fellow, Program on Education Policy and Governance
Research Editor,
Education Next
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Some Math Educators Work ‘Outside the Box’

To the Editor:

John Kaufman, in his Commentary “Education as Creative Conversation” (March 24, 2004), brings up a good point: Standardized testing and rote learning take the creativity out of teaching.

I am so glad that mathematics education is moving away from the rote memorization of content to an exploration of the processes of problem-solving, communication, and logical reasoning. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics emphasizes the need for both ways of learning—content and process.

While I am unaware of what’s required in Mr. Kaufman’s state, content and process have been woven into Washington state’s criterion-referenced tests, and teachers here have been urged to adopt a constructivist teaching style that captures learners’ attention and readies them for problem-solving, communication, and reasoning far more than did the “old style” math textbooks, in which students were assigned 45 homework questions of the same type.

Your readers should know that many math teachers around the world instruct their students to think critically, analyze thoroughly, and work “outside of the traditional box.”

Sally Stratton
Mead, Wash.

Denver’s Salary Plan: It’s Not ‘Merit Pay’

To the Editor:

Thank you for the well-written article previewing the vote on Denver’s new salary system, the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp (“Teacher Vote on Merit Pay Down to Wire,” March 17, 2004). But I must dispute your use of “merit pay” in the headline to describe anything we are doing in Denver.

We have developed a salary system utilizing, in part, “pay-for-results,” which is about as far from merit pay as one could get. Merit pay relies on a supervisor’s making a subjective judgment about an employee’s “merit” and then awarding money based on that opinion. Pay-for-results relies on a teacher and principal’s agreeing in advance on clearly written and measurable objectives and then awarding a salary increase based on whether those objectives are met.

Merit pay has been tried many times before and has failed because of favoritism, lack of objectivity, or lack of sufficient funding. We do not intend to travel that road again. We have crafted a plan that 59 percent of Denver teachers supported in a difficult economic climate. It directly links to the district’s goals and objectives. All of this is done with the ultimate goal of increasing student achievement. We welcome the nation’s attention as we prepare for implementation in January 2006.

Gary R. Justus
Denver Public Schools/Denver
Classroom Teachers Association
Joint Task Force on Teacher Compensation
Denver, Colo.

Why Do Some Disputes Remain Unresolved?

To the Editor:

For almost a hundred years, we have been researching and arguing about the effectiveness of teacher-led vs. hands-on learning, without a hint of a resolution (“Calif. Mulls Limiting Hands-On Science Lessons,” Feb. 25, 2004). Given this inability to resolve what should be an empirical question, we can hardly call ourselves professionals.

Barak Rosenshine
Urbana, Ill.

N.Y.C. Retention Policy Seen as ‘Power Politics’

To the Editor:

Educators and community leaders in New York City and throughout the nation are justifiably alarmed and concerned by the actions of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in reconstituting the city’s education policymaking board at the last minute in order to pass a mandatory-retention plan for 3rd grade students (“Mayor’s Firm Hand Over N.Y.C. Schools Sparks New Debate,” March 24, 2004). The mayor has created a dichotomy between “social promotion” and in-grade retention in order to play politics with the academic careers of thousands of 3rd graders, a majority of whom are undoubtedly poor and minority students.

An arbitrary policy of retention based on test scores disproportionately harms the most vulnerable students in our public schools, those who do not score well on standardized tests because they are English-language learners being tested in English. While many of these students may in fact be progressing at an average rate for second-language learners, they are not performing on grade level.

Mr. Bloomberg’s retention policy needlessly and arbitrarily penalizes these students, ignoring both their normal learning curve and what the preponderance of education research tells us about the harmful long-term effects of in-grade retention on their academic progress. We can judge from Mr. Bloomberg’s rhetoric on this issue that control over education policy and the approval of some of his political constituencies outweigh the legitimate concerns of minority community members over the academic futures of their children.

It is tragic when politicians act on the belief that their political fortunes are enhanced by “cracking down” on academically at-risk schoolchildren. The citizens of New York City should listen carefully to the voices of outrage at Mayor Bloomberg’s power politics and put control over education policy back into the hands of those who are most knowledgeable about, and most directly affected by, such policies.

Jill Kerper Mora
Associate Professor
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

How N.C. Seniors View Tougher Requirements

To the Editor:

As a senior at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, N.C., I recently completed a survey of graduating seniors from North and South Carolina, asking them for their opinions on the increased requirements we are completing for graduation. The class of 2004 in my own district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, is the first class, for example, to complete a mandatory 28-credit diploma requirement imposed by the district. This survey was part of my senior exit project.

It was not a scientific survey. Yet it did produce valuable insights and information from those directly affected by these new degree requirements. The three issues I was most interested in were: (1) Did seniors know about the differences in local and state graduation requirements? (2) Did they feel these increased local requirements either improved their chances of future success, had a marginal effect, or had no effect at all? and (3) Was there any difference in the seniors’ reactions based on their demographic information?

I found that many of my peers in Charlotte did not know that our district’s requirements differed from those mandated by the state. When I showed them a document from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction indicating that our state required 20 credits to graduate, rather than the 28 we are required to complete, they were very surprised. The majority of both upper- and lower-tier students academically felt the increased requirements would lead to decreased graduation rates among low-achieving students (although not among the higher-achieving students).

Issues of race and economics entered into the results, as minority and poorer students overwhelmingly indicated that increased requirements hindered their chances of graduating, while more affluent and nonminority students felt the exact opposite.

While many will discount the results of my survey, upon closer inspection, I hope they will agree that it might be beneficial to gauge student attitudes more scientifically, and to determine the reasons students feel as they do.

Public education has evolved: from a unifying force, during its early inception; to the dual systems that allowed discrimination against the poor and people of color; to a system today that offers exceptional opportunities to all. The next stage of this evolution will be determined by whether educators and others begin to listen more closely to those the system now serves.

Stephone P. Youmans
Charlotte, N.C.

Career Academies Continue to Evolve

To the Editor:

MDRC’s report showing the effects of career academies on young males’ earning potential reflects the positive work being done by academy teachers and leaders across the country (“Career Programs Offer Pay Boost, Study Says,” March 17, 2004). This study not only demonstrates the value of well-run career academies, but also shows the importance of a longitudinal study such as that of MDRC, which has been informing the development and implementation of career-academy models for much of the past decade.

Career-academy practice has evolved over the last few years, thanks in no small part to MDRC’s findings and recommendations. At the National Academy Foundation, we have been enhancing our national and regional professional-development efforts to improve curriculum, instruction, academy organization, and the all-important school-community partnerships. We have also provided ongoing attention to ensuring that academy course offerings are integrated with core academic skills. This positions the academy theme to take advantage of the contextual value it has always provided—as a “hook” to interest marginal students in school, so that they can then be more motivated to learn their academic subjects.

To bring about more effective “quality assurance” of academies nationwide, the National Academy Foundation, the Career Academy Support Network, the National Career Academy Coalition, and other organizations have developed national standards of practice, which will be released in the near future. The objective of these standards is to outline a basic set of principles common to career academies and to encourage fidelity to these tenets.

While it is hoped that the MDRC research will continue, we look forward to having a new study evaluate the extent to which, as we believe, well-implemented academies based on national standards of practice are correlated with more positive outcomes for young people, as well as the impact of enhancements to the earlier career-academy models studied by MDRC.

John J. Ferrandino
National Academy Foundation
New York, N.Y.

Assessment Fallacies

To the Editor:

One thing missing from Stephanie L. Bravmann’s fine Commentary on assessment (“Assessment’s ‘Fab Four’,” March 17, 2004)is the fact that, for both the No Child Left Behind Act and many local standards, the main level for determining success or failure is the individual school building. That fact alone virtually precludes any chance that truly fair, comparable assessment results can be obtained within and without school districts in many parts of the country.

Chicago provides a classic example, but hardly the only one, of why school-to-school comparisons are not viable. Chicago’s schools are well known to be segregated on the basis of racial and ethnic groups, by socioeconomics, and by student performance. As far as the No Child Left Behind Act’s goals and standards are concerned, the last item is the most important.

