Education Opinion


March 29, 2000 11 min read
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Residential Charters: Why Limit the Idea?

To the Editor:

In response to Carole Boston Weatherford’s Commentary, “An Overnight Solution,” (March 8, 2000), why limit the idea of a boarding/residential school to just charter schools? Why can’t Ms. Weatherford’s idea be expanded to all public schools when extreme underachievement warrants trying a whole new approach?

While the author may feel that the concept of charter schools is the only area of innovation in public education, we should not make the idea of charter schools the nexus of this discussion. Certainly, the idea of seeking very different strategies is more than warranted. A one-size-fits-all model of public education is not able to address the many faces of student achievement or lack of achievement.

Interestingly enough, this idea, while not necessarily new, would require that two giant public bureaucracies, education and child welfare, break down the legislative and administrative rules (who will pay the bill, federal, state, or local government?) that prevent the commingling of public dollars, to put the interests of children first.

Ms. Weatherford’s idea has great potential, but the resistance from established systems will be almost impossible to overcome unless the body politic has the will to create change.

Paul A. Haubrich
Director, Center for Charter Schools
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wis.

Middle Schoolers’ Reading Regimen

To the Editor:

In “Learning Not To Read,” (Commentary, March 1, 2000), Jack W. Humphrey calls reading an academic subject and bemoans the fact that it no longer is a separate course in middle schools. He goes on to say, “Reading educators did not eliminate reading classes,” implying that reading is best taught within special classes so designated.

My experience is that most reading educators know that middle school students become readers in classes where reading to learn science, history, and literature, among other subjects, is part of the curriculum. Science teachers must teach the genres of their subject, much of which is found in periodicals, not their textbooks. History teachers are the experts when it comes to teaching students to read primary sources associated with cultural, political, and social events of the past. Literature provides students with the imaginative and realistic accounts of the human story in all its variety, and it requires a teacher who knows how to help students read, write, listen, and speak as they probe texts for multiple meanings, motives, and themes.

Reading is language, and is, therefore, learned like the other language arts—through using it to get things done. It is not a skill to be learned apart from subject matter. Students become readers when they talk and write about what they are reading, when they read for many purposes, when they can challenge an author’s evidence, when they seek evidence that what they read contradicts or supports what they are coming to know. Middle school students should, above all, read well and widely, developing a body of experience with many kinds of reading. If teachers of academic subjects do not teach their students how to access the genres they use in their classes, what makes Mr. Humphrey think that a segregated reading class can make up for this abdication of responsibility?

Jerome Bruner’s belief that language is central to learning in school is apt here. Middle school teachers, especially, must see that learning to read the language of the subject is teaching students to learn the subject itself.

Mary A. Barr
Director, Center for Language in Learning
El Cajon, Calif.

Teaching’s Moral Dimension Grows

To the Editor:

Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin are correct in asserting that the “moral matter” found in every school, every day is absent from many teacher education programs (“Teacher Education’s Empty Suit,” Commentary, March 8, 2000). But not all. While I wouldn’t call it character education, a term that has many different meanings, universities, colleges, and public schools that constitute the National Network for Educational Renewal have built programs on the premises that teaching is a moral act and that preparing young people for citizenship in a democracy is a critical public purpose of education with important moral dimensions.

This network, founded by John I. Goodlad, now includes 34 universities in 15 states, working with more than 600 public schools that share this perspective. The moral qualities we need of citizens include both civic and civil behavior, an understanding of and commitment to social justice, and the ability to combine empathy and reasoning in making important judgments in one’s personal life and as a citizen.

The NNER is about to expand its membership after nearly a decade of testing curricular ideas based on Mr. Goodlad’s work, and we are encouraged that there are hundreds of universities with an interest in joining in this effort.

It should be noted that, for many, “character education” is an essentially conservative term, and not connected with social justice and democratic practice. For some of the colleges and schools we work with, the introduction of issues of justice and equity are very controversial.

Teacher-educators, universities as a whole, and public schools have a moral obligation to prepare future citizens for democratic practice, but it is still an uphill battle. Policymakers seem much more likely to equate better schools with better jobs, rather than better schools with a better democracy (not that the two are mutually exclusive). The high-stakes tests by which school administrators survive or die do not measure these important moral goals.

On a related note, a program developed by Matthew Lipman at my institution 20 years ago, Philosophy for Children, focuses on the moral issues and reasoning skills elementary-grade students need. That program has been widely adopted in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and by aspiring democracies in other areas, but not to any great extent in the United States. I am hopeful that the political climate surrounding education in this country is changing.

I applaud the position Mr. Ryan and Ms. Bohlin have taken, and I want them to know that there are many teacher-educators moving forward on this important issue of renewal.

Nicholas M. Michelli
Dean, College of Education and Human Services
Montclair State University
Upper Montclair, N.J.

The writer is the chairman of the governing board of the National Network for Educational Renewal.

Riley Speech Showed An Anti-Voucher Bias

To the Editor:

Your coverage of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley’s State of American Education Address ignored Mr. Riley’s most vehement statement to date against what is becoming an accepted reform choice in some poorly performing school districts (“Riley Urges ‘Review’ of Standards,” March 1, 2000.)

Mr. Riley called those who think school vouchers will work “negative political voices” and finished his point by saying, “Vouchers are a mistake.” Was he suggesting that families in Milwaukee whose children use vouchers don’t know what they’re doing?

Was he suggesting that Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a lifelong Democrat who once said vouchers would cripple public schools but now supports his city’s voucher efforts, is making a mistake? Under his city’s voucher plan, public and private school performance has improved.

In fact, while conducting research for an upcoming project, one of our staff members was told by a Department of Education official who often works on Mr. Riley’s speeches that the secretary has never mentioned Milwaukee’s voucher program in any speech because the department is opposed to vouchers.

Such comments reinforce the department’s prejudiced notion that choice options, especially vouchers, cannot be supported if they exist without bureaucratic meddling from Washington. It also exposes the department’s desire to satisfy the whims of teachers’ unions, whose staunch opposition to vouchers has convinced Mr. Riley to support the bureaucracy at the expense of students.

Christopher Prawdzik
Education Research Fellow,
Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
Arlington, Va.

A Counter-Argument To Teacher Ed. Critic

To the Editor:

You have published a series of letters by thoughtful respondents to Martin L. Gross’ Commentary, “Does the Route to Teaching Need a Fresh Start?” Feb. 16, 2000. One strong counter-argument remains unspoken, and I believe it further reveals the shallow research on which Mr. Gross’ thesis rests.

For more than 30 years, California has educated teachers in a “4 + 1" design whereby candidates earn a four-year arts and sciences degree prior to their two semesters of teacher education. This is a key reform that Mr. Gross calls for. There is no consensus, however, that this massive investment of time and money has created a better teacher. As evidence, note the following:

“Surveyed and interviewed employers indicated that they share the opinion that teachers from other states had been well prepared to teach in California. No participating representative of employer groups expressed a belief that California-prepared teachers are generally better prepared than teachers from other states” (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing Newsletter, February 1998).

The state of California is now encouraging the creation of four-year, blended elementary education programs as an alternative to the 4 + 1 design.

Paul Shaker
Dean, School of Education and Human Development
California State University, Fresno
Fresno, Calif.

Ga. Teachers Seek Fair-Dismissal Rights

To the Editor:

In your article “Georgia Legislators Pass Accountability Plan,” (March 1, 2000), Gov. Roy Barnes’ education adviser Ron Newcomb’s own words confirm why the Georgia Association of Educators is still hopeful that fair-dismissal rights will be restored to Georgia’s teachers.

Mr. Newcomb said that “a tiny handful of teachers can go on teaching who shouldn’t be.” The GAE feels that Mr. Barnes’ elimination of fair dismissal is using a sledgehammer approach to fix a rare problem. He has painted Georgia’s teachers with a broad brush, and because of a “tiny handful,” the greater majority will soon be working in one of only two states that do not provide due process for their teachers. (Mississippi is the other.)

In addition, a recent Georgia voter poll showed that when told of the proposal to eliminate the rights of newly hired teachers to a fair-dismissal hearing before their local school boards, 65 percent expressed their disapproval.

The GAE has never stood in the way of dismissing poorly performing teachers. We simply want the process to be fair in order to protect good teachers from unfair dismissal. What we are asking for is neither special nor out of the ordinary. The poll indicates that when Gov. Barnes’ fair-dismissal proposal is clarified with voters, it becomes anti-teacher and unbalanced.

Essie Stewart Johnson
President, Georgia Association of Educators
Decatur, Ga.

Value-Added Caveats

To the Editor:

While I will agree that “value-added assessment” reports provide a better index for estimating school effects, I will modestly suggest that Arizona state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan overstates the “purity” of value-added assessment when she says, “These data complete the picture of school effectiveness” (“Ariz. Ranks Schools by ‘Value Added’ to Scores,” Feb. 9, 2000).

Current value-added assessment models do not account for several factors known to enhance student performance (and thereby enhance an estimate of a school’s effects). For instance, nothing in the current formulas accounts for private tutoring paid for by parents, even though such practices seem much more common in middle-class communities than in working-class communities. Thus, schools serving students from largely middle-class homes may be given credit for producing achievement gains unrelated to the quality of the school program.

Then there is the more widespread problem of “summer reading loss.” As Harris Cooper and his colleagues demonstrated in their meta-analysis of 39 research studies, the reading achievement of children from lower-income families and communities slips back each summer, while such effect was not found in children from middle-class homes and communities. The two- to three-month annual summer reading loss poor children experience means that their teachers must be at least 25 percent more effective just to look as effective as those teachers who work with children from middle-class communities. But current value-added assessment models assume no summer reading loss occurs (or that it occurs randomly rather than specifically for certain groups of children).

Doris Entwisle and Carl Alexander of Johns Hopkins University have demonstrated the substantially negative cumulative effects of summer reading loss in their Baltimore Beginning School Study. Suffice it to note that they found that all of the nearly three-year gap in reading achievement between 6th graders attending schools in more and less advantaged communities was accounted for by initial achievement differences and summer reading loss. As Ms. Entwisle and Mr. Alexander pointed out, poor children’s achievement gains were virtually identical to the gains observed in children in school in middle-class communities—when they were in school.

Their methodology assessed reading at the beginning and ending of each school year. That allowed them to effectively track summer reading loss. But current value-added models have no such feature. Thus, schools serving primarily poor children are penalized for a factor over which they have virtually no control—summer reading loss. On the other hand, schools serving primarily middle-class children suffer no such penalty. In other words, schools serving middle-class students end up looking more effective than they should, and schools serving poor students end up looking worse.

Value-added assessment seems to be a step in the right direction, but more steps are needed in order to design an accountability reporting system that actually levels the comparative playing field.

Richard Allington
Fien Professor of Education,
University of Florida
Gainesville, Fla.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters


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