Education Commentary


February 16, 2000 9 min read

Early Testing Gains? Not for All States

To the Editor:

Your front-page article (“Testing’s Ups and Downs Predictable,” Jan. 26, 2000) may need a correction or an addition. You write, “Of the states in the early stages of testing, only Massachusetts failed to post significant gains in the second year of its new assessment,” suggesting that most states climb their first few years.

I don’t believe one would say that we have made significant gains here in Colorado. We began the Colorado State Assessment Program in the spring of 1997, so we now have three years of results for the 4th graders throughout the state in reading and writing.

The percentage of students who have performed at the proficient or advanced level has changed little:

READING 1997—57 percent 1998—57 percent 1999—59 percent WRITING 1997—31 percent 1998—36 percent 1999—34 percent

The lack of improvement by the third year (and similarly low figures for 7th graders last spring, their first year of the CSAP) is one of the key reasons the governor and legislature seem ready to consider a fairly extensive set of education proposals this session.

Peter Huidekoper
Denver, Colo.

Aid Populations, Not Income Brackets

To the Editor:

Your recent article about a study on the failure of minority-outreach programs to help underrepresented youths qualify for selective colleges illustrates how erroneous the conventional wisdom that routinely equates low income to low achievement can be (“Minorities Need Path to Top Schools, Report Finds,” Jan. 19, 2000.) The reality of low achievement in the African-American and Hispanic communities is, however, much more ubiquitous.

Statistically, the children of wealthy African-American parents are just as likely to be significantly behind their white peers as are their poorer brethren. This should lead one to focus any outreach program on the entire minority population, rather than the current method of emphasis within a specific income bracket.

Patrick Gould
Middleton, Wis.

Teacher Quality and Test-Score Nonsense

To the Editor:

A Washington Post article carried in the Seattle Times recounted this comment made at your press conference marking the release of Quality Counts 2000 (Jan. 18, 2000): “The best and brightest [teachers] are most likely to leave” education as a profession.

If the reporting is accurate, I find myself wondering two things: Was a slap in the face intended for all those high-quality teachers who have not left the profession? And why would anyone make such a sweeping statement based on SAT scores alone—and on data for one year only?

You probably had good intentions, wanting to point out that high-quality people leave teaching because of the conditions, pressures, and appallingly low salaries. But that isn’t what you said, and the message to me was as clear as if I had been slapped: “Dummy, you got suckered. If you were smart, you would have bailed on this years ago.”

The real problem is with equating high test scores and intelligence. A score of 1600 on the SAT does not automatically mean someone will be a good teacher, and if you have spent any time at all in education you should know that. I refuse to assume that someone who scored higher than I on the SAT is by default a better teacher—or that someone who scored lower is worse.

This obsession with test scores panders to intellectual laziness, which is exactly contrary to what we should be doing as educators. Add to this that the study was based on one year of graduates, and you have a study that I believe is on shaky ground.

This study—and your comments—have added nothing to the discussion about education, and in fact have detracted from it by once again diverting attention to abstracted, quantified, standardized, interpreted, and norm-referenced nonsense.

Kelly Locklin
Seattle, Wash.

Title I: For Children, Not Bureaucracies

To the Editor:

John F. Jennings’ musings on Title I programs seem to be more a calefacient than fact (“Title I—A Success,” Jan. 26, 2000.) And as with those remedies of yore, when we remove this mustard plaster, it will hurt.

At the outset, we need to distinguish between Title I programs for schools and Title I programs for students. If we focus on the schools as institutions, bureaucracies, and places of employment, I suppose we could stretch the facts far enough to say Title I has been a success. Yes, more part-time adults have been hired through the program.

Title I monies do eventually get to the level of a local school. But before they reach that delta at the student’s desk, this once-mighty river (some $8 billion annually) resembles more the Colorado than the Amazon. The net result of that flow is less than 40 cents on the dollar at the local school, for the local student. One could hardly say this was a Title I service to students. Two-thirds of the program is to sponsor adults.

If, as Mr. Jennings notes, there is a 77 percent higher-than-otherwise funding for the poor in some areas, and if it’s true that Title I represents less than 10 percent of a district’s overall program and budget, that is indeed a crime—especially among the poor. But that’s hardly a success.

In its original form, this mighty Title I river of federal aid was directed at students and their individual educational needs. It was targeted assistance meant to break the cycle of poverty by educating students specifically, not being a federal cushion for otherwise untested social programs or as compensation for welfare reform. Mr. Jennings’ claims that Title I has raised the academic achievement of minority and poor children seem to be based only on inferential reasoning, not fact. Title I has been around since 1965. The reforms of which he speaks have only just started in 1995. What happened to the past 30 years? And the $7 billion to $8 billion per year?

That may be the way programs are measured in Washington, but that is a far cry from the reality found in most state schools. A government-sponsored and -funded RAND Corp. study is one thing. Individual test scores of individual students are another.

Instead of creating whole bureaucracies, Title I should be specifically targeted at children. Parents need to choose those compensatory benefits which best meet the needs of their children in the context of their family. Maybe that service would be after-school; maybe that service would be a tutorial at their home in the evenings. Maybe they could enroll in a commercial program at hours convenient for their schedules. Could be reading, could be math, could be a language tutorial. It could include the parents.

To presume that the state schools are the best and only answer is to relegate Title I to its current status. Title I should not be a handout to the states; Title I should be an educational hand up for the poor.

Robert Teegarden
Director of Education
California Catholic Conference
Sacramento, Calif.

To the Editor:

Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne, in their Commentary (“Service Learning Required,” Jan. 26, 2000), raise some important questions: “In the service of what?” and “What do students learn through community service?” These are valid concerns about the place of student service in education.

But before these questions can be fruitfully addressed, the authors need to clarify their terminology, particularly the way they use “community service” and “service learning” as if these were interchangeable terms for the same thing. They are not, and by using them synonymously, Mr. Westheimer and Mr. Kahne are adding to a growing confusion that hinders the efforts of practitioners and clouds the perceptions of both parents and education decisionmakers. These terms differ markedly, both in their meaning and in how they are implemented in schools. Only with a clear understanding of how they differ can school systems determine which is appropriate for their students.

The two terms embrace quite different practices. “Community service” describes extracurricular activity for young people aimed at “doing good” for local persons and institutions. But “service learning” (or in some states, community service learning) is an educational method—a process that uses the service experience to connect to, and powerfully integrate aspects of, the school curriculum. To be sure, in both contexts, students become actively engaged in service activity, which is valuable in its own right. But service learning adds (indeed, insists on) a reflection component that helps students understand and internalize their experience and how it relates specifically to academic content. As students analyze issues and explore the meaning of their service-learning experience (often as an entire class), they are doing precisely the kind of social analysis that Mr. Westheimer and Mr. Kahne call for.

By contrast, community-service efforts based in the schools are often reduced to students’ simply getting adult sign-offs that attest only to their having put in the requisite hours on a service project. Seldom is there a deliberate connection made to learning or to the curriculum. But school systems that use service learning as a means to support teaching and learning don’t have to paint themselves, or their students, into that corner. Students can become participants in an experientially based education that enriches and interprets subject matter. They can participate in activities that both impart academic content and reinforce the positive attitudes of character (such as taking responsibility, caring for others) that we want our children to acquire.

Distinguishing clearly between “community service” and “service learning” can thus free school districts to consider policies that can put community service to work for education as well as community betterment. I encourage the authors—and Education Week readers—to take a look at the Philadelphia public schools’ service-learning effort as an excellent example of how powerfully the experience of service can work when it is tied to instructional goals.

Carol W. Kinsley
Springfield, Mass.

To the Editor:

Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne were right on the mark. Service learning needs to be seen as a tool to reinvigorate the notion of civic duty in our young people, especially given the fact that three-quarters of students at all grade levels lack basic knowledge of the democratic process.

While volunteerism is up among youths, their interest in public life, including voting and careers in public policy, is down. A recent study seems to suggest that this lack of interest in politics and public policy is because young people don’t see how their actions can affect these institutions.

The desire to help their communities begins for young people in middle school. Children as young as age 10 or 11 have the capacity—not to mention the enthusiasm and creativity—to incorporate civic action and problem-solving skills into service-learning projects that create lasting change in their communities. For example, in a Charleston, S.C., middle school, a group of inner-city students will present to the City Council this month their plans for the abandoned lots and houses that surround their school. Students in an Ohio middle school are working to defeat state legislation that would make it more difficult to build bike paths.

Imagine the future potential of children who are part of these kinds of successes when they are just 11 or 12 years old. By planting the seeds of responsible citizenship in middle school, we instill those values for high school, college, and beyond.

Success stories like these require dedicated teachers and resources. It is vital that administrators participating in service-learning programs see the full potential of these programs, hold their students to the highest standards, and give their educators the resources to succeed.

Thomas Martin
Earth Force
Alexandria, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters