Education Letter to the Editor


February 05, 2003 9 min read
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‘Teacher Gap’ Is An Understatement

To the Editor:

In the first paragraph of the article headlined “Off Target,” (Quality Counts 2003, Jan. 9, 2003), you assert that “few states and districts have designed specific policy strategies to close the gap [between well- trained, competent teachers and the needs of students in high-poverty, high- minority, and low-performing schools].” This is a marvelous and significant understatement of the situation.

In fact, in my view, states and districts have affirmatively prevented this from happening. The gap is not happenstance, but one of the logical consequences of policy choices and contract provisions that are a barrier. Critical examples are at least these: teacher contract and state-law rules regarding seniority that allow the senior and more experienced teachers to choose not to teach in these schools; teacher-certification rules where nearly all changes are resisted vigorously; and teacher-salary structures where young teachers who are likely to have subject-matter competency and interest know that they are the first to go if there is no money left over after paying more senior and higher-cost teachers what the contract requires.

In too many ways, the dilemma identified in your article is a direct consequence of statute, rule, and contract provisions. There will be little change unless the rules of the game change, that is, the rules are restructured to assure that kids’ needs, not adults’, are the first priority. The changes that everyone knows must happen will not and cannot change if the rules stay the same.

John A. Cairns
Minneapolis, Minn.

Preschool Lessons From Reggio Emilia

To the Editor:

Several years ago, I had the privilege of studying with a group of American educators, as your recent essayists did, the preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy (“Diversity and Progressive Education,” Commentary, Dec. 4, 2002). I was not only struck by how deep and profound the learning was for these diverse young learners, but by the way in which the entire community participated in the learning process—regardless of socioeconomics and ethnicity. City officials, engineers, and business leaders, as well as craftsmen, artists, and laborers were all involved with the preschoolers in an extraordinary project involving all the city parks.

Moreover, staff development, often interpreted in this country as a workshop or a speaker, was yet another powerful tool always in use to analyze student thinking and to collaboratively construct experiences in order to move kids to the next level in their learning community.

Hats off to the Commentary authors for clarifying the success of child-centered programs with diverse students, and a vote for Education Week to further detail the lessons of Reggio Emilia for American schools.

Mary Jean Montgomery
Iowa State Board of Education
Spencer, Iowa

Social Inequality Affects Performance

To the Editor:

Your article “Quality Counts Reveals National ‘Teacher Gap’” (Jan. 8, 2003) is typical of the top-down, blame-the-teacher game that has always been so popular as a means of avoiding seriously looking at social inequity in a society.

You seem to focus mainly on the fact that some teachers lead classes in subject areas in which they did not “even minor.” While this may play a statistically significant role in the instruction a teacher provides, it does not even begin to account for the vast differences between the “underperforming schools” in question.

Yes, these schools are underperforming because their students drop out, fail classes, and score poorly on state tests. But the students also come from poverty: poor nutrition, poor health care, and low-literacy home environments. Furthermore, they have the modeling of a social structure that is simultaneously condemned by the power-dominant social norms, while surviving and even thriving in terms that they have created for themselves. These students come from a world in which the teacher is another form of the police, and government and authority represent the negative definition of themselves.

In short, the problems faced by schools serving the lowest- prestige and -income portions of our society are identical to the problems of the social ecology that has created or sustained the inequity. The “underperforming school” definition simply reflects the defining of certain portions of our population as “underperforming.”

To say that the entire social system—history, politics, culture, and sociology—can be reduced to the responsibility of a single person, already highly credentialed and tested, is to avoid any real course of study and action that could lead to a resolution of the age-old question of social inequality.

Jonathan Dune
Pacific Grove, Calif.

‘Ideology’ Is in the Eye of the Beholder

To the Editor:

Edd Doerr’s recent letter (“Essay Is Seen as a Covert Attack,” Letters, Jan. 22, 2003), a response to Frederick M. Hess’ Commentary (“What Is ‘Public’ About Public Education?” Jan. 8, 2003), is so rife with unsubstantiated claims that one doesn’t know where to begin taking him to task. On one hand, current voucher programs do not allow the schools that receive vouchers to discriminate. Admission is done by lottery. On the other hand, “real” public schools discriminate all the time, principally, but not exclusively, on the basis of geography.

Beyond that, it is not at all obvious that choice plans would lead to the dire consequences Mr. Doerr predicts. The Milwaukee voucher program certainly hasn’t. Children who use vouchers are schooled as their parents choose, and the city has not been Balkanized because of it. As a matter of fact, those children are being educated at a lesser cost than that incurred by the “real” public schools. And competition has improved the whole system.

