Education Commentary


November 22, 2000 12 min read

Management: More Than Shuffling Paper

To the Editor:

Your article on superintendents’ skills (“New Test Probes Superintendents’ Leadership Skills,” Oct. 25, 2000) makes the following statement regarding the new national licensing examination for superintendents:

“Creators and supporters of the test said it reflects an emerging consensus that administrators must focus on student learning, rather than simply management issues.”

This is a surprising distinction, suggesting that “management issues” do not include the mission of the organization, in this case a school district. No business leader would subscribe to the notion that his or her responsibilities for managing could be divorced from the organization’s mission.

Perhaps the misunderstanding lies in what managing is about. The terms “administrator” and “manager” in the educational field seem to be interpreted as document shuffling and pencil pushing. Management, in corporate terms, implies leadership skills.

Consider the guidelines you published drafted by the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium. They use such words as “facilitating,” “advocating,” “nurturing,” “collaborating,” and “influencing.” Those are management (leadership) words.

Could we please drop the word “administrator” from the lexicon?

Gerald D. Levy
New York, N.Y.

Time To ‘Get Real’ in Counseling Goals

To the Editor:

I just recently read the Commentary by Charles W. Lindahl (“Counseling: The Missing Link,” Oct. 18, 2000) and, as an ex-guidance director of an urban high school, feel compelled to respond.

On the one hand, I am happy to see that Mr. Lindahl recognizes the need for both guidance and counseling services in the schools. He is almost right on the money when he says, “Most California school students never see a counselor of any kind.” I say almost, because I think he could safely leave out the word California.

But on the other hand, I am sorry to see him promote that mythical function of the school counselor. If we continue to see counseling and guidance as simply a one-to-one service that deals with emotional duress and guides all students through the college- application process, then we are not only hurting the majority of our student population, but also are having a major negative effect on the entire quality of life in this culture.

Instead of worrying about hiring more counselors, all schools, K-12, should be committed to having all students master a set of guidance competencies in order to develop something called “career maturity.” Career maturity allows students to make individual postsecondary plans that have a high probability of success. By making college a default choice for postsecondary success, as was implied by Mr. Lindahl, we are, according to the research of the Pennsylvania State University professor Ken Gray, having only about one in three of our students reaching that success.

I would suggest to Mr. Lindahl that he, along with all educators, read Mr. Gray’s two excellent books: Other Ways To Win (2nd ed.) and Getting Real: Helping Teens Find Their Future.

His data clearly show that it’s time to stop the myth that “college,” which was defined by Mr. Lindahl as earning a baccalaureate degree, is the only way for America’s young people to win. That silly notion is not only untrue, but could actually be considered evil (see M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie). It is a lie that hurts students, families, and the community at large. I am sure Mr. Lindahl himself is neither silly nor evil, merely uneducated about the realities of American opportunities. He’s in good company, though, with the two most recent candidates for the U.S. presidency and all state educational policymakers sharing the same deficiency.

It’s time for us to grow up, get real, and stop trying to send all kids to college. Instead, let’s send kids out into the postsecondary world with individual plans, based upon personal and labor-market realities, that will give them a high probability of life success.

To formulate such a plan for each student would require schools to communicate clearly not only all the options available in this great country, but that all work is honorable and beneficial—not just work that is done with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. I’m not sure that having more counselors is necessarily the best way to get that done.

Ron Flickinger
Coordinator of Vocational Education
Anthis Career Center
Fort Wayne, Ind.

Urban Schools Demand More

To the Editor:

Your report “Test Scores Rising in City Districts, AFT Says” (Oct. 25, 2000) makes it crystal clear that American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman is becoming more desperate, deceptive, and hypocritical in her attempts to downplay the deep- seated academic crisis: massive failure within urban public schools. If her own grandchildren were affected, I doubt that Ms. Feldman would be applauding measly increases in standardized basic-skills-test scores as representing “a tremendous amount of progress.”

It is almost unbelievable that the leader of a union composed of some 1 million educators would have the audacity to boast about the fact that in Baltimore, for example, 34.5 percent of 5th grade students perform at or above the national average on a basic-skills test. This means that 65.5 percent of Baltimore’s 5th grade public school students are performing below the national average.

That such statistics could represent “tremendous progress” under any circumstances is a ludicrous idea. This is especially so when considering that a significant number (if not the majority) of the students who compose the 65.5 percent are probably at or near the very bottom of the scale relative to the national average, and that the vast majority of those performing at or above the national average probably are barely meeting the standards—as opposed to surpassing them.

Besides, Ms. Feldman is undoubtedly aware of the fact that, in most cases, standardized tests (whether they are designed to measure competency regarding basic-skills acquisition, or some other variable) do not represent holistic, objectively accurate assessment of how well or how poorly children are performing academically. It is no longer a secret—in fact, it has become common knowledge— that standardized exams often do not measure the skills that count most, those, for example, that the president of the National Urban League, Hugh Price, has termed necessary for high school graduates “to perform in the real world once they’ve graduated.”

The public also should be suspicious about the AFT president’s talk about “collaboration [and] teamwork between local unions and district leaders.” If the 37,000-student Rochester, N.Y., district is any indication, such collaboration and teamwork are born of crisis and desperation and are based largely on efforts to develop more sophisticated versions of harmful policies and practices, such as distorted, inadequate forms of inclusion, rampant grade inflation, and social promotion. It is amazing that such practices are occurring at the same time that local and national education leaders are ranting and raving about the importance of higher academic standards.

The bottom line and disturbing truth of the matter is that unacceptably large numbers of urban public school students, especially so- called “minorities” are completing middle and high school without acquiring absolutely essential knowledge and skills for the 21st century job market. We therefore can predict with a degree of certainty where many of these students will ultimately end up.

In the same issue of Education Week, Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, a union that represents the vast majority of teachers in public suburban schools, says this in a paid advertisement: “What counts are high-quality teachers, modern facilities, rigorous academic standards, plus the resources to offer individualized assistance to kids who need help. What counts is the political and budgetary commitment to create high-quality public schools in low-income neighborhoods.”

It is clear that residents who send their children to schools in low-income urban neighborhoods cannot count on education leaders such as Ms. Feldman or their local counterparts to fight for that which Mr. Chase correctly concludes “counts” most.

This situation highlights the dire need for concerned African-American leaders to work night and day to help organize the families whose children are most negatively affected. If the victims of neglect don’t (1) fight for the “resources to offer individualized assistance to kids who need help” and (2) make serious, concerted, organized, and consistent demands regarding the “political and budgetary commitment to create high- quality public schools in low-income neighborhoods,” then no one else will.

When it comes to the worsening education crisis within urban public schools, this is not a time for gradualism. Millions of uneducated, undereducated, and miseducated urban youths, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, are on their way (via deprivation of adequate, appropriate help, support, and resources) to feeding the ever-growing U.S. prison population.

Howard J. Eagle
8th Grade Social Studies Teacher
Rochester, N.Y.

Community Questions and School Boards

To the Editor:

John G. Ramsay should be commended for his bold thinking around the role of local school boards in his essay about the need for boards to ask the right questions when they are making critical decisions. (“A Culture of Questions,” Commentary, Oct. 4, 2000). He raises many issues that communities and school boards should consider.

His series of questions parallels the National School Boards Association’s Key Work of School Boards initiative, a project designed to help promote community engagement and produce more-efficient school boards and school board meetings.

Focusing on student-achievement strategies is one of the most important functions of a local school board. Board members can often accomplish this task by simply asking the right questions—to the superintendent, to the staff, and to the community. School board members often ignore the “power of the questions.” However, through asking these important questions, school boards can discover the important questions to focus on and can provide the leadership necessary to raise student achievement.

Anne L. Bryant

Executive Director
National School Boards Association
Alexandria, Va.

Galileo’s Lute

To the Editor:

I was not surprised when I read, on a news article in your Sept. 27, 2000, issue the headline, “‘Mozart Effect’ Goes Only So Far, Study Says.” As a music educator, I already knew that. But as my eyes wandered down the page to the accompanying statement, “Researchers find no proof that arts education raises grades,” I was somewhat dismayed.

Unfortunately, the article paints a lopsided picture as it describes the findings of Project Zero’s study, “The Arts and Academic Achievement: What the Evidence Shows.” It gives the impression that the study is long on what the arts have not reliably accomplished, and short on what intrinsic value the arts do have. I read the executive summary of the study, and it is full of eloquent statements that reinforce the value of the arts. I wish you had quoted statements in this summary such as, “Let’s stop requiring more of the arts than of other subjects. The arts are the only school subjects that have been challenged to demonstrate transfer as a justification for their usefulness.” Or this wonderful statement:

“Let’s bet on history. ... [T]he arts have been around longer than the sciences; cultures are judged on the basis of their arts; and most cultures and most historical eras have not doubted the importance of studying the arts. ... The arts are a fundamentally important part of culture, and an education without them is an impoverished education leading to an impoverished society. The arts are as important as the sciences: They are time-honored ways of learning, knowing, and expressing.”

Instead, you quote Johnny Saldana, a professor at Arizona State University, who implies that the executive summary may downplay the validity of the arts. I think that both you and Mr. Saldana have somehow missed a lot of what the study had to say.

The Project Zero researchers would caution us against trying to justify the existence of the arts based on the transferability of skills to other subjects. I agree with this art-for-art’s- sake philosophy. But it should be noted that the groups in the study who showed the greatest transferability of skills were not the college students who listened to Mozart before an exam. Their improvements were very temporary. The greater and more permanent gains were by those who were passionately engaged in acting out stories, or reading and playing music. Art for art’s sake and transferability of skills to other disciplines are linked.

Furthermore, I think that we should promote greater awareness of this transferability because it supports multiple-intelligence theories such as those of Howard Gardner. It is becoming more and more evident that we possess multiple forms of intelligence, and that these intelligences don’t operate independently but are integrated into the workings of the brain. The students we are now teaching will experience multiple career changes, with each career requiring a multiple set of abilities that must work in an integrated fashion, not as isolated subjects.

Your article also downplays the study’s finding that there is a large causal relationship between music-making and spatial-reasoning ability. Perhaps this is because these abilities aren’t measured by standardized reading tests or SATs. But judging the validity of a skill based on its usefulness in school or its measurability on a test is a narrow gauge.

We need to judge skills by how useful they might be in life. Look to the future. Do we dare say with any certainty that the students of today will not need skills in spatial reasoning? Look to the past. Galileo, who studied the solar system, and Einstein, who created a new vision of the universe, were also very musical. Galileo, the son of a well-known musician, played the lute and the organ; Einstein, the violin. Was it pure coincidence that they also possessed such amazing gifts of spatial reasoning?

The case for arts education remains strong. The material measured by standardized tests is very important, but if that is all we teach our students, they are seriously deprived. Tests and measurements of validity are needed, but the only way we could possibly measure everything that students learn would be to make sure that we teach them very little. The arts are one of the ways in which we can expand students’ minds, engage their passions, and provide self-expression in a way that defies measurement.

Mike McGrath
Fairfield, Conn.

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters