Education Letter to the Editor


April 09, 2003 17 min read
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Physics Education Needs No ‘Reform’

To the Editor:

The three biggest problems with the state of U.S. physics education— inadequately prepared students, inadequately prepared teachers, and a misdirected egalitarian education policy that seeks to reach the utterly unattainable goal of educating everyone, whether they are educable or not—were barely mentioned in your report on physics reform (“Physics Studies Yield Teaching Benefits,” March 26, 2003.).

It’s not surprising that the “research” presented to justify these changes in physics education shows the results it does. Like polling questions, research hypotheses can be sculpted to achieve any preconceived outcome desired. The giveaway that this has happened here is the reported involvement of “professional education” organizations, like the National Science Teachers Association and colleges of education at major universities.

These groups have apparently shamed and co-opted the physics community into abandoning its justifiably elite standing in lieu of a more “accessible” theory-based approach to physics education that ignores the best and brightest in favor of the terminally ignorant and the unprepared.

The calculations and theories in physics teaching take care of themselves if the teacher is competent, trained in physics, and is teaching students with appropriate, successful mathematical and scientific educations.

Alan Hull
Framingham, Mass.

Banned T-Shirt: Politics or Dress?

To the Editor:

Some comments prompted by your article “Principals Walk Fine Line on Free Speech” (March 19, 2003):

To decide whether a T-shirt that labels the president an “international terrorist” is OK for a student to wear to school, you would have to examine, first and foremost, what the T-shirt actually looks like. Does it have a photograph depicting terrorism or violent acts, or is it just a photograph of the president making a speech?

If it were the former, it would not be acceptable. But if it were the latter, it should be considered non- objectionable, since it does not depict the president in a way that fictionalizes his actions. Such a T-shirt would state, rather, an opinion in opposition to that of our leadership, something that is very important in our nation, even in a time of war.

The Dearborn, Mich., superintendent is correct to indicate that there should be some level of “control” concerning the school’s dress code. But asking the student to remove the T-shirt appears to be more a response to the student’s personal politics than to appropriate dress. Apparently, there was nothing gratuitous about the shirt or its message; it merely stated a political point of view many people in this country share and many others disagree with. From this standpoint, it should not be considered objectionable.

The district’s leadership doesn’t have to agree with the student, but taking away his right to express his political viewpoint is tantamount to a restriction on free, oppositional, and, most of all, nonviolent expression. The district therefore put itself on the wrong side of the issue of First Amendment rights.

This sends a mixed message to our children about democracy and the intent of our collective freedoms guaranteed by our Bill of Rights.

Sam Sochet
Bellmore Merrick Central
High School District
Merrick, N.Y.

Imagined Panaceas And Cans of Worms

To the Editor:

David J. Ferrero, like many advocates of choice, fails to see the difference between an imagined panacea and a can of worms (“Public-Spirited Choice,” Commentary, March 26, 2003).

Yes, American Catholics developed private schools largely in response to a Protestant slant in many public schools. But enrollment in Catholic schools declined from 5.5 million to less than 2.5 million between 1965 and 2003 because the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962-63 school prayer rulings made public schools religiously neutral and thus acceptable to the 80 percent of Catholic parents whose kids now attend public schools.

If school choice is so great, why did the people of the province of Newfoundland, Canada, who had never known anything but choice among faith- based schools, vote to scrap school choice by 3-to-1 in the 1990s? And why have U.S. voters consistently rejected school choice plans by 2-to-1 despite unrelenting conservative media campaigns against public schools?

Mr. Ferrero writes that “the state has the ... authority to ensure that schools do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, or disability.” In theory, perhaps, but hardly in the real world. Mr. Ferrero is either politically naive or unfamiliar with the real workings of faith-based schools.

If We the People want equitably distributed high-quality education for all kids, we will see that our rich country has decent public school buildings for all of them, small classes, universally available preschool, adequate remedial and nutrition programs, and decently remunerated staff members. Anything less is a betrayal of our highest values.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Washington, D.C.

