Education Commentary


June 21, 2000 23 min read

Math Standards and ‘Postmodernist Cant’

To the Editor:

Regarding the recent Commentary by Bill Evers and Jim Milgram (“The New Consensus in Math: Skills Matter,” May 24, 2000): When is the mathematics-teaching community in particular, and the education community in general going to realize that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has no credibility left as a change agent for improving mathematics instruction in U.S. schools?

Over the past 20 years, the NCTM has managed to swing from one end of the skills-to-concepts spectrum and, with the “new” standards document, it is beginning the cycle all over again. These so-called “reforms” have all of the hallmarks of a market-driven pander to whichever end of the sociopolitical spectrum is yelling the loudest, a postmodernist cant that will ensure that the only thing that remains unchanged are the budgets of academics in whose interest constant waffling and intellectual deceit are fundamental axioms.

Millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on these so-called innovations that are unique from each other only in the extent to which each can minimize individual achievement in sacrifice to the educational “trend du jour.” Those in the NCTM and its sycophant National Science Foundation directorate for math-science education should fall on their swords, admit their fraud, and retire to a life of well-deserved oblivion, teaching in U.S. public schools, the only “research context” worthy of the name.

Alan Hull
Framingham, Mass.

Study of Internet Use Left Out the Teachers

To the Editor:

In response to your article “Study Finds Disparity in Internet Use,” May 24, 2000, I would like to ask this: What about the staff development and level of technical knowledge of the teachers in the schools studied? As we measure the way and the amount of time students use computers, we also need to assess their teachers’ comfort level with the technology.

I say this not to criticize or make value judgments about teachers, but to show perhaps some contributing factors to the statistics contained in these reports. We are asking students if they use a computer in the course of an average day, but we should also be asking teachers the same question.

Students are more likely to use a computer if that is required of them for an assignment—and if someone shows them how to use the computer—than they are if only a few computers in a library are designated for student use. Teachers are much more likely to give an assignment involving computers if they themselves are comfortable with the technology and have been trained in its use.

Staff development for teachers needs to extend beyond the how to’s of computer usage into the best practices for education with computers. Sample assignments, good management techniques, and reference materials need to be shared among educators to increase teachers’ comfort level and enable them to use computers in such a way that they will become productive learning tools for their students.

Leigh Ann Jervis
Fox Lane High School
Bedford, N.Y.

Give Test Protesters Thoughtful Response

To the Editor:

I write in response to Jonathan Zimmerman’s thoughtful essay regarding the Massachusetts students’ protest against state assessments (“Grade Daniel’s Exam,” June 7, 2000).

Mr. Zimmerman is of course right that Daniel Elitzer sounds like a bright student with well-developed critical skills, and that he raises a good point. The problem is that simply grading Daniel’s essay is no solution.

It would certainly be possible to devise a test in which students were asked to pose and answer a thought-provoking question, and guidelines could be developed by which to score the responses. Such a test might be even better than the one Massachusetts is using. (It would, of course, be pointless to score the essay Daniel wrote and compare the results with those for students who chose to take the test as given.) Daniel, however, might not want to sit for a different kind of test; he wanted to protest the idea of the test.

Large-scale tests of the kind used in Massachusetts are intended to provide a way of comparing the performance of large numbers of students for particular purposes. Some of these purposes may be laudable and practical. Others—using scores to determine teachers’ and principals’ compensation, to name one—may be less so.

Many who are using large-scale tests may not be doing so in ways that are valid and consistent with sound measurement theory. If Massachusetts is drawing unsupportable inferences from its testing results, or using the results in ways that are unfair or misguided, grading Daniel’s essay won’t help. The adults who make the decisions about when testing is appropriate and how it can best be accomplished to achieve particular goals need to think clearly about what they want to measure and why and muster support for their positions.

A thoughtful response to the questions Daniel and the other students posed would be some public discussion about the goals of the state’s testing program. Mr. Zimmerman remarks that “the real issue has always been how to assess [student] learning.” This is true, but the problem of how cannot be solved by tinkering with essay questions.

Alix Beatty
Chevy Chase, Md.

Clarifying Wis. Rules for License Renewal

To the Editor:

The May 31, 2000, letter by Stephanie Hirsh needs a response, especially for your readers in Wisconsin (“Recertification Plans Retrace Old Mistakes,” Letters). The new Wisconsin rules for license renewal do not specify courses or increase hours, as intimated by Ms. Hirsh.

The new Wisconsin model that was moved through the legislative process by state Superintendent John Benson this year is a standards-based, assessment-driven, and performance-documented approach to professional development for license renewal. There are no requirements for credits or hours specified in the new model.

Teachers are empowered to design professional development based on school or district goals, for the purpose of improving the learning or social conditions for students. In the spirit of the “new unionism,” teachers are tasked with assessing and certifying the completion of colleagues’ plans.

The cornerstone of the Wisconsin design is what Dennis Sparks of the National Staff Development Council used as a definition of staff development: “Teachers working together to solve problems.”

The Wisconsin system is aimed at exactly what Ms. Hirsh claims it does not do: It “supports teachers in showing the relationship between better professional development and changes in practice that improve results for students.”

The actual language of the rules are available on the department of public instruction’s World Wide Web site: www.dpi.state.wi.u s/dpi/dlsis/tel/newrules.html.

I hope readers take time to review the rules before drawing conclusions about their content. These new rules are a positive policy statement for this state and a model for the nation.

Peter J. Burke
Teacher Education and Licensing
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
Madison, Wis.

Aid to Immigrants Is Cost-Effective

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to your article “Talented, But Not Legal,” May 31, 2000, which reports the challenges facing students denied college scholarships because of their immigration status. Federal laws require that public schools open their doors to educate these same children. The same tax dollars used to educate legal U.S. citizens are used to pay the expenses for the children of illegal aliens.

Keeping these facts in mind, I fail to understand why our state colleges and universities, which also are compensated by the public dole, cannot devote a portion of those tax dollars to offer higher education to children of immigrant parents who have demonstrated both the talent and the desire to obtain a college education. It would be far better for our universities to provide a larger pool of educated workers to U.S. companies experiencing a shortage of workers than to simply add more immigrants to public-assistance programs due to their lack of education.

If it is against the law to provide these students with scholarships, then colleges and universities should fulfill their role as change agents by leading the way to influence a change in the laws. After all, these same institutions are spending millions of dollars each year on scholarships for students from foreign nations. Most of these students return to their countries of origin after college; consequently, we do not directly benefit from this program.

By providing financial assistance to immigrants already living in this country, we can effectively break the chain so these students can become solid, tax-paying citizens.

Dan Bichekas
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Term ‘Government School’ Betrays Bias

To the Editor:

Michael E. Tomlin’s letter gives away his game by using the term “government schooling” instead of public schooling (“Demographic Divide, or Freedom of Choice,” Letters, May 31, 2000). “Government schools” is the buzzword commonly employed by advocates of school vouchers and school privatization.

If publicly funded charter schools have the effect of promoting the fragmentation of school populations along such “demographic divides” as religion, ethnicity, or class, then government has the obligation to step in. Let’s not forget that “choice” and “freedom of association” have often been used to try to justify segregation and discrimination.

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

Has GOP Abandoned Its Anti-Blob Stance?

To the Editor:

The U.S. Department of Education’s financial management is the laughingstock of federal agencies. But amid a House education subcommittee’s efforts to get to the bottom of the problems, it is appalling that some Republican members of Congress still opt to feed, instead of fight, this bureaucratic blob (“GOP Working on School Construction Bill,” June 7, 2000).

Subcommittee member Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., is correct that new construction funding is a “scheme to commingle federal funds with state and local funds.” But even though his party is in the majority, his ideas might be in the minority. The plan also takes the teeth out of reprimands Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., might be considering in his pursuit of the truth surrounding the department’s accounting problems.

What is it going to take to get other members of Congress to raise a few eyebrows and see the Education Department’s financial activity is at least questionable, and at most criminal? This department can’t account for billions, so the answer is to give it $1.5 billion more?

Kudos to Democrats—not for sound education ideas, but for the intimidating ability to inspire Republicans to expand the blob they vowed to eliminate when they took control in 1994.

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

An ‘Out’ Educator on Role Models

To the Editor:

I want to commend you on your two-part special report on teen suicide (Teen Suicide: The Silent Epidemic, April 12 and April 19, 2000). The series was informative, moving, and critical for educators, administrators, and parents, all of whom have difficulty understanding this difficult subject and talking about it in productive ways with young people, so many of whom are in severe crisis.

In the article “Homosexual Students: A Group Particularly Vulnerable to Suicide,” however, you mention a gender discussion group at City-As-School High School as having been created by teacher Michael Perelman “with another teacher.” Under a large photograph of Mr. Perelman (the backs of students’ heads are visible) is a caption that reads: “Teacher Michael Perelman and a colleague at City as School created a gender discussion group for students two years ago.”

Although it is necessary to protect students’ identities—they choose to and for their own protection must remain anonymous—my identity, and those of the colleague and the other teacher mentioned, are not. I have been an “out” lesbian educator for 12 years. I am open about my lesbian identity for political reasons, and mainly because I believe that students—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight, and questioning—need to know as many adults as possible who can openly identify themselves as members of sexual minorities.

Being out as a lesbian teacher lets students know that there are people with experience with sexual-identity issues who are available for them to talk with, and that these people are also successful, responsible, and caring educators, unlike images portrayed in the media and by groups like the Family Research Council. Unfortunately, many lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender teachers cannot risk being out of the closet, making it even more critical for those who can.

Mr. Perelman and I began the group two years ago as a gay-straight discussion group, with the support of several other teachers and guidance counselors, both gay and straight. I co-facilitated the group until last September, when my teaching load increased and I was no longer able to give the group the time it required.

I strongly support and respect Michael Perelman’s ongoing work with the group and was moved by the courage of students in the group to share their stories and concerns with a reporter. However, referring to me only as “a colleague” or “another teacher” instead of using my name, places an out teacher in the closet, implying, particularly to students, that I think there is something wrong in revealing my identity as a lesbian.

Finally, I want to add some thoughts to what Mr. Perelman says in the article about administrators’ fearing district leaders’ perceiving the session as promoting homosexuality. Whether this is the case or not, groups and classes that openly address student questions about sexual and gender identity will elicit controversy. But this is no reason for placing unnecessary restrictions on such groups or on opportunities to address issues of sexual orientation and gender identity across the curriculum.

Generally, what students learn about sexual and gender differences from their peers, their families, and from popular culture is so mired in prejudice and confusion that it is difficult for young people to form positive images of themselves or friends and loved ones who might be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, causing many to have low self-esteem and behave destructively toward themselves and others.

Paula Ressler
English Teacher
City-As-School High School
New York, N.Y.

Morale: A Veteran Teacher’s Advice to a New Superintendent

To the Editor:

Bravo to Harold O. Levy for taking on the challenge of being chancellor of the New York City school system (“Levy Settles Into the Driver’s Seat in N.Y.C.,” May 24, 2000). Your article portrays him as a wise and effective leader, open-minded, optimistic, and willing to learn from experienced educators. Since our paths are unlikely to cross, I would respectfully share my thoughts here:

Teacher morale is the priceless commodity that determines schoolwide success. When teachers pull together in a spirit of team effort, the results are superior to situations in which they compete. When all teachers are paid a reasonable salary, provided with reasonable working conditions, and respected by students, parents, and administrators, they naturally perform better. Mr. Levy’s plan to give all New York teachers pay raises will raise teacher morale.

Good teacher morale requires opportunities for dialogue and sharing. Sadly, the school day in most districts does not allow for that. Since education is clearly a cumulative process, there must be communication among teachers of specific subjects or grade levels.

As a pre-algebra teacher in Los Angeles public and private schools, I found my greatest hurdle was the widely varying kinds of math courses students had taken prior to arriving in my class. With the new emphasis on middle schools, there is often no contact between math teachers in grades 6, 7, and 8 and those teaching high school math courses.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that middle school teachers can work with elementary teaching credentials and emergency credentials and have no actual major or minor in the subjects they teach. Thus, as the brand-new standards released by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics call for an emphasis on algebra in grade 8, many 8th grade teachers lack the background in math to teach algebra.

Teacher morale deteriorates when teachers are called upon to perform services for which they are not prepared. The large turnover in new teachers in urban districts like Los Angeles and New York City is caused in part because teachers are thrown into situations with no mentoring or other support. There is a sink-or-swim philosophy that can quickly destroy idealistic but untested teachers. Paying master teachers a bonus to mentor new teachers is a good idea, since all experienced teachers could apply for the bonus.

Measuring teacher performance on the basis of student test scores is unreasonable and unfair. During most of my 20 years of teaching mathematics, I was blessed by having many students for two consecutive years—for pre-algebra and Algebra 1. My students’ success on state tests was largely due to my having two years to build the foundation in pre-algebra, then create a solid structure in the skills and concepts of algebra. I worked diligently to help those who lacked the foundation catch up. But many teachers are faced with students totally unprepared to learn algebra, or other subjects. If we evaluate those teachers on their students’ test scores, we are actually measuring the teachers who preceded them. It is not possible to teach two years of subject matter in one year.

Teaching assignments affect morale. My expertise is in algebra and geometry. I loved teaching those courses, and was successful in building my students’ competence and confidence. In both the private and public schools where I taught, the talented teachers of calculus and trigonometry refused to teach lower-level courses like Algebra 1. They could not tolerate students’ learning to use negative numbers or combine polynomials or solve simple quadratic equations. We respected and benefited from each other’s areas of strength.

Education policymakers will surely reap what they sow. As legislators, administrators, and educrats attack teachers, blame them for society’s ills, and impose high-stakes tests, they will discourage bright and talented young people from choosing a teaching career. My sense is that Chancellor Levy understands that he and his teachers play on the same team and desire the same victories for their students.

Students are not widgets, schools are not factories, and teachers are not magicians. I wish Mr. Levy success in guiding the New York school system so that every member of the team can experience success.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Willard, Ohio

Preparing Teachers

To the Editor:

Your review of the latest Public Agenda report, “A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why,” leaves your readers misinformed of the data reported relative to beginning-teacher attitudes toward their teacher preparation (“Teachers’ Idealism Tempered by Frustration, Survey Finds,” May 31, 2000).

The unfortunate use of the small, internal headline—"Blaming Education Schools"—in the article is in sharp contrast to the fact that 71 percent of the report’s respondents gave their teacher education program a “good” or “excellent” rating and that the authors of the report concluded that many beginning teachers see their teacher preparation program as “indispensable.”

While Public Agenda does report that more than half of beginning teachers believe they needed more work in classroom management and student discipline, there is also the observation that formal preparation can’t prepare beginning teachers for every contingency or situation.

When education schools are faced with the dilemma of preparing teachers for the schools we have or the schools we ought to have, my reading of the Public Agenda report says we are striking an appropriate balance. Perhaps if more time was available in the teacher education curriculum, we could do both. Absent more life space, we can only begin a process that carries over to the beginning years of the teaching experience.

David G. Imig
President and CEO
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Your article on Public Agenda’s most recent poll of teachers was startlingly misleading in at least one respect. It creates the impression that most teachers who participated in the survey had nothing good—and plenty bad—to say about their preparation programs.

This is flatly untrue.

If you had bothered to look at the data in the report more carefully (Table 6 and Chapter 5), you might have noticed that teachers gave strongly positive ratings on three of five questions asking them to rate their training programs. Seventy percent thought their program did a “good/excellent” job in providing teaching experience in classrooms; 71 percent thought the program did a “good/excellent” job in preparing teachers for the classroom; and 70 percent thought the program did a “good/excellent” job in making sure teachers know how to teach effectively.

Strangely, there is no hint of any of this in your article. Instead, you chose to report that teachers “blame their colleges’ teacher-preparation programs for their inadequacies” and for the difficulties they face once they begin to teach. This sweeping conclusion was based on teachers’ responses to two of five items—whether their programs taught them enough about student discipline and if they learned how to “deal with the pressure and stress of teaching.” About 60 percent of teachers gave their preparation programs poor or fair marks. These are important (if unoriginal) findings.

But Public Agenda’s own data reveal a story that is more complex than your article portrays. Space obviously limits how much detail a newspaper can provide on any topic, but you made some reporting choices that clearly distorted what teachers had to say about their preparation programs. Perhaps Education Week is not solely to blame; the Public Agenda report itself clearly emphasizes the negative and downplays the positive. The bias is plainly evident in Chapter 5 of the report.

Although I am in a department of teacher education, I am no mindless partisan of teacher-preparation programs. There is much that needs repairing. In fact, I have collected data more damning even than what is contained in Public Agenda’s report. I was actually surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response to three of the survey questions, which I was not expecting based on previous surveys.

Clearly, no good purpose is served by failing to report the results of studies fairly and accurately, even if they can’t be neatly encapsulated in simplistic conclusions.

Claude Goldenberg
Professor and Associate Dean
College of Education
California State University-Long Beach
Long Beach, Calif.

‘The Leadership Myth’: A Real Problem, Overblown? Or an ‘Inane Attack’?

To the Editor:

It is not often that my opinion of a Commentary author moves 180 degrees from the time I begin reading to the time I finish, but that was the case in reading Irving H. Buchen’s “The Myth of School Leadership” (May 31, 2000).

I could not have agreed with Mr. Buchen more when he suggested that some principals and superintendents may actually be getting in the way of meaningful educational reform. That is certainly consistent with some of my own experience, both as a teacher (many years ago) and as a faculty member in several schools and colleges of education over the past two decades.

I clearly remember the first two principals I “worked for” (their words). One was a successful coach who had a losing string and was removed from his coaching duties only to be hired as a school principal. I can still recall the athletic metaphors he used at faculty meetings, many of which were very sexist and simply did not fit the matter being discussed. As a principal, he was a total loss, and many of my teacher colleagues secretly ridiculed him behind his back.

My second principal was even worse. Apparently, he thought his job was to make sure that teachers “did their paperwork on time” and that the school had “no problems” (again, his very words). His understanding of teaching and learning was minimal. The notion of his serving as an educational or instructional leader was quite frankly a joke.

Over the years, I came into contact with many other principals and superintendents like these. There were and are too many of them. But these examples, and those used by Mr. Buchen in his Commentary, hardly capture the characteristics and attributes of all the folks who do this work. Just as is the case with teachers (or physicians, lawyers, waiters, clerks, and yes, Mr. Buchen, professors of management), some school administrators do a terrible job, and some do wonderful things that change lives.

I am reminded of a local building principal who helped shape a schoolwide reform program that increased the achievement levels of children. I know superintendents who do hard things every day to make schools safer, more vital, and more effective. There are lots of these kinds of administrators, too, and it is simply unfair to paint them with the same brush used to paint the losers.

Mr. Buchen is guilty of a common practice in public school criticism. He identifies a real problem (in this case, a group of school administrators who are not performing very well) and then suggests that the whole system be abolished. That’s really unfair and, in my view, would in no way make things better.

Here’s a daring suggestion: Let us come up with a system to identify those leaders who are trying hard and performing well and reward them. Those who aren’t doing very well would be told what they need to do and be given reasonable resources to do it. If they can’t or won’t, then let us get rid of them.

Schools are simply too important to allow poorly performing administrators to remain there. Mr. Buchen is right on that score. However, schools are too important to dismiss the many top-notch and high-performing administrators who also work there.

Sam Minner
Johnson City, Tenn.

To the Editor:

Irving H. Buchen’s Commentary is an inane attack on school leaders. “School reform,” he states, “to be successful, needs to minimize principals and perhaps even to dispense with them.”

This argument and others that he makes are extremely damaging to successful school reform efforts. Mr. Buchen’s Commentary clearly reveals his total lack of knowledge and understanding of principals and their importance in the school reform movement.

For too long, the principal’s role has been ignored and downplayed. Mr. Buchen’s views are a good example of this: “Most principals are perfunctory. They do busywork that could be out-sourced or done by hiring low-level specialists in maintenance, security, finance, scheduling, and other areas.” Comments like these perpetuate an uninformed understanding of what a principal actually does.

In every enterprise—corporate, political, and military—leadership is recognized as essential and critical. Mr. Buchen doesn’t understand or recognize that schools also must have high-quality leadership as embodied in the principal. Unfortunately, as long as educated people like Mr. Buchen fail to see the principal’s role as instructional leader, then whole-school reform will never happen. Without well-trained, qualified school leaders who have the will, the vision, and the skills to set the instructional course for their schools, comprehensive school reform will not occur.

We challenge Mr. Buchen to spend some time with principals in elementary, middle, or high schools to get a real sense of the challenges and responsibilities they shoulder. We have to wonder when he last set foot in a public school.

Attacks on the principalship make it more difficult for superintendents and school boards to find qualified candidates with the will to take on the job. We can no longer ignore, belittle, or take for granted the principalship. Our children’s futures are at stake.

Vincent L. Ferrandino
Executive Director
National Association of Elementary
School Principals
Alexandria, Va.

Gerald N. Tirozzi
Executive Director
National Association of Secondary
School Principals
Reston, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters