Education Letter to the Editor


April 14, 2004 12 min read
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Good Integrated Schools: More Than Test Scores

To the Editor:

Fostering racial and cultural understanding is an important goal for schools to achieve as the country’s population becomes increasingly diverse, but it remains secondary in the minds of most people to teaching the skills and knowledge that constitute traditional curricula (“Integrated Schools Viewed as Benefit by Their Graduates,” March 31, 2004).

Unfortunately, the study you report, “How Desegregation Changed Us: The Effects of Racially Mixed Schools on Students and Society,” gives short shrift to this latter question.

In discussing the study’s conclusions, Amy Stuart Wells, the lead author, correctly maintains that good schools need to be defined by more than just test scores. But she forgets that test scores are not the only way to measure instructional effectiveness. Performance-based assessment in the form of student portfolios, for example, offers a superior alternative to standardized-test scores, particularly with students from the diverse backgrounds her study dealt with.

By virtue of its design, the study missed a golden opportunity to answer one of the more pressing questions in public education today: Can voluntarily integrated schools produce both positive affective and cognitive outcomes at the same time?

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

The writer, now a newspaper columnist, taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

To the Editor:

Although I grew up attending racially segregated grade schools, the experiences I had in a racially and culturally diverse high school, and then in college, helped shape who I am today.

Schools are supposed to do more than provide volumes of subject-matter information. They also have the responsibility to help every student grow as a whole person. They should broaden students’ horizons and expand their thinking.

Children should go to schools with diverse student populations, where they will be exposed to people from different backgrounds and other cultures. This will help them develop into better citizens. We become better citizens when we know one another better, care more about each other, and understand our differences.

A valuable benefit I derived from going to a diverse college came from living with and getting to know, understand, and develop friendships with students who hailed from backgrounds unlike my own. I grew immensely.

Later, I searched for a racially and ethnically diverse community in which to live and raise my family. I wanted my children to have the same chance I had. There are no guarantees, but we must provide the opportunities.

Ron H. Smith
Columbia, Md.

Think ‘Out of the Box’ About Social Promotion

To the Editor:

John Merrow is on the right track in his Commentary (“Get Rid of Retention and Social Promotion,” March 31, 2004). But it is too bad that he probably never was a public school teacher or principal. The problem he overlooks is the pipeline—those thousands of kids who are beyond the 2nd grade without being on grade level.

There is an immediate solution to this problem that few ever mention: Schools can move students up while technically retaining them in the prior grade, and immerse them in the subjects they are failing until they have achieved subject mastery, whereupon they would gain true promotion. In this plan, schools can keep students who are failing together with their peers for electives, lunch, and physical fitness. This is particularly important for those students who would move to a higher-level school if they are not retained, such as 5th and 8th graders.

School boards probably would need to change their pupil-progression plans to allow for kids’ moving ahead while technically remaining in a lower grade until reaching mastery. But this solution avoids Mr. Merrow’s concern about both retention and promotion for today’s pipeline of low performers. It is out-of-the-box thinking that needs to be considered.

Pete Kreis
Retired Educator
Tallahassee, Fla.

Schools Need Updating, This Baby Boomer Says

To the Editor:

You are making me feel quite old when you write about the Pledge of Allegiance (“High Court Hesitant to Bar Pledge in Schools,” March 31, 2004). Am I the only one who remembers the day “under God” was put in? None of us asked why, but most of us stumbled over it for years. But those were the days of “take cover” drills, Hopalong Cassidy lunchboxes, and Howdy Doody. Nowadays, we’re talking lawsuits, the No Child Left Behind Act, government regulation of lunches, and no parent’s being home to supervise use of the Internet or Xbox. Funny thing about schools, though, they still teach the alphabet, cursive, adding, subtraction, multiplication, division, explorers, U.S. geography, and earth science.

Has anyone wondered why America’s schools are having difficulty catching up with the rest of the world? Has anyone asked why students have trouble adjusting to the lives they have chosen for themselves? And most importantly, has anyone questioned why, after 30-plus years of special education, we are getting more kids (not fewer) referred for individualized education plans?

I know it’s heresy, but maybe the schools don’t need to raise their standards, and maybe the teachers don’t need to be the best they can be, and maybe we don’t need smaller schools or smaller classes ... maybe we need to teach more relevant subjects.

And if that happened, maybe we would not have to reteach subjects year after year. Maybe learning would go on in school, the way it goes on out of school. Maybe students would be able to repeat a poem, the same way they can repeat a rap song. Maybe a hyperactive child would be able to sit through a class, the same way she can sit through a movie or a TV show. Maybe reading would be learned better if the subject was more interesting (ever see a “nonreader” read the instructions for a video game?).

It is particularly difficult for students today, as well as those of yesterday, to become effective parents without being taught how; good communicators without taking a course; or cooperative members of society without someone demonstrating how. Our world has become fast and complex, but the schools have no clue as to what the issues are, not to mention the answers.

Bob Lilienthal
Wakefield, R.I.

Adolescents’ Problems Go Beyond the Schools

To the Editor:

Without launching into a diatribe about the “research” that led us down the “middle school path” 20 years ago, I would like to comment on the interpretation of data discussed in your article “Report Questions Wisdom of Separate Middle Schools,” (March 17, 2004). You report that researchers in the RAND Corp.-sponsored study found, in part, that our middle schools are “not happy places to be,” that middle school students are “stressed,” and that “compared with their peers in 11 other developed nations, American students rank last or near last on measures designed to assess their emotional health.”

My experience with middle-level kids is that they are rarely happy or unhappy about anything for any length of time. Research supports my belief that middle-grades children experience emotional highs and lows on a daily basis, sometimes for significant reasons and sometimes not. They may not like their teachers or their schools, but they may not like their parents or their homes either. They become depressed when bullied or ridiculed by peers, yet think nothing of hurling hurtful or insensitive remarks at other students.

The amazing thing is that the researchers seem willing to accept that middle schools are the only explanation for, or solution to, these problems. Students in most American middle schools attend only 180 days out of the year. Shouldn’t valid research take this into account? Is it not reasonable to suspect that factors other than school affect children’s emotional health? Is it realistic to think that out-of-school experiences don’t overflow into children’s perception of the school environment?

I fear that, just as we blamed the junior high for not meeting the needs of students and dumped that concept in favor of the “research based” middle school movement, we are now trying to explain the perceived failure of middle schools by again blaming the organizational structure of the school.

Your article quotes Wisconsin principal and National Middle Schools Association executive board member Michael J. Dietz as saying, “If you’re not addressing what happens in the classroom, it really doesn’t make a difference what grade configuration you have.” He is correct. However, in my experience, even excellent instruction will not allow us to significantly address pupils’ emotional-health issues and, consequently, the academic performance of middle school students.

If we continue to blame our public schools and attempt to hold them accountable for “leaving no child behind” while ignoring the growing list of cultural and societal problems beyond the schools’ control, we may indeed be witnessing the beginning of the end of public education as we know it.

David Brothers
Chickamauga, Ga.

The ‘Slow, Frustrating’ Course of School Change

To the Editor:

Howard Good is too passionate about education for me to think that he may stop caring and doing all he can to make it better for students (“Losing It,” Commentary, March 17, 2004).

Incremental change is slow and frustrating, as is the educational process—educators not only teach kids, but we also teach adults.

So, Mr. Good, say that you won’t go away but will stay in this fray, building and rebuilding, and doing whatever it takes to explain what good education really is made of.

Dorothy Rich
Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.

12th Grade Achievement

To the Editor:

I’ve just finished reading the recommendations of the National Assessment Governing Board’s report “12th Grade Student Achievement in America: A New Vision for NAEP” and couldn’t be more alarmed (“Panel Recommends State-Level NAEP for 12th Graders,” March 10, 2004).

