Education Opinion


April 18, 2001 14 min read
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‘Lost Boys’ Treatment Shows Our Own Loss

To the Editor:

The ridicule and mocking that the young Sudanese refugees you reported on have been subjected to in this country (“The ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan Find a Home,” March 21, 2001) is a powerful statement of how poorly American students of African descent are being educated.

After a civil rights movement of the 1960s in which “black is beautiful” was a major theme, and after enormous struggles to include African history in college and school curricula, it is clear that American education has failed to help not only students of African descent, but all students understand and respect Africans, the world’s first people.

The disrespect shown to the Sudanese students reflects the lack of cultural esteem many of the African- American students still feel about themselves and their derivation.

Donald H. Smith
New York, N.Y.

Evaluating Teachers Less Subjectively

To the Editor:

In his essay on Texas’ now-defunct career ladder for teachers, Jerry Jesness points out some relevant concerns about how subjectivity can enter into the teacher-evaluation process (“Teacher Merit Pay,” Commentary, April 4, 2001.) This is why the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, developed by the Milken Family Foundation and featured in your Jan. 10, 2001, On Assignment piece “Teacher Re-Creation,” takes a new approach to evaluation.

The program first sets very clear standards teachers must meet. These are developed and approved by the staff at each TAP school, a process that allows for teacher “buy in” from the very beginning. Next, the performance- appraisal system emphasizes a multimeasure approach, rather than relying on a single measure of performance.

Teacher evaluations consist of classroom observation by the principal, by master teachers at the school site, and by peer teachers. They have all gone through a rigorous professional-development experience to gain full understanding of the measures by which they will evaluate their colleagues. Teachers also provide portfolios of their work, and the evaluation takes into consideration gains made by students on standardized tests. These various measures come together to provide a fair, accurate assessment of a teacher’s performance. Compensation is determined based on this complex evaluation.

Mr. Jesness concludes his essay by saying this: “It is certain that good teachers deserve more money, and bad teachers deserve to be removed. In Texas, we discovered that it is not so easy to make those decisions. Let us hope that this round of merit-pay innovators finds a better way.”

We believe that the Teacher Advancement Program provides that better way.

Lewis C. Solmon
Senior Vice President and Senior Scholar
Tamara W. Schiff
Senior Research Associate
Milken Family Foundation
Santa Monica, Calif.

Some Timely Lessons on Early Algebra

To the Editor:

How timely your front-page article was on algebra activities for the early grades (“Introduction to Algebra: It’s Elementary,” March 28, 2001.) On the very morning it arrived, we were working with a group of kindergarten teachers in our Math Matters staff- development session. We used teddy bears that cost $4 each to investigate the y = mx + b equation. To explore the y intercept, we told teachers they could buy the identical teddy bears at the fair, but there was a $5 admission charge to the fair. We then posed the question, “Which situation is the better deal?”

You should have seen the lights go on. After teachers had made connections to the concept, we gave them a “real life” investigation involving local health clubs and their initiation and membership fees. The connections made by the teachers were amazing. The ensuing discussion revolved around graphing activities that students do in kindergarten and how much these are related to algebra ... if the teacher asks the “right” questions.

Garry Potten
Stockton, Calif.

To the Editor:

The Montessori curriculum is rich with algebraic and geometric concepts from the very beginning of a child’s education. It has been in existence for years, and, as I continue to read articles about all areas of the curriculum (reading, history, math, character education), I always end with the same thought: Montessori educators have been doing that for years.

Unfortunately, many teacher education institutions don’t introduce Montessori methodology, so many educators remain uninformed. Those who want to see it in action should visit a Montessori school in their area.

Crystal Scillitani
Cary, N.C.

Wisconsin Governor’s Budget Disputed

To the Editor:

Your item on the budget proposal of Gov. Scott McCallum of Wisconsin is seriously misleading (“Legislative Update: Wisconsin,” March 21, 2001.) Each one of your three “highlights” is incorrect in our view:

•Contrary to your claim regarding special education, Gov. McCallum does not want to “shift more of the cost of educating such students from school districts to the state.” While his proposal would put a little more into special education, the increase would be far outweighed by the growth in costs, and the state share would shrink from 36 percent to 33 percent, using estimates from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

•Contrary to your claim, Gov. McCallum does not “recommend expanding a class-size-reduction program in high-poverty schools to include more grades.” He proposes slashing $37 million from what it would cost to leave the program unchanged. He wants to halt the expansion into 2nd and 3rd grades at schools with less than 50 percent low-income enrollment.

•While it’s true that the governor “proposes increasing spending for testing development and administration,” the most important part is his attempt to move educational evaluation from the independent, professionally staffed department of public instruction into the state’s department of administration, which is directly under the governor’s control.

Public education advocates in Wisconsin, who are working hard challenging what they feel are Gov. McCallum’s efforts to politicize education evaluation and to slash funding for special education and class-size reduction, would be astonished to read your summary. If your Legislative Updates merely repeat politicians’ press releases, they are useless as a guide to what is actually on state legislative agendas.

Jack Norman
Research Director
Institute for Wisconsin’s Future
Milwaukee, Wis.

Spec. Ed.Complaints: Fewer Than Reported

To the Editor:

Your story about the special education settlement in Arizona (“Arizona Agrees To Repay Parents for Missed Special Ed. Services,” April 4, 2001) repeats an erroneous statistic first printed in the Arizona Republic. The state department of education has not received 1,000 special education complaints over the past four years. We have received 365 complaints since June 4, 1997 (the date referenced in the lawsuit) and found in favor of parents in approximately 300 of those cases.

During this same period, approximately 350,000 special-needs students statewide received education services, making this a complaint rate of about one-tenth of 1 percent. In other words, the vast majority of the special- needs students in Arizona have been receiving the services to which they are entitled.

Laura Penny
Arizona Department of Education
Phoenix, Ariz.

Teachers Still Await Error-Free Texts

To the Editor:

Harry K. Wong’s letter (“Publishing Glitz vs. Teacher Dedication,” Letters, March 28, 2001) is nothing short of amazing. He is convinced that when he was still “one of the last ‘real authors’ to co-author a textbook series,” his book and those of others were error-free. They weren’t. And neither were the teacher’s editions. But competent teachers readily identified the errors and made certain that they weren’t taught or learned. Competent teachers still do this.

Mr. Wong is only paying lip service to “an academically oriented teacher” after bemoaning, for instance, one textbook’s misstatement of Newton’s first law of physics. Does he really think that an academically oriented teacher would let this pass? Apparently, an academically oriented teacher even makes certain that skeptical students do not leave class until they believe that Linda Ronstadt really is a silicon crystal, as her misplaced photo in another textbook implies.

I don’t know about the “we educators” Mr. Wong refers to, but we teachers are still waiting for the golden age of error-free textbooks.

Robert C. Hanna
Director of Teacher Education
Hillsdale College
Hillsdale, Mich.

Praise for a Church’s After-School Effort

To the Editor:

Education Week is to be commended for the feature article on Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh and its successful after- school program (“On a Mission,” March 28, 2001).

The people of Grace Memorial are “leaning on faith” and going beyond the government definition of “faith based” intervention. They are combining their intellectual and financial resources to reach out to the community. What a great force this is. Knowledge is power, and the power of knowledge is exemplified in the staff of professionals who participate in the operation of the A-Step program. As your article points out, the leaders of this program are prominent and respected educators.

Needless to say, a pastor who says, “There will be no trade-off of God for money” and supports a program of this kind is a pastor who has a commitment to the betterment and survival of humankind. Kudos to your reporter and photographer for exposing this model program, and blessings to those who run it every day for the sake of their community and its children.

Alicia Alli
Executive Producer
Washington, D.C.

Vote of Confidence for Rigor, Teaching

To the Editor:

Re: “Implementing High Standards,” (Commentary, March 28, 2001): What an excellent and insightful essay by Paul Kelleher and participants at the Teachers College, Columbia University, superintendents’ work conference. “Testing does not improve achievement; teaching does” is such a significant statement.

The mixed support for the standards movement that exists among districts is, I believe, due to the fact that people have not had adequate opportunities to sit and discuss the benefits of standards and the statistical evidence available to support them. The impact on minority students of increasing the rigor of instruction, when that is accompanied by enhanced teaching quality, has been striking. The Education Trust in Washington has done some amazing work on the impact of standards.

Bernice G. Pinkney
Director of Achievement First
Fund for Educational Excellence
Baltimore, Md.

Teacher Vouchers: Idea Worth Trying

To the Editor:

Teacher vouchers are a great idea and totally feasible as a learning tool in our ever-expanding world of educational opportunities (“Maybe We’re Fighting Over the Wrong Vouchers,” Commentary, March 21, 2001).

During the last four years, as an online volunteer, I’ve created, organized, directed, and shared in several online educational projects, and have also participated as a student in online learning activities. From my own experiences, and from the comments shared by others, Internet-based learning is truly a wonderful opportunity to supplement the educational process.

In addition, many disabled and retired teachers may be interested in pursuing online-teaching careers, either part time or full time. Many of these individuals still want to teach, but for health or energy reasons can no longer function in the traditional school setting. With the looming nationwide teacher shortage, this group has much to offer.

Gina Boltz
Native Village Website
Toledo, Ohio

More Questions, or Fewer Reprisals?