Mr. Doerr’s predicted “transformation” of education into ideological indoctrination is already alive and well in public education. Horror stories about changing the texts of well-known authors to eliminate words that some might find offensive, the dismal status of high school history books, the unscientific approach to environmental science, the jargon-laded litany of “multiculturalism” all scream of ideological bias.

Susan Nunes, in her letter published under the same headline, finds it shameful that you would even publish “this tripe.” She resents Frederick Hess’ “Cold War- sounding garbage” defining public schools as “state run” or “governmental.” They are public, Ms. Nunes asserts, “because they are taxpayer-funded.” That’s precisely Mr. Hess’ point. Just because they are taxpayer-funded does not mean the services have to be provided by the state.

Gisèle Huff
San Francisco, Calif.

Test Logic: Can Standardization Measure ‘Real Learning’?

To the Editor:

Peter W. Cookson Jr. is spot-on in his analysis of standardized testing (“Standardization and Its Unseen Ironies,” Commentary, Jan. 22, 2003). But he’s too kind. The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 is not about improving educational quality; it’s about dismantling public schools. And it’s succeeding just as it was intended.

What other conclusion can be drawn in light of the evidence available? Who in the present administration can maintain with a straight face that standardized testing measures real learning? The primary reason that standardized-test scores have risen somewhat is that classrooms have been turned into test-preparation factories.

The No Child Left Behind Act will go down in history as one of the biggest frauds perpetrated on the American people. But by the time the bubble bursts, it will be too late for an entire generation. We saw that phenomenon recently with the stock market, and we’ll see it again with public schools.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

Peter W. Cookson Jr. has it right. Teaching critical thinking should be the goal of all dedicated educators. A truly educated workforce is one in which people regularly and routinely review actions and policies critically, even if they are not immediately able to challenge or change those actions or policies. A standardized test, by its very name and nature, does not accurately measure critical thinking, but more accurately measures the “standards” of an imperfect society. The flaw in the thinking of those who insist on standardized testing as a true measurement of skills is that the tests do not accurately measure what we as a society truly consider valuable.

To be effective, any measurement used “across the board” must continuously look at what we teach and how we assess children’s comprehension of the material. Educators must constantly align their teaching with the realities of evolving circumstances. It is important for them to realize that what is “need to know” today may be very different five years from now.

In practical terms, this means we cannot continue to use the same, tired standardized-testing formats that have been used for the past 50 years. For example, most would agree that computer literacy is important to all children in this day and age. Yet standardized tests do not currently test for computer literacy. Why?

If we, as a culture, are to accurately assess the teaching and learning that occur in our schools, we must develop assessments that measure critical thinking and the ability to adapt to a continuously expanding pool of knowledge. If, instead, we continue to use the same standardized tests that were “good enough for our grandparents,” we are fooling ourselves as a society and doing a great disservice to our children.

Jay Rehak
Assistant Director
Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

I am a black woman—a stepparent, aunt, and cousin of students who attend New York City public schools, and a former high school teacher and principal in New York City. No one would describe me as far right of center. I believe in public education. But I also believe that teachers and schools should be held accountable for the work they do with students. Testing is one way that accountability can be placed on the plate of professional educators, instead of only on the students and their parents.

Peter Cookson’s Commentary once again paints as black and white the complex issue of testing in schools. Yet the situation is as complex as a discussion on what good evaluation of student performance is—and as simple as “what’s so great about education without testing, when black and Latino students still don’t find success in school?”

Mr. Cookson speaks of the “inclusive, not exclusive” nature of American education. Tell that to the students who can’t read, write, and do math well enough to ace the SATs, ACTs, or Advanced Placement exams, not to mention LSATs, GREs, and MCATs. No one complains about those testing gatekeepers. No one in wealthy neighborhoods complains about the teacher who has all her students pass the AP English exam. But they certainly do complain (and can have fired) the teacher who has a low passing percentage.

Of course most tests are not designed well. Of course we want to look at the whole child instead of just numbers. Testing young children can be grueling and sometimes harmful. But the human element of having high expectations for students, clear expectations for adults, and measurable comparisons between students has to be taken into account when we have the testing discussion. Yes, there is a difference between standardization and having standards, but the standards that have been held for students of color are clearly not the same as those for white students.

I look forward to the day when writers, policymakers, professors, and educators who have never taken and passed a test—whether performance-based or standardized—will tell us how they became successful.

Edwina Branch
Bronx, N.Y.


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