Education Letter to the Editor


February 11, 2004 16 min read
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Preparation or Price? More on College Access

To the Editor:

I was surprised to see no discussion of community college students in the debate between the Century Foundation and the Manhattan Institute over access to college (“Barriers to College: Lack of Preparation Vs. Financial Need,” Jan. 21, 2004.)

Community colleges account for about one-third of students entering college directly from high school, and more than half of first-time postsecondary students. Today, 70 percent of recent high school graduates who begin their careers at two-year institutions expect to earn a bachelor’s degree, compared with 20 percent 50 years ago.

Community college students are much more likely to be from minority and low- income groups than four-year entrants. Our research at Stanford University for the Bridge Project reveals poor preparation, high remediation rates, and very low transfer rates to four-year institutions. Community colleges have lower fees than four-year institutions, but many students do not fill out federal aid forms before they enroll, so they cannot get aid.

In short, community college students need to be an integral part of this policy debate. Focusing solely on four-year students ignores a growing component of postsecondary education, and distorts reality. Research needs to sort out the various causes of why so many community college students are not attaining their desire for a four-year degree.

Michael W. Kirst
School of Education
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

To the Editor:

Preparation or price—that is the question. While we clearly need a two-pronged approach that addresses both needs, the cost factor becomes somewhat irrelevant if we’re not preparing the least-served students for four- year-college eligibility.

Many low-income students have the ability and determination to compete with wealthier students, but lack opportunities and support. The programs working to develop connections between precollegiate standards and college expectations are part of the solution, but from my experience, the answer is transparently simple: Place the least-served students on the college-going track and provide a support structure—including tutorial and peer support—to ensure their success.

I founded the in-school program AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, which is now available in 24 states, to serve students whose average grades have belied their ability and desire to succeed. The program’s fidelity over 25 years to the “rigor and support” philosophy has resulted in noteworthy success, sending 77 percent of our students to four-year colleges and universities.

Mary Catherine Swanson
Founder and Executive Director
AVID Center
San Diego, Calif.

Desegregation ‘Zealots’ Used Logic of Coercion

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “In U.S. Schools, Race Still Counts” (Brown at 50: The Unfulfilled Promise,” Jan. 21, 2004):

The tragic history of school desegregation since the Brown v. Board of Education decision owes much to the lack of imagination of desegregation’s anointed champions. Would-be tyrants all, these oft-cited academics and civil rights leaders could conceive of no role for freedom. They know only the logic of coercion: Force flattened Jim Crow, dismantling our own apartheid system, therefore force can integrate society—beginning with schools.

In the zealot’s mind, the failure of school desegregation was not due to their own urgent impulse to coerce. They were unjustly denied sufficient scope for this impulse. The villains were fleeing whites who would not submit to their designs, and a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court that could not find a constitutional basis for ordering busing between urban and suburban districts. This latter fantasy is a sublime denial of the political realities of the time, quite apart from constitutional limitations.

So what happened? Detroit is typical. Eighty-four percent white in 1954, the Detroit public schools are 3.7 percent white today.

Here is a thought experiment: It’s the early 1960s. Academics, civil rights leaders, and the courts value freedom. They urge the use of force in freedom’s defense, but they distrust coercion absent that necessity. Reluctant state legislators—partly out of fear that if they did not act, the courts would take drastic action—give parents the freedom to apply an equal per-pupil allotment to any school they wish: neighborhood, in-district, out-of- district, private, parochial, or for-profit. No nonpublic or out-of-district school could be forced to accept any student. (Of course many schools, such as Roman Catholic schools, were even then gladly accepting minority students).

What would be the racial mix in Detroit schools and in the schools of other large cities today if this scenario had played out? What would be the level of education? Indeed, what could it be tomorrow?