Segregation by student performance began with reform concepts that championed the creation of specialty schools called by a variety of names, such as “magnet schools,” “gifted centers,” “college preps,” and the like. In Chicago, many of the original ideas for these schools, especially the magnet schools, came about as a means of desegregation, in keeping with a consent decree with the federal government. Virtually all of these specialty schools were permitted to institute restrictive entry requirements; ironically, not very often on the basis of race, but almost always on the basis of high standardized-test scores.

The results of these policies, many in place for more than a decade, are predictable: Today at least 75 percent of Chicago public school students scoring in the upper 20 percent on standardized tests are attending approximately 5 percent of the district’s schools (not coincidently, the Chicago schools overall are as racially segregated as ever).

Obviously, those schools among the lucky 5 percent don’t have to worry about meeting both local and No Child Left Behind standards (although some local and federal standards are written so poorly that any school would have trouble meeting them). Of course, the remaining 95 percent of schools, which have no performance-based enrollment restrictions, must take anyone coming their way, including the specialty schools’ “rejects.” Because of this system, the nonspecialty schools have virtually no hope of meeting most of the local or No Child Left Behind standards.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that, as Ms. Bravmann points out well, the schools are judged solely on summative assessments. This not only skews the results in favor of the specialty schools, but ultimately results, when these assessments are combined with the largely punitive consequences attached to not meeting federal and related local standards, in the punishment of administrators, teachers, and students in Chicago’s nonspecialty schools for notdoing the impossible. Similar unfair situations exist in many other school districts across the country.

If the No Child Left Behind Act (as well as Chicago’s local standards) had improving a school’s performance as the major goal, instead of punishing schools for failure to perform, the formative and diagnostic assessments cited by Ms. Bravmann would be used along with, or in lieu of, summative standardized tests. New, innovative curricula and teaching approaches to address students’ deficiencies could be sought, rather than teaching to the test.

Until this occurs, the only way out for the nonspecialty schools is to cheat on the summative tests or go to court. Early indications are that the former is the preferred option.

Tom Sharp
Chicago, Ill.

Diplomas That Count

The Commentary by Michael Cohen, Chester E. Finn Jr., and Kati Haycock (“Creating a High School Diploma That Counts,” March 10, 2004) was most refreshing. It is rare that one ever reads an education piece that includes the words high school and college with the word work. Work is the four-letter word that long ago was banned from the educator’s lexicon.

Creating a high school diploma or, more accurately, a high school education “that counts” most assuredly must take into consideration the activity that consumes more of adults’ time than any other single thing they do while awake. Not addressing work as part of high school is a fatal flaw in the system.

Our high schools have evolved into college-prep institutions. “Comprehensive” high schools no longer exist. Students can take the honors college-prep, the regular college-prep, or the watered-down college-prep curriculum. The assumption always is that students are, or should be, going to college.

How deeply ingrained is this? Let me recount, by way of illustration, the introduction I received from a principal as I was beginning a school-to-career presentation to a middle school faculty: “You should listen to this, because some of your students may be going to work.” There wasn’t a snicker or a comment from the faculty members present, because they all knew, as the principal knew, that they were really preparing students for college. Work was not part of the equation.

To see how shortsighted this thinking is, consider the college-prep curriculum, then compare it to what one encounters on a daily basis outside college. The college-prep curriculum was designed more than a hundred years ago, and is virtually unchanged since. When it was first put together, Henry Ford hadn’t invented the assembly line. The Wright brothers were still repairing bicycles. We were closer to the abacus than the laptop.

If we are seriously to consider reforming high schools, we need to put college education into perspective. College is one step in preparing for life. College—or, more accurately, the college-acceptance letter—is not the terminal event in a high school student’s life. There is, in fact, life after college. It is this life that one, supposedly, is attending college for.

But not in this country. As the Northeastern University economist Paul Harrington notes, a college education in America has become a consumable product. It is something to be used up during the four or five years of attendance. In the rest of the world, college is an investment. It is one step, not the destination.

