Education Letter to the Editor


February 21, 2001 9 min read
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Continuing Debate on Arts and Learning

To the Editor:

Richard J. Deasy and Harriet Mayor Fulbright have replied, in “The Arts’ Impact on Learning” (Commentary, Jan. 24, 2001), to our earlier Commentary, “Does Studying the Arts Enhance Academic Achievement?,” (Nov. 1, 2000). In that essay, we discussed our 10 meta-analyses of the frequently voiced claim that arts education improves children’s academic performance. We concluded that only three causal links between arts and academics were upheld.

Mr. Deasy and Ms. Fulbright believe that we have misinterpreted our own findings, noting that “each of the meta-analyses actually reported positive effects of the arts on literacy and numeracy.” Unfortunately, finding a positive effect is only the first step in meta-analytic research. One must then determine whether the effect size is or is not statistically significant (that is, whether one could expect an effect of that size in another group of similar studies). In seven out of 10 cases, statistical tests forced us to conclude that our results could not be generalized reliably to future studies. We stand by our conclusion.

Mr. Deasy and Ms. Fulbright also state that we claimed that the finding that music improves spatial skill has “ ‘nil’ importance to education.” We were referring here to the “Mozart effect” findings of a 10- to 15-minute enhancement of performance on spatial tests. The “Mozart effect” studies have been popularly misunderstood as having implications for education. But how could teachers harness an effect that disappears in less than 15 minutes?

Our analysis of studies in which children learn to play music did show long-term spatial enhancement. The dispute here is not about the importance of spatial reasoning, but about whether music is the best way to develop these skills, and whether developing these skills should be a primary goal of music instruction. We doubt that music instruction boosts spatial skills as much as direct instruction. In addition, because school curricula typically do not make much use of spatial cognition, this enhancement might not show up in higher academic performance.

Mr. Deasy and Ms. Fulbright’s claim that spatial reasoning is involved in comprehending words and making connections among ideas would need to be tested empirically; indeed, many cognitive scientists would predict that spatial reasoning operates independently of logical or verbal thinking.

Finally, Mr. Deasy and Ms. Fulbright state that “obviously ... a rich array of arts education research employing a wide variety of research methodologies” was not included in our analyses because of the constraints of the meta-analytic technique.

True, we did not include studies lacking numerical data, nor did we include studies whose outcome measures were teacher testimonials rather than direct measures of academic outcomes. If we omitted studies that fairly test the claim that studying arts improves cognition outside of the arts, we hope researchers will alert us to them. More than a year of electronic and hand searches, and requests to over 200 members of the field, failed to turn them up. Of the seven studies in the “Champions of Change” document cited by Mr. Deasy and Ms. Fulbright, we included all five that assessed nonarts outcomes.

Mr. Deasy and Ms. Fulbright cite Michael Timpane’s view that arts education research is in an early developmental stage. We agree. Our goal in synthesizing the existing research was to determine what the research shows thus far, and in so doing, to help guide future research.

Ellen Winner
Cambridge, Mass.

Lois Hetland
Cambridge, Mass.

Errors, Distractions Mar Science Texts

To the Editor:

Your article “Middle School Science Texts Full of Errors, Review Finds,” (Jan. 24, 2001) is on target, and the problem demands correction.

As a visiting science educator at the National Science Foundation from 1989 to 1993, I was assigned to address the issue of content errors within the multimillion-dollar curriculum-project materials funded by the foundation. Sad to say, when the “error issue” was called to the attention of the science-curriculum materials’ project directors, they often criticized the NSF, a federal agency, for meddling in their grant activities.

Eventually, the agency gave up on its attempt to correct the content-error problem, even though it became clear that too often science- knowledgeable project directors were too busy searching for funds for future projects or becoming involved in other projects they thought would move them up the professional ladder to correct it themselves. They often turned over the writing of the science materials to professional, generic writers. This practice, coupled with textbook publishers’ elimination of editing by experienced in-house science teacher-editors to reduce costs, led to too many textbooks, newsletters, and other publications that were undesirable from a content standpoint.

Larger numbers of authors working on a text is not cause for the error problem. High-quality school science texts have for many years been successfully authored by teams. But these texts were carefully and thoroughly edited for accuracy and appropriate readability level. An informal study of the level of readability of science textbooks today has revealed that they are, on average, written at levels two grades beyond the grades for which they are marketed to be used, thus helping to turn students away from both science and the experience of reading within a critical content area.

I recommend that Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, conduct a thorough study of textbook publishers’ practices and then correct his statements quoted in your article. Teachers in local school districts and state textbook-adoption committees also must carefully review science textbooks with an eye to these content weaknesses, and should consider the extent to which they rely on overwhelming numbers of colorful drawings and the like that can distract students from reading and understanding science.

Frank X. Sutman
Curriculum Development Council
Rowan University
Glassboro, N.J.

Forced Union Dues Are the Real Villain

To the Editor:

Joe A. Stone, the dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Oregon, may declare that “collective bargaining is not the devil behind poor student performance” (“Study Questions Image of Unions As Villains in School Reform Saga,”Research, Jan. 31, 2001), but the facts speak louder than any denial he or others can muster.

If teachers’ union officials would spend as much time working on school reform issues as they spend on collecting and expanding their harvest of forced union dues, Mr. Stone’s argument might merit debate.

Both National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers officials talk a lot about education reform, while they continue to smother creative reform efforts with monopoly bargaining contracts that mandate every aspect of schooling from the calendar to the curriculum.

It is a fact that teachers in 20 states and the District of Columbia can be required to pay compulsory union dues—so- called “agency fees"—as a condition of employment. Union officials often demand that districts fire teachers who refuse to pay such fees, regardless of their qualifications or length of service. Even tenure is irrelevant in the face of refusal to pay dues.

There is no argument that validates teachers’ being forced to pay union dues in 20 states. The overriding debate is not whether it is legal—but whether it’s right.

Cathy Jones
Concerned Educators Against
Forced Unionism
National Right to Work Committee
Springfield, Va.

IDEA ‘97: Adding Only Accountability

To the Editor:

With all due respect to the expertise and experience of Laurence M. Lieberman, we take exception to his essay “The Death of Special Education,”(Commentary, Jan. 17, 2001) and to the essence of his argument: that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, by emphasizing access to the general education curriculum, are denying students with disabilities an individualized education.

Mr. Lieberman is correct in his assertion that the trend is to educate students with disabilities with their nondisabled peers to the maximum extent possible. This is the premise behind the concept of “least restrictive environment,” which is not new in IDEA ‘97, but has been a major construct of the law since its passage in 1975. This reflects the wishes of parents, who want their children to be treated “like other children.” It also reflects what current education research tells us; namely, that many children with disabilities can succeed in the general education environment and benefit from access to the general education curriculum.

What is new with IDEA ’97 is that districts are held accountable for the progress of students receiving special education services. In this era of high-stakes testing and emphasis on accountability, we cannot, and should not, excuse schools from accountability for the progress of students with disabilities.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education, which represents the directors of special education in the states and outlying territories, wholeheartedly believes that students with disabilities are best served when they are provided individualized access to the general education curriculum, with appropriate services and support, and when all of those involved in working with them focus on educational outcomes, allowing teachers to spend more time teaching and less time completing paperwork.

If this were universally the case, then Mr. Lieberman’s concerns about the lack of individual attention and failure in the general education curriculum would become irrelevant.

Bill East
Executive Director,
National Association of State
Directors of Special Education
Alexandria, Va.

Voucher Research ‘Meshes Elegantly’
With Reading Data

To the Editor:

In response to the essay “In Defense of Our Voucher Research,” (Commentary, Feb. 7, 2001): Everyone appears to be groping for some sociological reason for the consistent pattern of data observed, while ignoring likely differences in curriculum between the public and private schools. The most important of such differences will be in the area of reading, that is, the private schools will likely be using a phonics approach vs. the public schools’ use of whole language or some arbitrary eclectic mix.

The implications for black children are described in a previous letter in these pages (“Inability to Read Fuels Blacks’ School Alienation,”Letters, Feb. 25, 1998), wherein I described research with a test that quantifies the differences in decoding accuracy caused by whole-word teaching vs. phonics as a beginning exposure to print. The test is the Miller Word Identification Assessment, or MWIA.

The MWIA findings relate to the voucher research, in that our data show African- American children to be twice as vulnerable as whites to the damaging effects of whole-word teaching. We don’t yet have the data to demonstrate why, but our speculations involve the sensitivity to sounds that appears to run very strong in the black cultural makeup. A more extensive description of the test and its results is available online at www.literacy-engineering.com, under the title, “Black Underachievement—The Reading Connection.” The connections between African-American student achievement and phonics teaching are further borne out in the report “No Excuses: Lessons From 21 High- Performing, High-Poverty Schools,” which is online at www.noexcuses.org. In the schools described, inner-city black children are achieving well above the 50th percentile in schools where intensive systematic phonics is the norm.

The pieces of the puzzle are all there, just fit them together. The voucher research meshes elegantly.

Charles M. Richardson
Huntington Station, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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