Our grandmasters of social engineering failed to desegregate urban schools. They did not get the giant urban-suburban chessboard they needed to put every child- pawn in just the right configuration. But the human impulse to coerce in the service of utopian aims is as ardent as ever. Social chess masters are devising new projects. These too will fail, wreaking havoc. For their designers still cannot imagine a role for freedom in the critical K-12 years.

Tom Shuford
Retired Public School Teacher
Lenoir, N.C.

Gold-Standard Research Is Not for Every School

To the Editor:

In her Commentary, Karin Chenoweth demonstrates a false “understanding” about schools when she disparages them for not relying on “gold standard” research (“Knowing What Works,” Commentary, Jan. 21, 2004.) To learn more on the subject, I recommend that she consult Robert J. Marzano’s book What Works in Schools: Translating Research Into Action, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Ms. Chenoweth’s comments could lead to the erroneous conclusion that every school should conduct its own clinical research when selecting a textbook or a methodology. Even if money could be appropriated to fund this education “pork,” her idea of clinical research in individual schools would compare to the medical profession’s requiring every American hospital to be a research institution comparable to the Mayo Clinic.

And does she really think that the No Child Left Behind Act has an “anti-AK47" training module? The suggestion that teachers should shoulder responsibility for reducing violence and antisocial behavior should make the politicians who passed our federal education law blush.

Do we think testing children from troubled neighborhoods in math and reading will stop crime, restore social justice, instill the work ethic, and re-establish traditional family values? Please pass me a No Child Left Behind pill.

Daniel J. Anderson
Nesson School District No. 2
Ray, N.D.

Letter-Writer Lumps Tenets With Terror

To the Editor:

In his letter about religious charter schools (“Religious Charters? Play Out That Logic,” Letters, Jan. 14, 2004), Russell J. Dever suggests that parochial schools that “espouse right-to-life tenets” are comparable to “suicide-bomber learning centers,” and that to support such schools is to “abrogate or amend the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution and our Founding Fathers.”

I would remind Mr. Dever that the “inalienable right to life” is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. His need to associate it with racism and terrorism represents a position more fanatical than the religious institutions he worries about.

Joe Makley
West Paris, Maine

Instead of Merit Pay, Try ‘Merit Schools’

To the Editor:

Change is inevitable, but is it always good?

The answer is a loud no, if the question refers to the changes advocated by former IBM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Louis V. Gerstner Jr.'s Teaching Commission in its report, “Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action” (“Business, Civic Leaders Urge Higher Salaries,” Teaching & Learning, Jan. 21, 2004.)

Instead of all teachers’ receiving nominal across-the-board salary increases, Mr. Gerstner’s 20-member commission (including no one who actively works, day to day, in our public school classrooms) would give higher pay to teachers of mathematics and science and to those teachers fortunate enough to teach students who do well on achievement tests.

If implemented, not only would the committee’s changes totally alter the landscape of public education, but they also would ultimately lead to its destruction.

Creating an economically dissimilar workforce, this approach to salary, which favors the few while ignoring the many, will corrode public education in a way no other program has been able to do. Why share materials and methods with the teacher across the hall, potentially helping her students outperform yours, giving her a chance at more pay and a better lifestyle? Why go in debt to earn the credentials to teach English or history or physical education, when the real pay goes to teachers of math and science?

And is it even fair to base a teacher’s raises on the success or failure of a curriculum over which she has no control? The truth is that classroom curriculum is controlled by superintendents and curriculum personnel in central offices who seldom spend any significant time in their schools, or by commissions like Mr. Gerstner’s, made up of people who neither use public schools themselves nor work in their classrooms on a day-to-day basis.

Instead of “merit pay,” what about “merit schools”? If committees and commissions were really serious about improving the supposedly deteriorating quality of public school education, merit schools that rewarded all the professionals in the building, from the custodial staff to the classroom teacher and building administrators, would be the way to go. The rallying cry would then become “money for all,” not money for just a lucky few.

Well-thought-out change is good for everyone.

