Education Letter to the Editor


January 09, 2002 33 min read
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San Diego Story Draws Objections

To the Editor:

Your article “In San Diego, Principals’ Focus Is Teaching and Learning” (Nov. 28, 2001) was misleading in its depiction of how principals interact and communicate with their teachers. I write this letter because our work is too important to have it portrayed inaccurately.

As the principal at Miramar Ranch Elementary in the San Diego City Schools, I spend a good portion of my day in classrooms (at least two hours). My daily conversations with teachers are not evaluative or critical in nature, as your article would lead one to believe. I look at the teaching and learning within the classroom setting and offer suggestions and support to enable teachers to improve their practice. I am better able to provide appropriate professional development and to allocate resources more effectively based on my classroom observations.

Of all the reform efforts initiated over the past three years in San Diego, providing sustained, focused professional development based on a common view of good instruction has most profoundly affected teaching and learning in the classroom. Again, this hinges on principals’ being in classrooms on a daily basis, providing feedback to teachers.

My classroom visits lead to differentiated opportunities for improving instructional practice. I might pair two teachers working on a common issue, release a teacher to observe another teacher, offer a study group, or provide grade-level release time to analyze student work. Ultimately, the time spent in the classroom supports our efforts to improve teaching and learning for all students.

In your article, I am quoted as saying of a lesson’s instructor, “She should have known better than that.” Actually, if I see less- than-effective practice in a classroom, I am more likely to chide myself for not providing adequate support to a colleague. Our work is about creating a community of learners.

Tim Asfazadour
Miramar Ranch Elementary School
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

In the article on San Diego principals, you draw a disparaging picture of the neighborhood surrounding one of the schools you visited.

You write that Encanto Elementary School “stretches over four city blocks in a neighborhood scattered with a handful of liquor-and-taco stands and mongrel dogs sleeping on dirt lawns.” This is an offensive and gratuitous description that is inappropriate.

The description does nothing to advance the story, unless some connection has been found between sleeping dogs and instructional leadership. If you wanted to provide data about student achievement at the school, or the number of students receiving subsidized meals, those are facts that could provide a context for the learning environment.

But the import of the leadership system being implemented in San Diego is such that it is not related to the type of school.

The strength of the system is that there are consistent, high expectations for leadership and accountability across the district.

Pamela Engler
San Diego, Calif.

Gender-Equity Panel Slighted in Report

To the Editor:

As a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s expert panel on gender equity, I read your article “Ed. Dept. Advised to Bolster ‘Seal of Approval’” (Dec. 12, 2001) with great interest. It was disappointing to find that, although there are four currently established panels in the office of educational research and improvement’s expert-panel system, you mentioned only three of the four.

You omitted one that was established early and did a lot of groundbreaking work in applying selection criteria and decisionmaking rules, some of which were adapted by other panels. That panel is the Gender Equity Expert Panel.

This omission is ironic because I have always considered Education Week to be fair and equitable in its articles. And to have an article that leaves out gender equity written by a woman is particularly poignant.

It seems we still have a way to go in gender- equity awareness.

Information on the panel and its report can be found at www.ed.gov/pubs/genderequity and www.ed.gov/offices/OERI/ORAD/KAD/expert_panel/gender.html.

Marylin A. Hulme
Member, Gender Equity Expert Panel
Chair, Core Gender Equity Subcommittee
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, D.C.

On the Public’s Role In Teaching’s Status

To the Editor:

I had a good laugh reading the tripe Peter Temes wrote in his Commentary (“Can Teaching Become an Elite Profession?,” Dec. 5, 2001). As usual, the lack of professionalism in the new teacher is the reason America’s public education system lurks in the sub-basement of world opinion. Nary a word about the lack of adequate funding and the burnt-out teachers who just go through the motions, waiting for the day they can retire.

As a current Master of Science in Education student (with a master’s degree in biology), I can attest that we are warned against even entering the teachers’ lounge because of the depressing attitudes longtime teachers have.

