Education Letter to the Editor


May 14, 2003 13 min read
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Detrimental Aspects Of A Nation at Risk

To the Editor:

This is in addition to the comments on A Nation at Risk made in your April 23, 2003, issue (“20 Years Later: Two Views,” Commentary) by John I. Goodlad and Theodore R. Sizer, two of the country’s most distinguished educators (both of whom, incidentally, during the last 30 years have taught me—a historian—about American education). Since neither of them discussed what I believe to be the most detrimental aspects of this well-known document, I will identify three of them.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education was directed to assess “the quality of teaching and learning in our nation’s public and private schools, colleges, and universities.” By playing the blame game, it essentially blamed the schools—the nation’s “educational foundations"—for the “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people,” thereby letting higher education off the hook.

Quite mistakenly, the commission had failed to note that higher education should share the blame, since after all (and speaking of “educational foundations”), higher education is responsible for the education of the nation’s schoolteachers.

In addition, willy-nilly, during the following 20 years, the report encouraged many self-named school reformers to do their very best to reform schools, as if schools could reform themselves. As noted in my 1972 report to the commissioner of the U.S. Office of Education, in order to get “educational change” (that is, reform)—for which “proper planning” is required—the other factors and relevant parts of education (over all of which nobody is in charge) must be considered in developing a plan, before any action is taken.

“We are still saddled” with old ideas, I wrote, “with the notion that if ‘training’ is provided, everything will come out all right.” Or else “we eschew ‘training,’ thinking that by some magic (read: process),” some kind of “renewal” will occur. “Regeneration, like predestination, is not to be flirted with lightly.”

The fact is that the whole business of planning, which hinges on an understanding of educational change, precedes reform.

But the most damaging aspect of A Nation at Risk is that it encouraged, indeed, it helped to solidify, the ongoing myth—the accepted notion—that the schools are separate and independent from higher education. On the contrary, the two are (historically and actually) as intertwined as are the graduate and professional schools that rule the roost on which no chickens dare to sit.

Donald N. Bigelow
Washington, D.C.

Competent Teachers Curb Lab Mishaps

To the Editor:

The main cause for the school science-laboratory accidents described in your April 30, 2003, article “Science-Lab Safety Upgraded After Mishaps,” was barely mentioned: the need for science teachers with undergraduate and graduate degrees from academic science departments in research universities. None of the accidents described in this article would have occurred if administered and supervised by competent and well-trained teachers worth their salt (no pun intended).

The role played by competent, trained science teachers also extends to the development and implementation of educational practices for safe laboratory procedures and protocols by local, state, and national boards of education and professional associations. If such organizations would select and attend to the recommendations of qualified industry and university-level science subject-matter experts and teachers about such matters, the occurrence of these incidents would drop to the level of chance and random error.

Even issues of school laboratory overcrowding and substandard laboratory equipment can be addressed with alternative approaches, laboratory-management practices, and materials, given sufficient informed planning, teacher training, and laboratory monitoring. School laboratory safety is too important to be left to exploitation by professional “educrats” and politicians; they have neither the inclination nor competence to treat this issue with the gravity it deserves. Nothing less than scientific literacy and its mastery by our students are at stake.

Alan Hull
Framingham, Mass.

Set the Bar Higher On Student Writing

To the Editor:

I was glad to see the report of the College Board’s National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges (“Panel Calls for Writing Revolution in Schools,” April 30, 2003). The panel’s emphasis on more time for writing echoes the findings of the History Research Paper Study done last September, with funding from the Albert Shanker Institute, for The Concord Review by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

In addition to too little time, many teachers have not had experience with writing long, serious academic research papers themselves, and so are little prepared to give students the coaching they need to develop those skills for college, even if they had the time.

The College Board commission gives the following sample of high school writing in its report, to show “examples of how powerfully children can express their emotions":

The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us.

If we are serious about preparing the three-quarters of our high school students that the College Board report says go on to take up the work of college term papers, I would like to see examples of high school academic writing like the following offered to students to emulate.

It is from a 7,900-word paper on John Maynard Keynes that I published in The Concord Review, written by a public high school student in New York City. The student was a sophomore, and here is a brief excerpt from that essay:

In my judgment, Keynes’ The General Theory [of Employment, Interest, and Money] was truly revolutionary. It is true that some individual ideas in The General Theory had appeared in the writings of economists before Keynes, including those of Malthus, Hobson, Robertson, Kahn, and Wicksell. It also must be acknowledged that the New Deal had already put into practice Keynes’ determination that the government must invest in public-works projects during a depression. But the arguments which show that The General Theory is revolutionary are still stronger. Keynes was the first person, by refuting Say’s Law, to expose the assumptions economists had been making for the past hundred years; in doing this, Keynes created a much more “general” theory than had appeared in the past.

Even if government policies had anticipated some of his ideas, Keynes was the first person to show that these policies were theoretically sound. And Keynes’ conclusion that policies of government investment were necessary in a depression was radically different from the policies advocated by most economists since Adam Smith—it truly marked an end to the advocacy of laissez-faire.

High school students are capable of exemplary academic writing if we take the time with them, and take care to set good standards for them to meet.

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
National Writing Board
Sudbury, Mass.

‘Talking Reform,’ Or Involving Talent?

To the Editor:

In his April 9, 2003, Commentary (“What’s Wrong With Teacher Certification?”), Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, suggests that any teacher-certification or -licensure process that does not come through an accredited college of education is not worthy of the public’s trust.

Mr. Wise’s steadfast commitment to such programs may be admirable, but I ask him: If Colin Powell offered to teach history or civics at his child’s school, would he decline?

In fact, if any prominent government, business, sports, or arts figure offered to share his or her time and talent—gained through life experience, successes, and failures—with our students, Mr. Wise’s position would have them turned away unless they invested the time and money to graduate from a college of education.

While change is often overwhelming for “establishment” organizations like Mr. Wise’s NCATE, alternatives to the status quo are surfacing because many educators, administrators, and parents value the opportunity to tap the wealth of knowledge offered by recent college graduates, career changers, and prominent figures wanting to give back to their communities—and more importantly, to our students.

New entry-level teacher-certification processes based on rigorous testing in general studies, content knowledge, and teaching skills are allowing those who truly want to teach and who can add value to our children’s education to share their knowledge. While these new routes to certification may not require the intensive theoretical study often found in colleges of education, they tangibly demonstrate teacher expertise and ability that can’t currently be measured in today’s “traditional programs.”

The time is now for new solutions that open new pathways to the classroom.

We cannot wait for systemic reform. We must embrace new ideas, regardless of the source. We must stop talking about how to make good teachers and start involving those who are ready to share time and talent with our children to achieve our ultimate goal: ensuring that all students learn.

Billie J. Orr
Education Leaders Council
Washington, D.C.

Do Catholic Schools Save Tax Dollars?

To the Editor:

The estimate from Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that Roman Catholic schools “save U.S. taxpayers $20 billion each year” assumes too much (“Catholic Educators’ Group Marks Centennial With Look Ahead,” Reporter’s Notebook, April 30, 2003). If all Catholic schools closed, the cost of absorbing the students into public schools would be much cheaper than funding faith-based schools through vouchers, which would wreck public education.

Bishop Gregory’s remark that Catholic-school students score higher on tests and are retained in school longer disingenuously conceals the fact that Catholic schools, especially on the secondary level, are selective, enroll far fewer special-needs kids than do public schools, and serve a clientele that is, on average, more affluent than public school parents.

While Catholic Church officials may favor vouchers, most Catholics do not, as exit polls in California and Michigan showed in voucher referendums in 2000. Furthermore, Catholic school enrollment has declined by well over half since 1965, for reasons that have little to do with money.

It would be nice if Bishop Gregory would show some concern for the 80 percent of Catholic kids who attend public schools, along with 90 percent of kids of other traditions.

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

Who Is ‘Ignorant’ On Bilingual Ed.?

To the Editor:

Tom Horne, in his letter of April 30, 2003 (“A Clarification on Bilingual Claims”), accuses Sean Fleming of showing, in an earlier letter, an “amazing ignorance” of research in bilingual education (“Arizona Is Wrong on Bilingual Rules,” Letters, April 2, 2003) because he did not cite an article that appeared in the Fall 2002 edition of Education Next. Mr. Horne claims that article shows that immersion students do better than bilingual education students in the long run, earning more money and entering higher-status occupations.

Mr. Horne needs to take a careful look at this paper, written by Joseph M. Guzman. It has serious flaws.

The largest flaw is Mr. Guzman’s definition of bilingual education. Subjects in the study were defined as participating in bilingual education if they ever studied a subject taught in a foreign language. This could be one class, part of a class, or 10 years of study—we have no idea. Mr. Guzman also defined bilingual education as excluding classes in English as a second language. All properly organized bilingual programs include ESL. Mr. Guzman also did not consider the kind of bilingual education his subjects experienced; it has been established that some kinds of models of bilingual education are more effective than others.

Finally, subjects in Joseph Guzman’s study participated in bilingual programs in the early 1970s. At this time, bilingual programs were rare and not well developed. He himself refers to his definition of bilingual education as “coarse.” It is more than that: It is wrong.

Tom Horne does not mention the massive scientific evidence in favor of bilingual education. Nearly every scholar who has reviewed the scientific research has concluded that bilingual education works. Children in bilingual programs acquire at least as much English as children in all-English immersion programs and usually acquire more. The most recent review of this research, by Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute, found that use of the native language has positive effects, and that “efforts to eliminate the use of the native language in instruction ... harm children by denying them access to beneficial approaches.”

Stephen Krashen
Emeritus Professor
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Defining ‘Standards': We Must Hone this Multifaceted Idea Down to the Essentials

To the Editor:

Walt Gardner’s recent letter raises questions for me about just what is meant by the “standards movement” (“Standards Mania Limits Reflection,” April 23, 2003). To characterize it as bankrupt, as Mr. Gardner does, is to use a very broad brush to paint a multifaceted idea.

People attach many different concepts to the term “standards.” Some equate standards with an unrealistic set of too-high expectations created by politicians and bureaucrats out of touch with educational realities. Others focus on high-stakes tests purported to measure standards that cannot hope to adequately represent all of the capabilities of students and schools.

Still others cite surveys that indicate widespread support among parents, educators, and the general public for standards. Though one may wonder how the questions are phrased on such surveys (“Do you support high standards for all students, or do you prefer a system where schools are allowed to continue to serve underprivileged students in mediocre fashion?”), most people will (of course) agree that having well-defined standards of achievement is a good thing. How they are implemented is something else.

Although I sympathize with Mr. Gardner’s resistance to daily prescriptive lesson plans, I have to wonder whether he disagrees with any form of standards, or just with the overly specified, overly rigorous, unsupported-with-adequate-funding, overly tested sort. I think it is useful to point out how “absurd,” as he puts it, “standards mania” can be. However, I also think it useful to acknowledge what is (at least potentially) helpful about standards.

In September 2001, a brief interview with Robert Marzano was published in Educational Leadership. While recognizing the positive focus on academic achievement that standards have brought to public education, he also advocates dramatically cutting the number of standards and disentangling standards and tests. The two do not have to go hand in hand, particularly the high-stakes testing currently so en vogue. Mr. Marzano advocates standards-based grading as a comprehensive-assessment alternative.

Robert Marzano’s suggestions make good sense to me: Streamline standards to the essentials and create systems of assessment and record-keeping, along with locally devised accountability, built around those essential standards. It preserves the best of the idea of standards (establishing minimal competencies), while making assessment more authentic and accountability more of a service to students than a big stick to use against schools.

Along those lines, I was excited to read Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski’s recent Commentary (“Accountability in Small Schools,” April 9, 2003). Their experiences are beginning to bring Mr. Marzano’s ideas to reality. Standards cannot be wished away by educators. We must recognize that they can be helpful if we pare them to the essentials and create a system that supports “a much more enlightened sense of accountability,” to quote Mr. Washor and Mr. Mojkowski.

I hope that more educators will work toward a system that includes the most thoughtful, best-researched standards and assessment.

Jim Julius
San Diego, Calif.


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