Rosetta J. Boyd
Decatur, Ga.

Standards and Disabilities: Insights From Readers On Quality Counts 2004

To the Editor:

When making decisions about special education students and academic standards, some differentiation needs to be made between the category “specific learning disability” (usually average to above-average intelligence with dyslexia) and other, more severe disabilities (“Spec. Ed. Is Theme of ’04 Quality Counts,” Jan. 7, 2004.)

Dyslexic students should be held to the same standards as everyone else and given the appropriate instruction to get them to the proficient level. The challenge is getting teachers and administrators to understand that this is possible. Some changes may need to be made. The teaching staff may need to be trained in effective, research-based instructional methods, and the administrators may need to re-organize their one-size-fits-all programs, which are usually designed for the convenience of the adults.

Despite regularly-scheduled in-service programs, why are so many teachers assuming that there is little or nothing that can be done for dyslexic students? Decades-old research on effective instruction, currently being validated with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, studies of the brain, is not finding its way into the schools.

It’s not enough to tell struggling dyslexic students that Thomas Edison was dyslexic, or that Tom Cruise is dyslexic. An approach that points to the success of extraordinary individuals who were actually failed by the system (Edison was encouraged to leave school at age 7) is not really much of an approach, and it ignores the nameless numbers of those who could not rise above their disability without help.

Dyslexic students want to achieve to a high standard and have the capabilities to do so if they are instructed using effective methods and given appropriate accommodations. To fail to do that is to condemn these children to unnecessary chronic failure and despair.

Susan Hayase
San Jose, Calif.

To the Editor:

We should not group all students who have disabilities in one category. Among those with “disabilities” there are many different categories: Students may be disabled physically, mentally, visually, auditorily, or may have combinations of some of these disabling features. The same academic standards do not fit them all.

Some “disabled” children may be able to achieve the academic standards expected of their nondisabled peers. But there may be others to whom the same achievement standards cannot be applied. The school should first determine the assessment criteria and performance level of those academically low-functioning children. The results should be reported separately and weighted differently in computing accountability.

Sadako Vargas
Seton Hall University
South Orange, N.J.

To the Editor:

I applaud your decision to devote Quality Counts 2004: “Count Me In” to the theme of special education. With over 51,000 of our 111,000 members working as school- based speech-language pathologists and audiologists, improving the quality of how we educate children with communication disorders is among their highest priorities.

Unfortunately, your analysis was limited to the special education teacher. In addition to our school-based members, there are tens of thousands of school psychologists, school social workers, school counselors, and other highly trained and motivated education personnel working in our nation’s schools. These professionals are often overlooked and underappreciated, yet they create a collaborative environment that regular and special education teachers can count on to provide the full range of services that children with disabilities are entitled to under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

As Education Week continues to monitor and report on the challenges faced by educators when implementing the IDEA and the No Child Left Behind Act, please consider the professionals in the entire school community, not just the professionals in the classroom.

Larry Higdon
American Speech-Language- Hearing Association
Rockville, Md.

To the Editor:

The vast majority of students identified for special education in the United States are labeled “learning disabled.” An important aspect of the current federal criteria for this category is that there be a significant discrepancy between a student’s ability (IQ) and his or her achievement. I won’t even get started on all the problems inherent with this definition.

Now we have another piece of legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for all students to achieve proficiency in English language arts and mathematics by 2014.

By definition, the majority of our special education students are performing below grade level. How, then, can they possibly be expected to achieve at levels equal to their general education peers?

I raised this question at an informational session on the No Child Left Behind law held at my state education department. I was told that, if the special education students were getting the proper “supports and accommodations,” then they would, in fact, be just as proficient as everyone else. (New York state subsequently eliminated the majority of the allowable accommodations on the state assessments.)

I am not against exposing special education students to the same standards-based education as everyone else, and in fact, I am a strong believer that they ought to be challenged more than they are, rather than being exposed to watered-down curricula and instruction. However, it is not the case that all students should be expected to achieve the same level of competency in the same amount of time.

