Education Commentary


September 06, 2000 20 min read

A Superintendent on ‘Shoddy Reporting’

To the Editor:

Much to my surprise and dismay, when I opened your Aug. 2, 2000, edition, I was confronted with the shoddy reporting that led to your Page 3 headline “Former N.J. Mayor Accused of Bilking N.Y. District.” The district identified in your article was the Irvington school district in New York, where I am the superintendent of schools. Needless to say, I was shocked to realize that Education Week had made the incredible mistake of misidentifying the district. The article was about alleged bribery and fraud in school construction that actually involved the Irvington, New Jersey, school district.

Our community has approved a plan to spend $50 million to build a new middle school and to renovate two other schools. We, however, have hired reputable architects, construction managers, and engineering firms. Our board members’ behaviors and actions are beyond reproach.

Your newspaper will simply issue a retraction. Our community, my board of education, my staff, and consultants will have to repair reputations tarnished by this incredibly unprofessional reporting.

Vincent T. Beni
Superintendent of Schools
Irvington Union Free School District
Irvington, N.Y.

Editor’s Note: Education Week deeply regrets the error. A corrected and updated version of the article appears on Page 3 of this issue. (See “Wrong District Identified in Case Against Ex-Mayor.”)

In Early Childhood, A Need for Quality

To the Editor:

I was pleased to see your article “Don’t Skimp on Preschool, Early-Childhood Study Urges,” (July 12, 2000) for two reasons. First, not enough importance has been placed on early-childhood education in the past, as evidenced by the disparate system of education available to children in the United States. Early-childhood education is often combined with the settings and regulations for day care. There is no equal access to high-quality programs, and those children who are most at risk for school failure are the ones who are left out.

With all that is known about brain development and the importance of these early years on a child’s future success, isn’t it about time that we started paying more attention?

In New York City, the only standards that licensed early-childhood- education programs have to comply with are the rules and regulations set forth by the department of health. While these delineate staff qualifications, health regulations, and physical facilities, there is no mention of the standards of curriculum a quality program should offer. This regulatory document, of course, has no impact on the proliferation of programs that choose to remain unlicensed.

The second reason I was pleased by the article is that it pointed to the need for greater emphasis on high-quality teacher-training programs in this area. Early-childhood educators should be able to create learning experiences that acknowledge and extend children’s competencies—experiences that are both challenging and within the child’s developmental reach.

I realize that there are high-quality early-childhood programs in existence, but we need to make an example of these and analyze the reasons for their success, rather than continue to perpetuate the existence of mediocre programs.

Krystyann Krywko
New York, N.Y.

Rewarding the Good Is Counterintuitive

To the Editor:

The thought of rewarding good schools for performance seems very much like a policy of feeding the prosperous while telling the hungry they are bad and should starve (“NEA Delegates Take Hard Line Against Pay for Performance,” July 12, 2000).

It is easy to get good results in good neighborhoods. The way to increase education outcomes is to convince the best teachers to go to the worst neighborhoods, even if it is just for a while.

The system that I see developing will convince all teachers to get out of the difficult teaching situations as quickly as possible. This will increase the tendency to have a two-tiered educational system and will work against the goal of education for all.

Libeth Tempero
Lawrence, Kan.

ASCD’s MembershipIncludes Teachers

To the Editor:

A recent news item titled “Parent Opinion” (June 21, 2000) describes the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development as a “group of school administrators.” The reference is only partially correct. Although more than half of our 165,000 members work in education administration as principals, superintendents, and central-office administrators, more than one-third of our members are classroom teachers, instructors, and professors.

The ASCD’s membership spans the entire education profession, and our members reside in more than 140 countries worldwide. They join the ASCD for the latest thinking about effective leadership and education delivery and for cutting-edge research in such areas as brain-based learning, differentiated instruction, and multiple intelligences.

Gene R. Carter
Executive Director
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Alexandria, Va.

Criticizing TextbooksFor the Right Reasons

To the Editor:

In her recent letter to the editor, Susan Sandler unfairly and inaccurately attacks your coverage of Gilbert Sewall’s report on history textbooks (“Digging Into Textbook Council’s Background,” Letters, June 7, 2000). She also castigates Mr. Sewall for ignoring “the rigorous and scholarly work in the areas of multicultural history and social studies that, rather than dumbing down textbooks, would make them more accurate and sophisticated.”

Ms. Sandler misses the whole point. Mr. Sewall’s report was a criticism of textbook content that in fact left out such “rigorous and scholarly work.” He pleads simply for accurate, factual material written with grace and style, material that would tell the fascinating, diverse, and inspirational story of our nation’s history so as to instill a desire for scholarship in young students.

