Education Letter to the Editor


October 05, 2004 13 min read
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Arizona Plan Will Harm Those It Seeks to AID

To the Editor:

Your article on Arizona’s plan requiring teachers and school administrators to be trained in structured English immersion (“Ariz. Educators to Get Mandatory Training in English Immersion,” July 28, 2004) failed to address the deep controversy surrounding bilingual education in our schools, and the potential harm that some programs pose for English-language learners.

You report, for example, that Arizona’s plan requires administrators and classroom teachers to take 15 hours of training in structured English immersion by August 2006. Yet, 15 hours of training in this area is insufficient to prepare teachers to work effectively with English-language learners.

The state’s decision to endorse structured English immersion undermines its current English-as-a-second- language endorsement, which consists of 18 units of college-level coursework in addition to foreign-language study. While the state is not officially abolishing the ESL endorsement, it will for all intents and purposes be rendered obsolete because the structured-English-immersion endorsement is all that will be required for the legal placement of an English-language learner in a teacher’s classroom.

This leads to the other major concern of those who advocate for English-language learners. Margaret Garcia Dugan, Arizona’s associate superintendent for academic achievement and a former co-chair of the Proposition 203 campaign there, is quoted in your article as saying, “We believe all students should have access to all teachers.” She continues to say that “as soon as kids learn the vocabulary and are taught language early on, they should be able to mainstream as quickly as possible.”

Note the contradiction in Ms. Dugan’s statements. Under the Arizona plan, every classroom in the state will be a legal placement for English-language-learning students. Thus, there will be no classrooms into which English-language learners can be “mainstreamed,” as they will initially be placed in mainstream classes and taught by mainstream teachers with only a minimal amount of training.

Arizona’s plan is an attempt to legally return to the one-size- fits-all, sink-or-swim education that was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols.

The impetus for the training policy stems from the Flores v. Arizona lawsuit, in which a federal judge found the education of English-language learners to be lacking in several areas, including teachers’ qualifications. But Arizona’s plan will mean that such students will be taught by teachers with less training, not more. For this reason, the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Flores v. Arizona case have expressed their opposition to the state’s new policy and have recently filed a legal challenge to it.

Wayne E. Wright
Assistant Professor
University of Texas at San Antonio
College of Education and Human Development
Division of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies
San Antonio, Texas

Seeking Helpful Stories Along ‘Wilderness Road’

To the Editor:

Along with Howard Good (“Wilderness Road,” Commentary, Aug. 11, 2004) I have been trying for years to put across the understanding that for students to succeed in academics, they have to be helped to learn how to handle emotions that can undermine or support achievement.

When our children go to school, they take more than their heads. They take their hearts—their enthusiasm, their experiences, their hopes, their dreams, and yes, their fears.

I have begun writing a book to be titled It’s Hard to Be Smart When You’re Scared. I would welcome hearing from educators (and others) who themselves have been scared by, and in, school, and learning how they have handled these fears and who helped them along the way.

Dorothy Rich
Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.

Students Tackle Global-Conflict Mediation

To the Editor:

It was refreshing and enlightening to read about students from around the world getting together to discuss a global problem, in this case the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“Students Try Hands at Solving Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” July 28, 2004).

Your article on the conference held at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass., mentioned that the students attending were taught different methods used to role-play these mock negotiations, including shuttle mediation. It is my hope that the community model of mediation and face-to-face negotiation was also used. When parties are separated and don’t sit down and face one another, there is little hope for future reconciliation, only a continuation of hostile feelings.

Great work by Phillips Academy.

Robert Otey
Concordia University
Austin, Texas

Liberia’s ‘Fragile Peace’ and Degree Validation

To the Editor:

As an educator and Liberia scholar, I can assure you that after almost 15 years of civil war and destruction, no Liberian institution, not even a government ministry, could certify that any educational institution, let alone a graduate-diploma program, is legitimate or of high quality (“Ga. Educators Lose Licenses Over Degrees From Liberia,” News in Brief, July 28, 2004).

I have lived and worked in Liberia for over 35 years, and the Liberian people and their country are very dear to me. Liberia and its institutions are in a shambles. Its citizens pray that the current fragile peace will hold and allow them to rebuild their lives, and their own schools.

Jo Sullivan
Lynn, Mass.

A Call for Standards in ‘Techno Common Sense’

To the Editor:

As a system-support technician at a midsize newspaper, I deal with individuals of all ability levels and attitudes about computer technology and networking. While I am working out an issue on a client machine, I usually get into some form of conversation with the user. During these conversations, I see fear, incomprehension, anger, lack of self-confidence, over-confidence, apathy, and frustration. Whatever the attitude, one of the first things that I often hear is “I know this is probably common sense, but …" All too often, I say something like “oh … that’s not it” or “diagnosis is often harder than the solution.” Yet, it is worthwhile to try to define what common sense is in relation to computers and networking. When on the topic of technological literacy, it is important to note a major difference separating it from human or cultural literacy.

Cultural literacy builds its definition of common sense on the fact that people, accounting for age, have the same amount of life experience. Quality of experience is, of course, a different subject. We all have a similar amount of experience with which to build a general set of operational guidelines.

Technological literacy also bases itself on experience, yet it is varied by age, socioeconomic status, culture, self- confidence, and desire. People do not yet have a shared set of experiential knowledge from which to build a true definition of literacy in this sphere, thus taking the idea of a “techno common sense” into the realm of the subjective—and making it useless as a basis for our assessments and opinions of others.

We must, then, create a technological-literacy standard, not only as a guide to what students need, but for all of society.

We must identify ways to create an affordable, tangible, and meaningful experiential set from which the society can someday form an opinion of what technological common sense is.

Ben Shaw
St. Charles, Ill.

To the Editor:

Computer Games: How Useful to Education?

The questions posed in your article on computer games (“Digital Games Bring Entertainment Into Learning Realm,” Aug. 11, 2004) are quite relevant. My experience in this field has shown me that games can be excellent educational tools. They reinforce learning and allow students to apply newly acquired knowledge. They also engage and enthrall.

But caution must be exercised to ensure that every game has a clear pedagogical purpose and is not being used purely for entertainment. If we do that, games will be pivotal in powering contemporary learning.

Alison Harvey
JED New Media
Montreal, Canada

To the Editor:

The use of digital simulation and other sophisticated technology has no place in the lower grades, where the educational process needs to be holistic, employing a multisensory approach. Play, well-rounded physical education, and the arts, as well as more traditional elements such as learning the times tables by rote and cursive-writing practice, have all but disappeared from the typical elementary classroom.

The building blocks that support healthy socialization, critical-thinking skills, and much more arise out of a classroom that allows for continuous interaction between children and their teachers across all these traditional mediums: a microcosm of the culture we live in.

Education is not about entertainment; it’s about chronological development and age-appropriate content. The picture of kindergartners and children in the early grades pecking away at computer keyboards and staring into monitors is antithetical to a healthy learning process.

Alan Booker
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

We must first agree that public education is supposed to prepare students for the outside worlds of employment and/or higher education, and that these “customers” both indicate we are failing. Only then can we decide on curriculum and teaching priorities. Virtual simulations probably would not be at the top of our priority listand could even wind up on our long list of abandoned fads.

John Shacter
JS Educational Consultants
Kingston, Tenn.

‘What Works’ Divergence

To the Editor:

In your article “Researchers Question Clearinghouse Choices” (Aug. 11, 2004), and in a previous letter to the editor by Michael Pressley (“Education’s Clearinghouse: One Researcher Tells What’s Not Working,” Letters, July 28, 2004), critics of the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse complain about the selection criteria and simplified reports it uses. Mr. Pressley argues that the results of the clearinghouse’s analyses should themselves be subject to peer review.

In my view, these complaints overlook the larger picture. If peer-reviewed scholarship were working as it should, the What Works Clearinghouse might not have been necessary.

For decades, education has been infused with faddish and ineffective practices. Each of these innovations has claimed some kind of research base. So how is it that so few of them have been debunked? There are hundreds of peer-reviewed journals and thousands of scholars, yet it seems that most fads die of old age before researchers notice them.

For example, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has rolled along for over 10 years on the slimmest of research bases. Millions have been spent, and controversy abounds, yet there has been virtually no skepticism expressed by the “top-notch educational scientists” that Mr. Pressley says can answer our questions. Where are the peer-reviewed studies when we really need them?

The Campbell Collaboration and the What Works Clearinghouse emerged because too many false positives have crept into the education knowledge base, and too few of them have been challenged. The consumers of educational research have grown increasingly skeptical, and they seek analyses of research that are independent and accessible to a general audience—that is, the very kind of reports published by the What Works Clearinghouse and criticized by Mr. Pressley.

Instead of complaining about how the What Works Clearinghouse falls short, the aim of improving educational research would be better served by asking why education’s peer-reviewed scholarship has so often failed to be clear about what works and what doesn’t.

J.E. Stone
Education Consumers ClearingHouse
& Consultants Network
Johnson City, Tenn.

To the Editor:

In your recent article, I was referred to as a leading critic of the What Works Clearinghouse, based on a previous letter to the editor and some interview remarks. I want to be clear to all: My basic position is that the products of the What Works Clearinghouse should be reviewed by well- qualified scientists who are independent from the clearinghouse and its sponsors, with those reviews made public. Based on the initial public offerings from the clearinghouse, I predict there will be serious concerns in such reviews.

I add at this point that I can imagine more certain, less expensive mechanisms that could more certainly achieve the same ends that the What Works Clearinghouse claims publicly as its mission, doing so with more certainty of high quality.

Experimentation, when used by excellent scientists, is a theory-testing tool, one that can get well beyond the “what works?” question, to questions as to why, when, where, and with whom interventions work. The overfocus of the What Works Clearinghouse on the least theoretically revealing of questions that experimentation can address parodies educational science, rather than representing well the scientific process to those who might consult the clearinghouse.

A process that involved much more completely the scientists who are doing the work that should be brought to the attention of the public could provide a fuller understanding of what scientists do know and can know about teaching and learning. The U.S. Department of Education’s emphasis on what-works evaluation efforts rather than theoretically penetrating inquiry, including theoretically penetrating experimentation, should be rejected by the educator community.

Michael Pressley
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Mich.

Down the Assessment Hole: Can Teachers Get Better Results, for Less?

The wise and literary essay by Sherman Minter (“Down the Rabbit Hole,” Commentary, July 28, 2004) provides us with considerable food for thought.

For instance, Mr. Minter’s first suggestion, that testing needs to deliver timely and useful information to students and schools, is being met in large measure by the daily, often hourly, assessment teachers conduct themselves because they want to know if their instruction is effective. From reading students’ body language, to asking them questions, to testing before and after lessons, teachers are constantly gathering and assessing data to determine how to restructure instruction and chart students’ progress. We need to appreciate the fact that teachers assess in ways that cost the taxpayers nary a cent extra, and provide almost instant results.

Many of us have never understood how the public can be well served by using the expensive standardized testing currently in vogue. People know whether their local school is funded properly, is in good repair, has experienced teachers and solid leadership, and whether the students are being challenged and are enjoying school. They don’t need to know that the crosstown schools, both private and public, score better on norm- referenced standardized tests. They need to know if graduates of their local schools are able to enter postsecondary schools; and, if not, they need to demand better conditions, resources, and support for those schools.

Mr. Minter also calls for providing alternate routes to success for students. In the same way that a number of inner-city schools have had great success in chess competitions, any school can promote projects that allow kids to work on skills while tackling a task rich with meaning for them and their community. Such projects allow them to demonstrate their abilities and progress, and can, when compared with project work from a more advantaged school, stand toe to toe with it.

Instead of spending heaps of money on standardized testing, how about funding initiatives that contribute to the resources teachers hunger for? Here are a couple of ideas:

Set up and maintain regional Web sites where teachers can post students’ project work, including writing, art, scripts and videos, original research, and photos of displays, as well as teachers’ notes or critiques of those projects. Such a site also would provide stimulating ideas for other teachers.

Provide paid sabbaticals for some creative teachers, who would then spend a year researching and reporting on important issues in education, or designing interdisciplinary projects dealing with science and social studies, or simply serving as online consultants and mentors for other teachers looking for ideas, resources, and strategies.

A third idea might be simply to hire a fair number of additional teachers.

Mr. Minter’s essay has me itching to find out more about the Northwest Evaluation Association’s testing, and how it’s related to nongraded programs, and to reread Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to look for more allegorical gems.

Mike MacLeod
Shoreline, Wash.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Letters


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