The word “citizen” appeared once or twice in the report and, at one point, the importance of students’ knowledge of history and civics was even put into writing. But excuse me for being a little upset.

I have followed National Assessment of Educational Progress reports for over 30 years, and NAGB, the U.S. Department of State, and Congress have never had any interest in doing state-by-state comparisons in U.S. history, civics, geography (and now, the new world-history and economics disciplines). As a result, the states today operate in the dark with regard to how their students stack up against peers in neighboring states and across the nation.

When I initially came across the report, I was left unguarded and a bit hopeful. After all, perhaps now there might be something positive from NAGB. Since 9/11, the nation has seen a revitalization of concern over students’ civic awareness. Twelfth grade could, after all, be seen as preparing students for the only career they will all have upon graduation—that of citizen.

The recent completion of American history and American government courses for almost all the nation’s students presents an almost perfect curriculum alignment for such an opportunity. We might never have such comparisons at grades 4 and 8 like those in the other subjects, but we could live with a capstone understanding of such content as an exit picture of how we had prepared our students for their careers as consumers, workers, voters, or as servicemen and -women.

However, I was totally shocked to find that, rather than recommend such state comparisons for grade 12, the governing board is going to continue testing these subjects only as a “national representative sample” and only “if resources permit.” Does this mean “never”? Either the report’s authors are hypocrites, the states truly don’t care about civic efficacy, or the maxim “ignorance is bliss” is astonishingly accurate.

Might I mention that millions of students take the ACT and the SAT, and while the NAGB report very accurately points out this isn’t everyone, these tests do provide a lot more data than we have concerning what our students know about their governmental and economic systems, the nation’s past, or the world in which they live.

Help me understand why it is that reading and mathematics will be assessed every two years, science and writing every four years, and history, civics, geography, and economics once every generation (“resources permitting”), or not at all? This represents the “best thinking” of NAGB? And of course, let’s continue not to hold any state accountable for any of these disciplines. This is wonderful news in light of the nation’s increasing diversity and the fact that an ever- higher number of immigrants crossing our borders now come from nations without established democratic traditions.

As important as it may be among the states to compare 12th grade student performance in our overly tested areas, wasn’t civic knowledge at one time a primary reason for public education? Wasn’t it among the first NAEP assessments?

Isn’t it true that states are moving away from their own civic assessment programs due to a lack of emphasis and scorekeeping at NAEP? (My count shows Maryland, Maine, and Washington as having recently disbanded such programs. In Florida, we’ve been lobbying since 1986 to know what our students understand regarding civic education.) The NAGB plan will undoubtedly encourage many more states to disband what remains of their civic assessments. One wonders what the Founding Fathers would say of this plan.

Survey after survey—the governing board’s own often-delayed NAEP assessments included—point out that urban students can name more alcoholic beverages than they can U.S. presidents; that Mexican young adults ages 18 to 24 can better identify than American students (1) the location of the United States, (2) the approximate size of the United States, (3) who the Taliban and al-Qaida are, and (4) the locations of such places as the Pacific Ocean, Russia, Japan, and Italy; and that American students lack an understanding of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and even the most basic principles of American government and economics.

One can only assume that the authors of the report feel comfortable with this level of performance.

I compliment the NAGB on the stroke of genius of encouraging the other, nonessential subject-area disciplines to fight among one another over what few “resources” exist. If we don’t like the lineup of priorities for future assessments, we’re to lobby NAGB to move us to the head of the line over the others. Keep us all fighting among ourselves so we’ll have no time to do battle with the report’s authors, ’eh?

Based upon the recommendations of this report, I guess it is safe to presume the National Assessment Governing Board is now actually hostile to civic education. What facts could possibly be cited to prove otherwise?

Jack Bovee
Legislative Chair
Florida Council for the Social Studies
Lehigh Acres, Fla.

The writer is a 30-year social studies educator, a former elementary school principal, and now the coordinator for K-12 social studies in Collier County, Fla.


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