Mr. Temes asserts that professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and university teachers (not professors; colleges don’t hire many of them anymore) would give up financial rewards for the pride of working in an elite institution. Not on the planet Earth they won’t! The reason doctors, lawyers, and others work for reduced salaries is that it is better than having no job at all.

If you ask, you’ll find that the HMOs have reduced doctors to technicians, that lawyers are a dime a dozen and only the best and brightest find work in top firms, and that universities are on the cutting edge of labor abuse, using adjuncts to keep their bottom lines within budget.

Mr. Temes has convinced himself that all we have to do is raise the standards bar even higher. Then the best and brightest students will flood the ranks of a profession where a graduate with a master’s degree makes about as much as an apprentice accountant, but for a much longer time.

At least Mr. Temes and I agree on one point: Our young people deserve to have the best teachers possible. Until the public begins to value teachers and education, not much will change. And if Mr. Temes truly wants to know what this society values, let him check the salaries of sports figures. What society prizes certainly isn’t teacher professionalism.

Stewart Kelly
Sound Beach, N.Y.

RAND Study Offers’Premature’ Research

To the Editor:

Am I the only one puzzled by the apparently impetuous research behavior and the premature conclusions of the generally unassailable RAND Corp.?

Its study of vouchers and charter schools (“RAND Study Balances the Debate on School Choice,” Dec. 12, 2001) concludes that we can’t conclude anything. After going through a give-and-take dance of pluses and minuses, the lead researcher, Brian P. Gill, states: “The summary of the evidence is that neither the hopes of the supporters nor the fears of the opponents have yet been realized.”

Then why do the study? There is just not enough data extended over sufficient time to draw solid conclusions. Imagine the response of a graduate-level professor to his or her doctoral student’s enthusiastic proposal of such a hot study at this time. Evidently, research adolescence that results in premature evaluation is not limited to eager doctoral students.

Then there was the RAND study of the whole-school movement earlier this year. Defending the general inconclusiveness of the findings, lead researcher Mark Berends lamented that it was difficult to look for achievements because there is so much variation in the ways schools implement programs.

How inconsiderate of those schools to adapt programs to their own needs, conditions, teachers, students, and so forth. Clearly, what they should have done is to keep everything the same to accommodate the research categories of RAND.

Conclusions that go off in opposite directions offer no guidelines for the future. In the process, they may scare off those contemplating experimentation, anger those who are convinced that it is working but needs a bit more time to show its strengths, and feed the opponents who are standing on the sidelines often cheering any change to failure.

In short, if it can’t be done right, don’t do it.

RAND needs to take a vow of silence or else grow up and live in the world of daily uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk. That is what adults regularly do.

Irving H. Buchen
Fort Myers, Fla.

Teaching ‘With Style’ Spurs Achievement

To the Editor:

I was amazed at the anti-learning letter from Joseph Kovaleski (“Learning Styles,” Letters, Dec. 12, 2001). Opinions like those he expressed perpetuate making youngsters the victims of simple (convenient, comfortable) teaching styles.

For a decade or so, our high school has specialized in determining and using learning styles. Much of our information and practice has come from workshops for business and industry trainers and such cognitive-science researchers as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s David Kolb, who focuses on what works and results. The facts are these:

  • Mr. Kolb and others have thoroughly documented research on style differences and their importance.
  • There are literally dozens of practical style-evaluation instruments for different age levels.
  • Most important, by using the research and style-sensitive techniques, we get results.

As an example, our school happens to admit a very significant number of 9th graders reading two or more years below grade level. Style-sensitive instruction leads to an average gain of 2.3 grade levels per year, often from visual- and experiential-preference learners who were in K-8 language arts programs with an extreme or narrow focus on phonics-based learning. Students making those gains are good learners when taught “with style.” I do not believe that they would appreciate denigration of the value of being sensitive to learning styles in teaching.

Ronald Fitzgerald
Minuteman High School
Lexington, Mass.