John Dewey suggested that school reflect life. Sage advice. Life includes, for all of us, large doses of work. For some of us, it includes four years of college. For a minority, life requires more college. Yet our high schools focus almost exclusively on this last group. For most of us, schools do not reflect real life.

The Commentary refers to the American Diploma Project’s benchmark standards in mathematics and English, and suggests that “they reflect an unprecedented convergence in what employers and college faculty expect from new employees and students.” If that is true, it will be the first time in over a century that a curriculum was provided to high school students that would enable them to be reasonably well prepared for both college and work.

Over many years, I have watched as guidance counselors and parents have worked diligently to push students into college-track programs. Upon graduation, going to college is no longer a choice. It is the only thing they are prepared to do because, unlike the proposed American Diploma Project curriculum, the college-prep curriculum is not at all related to real-world needs. We all know many of these students are woefully ill prepared even for college. They are soon college dropouts. We do a grievous disservice to such students.

On the other hand, I have also watched students who understood that it is not college that makes one successful (if earnings are one gauge of success), but the training one receives related to real life.

At the vocational center where I work, I can point to one senior electrician student who interned last summer for $800 per week. He’ll resume his work with that company upon graduation. Two automotive students, class of 2000, now earn over $58,000 a year. A senior drafting student draws house plans for customers who pay him $25 per hour.

These students have real-life skills. They would not have been well served, had they been beguiled by the college-prep siren song (which is not to say that any or all of them may not one day go to college).

I am not anti-college. Like most others, I wouldn’t want to be operated on by a graduate of the High School of Brain Surgery. But if a high school graduate is earning $58,000 fixing my car satisfactorily, I don’t need, nor can I afford, a Doctor of Motors degree. I agree with John Dewey: Let us create a high school curriculum that provides us with citizens who possess the skills to lead productive lives and who can satisfy the needs of our society.

If the American Diploma Project can do that, praise to them. If not, let us go back to the drawing boards.

Joseph H. Crowley
Warwick Area Career & Technical Center
Warwick, R.I.

To the Editor:

Commentary writers Michael Cohen, Chester E. Finn Jr., and Kati Haycock want students to fear that there is no job future for them unless they do better. But after 20 years, it’s an old story. Any fool can raise standards. That simple solution doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. Those who do the real work of education don’t need to be driven by fear to improve. No matter how frightened teachers and students might be, the question still remains: How can teaching and learning improve?

Global competition did more than require new skills for employees—it took away from many middle-class and working people the financial flexibility to invest in education. Now parents must carefully calculate how they spend the education dollar. They can’t afford the field-of-dreams delusion that if they spend $40,000 for a college degree, “the job will come.” Now they can only afford to prepare for jobs that will actually exist.

Your essayists declare that there are “jobs that pay enough to support a family above the poverty level.” Great. What are they? How many are there? Are we training a hundred students to fill 10 job slots? They don’t say.

Thoughtful critics can drive a truck through that hole in their argument—and truck drivers aren’t required to have a high-standards education or an expensive college degree to earn an above-poverty-level income. They are required to know a great deal about driving trucks—a skill that is not taught in any public, K-12 school today.

A recent U.S. Department of Labor study projects that by 2008, only 20 jobs out of 100 in America will require a college education. Yet, Ms. Haycock and Messrs. Finn and Cohen seem to be pushing more students, rather than fewer, to get a college education. Investments in high standards for student work and rigorous preparation for college must do more than feather the nests of college professors, universities, and education foundations.

Parents and students, like others, expect a return on the educational dollar they invest. It’s a family economic disaster to invest in a college degree for which a foreign competitor has already taken the job. The large amounts of money spent must lead to something other than the unemployment line for those with high expectations.

New injections of fear won’t help parents and students get the unemployment message. They got it. They don’t need another round of high standards to prove that they are failures. What they need is a direct line to employment in existing jobs. What they should expect is a commitment from business to support their efforts to continue their education while they are working.

Bill Harshbarger
High School History Teacher
Mattoon, Ill.


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