‘High Quality’ Isn’t ‘Highly Qualified’

To the Editor:

This is in reference to the many letters responding to Patrick F. Bassett’s Feb. 26, 2003, Commentary on teachers (“Great Teachers: Some Thoughts on What ‘Quality’ and ‘Qualified’ Mean,” Letters, March 12, 2003):

I was an engineer by trade, and am now a teacher of 20 years. I did not go through a teacher college, but came into teaching through the vocational route. I know of many college professors and high school teachers who are poor educators because their concern is not the welfare of their students. And I know many who should change their careers because of the daily damage they inflict on young people’s present and future lives.

There are tens of thousands of certified educators in the New York City school system, but some are not qualified to teach. Many never learned the key ingredients of becoming successful teachers: being able to love their students as their own (or the vast majority of them anyway) and having a passion for learning and the ability to instill that passion in their students.

Teaching becomes simpler and much more rewarding once students begin to want to learn. This has never been a secret to me, yet I have not heard anyone in an administrative or policymaking capacity speak about the need for “humanness” in educators as a vital component of being qualified.

I guess you can tell that I believe “high quality” is not the same as “highly qualified.”

Robert J. Rios
New York, N.Y.

Reveal ‘Ideological Biases’ of Sources

To the Editor:

I have been a subscriber to Education Week for about 14 years, and I have trouble understanding what appears to be one major flaw in your otherwise high standards for education reporting. It seems that you have a policy of not disclosing the ideological biases of your sources, no matter how relevant such biases might be to the topic at hand.

There were several examples of such omissions in the Feb. 19, 2003, edition of the paper. “High-Stakes Tests Called Accurate Gauge of Performance,” for example, reports on a study on testing by the Manhattan Institute and never once mentions that this organization is a conservative think tank.

Another article in that issue, “Review of Islam in Texts Causes Furor,” is one of a long line of pieces over the years that have quoted Gilbert T. Sewall as an expert without once mentioning the ideologically conservative agenda of Mr. Sewall and his organization, the American Textbook Council.

This article, in some ways was more misleading than previous ones because it devoted a large amount of space to Mr. Sewall’s background, which would imply to the reader that the most relevant information about him had been revealed. Throughout the article, language is used to suggest that he is well respected by historians and educators, when in fact, many view him as a right- wing ideologue.

This pattern of obfuscating ideological leanings is further intensified when the article quotes Chester E. Finn Jr., a prominent conservative education thinker, as a spokesperson for Mr. Sewall’s credibility, saying, “Mr. Sewall has been an incisive and responsible critic of textbooks.” Neither the ideological bent of Mr. Finn or the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation where he serves as president are mentioned.

This type of reporting ignores major pieces of relevant context and makes it very difficult for the reader to get an accurate understanding of what is taking place.

I encourage Education Week to review its policies in this area and to mention the ideological perspectives of its sources across the political spectrum.

Susan Sandler
Educational Justice Program
Justice Matters Institute
San Francisco, Calif.

Bargaining That Satisfies No One

To the Editor:

With all due respect, I must dissent from the point of view of the authors of “Negotiating What Matters Most” (Commentary, Feb. 12, 2003). The thrust of their essay was that traditional collective bargaining for teachers, normally involved with wages, fringe benefits, and working conditions, should be expanded to include “any and all subjects related to their common interest.” The basis for this proposed switch was to allow the parties, through the collective bargaining agreement, to tackle reform issues related to improving student achievement.

A major part of the reasoning for this suggestion is that collaborative forms of bargaining, rather than adversarial bargaining, bring about better results, and that educational improvement is the “product of true labor-management cooperation.”

I disagree with the basic premise that collective bargaining should be expanded beyond its traditional focus. In my view, honed first as a union negotiator, later as a management negotiator, and currently as trainer, negotiator, and facilitator of several forms of interest-based collaborative bargaining, the collective bargaining agreement is not the place to address all issues. I find it best for collaboration within the bargaining process to result in the establishment of working committees that will address school improvement, reform, and student achievement issues collaboratively throughout the school year, outside the collective bargaining agreement.

