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March 06, 2002 6 min read
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Southern Progress May Be Illusory

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “Achievements in Education Give Southern States Reasons to Brag,” (Feb. 13, 2002): Claims by Gov. Roy E. Barnes of Georgia of impressive education progress in the South cannot be supported with the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He totally ignores a very important caution in recently released state naep report cards. This caution advises that when there have been changes in exclusion rates on naep, a state’s most recent scores may not be comparable to earlier performance, or to results for other states.

A number of Southern states have experienced tremendous increases in NAEP exclusion of students with learning disabilities. Most of these states are ones Gov. Barnes praised, with North Carolina being the worst example. In 1992, North Carolina excluded only 3 percent of its raw NAEP sample in both grade 4 and grade 8 NAEP math, and just 4 percent of the state’s raw sample was excluded in grade 4 reading. By 1998, the state’s reading exclusion figure skyrocketed to 10 percent, 21/2 times the 1992 figure.

Things got much worse in math, where by 2000, the state excluded 12 percent of its 4th graders and a whopping 13 percent of its 8th graders. Those are huge increases—400 percent or more. This means a lot more of North Carolina’s weakest students didn’t participate in recent NAEP tests. It is no surprise the state’s scores increased, but that doesn’t prove the state really did anything exceptional in education—except to grossly game the system.

An equally disturbing situation occurred with North Carolina’s 8th grade science performance. In 1996, the state excluded only 5 percent of its raw NAEP sample. Just four years later, 11 percent got cut. That is more than a 100 percent increase in just four years. Despite this, the state’s 8th grade science scores stayed totally flat. Certainly, if the excluded kids had been tested, North Carolina’s science scores would have dropped sharply.

Most of the other states in Gov. Barnes’ “hit parade” had similar exclusion increases, making their NAEP improvements suspect as well. For example, in grade 8 NAEP math, Kentucky’s exclusion jumped from 5 percent to 9 percent between 1992 and 2000. Maryland’s increase was even worse, going from 4 percent to 10 percent. In grade 4 reading, Kentucky’s exclusion soared from 4 percent of the raw sample in 1992 to 10 percent in 1998. Maryland’s 4th grade reading exclusion jumped up 50 percent in the same time frame. Like North Carolina, Kentucky more than doubled its exclusion on NAEP 8th grade science between 1996 and 2000. Maryland nearly tripled its exclusion on 4th grade math between 1992 and 2000.

No one knows for sure how the exclusion of all these children impacted scores, but a regression analysis of the change in scores vs. the change in exclusions for recent NAEP testing isn’t reassuring. This analysis indicates that all of Kentucky’s improvement on NAEP 4th grade reading between 1992 and 1998 could be illusory, for example. The only certain thing is that state NAEP results are uncertain whenever exclusion has changed. Even NAEP’s own reports admit that.

So Gov. Barnes’ NAEP-based arguments about Southern progress have no merit. But the really sad thing is that Mr. Barnes will fool a lot of uninformed people, perhaps even himself, with his figures. That may lead to educators chasing off, once again, after the wrong fads and methods. What a shame for our children.

Richard G. Innes
Villa Hills, Ky.

Teachers: ‘Heart and Soul of Schooling’

To the Editor:

Huzzah for Lloyd H. Elliott and his essay, “Restructuring American Education,” (Commentary, Feb. 13, 2002)! His comprehensive statement has the vision to say that current standards and tests have little value in improving our schools. Instead, he argues cogently that the dilemma of schools today cries out for: more money, more talent, and more time. Then he goes on to explain what to do and how to do it.

I would add three elements to Mr. Elliott’s excellent prescription:

1. Recognize what America’s best colleges have slowly discovered, that a significant aspect of learning about the world is found in the diversity of the student body. This viewpoint was once rampant in many schools, but for the last 30 years it has been losing ground. Schools, even more than colleges, can help youngsters understand the diversity of their country and its place in the world.

2. Emphasize the place of women as teachers in public schools. In the years before World War II and shortly after it, able female college graduates signed up to teach in schools because women were less wanted in better-paid jobs. Now, only a few of the most competent graduates become teachers; most of them go elsewhere for two reasons—the conditions under which they have to work in schools, and low pay. Indeed, the current misuse and overuse of testing make teaching a second or third choice for competent young women.

3. I was surprised to find Mr. Elliott suggesting thousands of school boards to provide the leadership to “reshape” the schools, but at second thought, perhaps he is right. For 30 years or more, we have put the changing of schools in the hands of the governors, presidents, and CEOs. Clearly, they have defined what Mr. Elliott calls a “systemic problem” that “will continue untreated.”

This viewpoint takes me back to 1989, when the president and governors met in Charlottesville, Va., to decide on the goals of American schools. They created a document that was spread across the land. The most interesting thing about it was the fact that it never even mentioned teachers.

Mr. Elliott comes up with the idea that the teachers are the heart and soul of schooling. I think he is right.

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

A Land of Many ‘Microcultures’

To the Editor:

Patrick F. Bassett rightly states in “Why Good Schools Are Countercultural,” (Commentary, Feb. 6, 2002) a fact that needs to be shouted about education today: “In a democratic society, schools reflect the character of the culture.” But which culture? Mr. Bassett implies that there are merely two cultures in our society, the popular culture and the counterculture.

There are, in fact, myriad “microcultures” in our society as well as the popular culture to which our children “default” when there is no stronger influence in their lives.

Because America is very young and vastly complex, with new cultural groups arriving in each generation since the days of 13 colonies, we lack a single unified culture but abound in microcultures. These can be seen not only in the new cultural groups of our generation, but also on a typical residential block, where from household to household, different cultural norms obtain: eating dinner together, or not; televisions in every room, or none; computers online in view of others, or nonexistent, to name just a few indicators.

In the absence of cultural norms, we strain as parents to make the right decisions, starting with how often to pick up a crying baby, in effect creating a culture in our homes. Why else would the bookseller Barnes & Noble have 17 shelves of books on parenting, each contradicting the next? There are no cultural norms about parenting or teaching in our society.

As a young society, the freest and most open in history, we are gradually transformed by the many groups that join us in each generation. It will take many generations for new cultural norms to be established.

It is not surprising, then, that educators do not have cultural norms to guide them in the classroom. That is why, as Mr. Bassett says, good schools must either reflect a microculture that already exists, or create their own cultures. Otherwise, our children will be victims of the “default culture.”

Ellen Taussig
Head of School
The Northwest School
Seattle, Wash.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters

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