Education Opinion


October 16, 2002 17 min read
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Rochester Mayor on Schools Chief’s Exit

To the Editor:

Your Oct. 2, 2002, article “Rochester Mayor Fights Janey’s Exit Deal” is based on an erroneous assertion by the ruling majority of the Rochester, N.Y., school board that I am the singular cause of former Superintendent Clifford B. Janey’s early exit from his position. In fact, I am alleged to have created a “toxic environment” that, combined with the calamitous events of Sept. 11, 2001, made it impossible for Mr. Janey to continue.

The term “toxic environment” is a favored term leveled by former board President Bolgen Vargas and his cronies against those who disagree with them. This foursome strongly believes that Mr. Janey was exemplary in his stewardship. Many people throughout the community, with no known connection to my administration, strongly disagree. What has created the toxic environment is the uncontrolled spending and the dismal student performance of this school district in recent years.

The president of the teachers’ union, Adam Urbanski, attributes the district’s fiscal woes in part to the “terrorist attacks of last September.” Sept. 11, 2001, has become the ready response to a multitude of problems—even those occurring prior to that fateful day. Sept. 11 has become the rationale for not holding people accountable for fiscal irresponsibility.

I am not the cause of Mr. Janey’s problems. Mr. Vargas conveniently omitted the fact that during my nine years in office, the city has contributed over $1.1 billion toward the school district’s budgets. While these contributions are required by state law, in the past few years we have contributed more than the cities of Buffalo and Syracuse combined to their respective districts. And, as clearly documented in media accounts, during the earliest days of the district’s fiscal crisis, my financial team was working side by side with district staff members to close their huge deficits.

In the last six months, four independent agencies have identified numerous management and fiscal problems in the district. These reports were produced by the audit firm of Deloitte & Touche, the New York state comptroller, the Center for Governmental Research, and the New York State Department of Education. In addition, a board-retained outside attorney identified eight specific instances where the superintendent had exceeded his authority or failed to install proper controls, thereby causing the improper expenditure of millions of dollars.

The comptroller’s report concluded: “The majority of the actions taken to address the 2001-02 projected operating deficit did not resolve the underlying causes of the financial problems.”

The fiscal problems of the district have also had a direct impact on the city’s bond rating, which was recently lowered.

The state department of education concluded, among other things, that the district has the highest dropout rate, the worst student performance, and the lowest high school graduation rates of all the state’s urban districts. This during the tenure of a man on whom the Vargas majority has bestowed the highest accolades.

The recently filed petition to the state commissioner of education asked that an overly generous severance deal be set aside in favor of terms that are more consistent with reality. As one of the petitioners, I have no vendetta against Mr. Janey and indeed wish him well in his future endeavors. But the precedent of what this board majority has done cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. I believe it sends the worst kind of message to our children, that real performance and achievement do not matter; that if you have the votes, anything goes.

Speaking of having the votes, the Vargas majority laments the departure of Mr. Janey, but three of them voted to fire him in May. (The vote was 6-1.) They allowed him to remain on the job until the end of August. His interim replacement was not hired until late July. If they regretted their actions, they had ample time and the votes to undo their error. For reasons known only to them, they failed to do so. I will not allow them to salve their consciences at the expense of the truth, or my reputation.

William A. Johnson Jr.
Rochester, N.Y.

‘Culprit’ Is Use of Standardized Tests

To the Editor:

In their analysis of the likely effect of high-stakes tests on dropout rates, Mary Hatwood Futrell and Iris C. Rotberg surprisingly overlook the fundamental reason for their understandable despair (“Predictable Casualties,” Commentary, Oct. 2, 2002). It’s not the use of tests per se that is the culprit, but the use of standardized tests.

A standardized test is designed to compare the performance of a student with the performance of a previous group of test- takers known as the test’s norm group. That’s where the trouble starts. If test-makers included items that measured only the most important content emphasized by teachers, scores might be too similar, making comparisons unsatisfactory.

To avoid this pitfall, makers of standardized tests build into their tests items assessing content highly unlikely to be taught in class. That’s how percentile rankings are produced. In so doing, they engineer score spread among students, but they are largely measuring socioeconomic status and inherited ability.

That’s why poor and minority students disproportionately perform poorly on standardized tests. It has little to do with instruction or their ability. It has almost everything to do with what they bring to class in terms of deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development.

Instead of standardized tests, which are norm- referenced, schools should be administering criterion-referenced tests that are strictly aligned with state standards. These tests would demonstrate proficiency levels achieved by students, without the confounding effects of factors beyond the control of teachers.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

The writer taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The Market Model And Public Schools

To the Editor:

Can we please keep the school reform debate grounded in reality? There is enough room for disagreement there. Bill Harshbarger attributes the behavior of corrupt Enron officials to “competition” (“Markets Without Equal Choices,” Letters, Sept. 25, 2002). But competition is quickly cleaning up the result of corrupt behavior that exists in the government at least to the same extent that it exists in corporate America.

Then Mr. Harshbarger imagines that urban schools suffer because “the wealthy” don’t pay enough income taxes. A quick visit to the taxfoundation.org Web site reveals that the federal government collects 55 percent of its income-tax revenue from the top 10 percent of taxpayers. The top 1 percent paid 36 percent. Not enough?

And where does he imagine that urban schools have no money, or that having more money will make them perform better? The typical urban district has close to $10,000 per pupil, per year; an astonishing $200,000 for a classroom of 20 children taught by a teacher who typically receives less than a fourth of that. The incredible and growing sums spent on the public school system are badly spent. That’s why literally hundreds of studies find that better funding does not yield academic improvements.

Some of the nation’s worst urban school systems spend well over $10,000. And funding equalization achieved in some states has not substantively changed the academic outcomes.

The market does not ignore lower-income consumers. Quite the contrary. The number of dollar “votes” earned by each lower-income consumer may be modest, but there are many of them. In contrast, the so-called wealthy are few. Only 10 percent of taxpayers earn more than $86,000 annually.

John Merrifield
College of Business
University of Texas, San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas

‘What Works’ for Young Children

To the Editor:

Kudos on including the report studying “what works” with young children in the educational process (“School Success,” Reports Roundup, Sept. 11, 2002). I just have one question: Where were these folks 25 to 35 years ago, when people in my age bracket needed them? An example being the age group of 25- to 45-year-olds.

Robert M. Trygar
Cottonwood, Calif.

Coverage of Reading Plans Is Questioned

To the Editor:

There are a few dubious statements in your article ““Majority of States Told to Revise Reading Plans,” (Oct. 2, 2002). They tend to discolor an otherwise informative piece.

One, your implication that all California schools utilize “scientifically based” reading instruction methodology is false. Teachers in the San Diego city schools, for example, are forced to conduct a version of the empirically discredited whole- language approach.

Two, “the recognition that letters and sounds are manipulated to make up words” is phonics knowledge, not “phonemic awareness.” The latter has only to do with the conscious perception of speech sounds.

Three, there supposedly are “reading experts” who favor “phonics- first instruction,” but who are opposed to teachers’ “stressing the other elements"—for example, “vocabulary and text comprehension.” I am unaware of any notable reading teaching specialist who takes that stand. You thus should have cited at least one.

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Smear Jobs: Defend Public Education —But Not by Tarring Independent Schools

To the Editor:

In response to Elizabeth Randall’s provocative Commentary, “The Holes in the War Against Public Education,” (Sept. 25, 2002), I offer another perspective. Undoubtedly, over time, Americans have been well served by public education and its ideals of promoting equity and quality. Nevertheless, Ms. Randall’s need to defend her preferred educational venue by expressing erroneous and misleading assertions about the private sector is troublesome.

  • “Private schools ... are not licensed, approved, accredited, or regulated as schools by the state.” True enough. But what she fails to say is that these same schools have alternate accrediting bodies from which serious cyclical evaluations come about. The state does not have a monopoly on the accreditation process. Independent schools belong to accrediting bodies that serve this role with zeal equal to that of the state. In fact, not only does evaluation derive from this systematic review, but also from the tuition- paying parents who ascertain quality by their repeated willingness to invest in these institutions by placing their children there.
  • Private schools “are not required to hire a certified teacher at all. Anyone will do.” This is another misleading assertion. Independent schools traditionally have not limited their hiring choices to certified teachers because, time and time again, they have found strength in individuals who are committed to teaching and to young people and who have strong undergraduate and graduate credentials. A capacity to teach well has not always emerged from education school diplomas. In fact, we within independent schools have valued enormously the liberal arts graduate who brings to bear a wide frame of reference to knowledge and to its applications.
  • “But how can I even pretend that someone with a year of Montessori training and an almost-minimum-wage job is qualified to educate my child?” questions Ms Randall. This is specious thinking indeed. Does one really measure a person’s worth or the quality of his dedication by the level of his wages? Unquestionably, independent school teachers generally earn smaller salaries than those of their public school counterparts. However, their desire to be in environments that give them latitude to select appropriate curricula for their students and to function as intelligent, creative professionals is the draw for them to less remunerated positions. Many of them are armed with master’s and doctoral degrees as well as countless hours of continuing education to perform their pedagogical responsibilities.
  • “Basically, private schools have no enforceable standards at all. Consequently, they often don’t bother with professional development for teachers either.” What a misrepresentation. Pick up the Independent School Review, the professional magazine serving independent school educators, and you will find stunning exemplars of professional development, including initiatives on new ways of undertaking student assessment, life- skills programs, environmental education, or a global perspective. In fact, independent schools have invested significant dollars in this arena (generally 1 percent to 2 percent of their incomes), to ensure that their faculties have opportunities for growth and revitalization.
  • “Private schools look better on paper because their students are not required to take standardized tests.” Ms. Randall appears to assert that only the instruments she cites have any value. Nevertheless, independent schools generally deploy Educational Records Bureau assessment tests (ERBs), PSATs, SATs, achievement tests, and Advanced Placement tests at various junctures of a student’s career. Don’t they count as true assessments? Is it only those devised by the state that meet a legitimate standard of excellence?
  • “Private schools do not have these [drug and alcohol abuse] programs.” On what basis does Ms. Randall make such a declaration? We certainly concur with the fact that “drug and alcohol abuse occurs in every kind of household.” Contrary to her perception, independent schools have funded innumerable initiatives to educate young people of all ages against the perils of dependency. We at the Key School, along with so many other independent schools, provide a life-skills program, beginning with our preschool students and continuing throughout the school’s 15-year continuum.

In sum, I would gladly conclude that it is critical that we strengthen our public school systems and give them the confidence that will enable them to thrive. But let’s not do it at the price of diminishing the well-performing independent school sector through innuendo and erroneous facts.

Marcella M. Yedid
Head of School
The Key School
Annapolis, Md.

To the Editor:

It is admirable that the pages of Education Week are open to the opinions and ideas of its readers. However, it does not serve the educational community well if published Commentaries are seriously misleading. I refer specifically to Elizabeth Randall.

In fairness to your readers, her misrepresentations should not be allowed to stand unaddressed. To begin with, she fails to distinguish between parochial and independent schools. So, for example, while she notes that parochial schools have a higher student-to- teacher ratio than do public schools, she conveniently omits to mention that the mean student-to-teacher ratio in independent schools is 9-to-1, a ratio that is far superior to that of public schools and accounts for the fact that independent schools spend on average about twice as much to educate a student as the public schools do. At the school I head, the ratio is actually 7-to- 1.

Second, the author makes the undocumented assertion that nonpublic schools do not bother with professional development. At the four independent schools where I have worked, the staff members were regularly engaged in attending workshops, taking courses, and observing other classrooms, in addition to participating in a number of in-service days. The National Association of Independent Schools has proposed that member schools dedicate 2 percent of their operating budgets to staff development. At my school, that would come to $1,500 for every staff member yearly.

