Education Opinion


October 22, 2003 7 min read
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Homework is Practice— And Needs Parents’ Help

To the Editor:

Re: “Homework Not on Rise, Studies Find,” (Oct. 8, 2003).

Learning requires doing something more than once. Exercise is part of learning, whether it is with a ball, a keyboard, or an equation. The more one practices, the better the chances for success.

Since general education has become a child’s avocation, the vocation of full-time student has withered away into a memory for American families.

Any amount becomes too much homework for most American students when there are so many more inviting distractions waiting in the wings. I am afraid that “scholarship” is not one of them.

Robert Beeching
Ahwahnee, Calif.

To the Editor:

As a parent of 5th and 7th graders who attend a Catholic elementary school, and as a graduate of that same school in the 1960s, it is my opinion that the amount of written homework has not changed much and is not terribly burdensome.

However, the New York state learning standards in the various subject areas (and perhaps standards in other states as well) are pushing the limits of what children are expected to learn. The curriculum content has been advanced anywhere from two to four years, so that subject matter in math, social studies, and science that I learned in high school is now required for middle- and upper-grade elementary students.

My children routinely spend anywhere from two hours (rare) to four or six hours on their homework. This amount of studying is necessary for them to master difficult subject matter in preparation for quizzes and tests. My children are basically A students, but I know that if their homework study time were more like that of their peers, or did not include a large amount of parental involvement, their performance could not possibly be as high.

I am convinced that a lack of parental involvement is one of the biggest reasons children do not perform well on state assessment tests. Parental involvement in studying is critical, and without it, children literally flounder.

The educational experts need to question the developmental readiness of children to perform well with an advanced curriculum content. If considerable parental involvement is required to achieve a high performance, it’s a high price to pay—one that seriously affects family dynamics, the child’s self-esteem, and the ability of children to be children.

Elaine Haufe
Ridgewood, N.Y.

A Rich- Poor Divide Seen In Special Ed. Hearings

To the Editor:

So the U.S. General Accounting Office says that special education due-process hearings are not frequent (“Spec. Ed. Disputes Not Frequent, GAO Says,” Sept. 24, 2003).The GAO may be correct, but it doesn’t feel that way in many school districts. A closer look at the data might reveal a different conclusion.

Could it be that hearings are very common in some areas and quite rare in others? It would be reassuring if hearings were occurring more frequently where special education programs are weaker—if the “tool” of hearings were actually being used to ensure that students with disabilities have access to an appropriate education.

The more unsettling reality, however, is that hearings are more frequent in precisely those districts where services are better. My doctoral research reviewed each of the 231 due-process hearings held in Georgia from 1975 to 1990. During that time frame, hearings were very infrequent in the less affluent and more rural portions of our state where: Teacher salaries and per-student expenditures are less, students with disabilities are identified more often, funding for public education is strained, availability of teachers is limited, districts cannot easily afford or locate specialized expertise or programmatic alternatives, socioeconomic forces act most destructively, and so on. In these areas, dedicated professionals do excellent work, but with severe constraints and limited resources.

Significantly, hearings were much more common in the wealthier and larger school districts, which are able to provide broader and deeper programs and services for their relatively smaller populations of students with disabilities. Not coincidentally, the richer areas are where a few attorneys make careers of suing school districts, often to obtain unreasonable and elitist private school placements for children of affluent parents.

My experience, as a teacher for nine years and a special education administrator for 23 years, backs the research. Far too often, due-process hearings demand nearly unimaginable amounts of time and energy from classroom teachers, support personnel, and administrators—draining energy from classroom instruction and encouraging the professional flight from public education. The experience of being cross-examined (“grilled” is a more accurate term) by a hostile attorney is one that most teachers neither trained for nor expected as part of their chosen profession. Furthermore, due-process hearings almost inevitably destroy any vestige of home-school cooperation and partnership.

The special education due-process hearing procedure was intended to ensure that students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education in the least-restrictive environment. In this regard, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has failed. Rich students get extraordinary attention, many poor kids are not protected, educators leave the profession, and a few lawyers get rich.

Leland G. Howard
Assistant Superintendent for
Special Services
Marietta City Schools
Marietta, Ga.

Certification by Testing: Critics of Federal Support for New Group are Right

To the Editor:

The debate in Pennsylvania about the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence--the certification-by-testing program--brings into clear focus the contradictions that permeate teacher preparation, certification, and staffing today (“Critics Question Federal Funding of Teacher Test,” Oct. 8, 2003).

In Pennsylvania, the state board of education’s regulations have made teacher preparation and certification more rigorous now than ever before, from the screening of candidates through the issuance of certificates. But when the state board last November endorsed the ABCTE, in a resolution pushed by then-Secretary of Education Charles Zogby, the ABCTE had no assessments in place and absolutely no proven validity. The rigor of the state regulations was nowhere to be found in the “pass a test, get a certificate” program. And, for the first time, an agency outside Pennsylvania would control certification in the state.

Our bureau of teacher certification recently reported that there had been a “22.6 percent increase in the number of individuals” certified over the previous year, and that only 7,490 of the 14,339 persons certified had found teaching positions in the state. One can’t help but wonder why Pennsylvania needs to support an experimental alternative-certification program, when our state- approved preparation programs are generating a surplus of credentialed teachers who have already demonstrated content and pedagogy competency.

Some observers cite the shortage of teachers in certain areas of the state as justification for support of the ABCTE. The opposite is true. Districts that have the biggest shortages of teachers are largely urban or rural, and they are always poor. Their students need well-trained, fully credentialed teachers, not persons who have passed a test or two, and policymakers and educators should be examining how best to hire and retain qualified, certified teachers in these poor districts. We should not be shortcutting certification requirements and shortchanging students.

In all of this, contradictions in the “highly qualified” teacher provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are made evident. Thousands of Pennsylvania elementary-certificate holders who teach in middle-level assignments have already taken the content assessments required by the legislation. These are experienced, evaluated teachers who have been compelled to take a test in order to maintain their assignments. In contrast, ABCTE applicants, who have never demonstrated teaching competency (the “virtual mentoring” proposal is ridiculous) could attain full certification by passing paper-and-pencil tests.

Last month, the state board mandated a year of intensive supervision for ABCTE applicants and rejected the group’s intent to score its tests by computer. These requirements are modest improvements, but Pennsylvania should never have endorsed the ABCTE in the first place.

Critics of the federal government’s $40 million support of the ABCTE are right. Why is money so badly needed by poor districts across our nation being unwisely given to this unneeded entity? It is a program that, at best, will dilute preparation and certification standards for teachers and, at worst, will place the least- prepared teachers in classrooms where the best-prepared are needed most.

John Tarka
Executive Director
Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers
Pittsburgh, Pa.


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