To the Editor:

Re: John Barell’s essay, “Inquisitive Minds,” (Commentary, March 14, 2001): There is no lack of questions occurring to people, there is simply a lack of people asking the questions that occur to them. And the “why” of that involves the personal risks that would ensue.

To extend the author’s analogy to the space shuttle Challenger disaster, it was the engineers who originally questioned the launch—and were told to be team players and get on board the launch decision—who were penalized for their questions, not the people who said to go ahead.

Again and again, those who ask questions are seen as troublemakers or whistle-blowers, with the usual consequences. Those who keep quiet may not win awards, but they aren’t penalized. The need isn’t for more questions; it’s for fewer reprisals. The questions are there; it’s just too risky to ask them.

Dick Reed
Alexandria, Va.

Title I Teachers

To the Editor:

Marguerite Roza has done an incredible service by bringing attention to the problem of average teacher costing (“The Challenge for Title I,” Commentary, April 4, 2001). What makes this common practice of averaging teacher costs across schools so pernicious is that it occurs in nearly all large city school districts. The larger the district, the greater the likelihood that teachers are able to self-segregate themselves into one or two privileged schools, leaving the rest to decay.

Not surprisingly, the poorer schools soon show the effects of having nothing but the youngest and most inexperienced teachers. Administrators, attempting to remedy the problem, may like to pay extra to entice quality teachers to these schools (“hazard pay,” as some cynics call it). Yet, fixed salary scales squash any meaningful increase in salaries because increases must be spread to all the teachers in the district, negating any incentive for intradistrict transfer.

Under these incentives, arguments for reductions in class size can be viewed as nothing more than attempts to create additional positions in the privileged schools into which seniority-rich friends can transfer. Meanwhile, the poorest schools lose their most experienced teachers and can only replace them with less experienced, less qualified applicants.

Programs designed to help the poor have the annoying tendency to become middle-class entitlements. If we are not careful, the confluence of average teacher costing and rigid, seniority-driven collective bargaining agreements can make Title I an entitlement for middle-class families and teachers living and working in America’s cities.

Joshua Hall
Director of Education Policy
Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions
Columbus, Ohio

To the Editor:

I’m not sure how carefully the author of your Commentary on Title I funding in an era of teacher shortages reviewed the facts. In our district, Title I teachers are more highly trained and have more years of experience than the average teacher. Our budgeting process requires that we calculate these averages independently, and Title I pays only for teachers directly hired by Title I and serving Title I students. Next year, the average salary and fringe benefits for a Title I teacher will be $65,000 compared with $47,000 for an average district teacher. And most of the teachers funded through our Title I budget are reading- certified.

Barbara Marwell
Title I Coordinator
Madison Metropolitan School District
Madison, Wis.

Mom’s Reform: Memorization
And Its Discontents

To the Editor:

Journalism professor Howard Good’s reminiscence of his mother’s views on education (“Mom’s Still the Word,” Commentary, March 21, 2001) stirred thoughts of changes in elementary-level instruction over time.

Mr. Good describes his mom’s approach some 40 years ago. She forced him, for example, to memorize his times tables in 3rd grade, going so far as to interrupt dinner by displaying cards marked 8 x 6 = __ and the like in between bites of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She did this “almost every evening.”

Mr. Good can multiply “like a whiz” to this day. He and his brothers all became successful professionals (two doctors, a lawyer, and a professor). Did tedious memorization play a role?

Guesstimate: Half or more of today’s 6th graders—let alone 3rd graders—don’t know the times tables. When you don’t have parents like Lillie Good, teaching the times tables is a Herculean labor. Rationales for skipping that onerous step in the development of children’s number facility are available and welcome.

But as an instructional technique, memorization—whether of times tables or famous poems and prose passages—may be a forgotten gem.

Tom Shuford
Elementary School Teacher, Retired
Ventura, Calif.

To the Editor:

The ancient Hebrews slaving away in Egypt under the pharaohs should have lived today. They would not have lacked for straw, judging by the proliferation of men made out of it evident in today’s journalistic efforts.

Just who are all those educators, policymakers, and parents opposed to testing because they don’t hold up academic excellence as an ideal? Howard Good’s mother, with her flashcards, may or may not have equipped her children to go out and succeed in the world. I have to assume that, as he is a literate writer, she succeeded. But that’s beside the point. There are many (myself included) who believe that the current testing mania is ill-advised and destructive, and who just as passionately believe in education, holding up excellence as an ideal for which to strive.

There are also many (myself included) who believe that the motive behind the very political agenda of testing is not excellence at all, but its opposite—conformity, and a generation of superior Trivial Pursuit players. What better way to ensure against citizens capable of critically examining society and the roles they are assigned, than convincing them that memorizing socially approved factoids is the ultimate social skill?

Jonathan E. Schiff
St. Bernard, Ohio

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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