Education Letter to the Editor


January 24, 2001 10 min read
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Arts Agency Aids Media Literacy

To the Editor:

Your article “Schools Begin To Infuse Media Literacy Into the Three R’s” (Dec. 6, 2000) is welcome attention to this increasingly important, but too often overlooked, area of the arts in our schools. The need for our children to “read and write” in the images, sound bites, and mixed media that are a natural part of their culture, entertainment, and information-gathering today is simply essential if they are to be prepared for citizenship in this new century.

While the programs and initiatives you describe focus principally on the “reading” side of this new literacy, a balanced approach to media-arts education also must enable students to create their own media images and messages, using the camcorder, computer, World Wide Web pages, and the ever-increasing array of digital technologies in sight and sound.

Kathleen Tyner, the author of Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information, suggests four key components to media literacy: deconstruction of messages or images; appreciation of the artistry of the images and the ability to make aesthetic judgments of media products; critical literacy in evaluating the content as well as the construction of the message; and media as forms of discourse for which students must find their individual voices by creating their own media works.

The 10 media-literacy grants recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, are focusing attention on this balanced approach to curriculum and learning in media. Descriptions of these media-literacy projects can be obtained on the Web sites of the Education Department and the arts endowment. In addition, recent projects in the endowment’s curriculum-based arts education grants category that further teaching and learning in the media arts are described on the agency’s Web site.

Doug Herbert
Director, Arts Education
National Endowment for the Arts
Washington, D.C.

Who’s Accountable? We All Should Be

To the Editor:

The current political debate over education seems to have left out the basic premise that, as a society, we are responsible for a system that provides to and is supportive of students while meeting their individual needs. Somewhere along the way, those in charge decided that problems in this system exist because someone is not accountable (as if a miraculous finger-pointing device of “accountability” will make the problems disappear). To ensure accountability, they decided to test students and teachers.

But what kind of accountability does this create, and whom does it serve (“Massachusetts Teachers Blast State Tests in New TV Ads,” Nov. 22, 2000; “Pressure To Pass Tests Permeates Virginia Classrooms,” Dec. 6, 2000)?

There is no efficacy in the accountability-through-testing model because of such issues as cultural bias, language barriers, and, most importantly, the fact that current grade-level tests do not reflect the content mandated within states’ educational standards. How can we judge accountability with inherently flawed testing?

Even if these problems were miraculously solved, however, there would be a greater threat. The testing model implies that accountability is something new to teachers. Yet, I don’t know a single one who feels unaccountable for the successes and failures of his or her students. I know many who feel that the education system fails them, however, and their students. Under this new accountability model, the system suddenly depends on what students and teachers give administrators and politicians—not on what administrators and politicians provide teachers and, ultimately, students. The not-so-hidden message is that students and teachers must prove they are worthy of the support they should have as a matter of course.

Our educational system is taxed tremendously by the social dilemmas within which it operates. Solving problems created by the pressures of poverty, population density, multijob households, and changing demographics will not be quick or easy.

There is one area of educational weakness, however, that can be addressed immediately and, if corrected, will have a significant impact on the quality of education and how it responds to social problems. That area of weakness is the support given teachers and students.

We must recognize the burdensome conditions under which teachers are working and do everything possible to help them. Tests that serve to shut down schools and limit financial resources do not represent a supportive model, but rather a punitive one.

We must remember that the outcomes of our educational system will only be as good as what we put into it. Teachers and students are not accountable for the outcomes; we all are.

Justin Pollock
Berkeley, Calif.

U.K. Visit Showed Schools’ Progress

To the Editor:

Commentary writers Dennis W. Cheek, Carol T. Fitz-Gibbon, and Peter Tymms (“The English Reforms Are Not for Us,” Dec. 13, 2000) take on British government official Michael Barber (“Large-Scale Reform Is Possible,” Commentary, Nov. 15, 2000) over standards-based reform in general and the centralist, United Kingdom reform in particular. Having just returned from the United Kingdom after a study visit of the English system, we must say that we heard and saw a picture very different from the vitriolic view they present.

We heard from students hoping to become barristers, artists, computer-systems managers, and other professionals who were excited about the opportunities that lay ahead in their educational futures. We noted that Mr. Barber and his staff at the standards and effectiveness unit worked to provide support for teachers and schools, while insisting on achievement targets. We saw excellent teaching, informed by a national curriculum and assessments, and data that showed many students benefiting.

Eleanor Dougherty
Annapolis, Md.

Marilyn Crawford
Lancaster, Pa.

Ms. Dougherty is a senior associate with the Education Trust in Washington, and Ms. Crawford works with the office of teaching and learning in the Lancaster, Pa., school district.

Quality Counts 2001: A Sampling of Reactions

To the Editor:

Your research may be very good and accurate, but here is the headline in the Milwaukee Journal that followed the release of your special edition “A Better Balance: Standards, Tests, and the Tools To Succeed” (Quality Counts 2001, Jan. 11, 2001): “School Report Gives State Poor Grades.”

Please tell me how you are helping public education when your stuff is taken so out of context. Here is the fifth paragraph of the Journal article: “As was true in the past, there weren’t many good report cards for any of the states in this year’s report. Editors said the average grade overall was a C- minus.” Alan Borsuk, the Journal writer, goes on to say, “But the report does not factor those results [good test results] into its grades because, as one of the authors put it, the report card focuses on improvements being made in education, whatever the starting point is.”

We go on to read that one of the editors of the report “agreed that states that emphasize local control get lower grades because the report aims to assess how good state systems are.”

The bedrock of Wisconsin education is its 426 local school districts, with over 2,500 school board members building a very broad base of support for the education of children in Wisconsin. Only one of these districts, namely the Milwuakee public schools, is failing. It should be destroyed and rebuilt as 20 school districts with 5,000 kids each and with 140 to 180 school board members instead of the current nine who are controlled by the “choice” folks.

Please stop being academic when your information is going to be used in the mainstream press. University folks have broad minds and don’t focus on simple concepts such as letter grades, but the press and the politicans, as you should know, think only in those terms.

Thomas Spellman
Milwaukee, Wis.

To the Editor:

Thank you! As a state senator with a great interest in public education, I want to express my appreciation to you for Quality Counts 2001. Though my printed version has not yet arrived, I’ve spent hours reading the Internet version. The information and its presentation are first-rate. It’s a valuable tool to policymakers. Since the first Quality Counts report five years ago, I’ve used it as my primary source of information as I seek to inform my constituents and evaluate policy alternatives. Well done!

Jim Argue
Little Rock, Ark.

To the Editor:

Quality Counts 2001 reports the following for Kentucky in the State Update section:

“More students than ever are taking the ACT—the most popular college-admission exam in the state—and scores stayed the same over the decade, bucking a trend that typically occurs when such tests broaden participation. Overall, ACT participation rose 19 percent over the decade.”

This entire paragraph is generally wrong.

1. Kentucky had a 24.69 percent change in ACT test-takers from 1990-91 to 1999-2000. The national change was 33.65 percent.

2. Kentucky’s ACT composite for all students went up only 0.1 points in this period. The national increase was 0.4 points.

Thus, it is not correct to say that when more students take the ACT, the scores stay flat. This only applies in states like Kentucky that are not really improving performance for all students.

Also, most of the increase in ACT test-takers in Kentucky has not come from public schools. If you examine ACT composite scores for public high school students only, Kentucky kids only improved their performance by 0.1 points from 1993 to 1999. Nationally, public high school graduates improved their scores by 0.3 points. That leaves Kentucky 0.2 points farther behind where it was in 1993 (the first year of automated data available to this researcher).

Richard Innes
Villa Hills, Ky.

To the Editor:

If South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming (Quality Counts 2001) are doing such a poor job of educating their young people, why do the students in these same states do so well when taking standardized tests and when going on to higher education?

Dale Rook
Beardsley, Minn.

To the Editor:

The fifth annual Quality Counts report awarding the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests the highest grades in the nation for school standards and accountability was published just a few days after a member of a review panel brought in by the Maryland board of education to assess the MSPAP in an in-house evaluation went public in TheSun of Baltimore with a scathing denunciation of all aspects of that testing program.

Recalling the hours he spent reading nearly 200 MSPAP binders chock- full of test items, Bill Evers, a political scientist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, excoriated the test and its graders for being utterly unconcerned with reading skills, academic content, factual accuracy, and the components of good writing.

According to Mr. Evers, the $300,000 report subsidized by Baltimore’s reputable Abell Foundation also found no evidence that “higher-order thinking skills” were in any way encouraged by the state test. “A great mystery to our panel is why Maryland parents and taxpayers tolerate this test, which is riddled with factual errors, graded unfairly, and doesn’t even cover content in the state’s own academic standards,” he concluded in his Jan. 3, 2001, (Baltimore) Sun Op-Ed piece.

For obvious reasons, the Abell Foundation report is being buried by our state board of education. As a Maryland high school teacher, I concur with Mr. Evers and plight my troth publicly with every conclusion reached by the Abell Foundation report. While the Quality Counts survey smacks of highly impressionistic dilettantism from afar, intensive on-site scrutiny has revealed a hopelessly shoddy testing program that has failed students, parents, and taxpayers across my state. First place, my foot.

Philip Greenfield
Annapolis, Md.

To the Editor:

I am writing in reference to your report that Maryland has done well with its Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. My son is in the 2nd grade in Prince George’s County, Md. The teachers teach to the MSPAP’s very rigid curriculum—not to the children’s needs.

I am also concerned that, as a parent, I have no idea what to expect during testing next year. For most standardized tests, such as the SAT or the Law School Admission Test, I can have “test” copies prior to taking them. But not of the MSPAP? How can I prepare my child? My child, by the way, is not reading yet (as is true for half his class), but his teacher is not allowed to teach as she feels she needs to, because of the curriculum, which teaches to the test. But I repeat myself.

In short, I am a frustrated mother in the state of Maryland who is seriously considering removing her child from the public school system because of this supposedly top-notch testing system.

Jane Hopkins
College Park, Md.

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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