Contrary to Ms. Sandler’s silly statement, Mr. Sewall does not “blame” multicultural content for causing the emphasis on graphics, the lessening of the narrative, or the boring language. He bemoans the mentioning and the inclusion of trivial and questionable material as well as the heavy-handed “agenda politics” that are the bane of today’s textbooks.

Mr. Sewall has written a fine report. Ms. Sandler should read it sometime.

Jesse D. Nichols
Retired Teacher
Fresno, Calif.

On Market Theory and Public Schools

To the Editor:

In “Telling Only Part of the Market- Theory Story” (Letters, Aug. 2, 2000), Patrick McEwan says that my Commentary “Market Theory of School Choice” (July 12, 2000) failed to describe three studies he knows about that obtained “less optimistic findings” than Caroline Hoxby’s seminal studies of beneficial effects of school competition. Since he provides no citations for these (as I did for Ms. Hoxby’s), readers and I cannot verify his interpretation.

Even if there is less than perfect consistency, dozens of studies in many industries, as I mentioned in my essay, show that competition generally benefits consumers through innovation, cost reduction, and the perceived and real quality of goods and services. Studies of such market effects in education and other fields may be found on the Internet sites referenced in my article.

Mr. McEwan agrees with me that Paul Peterson’s studies of vouchers in New York City, Washington, and Dayton, Ohio, show greater satisfaction from parents whose children were randomly selected to attend private schools, as expected from market theory. But he then goes on to say that the achievement results show “encouraging findings.” I’m glad he said this, because it buttresses my argument. Although I agree that Mr. Peterson’s findings are indeed encouraging, I didn’t mention this aspect of the evaluations because we need another year or two of results to assert substantial confidence.

Finally, Mr. McEwan suggests there are no comparisons of public and private school costs. The Internet pages cited in my article contain summaries and references for them, including the late James S. Coleman’s justly famous work, as well as many studies that show that competition, in addition to its other benefits to individuals and societies, usually reduces costs.

It seems odd that Mr. McEwan doesn’t know about such work, since he identifies himself as the “assistant director for research, National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.” Perhaps research on market effects is also less well- known in Cuba and North Korea.

Herbert J. Walberg
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
Hoover Institution Stanford University
Research Professor of Education and Psychology
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

Herbert Walberg’s extremely narrow focus on the “Market Theory of School Choice” (Commentary, July 12, 2000) has apparently obscured for him the obvious fact that nonpublic schools are chosen mainly for sectarian religious reasons. About 85 percent of nonpublic students attend pervasively sectarian private schools.

Evangelical schools do not appeal to Catholic or Jewish parents, nor Jewish schools to Christian parents, nor Nation of Islam schools to ... well, you get the picture.

Market theory may apply to cars, breakfast cereals, and other commodities, but seldom to schools. Indeed, it seems evident that market theory is all too often used to conceal the real motives of the advocates of school vouchers.

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

Standards, Tests, and ‘Mayhem of Failures’

To the Editor:

Arthur Coleman’s essay “None of the Above” (Commentary, Aug. 2, 2000) goes a long way toward bringing reason and common sense to the current wars over high-stakes testing. Essentially, he says that used properly, such tests can help educators find where additional resources and improved teaching are needed.

He also asserts that test scores alone should never be used to decide on an individual student’s capacity for promotion, graduation, and other life-affecting choices. If tests were used carefully within these boundaries, he argues, we could get rid of the current animosity toward testing.

What’s missing from Mr. Coleman’s piece is recognition that nationwide misuse of high-stakes tests is rampant. Test scores alone are being used every day as the arbiters of grade promotion, advanced- study opportunities, and high school graduation. This major irresponsibility about test use is a main cause of today’s “backlash” against testing. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of student failure by requiring tests for which the test-taker had no chance to be prepared.

Sad to say, the “backlash” is the only weapon that abused students, their families, and teachers have. They deserve our understanding and effective controls on the misuse of tests.

Although Mr. Coleman offers a rational and useful viewpoint on the testing wars, he avoids the major element of their source, the overwhelming political power of state-required testing without adequate controls. Governors, legislators, and corporate leaders have jumped on the bandwagon of standards, with tests to measure them. The result is a mayhem of failures, particularly among youngsters from poverty-stricken families, whose schools are often ill-supported.

Failure in the classroom is seen as an important motivator for both teachers and students, rather than a challenge to the educational and political leadership to meet the needs of children and schools.

Harold Howe II
Hanover N.H.

Address Root Cause of Teacher Shortages

To the Editor:

Every fall in recent years, policymakers across the nation have lamented the teacher shortage (“States Move To Improve Teacher Pool,” June 14, 2000). They have been responding to the shortage with a variety of policies and programs, such as alternative certification, intensified recruiting, signing bonuses, and increased salaries for new teachers. While the policies and programs may decrease the shortage, they will not end it because they do not address the root cause of the shortage.

We have a teacher shortage primarily because the teaching profession (for many reasons) increasingly is seen as unattractive by prospective and practicing teachers. The shortage will not end until policymakers develop comprehensive plans to make the profession more financially and psychologically rewarding.

Carl O. Olson
Sarasota, Fla.

Two Views on ‘Basics’ of English Grammar

To the Editor:

I am in favor of teaching grammar, particularly the modern transformational kind. I agree that grammar as a subject matter does “matter.” Instruction of grammar can be defended, since it is a vital part of our intellectual heritage.

Grammar teaching cannot, however, be supported for the reasons proposed by Claire Collier (“Teaching English: Like Math, It Needs Grounding in the Basics” Letters, Aug. 2, 2000). For example, contrary to Ms. Collier’s belief, there is no experimental evidence that proves grammar teaching is more effective than other kinds of instruction at making “the written word easily understood.” Teaching students to understand the “rules” of grammar is not the most productive way to “enhance understanding” of words.

Ms. Collier is wrong, as well, when she claims that children do not have an understanding of grammar until they “reach the stage of spoken words.” In truth, at birth children inherit a menu of all the grammars of all the languages. Then, when they listen to the given grammar being spoken by older people, they consult their menu, choose that particular grammar from it, and proceed to speak words in that grammatical order.

The proof of this statement is that use of grammar and speech sounds is far too difficult a practice for young children to acquire unless they were born with a module in their brain that makes acquisition of grammar and phonology effortless. As the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Steven Pinker convincingly explains, language is not learned, it is acquired in an instinctual fashion.

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

I want to express my gratitude to Claire Collier for her excellent letter on the teaching of English grammar. It has been a mystery to me that teachers of English have been duped into believing that the “basics” of English do not need to be formally taught. How do students who are writing and speaking English know when they are doing so incorrectly?

As a teacher of English, I have my students create their own grammar text, so that they have a point of reference when they need to edit their work. As Ms. Collier says, “When a student understands the rules, the student can decide when following them enhances understanding and when to break them for what end.” She also cautions that “teachers must know subject-matter principles themselves.” I would add that if English teachers don’t know the principles, it is because we have become so literature- and whole-language- minded that grammar has become an interjectory part of speech that is not necessary.

I wholeheartedly endorse Ms. Collier’s “gutsy” pronouncements and urge readers who may have missed her letter to try to find and savor it.

Martha J. B. Cook
East Sparta, Ohio

Principled Principals Will Never Give Up

To the Editor:

In his Commentary “The Myth of School Leadership” (May 31, 2000), Irving H. Buchen opines about the inadequacy and obstructionism of principals in the process of school leadership and improvement. He states his major premise comprehensively and then runs to impractical and risky conclusions.

All of the principals with whom I work not only are idealistic and committed, but also are capable and industrious in working for school improvement. Our superintendent challenges and leads us effectively in this effort. Please, Mr. Buchen, come to our small district in the desert of the United States and take a tour of my school, interview our teachers, and observe my colleagues and me. Test my assertions.

And please, read the Scriptures more closely. Yes, the “rank and file” entered the Promised Land, and Moses didn’t. But the conviction, commitment, effective intercession, and use of power, determination, and, above all, the ability to focus was evident in the biblical leader, who never gave up on the people whose best interests he had in his heart. Despite the second-guessing and vacillating commitments of those he led, Moses kept to his mission. Principled principals do, too, and there are many of them.

Douglas W. Price
Cottonwood Elementary School
Casa Grande, Ariz.

A Parent’s View of Special-Needs Gap

To the Editor:

Thank you for your article “Massachusetts LawmakersVote To Change Special Education Standard” (Aug. 2, 2000). I am a parent currently undergoing the hair-pulling exercise of trying to coordinate appropriate intervention for my daughter with dyslexia. She was not diagnosed until age 11, when I took her out of state to the Menninger Clinic.

The schools currently have no remedial-reading programs past 1st grade, even though their own records show that two-thirds of the students with a reading disability are not identified until age 8 or later.

Diane Batten
Jefferson City, Mo.

Boutique Learning: Engagement Is Fine, But Content Is All

To the Editor:

I was struck by the passion and obvious enthusiasm of James Nehring in describing his small “boutique” school in Devens, Mass. (“A Nation of Boutiques,” Commentary, Aug. 2, 2000). I can only wonder what traditional schools would be like if the teachers who worked in them displayed equal enthusiasm and optimism.

Though I applaud so many of the ideas Mr. Nehring expressed (allowing for frequent interactions among students, making school environments less impersonal, and others), I feel that he is making a serious error in suggesting that “almost anything learned well is better than many things learned poorly” and that the important variable in “high-quality education is not concerned with the topic of study,” but how the teaching and learning are done in the school. The error he is making, in my judgment, is one that could possibly shake the very foundations of our free society.

Let’s push Mr. Nehring’s argument a bit. What will result if schools as we know them (and the curricula that many of them attempt to support) are “torn down” and replaced by unusual and interesting boutique schools? Well, I imagine that the diversity of curricular choices—the diversity of what is taught in those schools—will be very broad indeed. Mr. Nehring mentions a school where his daughters could learn a trade. That doesn’t sound too bad. How about a school (small, boutique- like, and having many of the other characteristics Mr. Nehring feels are so admirable) that focuses on athletic achievement? How about one focusing only on technology? How about one that exclusively focuses on the collected work of Stephen King? Those schools could all be small. They could all support frequent student interaction. They could, I suppose, all be pretty decent boutique schools.

However, graduates of those schools would hardly be well-prepared to make informed decisions about living in a free society, and I doubt that anyone would dare suggest that the schools those students graduated from fulfilled anything close to their social obligation.

American schools have not been and should not be concerned only with making sure that students are engaged, irrespective of the content of such engagement. They try to teach children to think, they try to teach children the importance of reflection, and they also teach children about the world, and how they might fit into it. American schools also continue to play an important role in teaching children about freedom and the special responsibilities associated with living in a free society. Though I suppose it could be done, I doubt that the technology-only or Stephen King boutique schools would do the same.

Might students in these boutique schools really be engaged? Might they resonate with the particular and very narrow focus of the curriculum? Might their parents like the situation? Yes, yes, and yes, again. Would such schools be good for our nation? My answer to that question is a resounding no.

“Well-rounded” may be another way of saying dull, but it also denotes a person who is liberally educated and capable of making good personal and civic choices. Proposing that we produce “kids with sharp edges and irregular ways of seeing the world” sounds good on the surface, but is another way of saying that children would have little or no common understanding of our society and a very limited understanding of the world. Surely, this cannot be good.

There are plenty of problems in traditional schools. Mr. Nehring and I agree on that point. But to suggest that curricular choices—what is taught in America’s schools—are not important is wrong, and adhering to such a policy would hardly improve the situation. While I really liked Mr. Nehring’s final paragraph (suggesting that we become “a nation of boutiques”), I couldn’t help wondering if he has ever lived in a community served only by small boutiques. I actually have. It was a great place to find handmade English soap or a videotape of an obscure foreign film. But it was a terrible place to buy groceries for the week or the things I needed to do simple home repairs. Boutiques were simply too specialized to carry them.

Sam Minner
Division Head, Education
Truman State University
Kirksville, Mo.

A Maintenance Tip: Students Can Help Tackle the Facilities Dilemma

To the Editor:

The physical condition of schools is a topic regularly discussed by the media, government officials, politicians, and parents (“Facilities Gathering Highlights Importance of Involving the Public,” Reporter’s Notebook, Aug. 2, 2000). But while the debate goes on as to who should pay and how much to spend on facilities, students can get involved in improving the conditions in their schools now.

One way to increase student involvement in this area is through the student council. Schools with traditional positions of president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer would benefit from the addition of a “student council engineer” position in the student leadership aimed at increasing awareness of school environmental and facilities issues. The “engineer” would serve the principal and student body in being a point of contact for focusing on building problems noticed by classmates.

The success of any organization depends on the committed involvement of its members. Any method we use to draw students into the life of their school is bound to create more interested students and parents. It is widely acknowledged that large participation in the arts (choir, band, plays, audience participation, art shows) and in sports (teams, cheerleaders, games, fans) contributes to the sense of school community. Schools often develop reputations for having premier programs and achievement in areas such as math, science, debating, singing, or certain sports.

Regular and special events in a school year that provide opportunities for emphasis on the physical environment already exist. Often these events are directly related to rooms or areas where they take place. For example, a homeroom class might prepare a weekly list of work-related or cleaning items needed; the basketball team might voice its opinion about inoperative showers or dirty lockers; the stage manager could ask for help in repairing the auditorium lights; the science club president might be the voice to initiate repairs to the hood ventilation.

Programs like “Adopt a Corridor” would give ownership to a certain part of the building to groups interested in its maintenance. The student leaders of these groups would feel responsible to report their observations on conditions to the student council engineer, who would, in turn, meet with the principal to discuss possible changes.

Just as adults enjoy a civil work environment in an attractive setting, children deserve the same in their schools. We need to get more students to recognize that they can help create a pleasant school environment. By working closely with school administrators, students can improve school life as well as the quality of education.

Richard Sasse
Providence, R.I.
The writer is a member of the Lincoln School Buildings and Grounds Committee in Providence, R.I., a former maintenance manager for the Providence School Department, and an engineer with Vanderweil Facility Advisors in Boston.