While it is clear that my suggestion and the authors’ suggestion achieve the same results, there are two main reasons I leave certain issues outside collective bargaining, and they are both process issues.

First, for the most part, anything contained within the agreement is subject to an internal grievance procedure that often includes an arbitration clause. I have not found the opinion of outside arbitrators to be beneficial to issues of student achievement. These are matters that must be resolved in-house, and if that cannot be achieved by consensus, the school board must be the final decisionmaker.

Likewise, the original negotiation of the agreement is often subject to the binding decisions of outside arbitrators, who often tend to split the difference. Again, education reform issues that cannot mutually be resolved through a collaborative process should be left to the elected policymakers, the boards of education.

My dissent may appear disingenuous toward the collaborative process, but in reality it’s not. The inclusion of school reform and student-achievement issues within the collective bargaining process only to the extent that they result in the establishment of working, collaborative committees to function during the entire school year yields a much better product.

Much better than requiring agreement on these issues in the annual collective bargaining agreement, or utilizing the impasse/arbitration process that will likely devise a compromise that satisfies no one, least of all the achievement goals of the district.

Michael Barlow
Barlow Education Management
Services LLC
Oklahoma City, Okla.

Research Into Practice: False Hope, Best Evidence, and the Practitioner

To the Editor:

Your article “Scholars Aim to Connect Studies to Schools’ Needs” (March 19, 2003) defines the challenge for educational researchers: “A scholarly study ... may be fine for publishing in a journal, but chances are few teachers or principals will ever use it for guidance.”

It was ever thus. In a Sept. 29, 1982, Education Week Commentary, “Bringing Theory into the Classroom: Keys to Successful Learning,” Marciene Mattleman complained that the evaluations of programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 “have been able to identify those elements associated with successful programs, yet 17 years after ESEA there has been negligible evidence of the use of those research findings in urban school systems.”

In a letter to the editor published a few weeks later, I replied: “The lack of responsiveness of large educational systems to research findings on successful programs or to any other identification of policies that make for quality seems predictable. The incentives (or lack of incentives) built into educational structures provide no choice for parents. There is no way that differing educational approaches, philosophies, materials, talents, and efforts can compete without parental choice.

” ... I do not see how our schools can become significantly responsive to findings on what makes for quality until they have a stronger economic incentive to provide quality” (Letters, Oct. 27, 1982).

The incentive structure in 2003 is that of 1982. Failure has no economic consequence, nor does success. The now fashionable Pasteur model “of how a scientist could undertake serious, scholarly research to understand natural phenomena and use it simultaneously to solve practical problems” (“Pasteur Praised as Thinker Who Bridged Basic-Applied Gap,” March 19, 2003) is a false hope.

The winemakers who turned to Louis Pasteur in the 1850s were, as you write, “facing a problem [grape juice going bad or turning into vinegar] that threatened them with economic ruin.” No educator faces economic ruin for not solving an educational problem. Not even a modest decline in income. Layers of protection of jobs and incomes and organized political action to keep barriers to entry high—all eliminate the risk of failure and the rewards of success.

As long as Americans embrace the principle that government must fund K-12 education and be the sole provider of it, research will play a stunted role. A statutory “sole provider” does not have a compelling need for research.

Tom Shuford
Retired Public School Teacher
Ventura, Calif.

To the Editor:

As classroom teachers and researchers, we feel compelled to respond to the Commentary “From Research to Practice” (March 12, 2003). While we agree that the authors are asking important questions—How desirable is evidence-based practice in education? Why do educators and policy leaders frequently fail to utilize education research?— we feel that their proposed solutions miss the mark in at least two areas.

First, the “education-knowledge industry” described by the authors leaves out a very valuable, and untapped, source of education knowledge: practitioner- researchers. Second, the authors state that “Educators ... will have to learn, accept, and apply what ‘best evidence’ demonstrates to be effective.” Our question is, whose “best evidence”? And why is the burden placed on educators to learn, accept, and apply?

Educational research is not like other sciences. Teaching and learning are incredibly complex. What may have been shown to be an effective method in one part of the country, or with one group of students, may not transfer to another. There are too many variables involved to “scientifically control for” them all and make any definitive claims about what works and doesn’t work in every single classroom setting.

We think researchers should make their data and results accessible, as advocated in your Page 1 article a week later, “Scholars Aim to Connect Studies to Schools’ Needs”.

This article emphasizes that “one of the big problems in educational research is that people haven’t understood the need to take research one step further and translate it to usable knowledge.” It also explains the position of those who advocate “ongoing collaboration between researchers and practitioners, so that researchers address the questions frontline educators are asking.”

These ideas make a great deal of sense to us, as we have engaged in “action” research in our respective classrooms for the past five years. Our research results have informed our own practice and that of numerous colleagues both at the local and national levels, through our work with the Teachers Network Policy Institute, conference presentations, committee memberships, and publishing. Educators can read our results and weigh our information against their own contexts, because we address relevant questions and produce data that are both accessible and usable, as well as understandable.

We wonder why our work, and that of our practitioner colleagues, continues to be overlooked as a source of understandable and usable knowledge about teaching and learning. So we were delighted to see Ellen Meyers’ eloquent description of TNPI and the important forum it provides for the teacher’s voice in policy research and decisionmaking in her recent letter to the editor (“Whither Teachers? Trying to Be Heard,” Letters, March 26, 2003).

We encourage practitioner researchers to seek out opportunities to make their voices heard. After all, classroom teachers are the true educational experts.

Jane Ching Fung
National Board-Certified Teacher
Milken Educator, 2002
Los Angeles, Calif.

Gail V. Ritchie
National Board-Certified Teacher
Fairfax County Teacher of the Year, 2000
Fairfax, Va.

To the Editor:

Your article “Scholars Aim to Connect Studies to Schools’ Needs” refers to the What Works Clearinghouse, or WWC, as one strategy to help make education research useful to practitioners. We agree.

The WWC was established by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to provide tools and information that promote the understanding, application, and acceptance of evidence-based research on effectiveness in education (readers can find more information on the WWC Web site at http://w-w-c.org).

Administered through a contract to a joint venture of the American Institutes for Research and the Campbell Collaboration, the clearinghouse is committed to ensuring that its products and services meet users’ needs. Through all phases of its work—from developing standards for reviewing research, to selecting topics, to publishing the reports—the WWC seeks input and participation from all those interested in improving the nature and role of evidence in education.

The WWC will produce “evidence reports,” which are reviews of the evidence of effectiveness of educational interventions (programs, practices, products, and policies). In searching for research to review, we expect to encounter varying quality and availability of evidence— perhaps even an absence of evidence, as suggested by Frederic A. Moser in your article.

By “mapping the terrain"—that is, by finding out what critical questions practitioners are asking, and then ascertaining whether sufficient scientific research exists to answer those questions—the WWC can help universities, foundations, research firms, and government institutions set and fund research agendas that are driven by the real questions and challenges faced in schools, districts, and states.

Moreover, by systematically unearthing and reviewing even the less accessible research, the WWC may be able to provide more information on the effects of educational interventions than is generally available.

The WWC’s strategy for reviewing and summarizing the research reflects the widely endorsed observation, noted in your article, that the appropriate design for scientifically based research depends on the question being asked. The clearinghouse focuses on questions that examine what works to improve student outcomes, or, in other words, what has a causal effect on outcomes. The focus is on examining random-assignment and certain types of quasi-experimental research that provide the strongest evidence of causal impact.

As pointed out in the article, other forms of research are more appropriate for other important purposes, such as to generate hypotheses or to understand the process through which change happens.

We look forward to reading future installments of your series on “research into practice” as it sheds further light on how research can make a significant contribution to school improvement.

Bob Boruch
WWC Principal Investigator
Campbell Collaboration
Philadelphia, Pa.

Becki Herman
WWC Project Director
American Institutes for Research
Washington, D.C.


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