Education Letter to the Editor


May 16, 2001 16 min read
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AP Coursework: A Credential, Not a Measure

To the Editor:

There are so many issues raised by your article on the growth of the Advanced Placement program that it is hard to know where to begin (“AP Program Assumes Larger Role,” April 25, 2001.) Coming together rather chillingly in the article were trends such as the growing insanity of competitive college admissions, the evolution of the College Board into a profit-based corporation, and our ever-increasing assurance that more testing will solve the nation’s educational ills.

These linked issues have commanded much discussion at my school over the last three years, and not without pain. The growth of the AP program is no doubt good for the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, but is it a universal good for students?

As an independent boarding and day school with competitive admissions and hopes for competitive college placements, my school has supported a vigorous Advanced Placement program for years. But many of the trends cited in your article have caused us to question its validity and utility for our students and for the school. At the same time, however, we feel trapped by the widely held (and apparently correct) notion that students can’t get into a good college without an AP course (or two, or four, or eight) on their transcripts.

What began as an examination of our policy requiring students to take the Advanced Placement exam mushroomed into an examination of our whole AP program and its effects on school admissions and college admissions. It was a good and profitable discussion that in the end reaffirmed the AP program’s place in our curriculum, but not with total comfort. We feel we could do better developing our own curriculum in many cases, but our students might be disadvantaged in the college-admissions process.

Another reason we committed ourselves to continuing to oblige students in taking the culminating AP exam, however, was because it requires them to perform in a broader competitive environment based on national standards. Even though we are not completely sold on the curriculum, or on how it sometimes forces us to teach, we feel that the exam is important for the experience it provides students.

The AP program should be used as a means to strengthen a school’s curriculum and to provide a challenge for high-achieving students. But more and more often, it is not. AP courses are actively promoted by the AP program and by admissions offices as requisite elements of a good student profile for college admissions. That, of course, was not what the program was intended to do. It was intended to provide a rigorous college-level experience for high school students, and college credit if a student performed well enough on a national exam.

Now, the program is seen as an “indicator of college readiness” for students. But if two-thirds of sophomores take AP European history or AP chemistry because it is the highest track available to them, and they score a 3 or above indicating college readiness, then perhaps Bard College President Leon Botstein is correct: We should just drop the whole idea of high school beyond the 10th grade for those students and pack them off to college.

For strongly held pedagogical and developmental reasons, we offer no AP courses to sophomores and only a few to juniors. Seniors make up the large majority of our AP candidates each year. For most of our AP students, the college-admissions offices will rarely if ever know the outcome of the candidate’s enrollment in an AP course. No one follows up, with the possible exception of the college registrar, and only then if the student seeks credit or advanced placement. In other words, the program is not used as a measure of one’s college readiness at all. It is a credential, in much the same way that being named to an honor society is a credential.

Students and parents clearly feel that having an AP course on a transcript is a mark of academic distinction, and in many ways it is. But truthfully, the college can’t know if the student was challenged and pushed, or if he or she was simply taught what was needed to score a 4 or 5 on the test. When it comes to seniors, colleges can’t even know if the student actually will take the test. The fact is that as more students take AP coursework, it will be devalued as a mark of academic distinction. And colleges will continue to raise the bar on what they accept as credit, for both academic and financial reasons.

It follows that many schools, mine included, will seek to create even stronger curricula that will better distinguish their top students. And that is a good thing. Much of these new curricula will bear little resemblance to AP courses (“build a working laser,” for example), and that is also a good thing. So what is so bad about what is happening?

In too many ways, we have become a country obsessed with getting to the next checkpoint in the race. We are more concerned about getting students into college than we are with giving them the tools they will need when they get there. A wise mentor once wrote 10 rules for educators, it is said, and rules No. 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 were all the same: “It’s about students.” He thought, and rightly so, that we needed a reminder of that from time to time.

D. John Watson
Assistant Head of School
The Peddie School
Hightstown, N.J.

Useful Research: A Scientist Cites an Example in Reading

To the Editor:

In reference to Nancy Barnes’ question, “What Makes Research Useful?” (Commentary, April 25, 2001), and your suggested online reference to an earlier Commentary, “Pre-Crafted Reform?” (June 12, 1996), I present what I hope will be useful illumination from my own experience in hard-science research and from following the development in Israel of a reading program known by its Hebrew-language acronym, the LITAF system. LITAF has enjoyed 20 years of success in teaching children in Israel to read in Hebrew and Arabic.

I first learned about research and development almost 60 years ago, in developing microwave radar receivers, which helped detect and eliminate the German submarines off our Atlantic Coast in World War II. The first principle I learned in testing any new approach was Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will. The moral, I found, is not to throw out the baby with the bath water because it failed—and thus produce pendulum swings like the one between phonics and whole language. One must find from experience all the factors inevitably missed in the theoretical planning, take them into account step by step, and eventually develop something that works.

The second principle I learned is that whenever a complex system fails, everyone blames someone else. One needs a systems-engineering approach with a direction that gets all participants working together with mutual positive reinforcement, rather than unproductive searches for who is to blame.

I have not seen much evidence of these principles in the reading wars, which have dominated reading education for many years. I have seen them followed successfully in LITAF, first introduced 20 years ago by Israeli educator Nira Altalef in two schools in “culturally disadvantaged” neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv.

The school principals were desperate and ready to try anything, even systems fought by the educational colleges and establishment. The number of children left behind had reached alarming proportions, leading to discipline problems, vandalism, and more.

LITAF turned these schools completely around. Nira Altalef, a veteran teacher with great experience and intuition had never heard of R&D or systems engineering. She intuitively incorporated their principles. Instead of starting with a hard and fast ideology, like whole language or phonics, and swinging the pendulum whenever one doesn’t work, Nira tried to combine the best features of all approaches, started small, and used intuition to interpret feedback from experience to expand by trial and error.

Bringing a new idea into practical use in hard science usually requires as much as 10 or 20 years of R&D. LITAF now has these 20 years of experience and has produced a system which not only works, but has been system-engineered to be user-friendly, with an atmosphere of continual mutual positive reinforcement.

The users include teachers, pupils, principals, teacher-trainers, parents, and everyone associated with the learning process. The LITAF record of not leaving children behind spread by grassroots to other schools, and its continuous success led to its being introduced to more and more schools. Today, it is used to teach over 17,000 pupils to read in about 300 schools all over Israel.

LITAF not only prevents weaker pupils from being left behind; it encourages and motivates all pupils, including the most gifted and brightest, to embark on an exciting voyage of discovery to reading mastery and beyond, to learning strategies, and to becoming independent learners.

Those who are interested can find further information about LITAF in my “millennium essay” in the scientific journal Nature (“The Structure of Matter—Like Science, Teaching Should Be the Result of Independent Ideas Converging,” July 13, 2000).

Harry J. Lipkin
Rehovot, Israel

Bullies Learn From the Adults

To the Editor:

As a director of a private school, I have to say that bullying behavior is not limited to children (“Survey of Students Documents the Extent of Bullying,” May 2, 2001.) I’ve been in meeting after meeting where executives and board members have harassed and bullied other members to promote private agendas. If this is the kind of behavior expected from upper-middle-class adults, our schools fail miserably in teaching respect, caring, teamwork, and tolerance. We continue to teach children aggressive ways of accomplishing goals—competition, reward systems, and achievement-based goal-setting—while we are requiring that they contribute and conform to a society that offers little reward for living as a peaceful, nonaggressive person. To achieve, we show by our actions, it takes ruthlessness to gain goals. This is the behavior children emulate. We do not teach or practice inclusive strategies, when it comes to being on the top of the success ladder.

Most of the internal politics in any organization are about territory, control, and power. We still do not design programs to defuse those human desires and allow us to create more compatible and cooperative working, living, and learning groups of people.

Vicki Lapato
Portland, Ore.

National Board Has the Burden of Proof

To the Editor:

I’m fascinated by the series of letters (“National Certification: A Sampling of Teacher Testimonials,”Letters, May 2, 2001.) savaging Michael Podgursky for daring to question the value of national board certification for teachers (“Should States Subsidize National Certification?,” Commentary, April 11, 2001.)

It’s hardly surprising that nationally certified teachers would think their new credential worthwhile. It would be a rare teacher who voluntarily underwent a time-consuming and expensive process, received large pay increases and public acclaim for it, and then said it was all a waste of time. Nevertheless, one would expect that such an investment would lead to demonstrable achievement gains for students. As National Education Association President Bob Chase noted in your pages, such a connection “only stands to reason.”

Mr. Podgursky wants to know if a nationally certified teacher makes more of a difference for students than a similar teacher without national certification. So do many other people. The burden of proof is on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Mike Antonucci
Carmichael, Calif.

Fine-Tune Tests, Add Longitudinal Data

To the Editor:

We wholeheartedly agree with the conclusions reached by the National Research Council in its recent report calling for assessment practices that are “comprehensive, coherent, and continuous” (“NRC Panel: Rethink, Revamp Testing,” April 11, 2001.)

Advanced computing technologies, combined with the work of psychometricians and others, are key to creating an assessment system that meets both demands for accountability and the need to provide the data required to improve student achievement on an individual level.

Much of the work outlined in the NRC report has already been done by our member school districts. Grounded in years of academic research, our nonprofit association has created sound assessment measures and computerized adaptive tests that take full advantage of the latest technology. The assessment tools can measure an individual student’s achievement over time, fairly and accurately, in addition to providing data that can guide curriculum to improve student learning. Because this system has been normed and aligned with national standards and with the content standards of each state, it also is an effective accountability tool.

Given that appropriate measures exist, the U.S. Senate’s $400 million proposal to help states create new tests might be better used to fine-tune existing assessments and take the discussion to the next level: support for a national longitudinal-growth research database.

The vision for such a database already exists. It includes a collection of academically related details about specific students gathered over several years. Such data can be combined to show trends and patterns in education at every level, from the individual student to classrooms, districts, states, or even regional and national levels.

The kinds of questions that can be answered by longitudinal assessment data can be as district-specific as determining the relative success of various programs of teaching, or as broad as questions about whether students reach natural plateaus in learning.

Allan Olson
Executive Director
Northwest Evaluation Association
Portland, Ore.

‘Those Who Can’ Are Teaching

To the Editor:

The reason colleges are having so much trouble finding qualified people to train their future teachers is that they are looking in the wrong places and insisting on the wrong requirements (“Colleges Seeking Teacher-Educators,” March 21, 2001.)

The best teachers I know are still teaching high school. Those who have gone on to graduate school most likely can’t cut it in the classroom. Or, to put it another way: Those who can, teach; those who can’t, go to graduate school.

If the colleges and universities would come down off their elitist high horses and quit worrying about doctoral degrees and talk to those of us (said she modestly) who really know how to motivate students, there would be no shortage.

Marge Schmidt
Seminole High School
Sanford, Fla.

Teacher Shares Essay From a ‘Lost Boy’

To the Editor:

As an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, I had a great interest in your article on “The Lost Boys of Sudan” (“The ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan Find a Home,” On Assignment, March 21, 2001.) Currently, I am working with two of the boys. They are amazing young men. One of them, Peter Jongkuc, wrote an essay that touched not only me, but our entire school. I thought you might find a place for it in your publication. The essay, called “What I Have Learned in America,” follows.

Gaines DuVall Jr.
Cave Creek, Ariz.

As I came to America, my sponsors and my American family worked very hard to find a school for me. I got enrolled in this school in November of last year. In Africa, I have been studying in horrible-condition schools for refugees. I have never come across a school like this one. It is quite ironic for me to be in a school like this. It is very wonderful. This was something that I had not expected; yet it has happened.

One of the things that I like about this school is that I am now getting a better education without disturbances, unlike the school where I was studying before. I like the administration here. When we went to the assembly, I realized that in every American school district, there must be planning ahead of how many children will graduate each year. Therefore, you must be equipped for your own graduation. I did not have that before.

When I was called into the principal’s office the other day, he gave me some ideas of his planning towards our academic success. I was filled with joy and hope of being a “Man of the Future.”

I am learning that this nation is excited for me to make friends. I pray to God to let my dream be true so that I can take my friends to my country in order to see it. Sometimes I feel that if God could have made the whole world like the staff and students of my high school, our country, Sudan, could have been in peace.

At the time I arrived here, everybody was interested in knowing where I came from and what the problems affecting my people were. When I explained to them, they felt compassion, as if God could give them power to solve the problems facing my people.

Imagine my American family. The way that they accepted us to stay with them is amazing. While they did not know what kind of person I was, they were welcoming to me. Is he somebody that will come and support himself as they are supporting, or not? But, since they have heard how much we have been suffering, they just accepted us. And right now, we have support academically and in all sorts of aspects.

Data ‘Snapshots’ Vs. Full Albums

To the Editor:

Regarding the problem you describe in your front-page story “Test Dilemma: Revisions Upset Trends in Data” (May 2, 2001):

The reason that states’ reworking of their testing programs is a dilemma is that we need both trend data and up-to-date assessments. No one system gives us all we might want or need. If I must choose, I’d opt for valid, accurate, and complete assessments.

One problem with the current testing movement is that it settles for a fuzzy snapshot of student learning, rather than a fully completed “album” of student achievement in all its aspects.

John Myers
Toronto, Canada

Solutions Sound Like Yesterday’s News

To the Editor:

Your story “Initiative Aims To Up Hispanic College-Graduation Rates” (May 2, 2001) raised questions for me.

In many institutions, students take Advanced Placement courses, have modern computer-information systems, and are allowed to take university courses for high school credit. Some states are even talking about eliminating senior years in high school to make K-16 closer to K-15; others are looking at enhanced technologies for performance-based learning and just-in-time knowledge.

The efforts described in your story, on the other hand, seem to be aimed at bringing students into a model of education based on the past, not the future. Keeping kids in school and getting them to go through college is imperative. And it would seem that a forward-looking vision might excite students and drive them into the future by capturing their interests and capabilities. They can stretch just as easily to be at the leading edge as they can at the trailing edge.

My concern is that the education system itself is unable to cope, not the students.

Tom Abeles
Minneapolis, Minn.

Texas Testing Gains: Another Perspective

To the Editor:

Your story about education gains in Texas ignores the analysis in the RAND report (“Test-Score Gains in Texas Traced to Policies on Minority Progress,” April 25, 2001.)

Persuasive evidence that most of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills gain comes from a combination of teaching to the test and holding back students in 9th grade (to prevent them from taking the TAAS in 10th grade) can also be found at www.ruf.rice.edu/ ~ctreduc/TAASaccountability.pdf, and at www.ruf.rice.edu/~ctreduc/ Research.html.

Another study, posted by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching at www.narst.org /conference/97conference/westerlund.pdf, shows that the high-stakes testing in the state of Texas promotes teaching to the test and actually lowers the quality of teaching and learning. The net result is that the dropout rate in Texas is very large and the quality of instruction has decreased.

I have confirmed these studies with an informal study of my own. I asked every public school teacher I know if the TAAS review occupied a large amount of their class time, and every one said that it ate up a large fraction of the time. They universally agreed that it was destroying education.

John M. Clement
Houston, Texas

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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