Third, the author correctly reports that nonpublic schools do not require state certification of teachers, but incorrectly concludes that these teachers have no training in education. Quite apart from the fact that many of these teachers received strong training in their subject areas, many of them do, in fact, have degrees or courses in education, received mentoring, or served as teaching interns and assistants.

Fourth, the author incorrectly claims these schools are not accountable to anyone. Independent schools are required to undergo every five or 10 years reviews of all aspects of their educational programs and operations in order to keep their accreditation. This evaluation results in recommendations that the schools must address. The self-study required to prepare for the evaluation usually takes a year and a half to prepare, and involves all members of the staff. Even a cursory glance at the evaluation manuals would assure anyone that independent schools are held to standards of excellence.

And finally, Ms. Randall makes the outrageous accusation that nonpublic schools have no programs instructing students about drugs and substance abuse. All independent schools are required to have such programs.

Michael Nill
Head of School
Brooklyn Friends School
Brooklyn, N.Y.

‘Multiple Guess': A Pendulum Swing or a Wrecking Ball?

To the Editor:

Michael H. Kean’s recent Commentary “The Pendulum Swings” (Oct. 2, 2002) raises interesting questions. As a vice president of McGraw-Hill, he is understandably pleased by what he sees as a shift away from performance-based testing to multiple-choice exams. His observations regarding ease of use, cost, and alignment with state standards make this a sensible shift from his perspective, aided, no doubt, by the fact that his employer has much to gain by the growth in multiple-choice testing.

This said, his piece raises issues he understandably either ignores or misstates. For example, he suggests that the backlash against testing (from testing critics whose “shrillness ... has been much greater than their number”) is caused by the amount of time taken from the instructional day in order to give the test. In fact, the time taken from the school day for the purpose of taking the test is not a major point to these “shrill” critics. It is, instead, the concern that educators are feeling so much pressure to prepare young people for the exams, that the richness of the curriculum and the sheer joy of learning suffer.

Mr. Kean also glosses over a major challenge of norm-referenced testing: It pits child against child, not child against content. A norm-referenced exam, by definition, has half the students scoring below average, and half above. To ensure a broad spread of test scores (to make the norming process work), it is essential that the examination contain questions that no typical child can be expected to answer correctly, making any attempt to “prepare” students for a test futile.

For example, if every student taking a norm-referenced test were to answer all the questions correctly, any student would have, by definition, an average grade. By the same token, even if all the questions are reasonable, it is possible for all students to do so poorly that a child who gets only half the answers correct could score in the 99th percentile—presumably a stellar achievement.

If multiple-choice testing is so good, one might ask why states require drivers to physically demonstrate their capacity to drive a car after passing a multiple-choice exam. The fact is that “performance” is a far better measure of one’s knowledge than a multiple-choice exam.

But the comment of Mr. Kean’s that moved my hubris meter into the red zone was his claim that “today’s multiple-choice questions are explicitly designed to measure higher-order thinking skills.” Having read numerous examinations created by McGraw-Hill, the Educational Testing Service, Harcourt Educational Measurement, and others, I find this claim utterly bizarre. Multiple choice means multiple guess. The only higher-order skill I’ve seen developed (and encouraged by, among others, the ETS) is how to guess more accurately when you don’t know the answer.

If we believe that it is important to have independent measures of student proficiency in academic areas, then the issues of cost and ease of use are secondary. When students are denied the right to graduate with their classmates because a testing company misgraded their examinations, accuracy and minimum legal fees should be far more important, I think.

Our current romance with testing is, in fact, the true pendulum in motion these days. When it swings back in favor of treating children with respect, this pendulum will look more like a wrecking ball, as it crashes through the fragile walls of those whose hubris blinds them to reality.

David Thornburg
Director of Global Operations
Thornburg Center
Lake Barrington, Ill.


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