I also believe that everyone is born with a range of natural abilities. I, for one, am not particularly kinesthetically inclined. But I did quite well in academics. By the same token, some students must work extraordinarily hard at academics to achieve at an average level, and they will never, no matter how hard they try, earn a 1600 on their SATs or graduate with honors; nor should they be expected to.

I have seen the effects on struggling students that have resulted from this push for accountability: They stop making effort attributions and turn instead to ability attributions, as in “I’m too stupid to ever pass or graduate anyway, so why try.” Their self-worth suffers; they are not being “helped” by being held accountable to the same level of performance as everyone else. It doesn’t help that there is such tremendous pressure on teachers to have good scores; they sometimes “blame” the special education students for “bringing our numbers down.” Imagine how this makes those children feel.

As the parent of a child with special needs, I have come to accept that he will never be a star student. He will always have to put extra effort into his academics. Yet I commend him for his effort, for that is what matters. I would rather he try and fail than never try at all. On the other hand, he is gifted physically, and I am sure he will excel at sports. Not everyone needs to graduate from Harvard.

Kathleen Maxwell
Guilderland, N.Y.

To the Editor:

It is not a realistic goal to expect all special education students to achieve on grade level. It is like asking every schoolteacher to run a six-minute mile.

No matter how much they practice or how hard they work, some teachers will never achieve that time. Indeed, if a school were to report that all its teachers could run a six- minute mile, we would question the methods used in measuring the teachers’ performance.

Patrick Blanc
Jefferson County Schools
Charles Town, W.Va.

‘No Child’ Price Tag

To the Editor:

I write to advocate a national, nonpartisan, technically proficient effort to construct a cost model for No Child Left Behind Act implementation. (“Debate Grows on True Costs of School Law,” Feb. 4, 2004.)

I have recently reviewed various efforts, some technically proficient, some not, to determine the incremental costs of implementing this federal legislation.

I am struck by the unsupported assumptions various analysts make regarding the status quo. Because of these heroic, and generally unjustified, predeterminations, some are deriving huge dollar amounts for compliance. (It should be said in behalf of honest analysts, such as those who recently undertook the No Child Left Behind costing-out effort in Ohio, that they do make their assumptions clear. Other analysts, regrettably, are less transparent in their pronouncements.)

One unsupported assumption is that existing Title I funding must continue to flow in its current path in order to sustain today’s levels of student academic achievement. It is as though existing Title I efforts have all proven productive.

Some members of Congress and the Bush administration assume the opposite. They contend that the existing Title I funding can be reshaped to support the No Child Left Behind law.

The issue is important. If existing Title I funds can be redirected, it substantially lowers the estimate of incremental No Child Left Behind implementation costs.

Here is another debatable assumption. Most states now spend approximately 2 percent of professional-personnel costs (teacher and administrator) on annual salary increments for units gained beyond the bachelor’s degree. If this pay, in the future, could be redirected toward fulfilling the No Child Left Behind legislation’s high-quality-teacher requirements, then incremental implementation costs would be reduced yet more.

Finally, the largest assumption of all is that virtually all current operating expenditures for public schools are being effectively used. One has to claim here that what is now occurring is all valuable and inviolate, and that these existing funding patterns cannot be altered in greater support of the No Child Left Behind law.

What is needed is an agreed-upon national model or template around which state-specific analysis can take place. An important part of such a model is the assumptions to be made.

If a nonpartisan analytic group would undertake the construction of an agreed-upon cost model, then we would have a better idea of whether existing No Child Left Behind funding adequately covers implementation costs. If not, then added appropriations would be justified. If existing funding is sufficient, then Congress and the administration should know that, too, and criticisms should be dampened.

James W. Guthrie
Professor of Public Policy and Education
Peabody College
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tenn.


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