To the Editor:

In their Commentary (“Learning Styles,” Nov. 28, 2001), Lenna Ojure and Tom Sherman decried the fact that learning styles is a concept “not well supported by research.” I beg to differ.

There have been numerous dissertations and articles by researchers at over 100 universities that attest to the impact that learning-styles methodologies have achieved in K-12, college and university, nursing school, business school, and law school classrooms. Meta-analyses have shown that the Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Inventory, one of the measures of learning style, has high validity and reliability.

Stephen J. Denig
Assistant Professor
School of Education
St. John’s University
Jamaica, N.Y.

‘Weird, Dangerous’ Choice Arguments?

To the Editor:

Letting a parent decide her child’s educational fate by choosing her school—including nonpublic schools—entails unacceptable risk. That’s the contention of Paloma Wheetley in her letter to the editor (“Historical Questions for Voucher Backers,” Dec. 12, 2001):

“Certainly Taliban-style religious folks would be entitled to such money. ... There might even be religious folks asking taxpayers to fund education for kids who believe in a rain god.”

In hope of validating her point, she ends her letter: “Where are your staff writers who can speak to the historical perspective?”

I once raised the “weird and dangerous schools” issue with a scholar whose interest in school choice dates to the 1960s, David K. Kirkpatrick, the author of Choice in Schooling: A Case For Tuition Vouchers (Loyola University Press, 1990). Here is an excerpt of Mr. Kirkpatrick’s reply:

“There are several answers. ... We have 25,000 nonpublic schools already, and none fit that definition. Every developed country except us funds private education and none have these schools. Most importantly here, however, is that the same U.S. Supreme Court that in 1925 handed down the Pierce decision [establishing that parents have a constitutional right to determine their children’s education, as long as they are being educated] also ruled that the state has the right to ‘reasonably regulate’ all schools ... and went further to say that the state could even prohibit any school that would be inimical to the public interest.”

Those who prefer today’s dramatic imbalance of power between school systems and individual parents have used the weird-and-dangerous-schools argument successfully for decades. It is an unworthy argument. Parents who would choose Taliban-like schools would certainly not be “entitled to such [voucher] money,” as Ms. Wheetley contends.

Tom Shuford
Retired Public School Teacher
Ventura, Calif.

Denver Study Shows Goal-Setting Benefits

To the Editor:

In a recent article, you reported on the status of the Denver teacher-pay plan in its second year of experimentation and study (“Denver Pay Plan Offers Lessons, Review Says,” Dec. 12, 2001).

The clearest finding to emerge from the pilot is most telling. And it is this observation that reinforces the direction we in Salt Lake City have taken in the redesign of our evaluation system: high-quality written teacher objectives translated into student gain.

Implicit in this finding is that a teacher’s sense of efficacy is related to what happens with students. The goal- setting exercise in the Denver system links directly to student gain because it offers teachers the opportunity for reflection and the ability to articulate the basis and rationale for classroom practice.

By their purposes and design features, educator-evaluation systems shape and influence teacher performance.

That is why, in the Salt Lake City schools, we are working to design a teacher-assessment system that places the teacher at the center of the process.

Strongly influenced by the work of Charlotte Danielson and Ken Peterson, our proposed system invites the teacher to use a variety of data sources to tell his or her story of quality work. Rather than linking money to student gain, we are hoping to enhance teacher performance by our process of induction and by: defining the attributes of quality teaching, defining those attributes as authentic pedagogy, supporting authentic pedagogy by authentic professional development, learning how to examine student work as a reflection of classroom practice, and training our administrators to observe and provide feedback on the basis of the attributes of quality teaching.

We believe high-quality objectives do translate into student gain, and that the ability to create and use such objectives should be a part of every teacher’s repertoire, not an isolated opportunity for teachers to receive a bonus. The ability to design lessons and assessments of student work is integral to the teaching act.

We have not found in the literature on motivation that teachers do what they do for the money. Teacher motivation is rooted in a sense of efficacy, it is intrinsic, and it is fragile and requires systemic nurturing and support.

The lessons implicit in the Denver initiative reinforce the directions we have taken.

Delores Riley
Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources

Andrew Odoardi
Coordinator for the Evaluation Development Committee
Salt Lake City School District
Salt Lake City, Utah

Preparation Gap Tied To Culture, Not Race

To the Editor:

Let’s talk about the “preparation gap” of which Hugh Price writes (“The Preparation Gap,” Commentary, Nov. 28, 2001). I’ve been in education as a teacher and administrator for 15 years, and my experience has been that students who arrive in kindergarten prepared to learn enjoy high rates of school success. For the past 10 years, I’ve worked in a school with very little ethnic diversity (mostly white), and the principle holds true there as well.

Research seems to demonstrate that students who cannot read on level by the 4th grade are significantly more likely to lag behind for the remainder of their school careers. While this is true, I would suggest that eventually research will prove that what happens between ages 1 and 5 determines the 4th grade reading statistic. The preparation gap occurs before kindergarten. It is not related to race. It is, however, a cultural thing.

The movement of African-American and Hispanic students into better educational performance might be best achieved by trying to address the preparation gap before kindergarten. The same holds true for white students. Somehow, those who care must convince those who either don’t care, or don’t realize it, that the first five years of the child’s life will make the difference in school success for that child.

Mr. Price concludes that “‘job one’ for every adult who is raising a child, for every school system, for every principal and teacher, and every politician and corporate CEO who professes to care about education is to make certain all children read at grade level or better by the 4th grade or earlier.” The implication is that if we all get off our behinds and get to work, America will be able to “muster the will and the wherewithal” to achieve this lofty and worthwhile goal.

Yet, your Dec. 5, 2001, front-page news article titled “Black State Lawmakers Target ‘Gap’ ” alludes to a report detailing “24 legislative actions” that should be directed at schools in order to close the achievement gap. The implication here is that improved schools will make the difference.

How long will we continue to hammer American education for things that are out of its control?

It is time for the media and lawmakers to give education its due. Bring to school children prepared to learn and the results will be almost certain success. Bring to school children who have never been read to, who have not been trained in social interaction, whose parents distrust the school and do not value education as a means of improving children’s lives, and the results will be predictably lower success rates.

We must develop ways to change the formative years in those cultures where the preparation gap relates to cultural attitudes. The first steps involve changing these attitudes, not an easy task. Then we must give parents the tools to improve their children’s preparation for kindergarten. Here, issues such as English-as-a-second-language and poverty will be key in discussions and action plans.

We’ve already tried to eliminate the gap after kindergarten. We know that doesn’t work. Legislators need to target preschool preparation if they want to see significant change. The school system will produce the results the lawmakers desire if parents bring the children to school ready to learn.

Charles Stefani
Elementary Principal
Council, Idaho

Teaching Is Tainted By Labor Practices

To the Editor:

Every time I read about a situation similar to the one you reported on in Middletown Township, N.J. (“End of Strike Opens Jail Cells for N.J. Teachers,” Dec. 12, 2001), I become sad for those who teach and whose motivations for teaching are selfless and noble.

The teaching profession has been tarnished and stained by the practices and philosophies of organized labor. I truly believe that the practice of holding students hostage for the purpose of putting pressure on the district’s management is nothing short of educational piracy. No wonder teachers get a bad rap.

With few exceptions, other professionals base their occupational ideals and behavior on timed-honored values. Where is the virtue and honor in manipulating the “powers that be” through educational terrorism?

Teaching will never attain the status it deserves through strikes, arbitration, or bargaining. It is earned through a commitment to values that once were associated with the profession.

Stephen E. Taylor
Christian Heritage School
Trumbull, Conn.

Why Have Students Grade Their Peers?

To the Editor:

Your article “Court to Judge If Law Forbids Peer Grading” (Nov. 21, 2001) states that “the question is whether such exchanges [peer grading] ... amount to a violation of a federal law that guarantees the privacy of educational records.”

Although this is obviously an important issue, perhaps an equally important issue should be: Why would any professional educator want a student critically analyzing anyone’s paper but his own when the teacher is providing correctives and feedback?

Every educational expert I know or read expounds on the fact that specific and immediate feedback is one of the keys to transferring new learning to long- term memory. Only when students grade their own papers can they personalize the information that the teacher is relating to the learning.

Ron Streible
New-Teacher Coordinator
Decatur City Schools
Decatur, Ala.

Proposition 227: A California Failure?

To the Editor:

During the Proposition 227 campaign in California, the measure’s chief proponent, Ron Unz, ignored controlled scientific research supporting bilingual education, and appealed to data on the percentage of children reclassified as fluent English- proficient to support his claim that bilingual education was a failure. Mr. Unz now, however, considers reclassification rates to be “meaningless” (“California’s English-Fluency Numbers Help Fuel Debate,” Dec. 5, 2001). I think I know why.

If one accepts reclassification rates as valid, last year’s results are very embarrassing for Proposition 227. According to Proposition 227, limited-English- proficient children are expected to acquire enough English to do work in mainstream classrooms at the same level as native speakers of English in a period of time “not intended to exceed one year.”

Today, about 88 percent of limited-English-proficient children in California are in all-English programs. Data released by the state of California last August showed that there were 976,366 English-learners in California schools who had been in school for one year or more and who had not been reclassified as fluent English-proficient. If reclassification really means acquisition of enough English to do academics in the mainstream, Proposition 227 has failed 967,366 times.

Stephen Krashen
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

On Minority Parents And School Choice

To the Editor:

You write in your Dec. 5, 2001, front-page story that school choice can “no longer be dismissed as a white, conservative movement that takes advantage of unwitting minority families” (“Minority Parents Quietly Embrace School Choice”).

Hurrah for another education milestone having passed, unnoticed, by the wayside!

Just curious, though: When could school choice have been dismissed as such? Further, on what evidence does Education Week make such a sweeping claim?

Your statement is not only entirely unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable, but it’s patronizing as well. What makes you think that minority parents (and according to you, exclusively minority parents) are dupes in the process of choice? How do you decide which of the thousands of parents who exercise calculated and often careful choice on behalf of their children are “unwitting”? How many of these parents, who have the option of re-enrolling their students in traditional district schools each year but “unwittingly” (I guess) continue to send their children to schools that they feel better serve their children, have you spoken to? Did you find them foolish and uninformed?

As a founder and the former principal of a charter school that serves (or exploits, depending on who’s writing about it) primarily minority students, I certainly haven’t found that to be the case. That school, the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School, is the highest-performing public school in Boston, in part because the primarily minority parents who send their children there are savvy, demanding, committed, and won’t accept anything less than excellence.

You write that “typical advocates of wide-open school choice are conservative Republicans and libertarians.” I’m not exactly sure what “wide- open” school choice is, and how it’s different from plain old “school choice,” discussed responsibly without slanted adjectives. But I’d like to offer my observation that I don’t know of a single charter school that collects data on the party membership or political inclinations of its parents.

Let me suggest as an alternative theory that parents who send their children to schools of choice—the strongest “advocates” of these schools—are not conservative. They’re not liberal either, as far as I can tell. I have met thousands of them now and, frankly, political alignment is irrelevant to their involvement in the school choice movement. The education and welfare of their children is at stake, so those parents, who know better than anyone what it means to send their child to a school that prepares her for little in life except failure and low expectations, cannot afford to let a political agenda interfere with their opinions and decisions about schools.

Doug Lemov
Vice President for Accountability
State University of New York
Charter Schools InstituteAlbany, N.Y.

To the Editor:

In your chronicle of five American families seeking the right schools for their children (“Public Debates, Private Choices,” On Assignment, Dec. 5, 2001), the story of Virginia Walden-Ford (“Coming to Terms With History”) seems more of a testament to convenience-driven parenting than to the value of school choice.

Faced with a child she “couldn’t control” and who was “hanging out with hoodlums,” Ms. Walden-Ford conveniently drops her son into the arms of her aging parents some 1,000 miles away until he is “rehabilitated” by the parenting skills that served her and her four siblings so well, and by a parochial school no doubt reminiscent of the days when good child-rearing was less about “the art of the deal” than clearly defined expectations. Ms. Walden- Ford’s mother was right when she accused her daughter of deserting public schools, and her new role as the executive director of the group D.C. Parents for School Choice is a continued repudiation of a lineage that has now raised two generations.

Her child is well on his way to being a productive member of society, but what if he had not responded appropriately in either the parochial school or the charter school from which he graduated? The answer is simple. In the separate and unequal world that Ms. Walden-Ford and other school choice proponents envisage, he would have been out on his behind and back in public schools. He would have returned to schools attended by children many of whom have parents bereft of the support systems available to Ms. Walden-Ford.

With a moral fiber inherited from her parents, Virginia Walden-Ford stood and fought in the 1960s for a quality education for all children, and for this she should be honored. But she sullies that legacy when she battles to allow a citizenry to abdicate its responsibility to fight for improved public education by advocating a cut-and-run strategy that clearly leaves some children behind.

William A. Loy
Gaithersburg, Md.

Essays on Tests: Making Writing the ‘Gatekeeper’ of Content Areas

To the Editor:

Those of us who have been knee-deep in helping students navigate the new state assessments would add other influential factors to those reported in “Schools Stress Writing for the Test” (Dec. 12, 2001). The article and most of its contributors speak of issues such as student preparation, written genres, purpose, time needed, test structure, test focus, formulaic methods, rote drills, good teaching, and several other elements. Yet some factors that are certainly just as important were overlooked.

Not mentioned is the way in which many of the new assessments assess not so much the writing itself as the content of that writing—that is to say, the factual information in a student’s answers. Most states now have language arts assessments on which students are evaluated in reading while, at the same time, being assessed in writing. So test-takers must be successful in both to score well on either.

Moreover, many states also are now assessing all of the content areas through writing. On such occasions, a student is not actually being assessed on his writing, per se, but must be able to write in order to take state tests—in social studies, science, technology, reading, and even math. Essays, both brief and extended, must be constructed to satisfy each given prompt. This means that if a student knows the correct answer, but cannot encode or compose it into a readable written form, he scores poorly in that tested subject. Writing therefore becomes the gatekeeper of the content areas.

On the other hand, if a student is a masterly writer but does not know the correct answer, no amount of skillful writing will make his answer correct. Certainly, the writing must be readable, but the major interest of each corrector lies in the factual information presented in the answer. Accordingly, the content-area assessment rubrics of most states do not score the writing itself. This means that all the talk about scores on student writing assessments concerns primarily only specific sections on the language arts tests—and even on those, writing is not evaluated every time it is used.

For instance, the New York State English Language Arts Grade 4 assessment rubrics score writing on approximately three out of 10 written-response sections. The other seven written responses are scored for facets of comprehension, but not writing.

Obviously, good writers should be able to look better and sound smarter any time writing is required; however, if a student does not know the answer, it makes little difference how good his writing is. And that is the difference between responding to a question through writing, and creating a personal letter, a story, a poem, or even a personal narrative.

Let’s observe these differences through the lens of creativity. We know that most often a science question has a right answer; whereas a story, a personal letter, or a poem has an appropriate pattern or form, but no one right answer. Yet it’s tough to write an essay if you’ve never spent time in other, more personal narratives, never kept a journal, never written a letter to a friend. The use of creativity in a story or poem can boost a student into the proficiency range. But that creativity often hampers proficiency on right-answer tests, in much the same way it would hamper the writing of reporters in the Middle East.

If we pull our focus away from test scores and actually think about the issue, we realize that essay responses are very much a part of our real-world experiences. Constructing these prompted essays is similar to what adults must do as they complete job applications, compose letters of intent, or develop proposals for salary increases. Thus I postulate, unlike some of those quoted in your article, that the writing on today’s assessments (certainly those in New York state and in Maryland) more closely typifies the writing we all do in our daily lives.

Few adults write poetry, stories, or even personal narratives (which is probably our loss). But scarcely a month goes by that we adults are not presented with some “prompt” requiring us to develop a mini or maxi essay (this letter to the editor, for instance). For that reason, the writing on the vast majority of today’s assessments does not call for the Danielle Steeles and Stephen Kings to rise up and demonstrate their prowess. But it does prepare students for the real world, for writing a report to an employer’s prompt, composing an explanation of why a faulty product is being returned, constructing directions to reach a destination, and dozens of other tasks.

Although essay answers do connect to authentic uses of writing, they are not always taught in that fashion. Far too many teachers rely on test- preparation workbooks rather than real-world experiences. If there is any doubt about this generalization, take a walk through the classrooms in almost any school, or around the exhibit hall at a national literacy convention, and notice just how popular these test-prep workbooks really are. They are selling by the millions.

If teachers would eliminate these mindless exercises and instead connect lessons to real-world writing, students would better understand the necessity for proficiency and probably would be more motivated to write. And after teachers eliminate the boredom generated by the assign-collect- correct workbook method, they might try a process that includes actual step-by- step demonstrations—lessons that show how a real-world written response is constructed. That is, teachers could model the act of writing, right there in front of their students, letting them see how writers actually produce such a product.

Workbooks cannot do this, for workbooks do not teach. Teachers teach. And the bottom line is authenticity. Good writing teachers consider the real reasons for teaching writing.

Ardith Cole
East Amherst, N.Y.

Small Schools: Whether Urban or Rural, Their Impact Is Large—But Is It News?

To the Editor:

Three cheers for Tony Wagner’s “The Case for ‘New Village’ Schools” (Commentary, Dec. 5, 2001). He is pretty much right about everything. We need to redesign the whole system, and at the heart of that redesign, we need to put strong teachers collaborating in vibrant, honest, cost-effective educational communities built to the right scale.

Small independent schools have known how all this works for too long a time, though, to allow Americans to refer to this small-school model as “new village” or “new” anything.

Theodore R. Sizer, an administrator who won his spurs in independent schools, has been for the past 20 years one of America’s most eloquent spokesmen for the benefits of making schools smaller. And the working- and middle-class parents who paid tuition to the small country- day schools that sprang up across America in the 1970s and ‘80s, as well as the teachers who founded and built them, would find little to surprise in Mr. Wagner’s account, except perhaps the pompous education school jargon (relational accountability?) and the news that any of this is news.

One feature of reform might be that independent school leaders and public school leaders could begin sharing their experiences and histories more directly.

Bruce E. Buxton
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

To the Editor:

It’s great to see the increasing attention being paid to the benefits of small schools (“Research: Smaller Is Better,” Nov. 28, 2001). It is unfortunate, however, that the conversation focuses entirely on urban schools and efforts to make them smaller.

Nearly 25 percent of U.S. schoolchildren go to school in rural areas or small towns of fewer than 25,000 people. Rural and small-town schools make up the largest proportion—24.7 percent—of public schools in the United States. Unlike their urban counterparts, many rural and small-town secondary schools (grades 9-12) are small: Almost 52 percent have enrollments of 400 or fewer students, and more than one-quarter have enrollments under 200. These small rural schools yield many of the benefits touted by the researchers cited in your article: better attendance, lower dropout rates, higher achievement, and the opportunity for students to be known and valued by their peers, teachers, and other adult members of the community.

Most important, these schools are rooted in their place—central to the community and its life, convenient for community gatherings and participation in school events, and involved by necessity in the economic and social fabric of the community.

And yet, the small schools of rural America are in imminent danger of being consolidated out of existence. Despite the growing body of research showing the value of smaller schools, more and more rural communities are losing their local schools to the misguided notion that one big, centralized school is more efficient—and, therefore, better—than several small community schools. The result is large consolidated high schools that belong to no one place—schools to which students must be bused long distances from their homes, where there is no sense of community investment in or ownership of the school, and where parent and community participation in school affairs is difficult because the school is so distant.

As research continues to show the merits of small schools, we need to pay attention not just to making city schools smaller, but to assuring that the small schools of rural America are equally valued and protected.

Rachel B. Tompkins
The Rural School and Community Trust
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

They must really love their schools big down in Bryan, Texas. Bryan High School has a population of 3,600 students. By my reckoning, that can’t be good for a large number of those students. But Bryan school board member C. David Stasny takes issue in his letter (“Small-Schools Data, Cause and Effect,” Letters, Dec. 12, 2001) with the growing body of small-schools research, which he characterizes as “popular assertions,” and especially with a “sensational statistic” showing smaller schools to be safer and more effective, particularly for children from low-income families.

Mr. Stasny offers nothing, however, to refute the compelling evidence in favor of smaller learning communities.

The data to which he refers actually go easy on large schools. The risk of serious violence in a school of 3,600 kids is in reality greater than the 10-1 figure you report differentiating schools of 1,000 and 350 kids.

According to a 1998 National Center for Education Statistics report, “Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-1997,” serious violent crimes were much more likely to occur in large schools. Thirty- three percent of schools with 1,000 or more students experienced a serious violent crime, compared with 4 percent to 9 percent in small and medium-size schools. Large schools also had a ratio of 90 incidents per 100,000 public school students, compared with 38 serious violent crimes per 100,000 in the medium-size schools.

The study, which polled more than 1,200 school principals nationally, also found that students who attended large schools like Bryan High, or who were poor or members of minority groups, were more likely than other students to encounter random metal detectors and searches. Bryan High School itself recently loaded up the school with surveillance cameras, according to news accounts.

The NCES study also confirmed that the use of police or security officers takes place at a higher rate in large schools and schools with high minority enrollments, compared with other schools.

The 1999 study of “Indicators of School Crime and Safety,” issued jointly by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice, showed nearly three times as many physical attacks or fights reported in schools of 1,000 or more students, as compared with schools of 300 or fewer, as reported in 1996-97. That same study showed nearly eight times as many reported rapes and sexual assaults in schools of over 300 students as in those of under 300, and twice as many reported physical attacks or fights with a weapon. I could go on.

It’s not simply a question of “badly run” large schools, as Mr. Stasny implies. The real problem with large-scale schooling is the anonymity that comes with it: lots of kids being sorted and resegregated in tracks; teachers facing up to 180 students every day; social cliques; and a growing achievement gap. Sound familiar? In this case, the numbers tell an important, if not sensational, story.

Michael Klonsky
Small Schools Workshop
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

C. David Stasny is correct in asserting that there is an economy of scale which means that large to very large high schools can offer a greater variety of course offerings than those of a school of fewer than 500 students. But the difference between the two situations lies elsewhere—in the greater personalization afforded students in the smaller schools. When students and adults know each other well, there is a shared interest in the success of all members of the student body. The school becomes more of a family whose members truly care for one another.

Mr. Stasny is also correct when he states that myriad interrelated factors affect student outcomes. But he forgot or ignored the power inherent in a social-educational setting that enhances personalization. The need for increasing personalization is as obvious as the need to enhance nutrition: Both greatly improve the human condition.

That’s why smaller schools are better.

I suggest that Mr. Stasny and others who doubt these assertions visit Boston’s New Mission High School, a small, 50- students-per-grade-level high school located in a socioeconomically disadvantaged area of that city. In its first graduation class (1999), New Mission had 42 graduates, of whom 40 went on to four-year colleges. I challenge Mr. Stasny to check what percentage of graduates of Bryan High School went directly into four-year colleges.

Bill Mansfield
San Jose, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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