Education Opinion


March 05, 2003 18 min read
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Do Latinos Favor Bilingual Ed.?

Ron K. Unz claims the recall of Nativo Lopez from the Santa Ana, Calif., school board is evidence that bilingual education is not popular, “even among Latinos” (“Calif. School Board Member Recalled Over Prop. 227,” Feb. 12, 2003). We know that Mr. Unz is not aware of the research in the field; apparently, he does not read newspapers either.

If he did, he would know that 95 percent of the 4,000 Latinos recently polled by the AOL Time Warner Foundation/People en Español said they supported bilingual education; that 92 percent of Latinos surveyed in Massachusetts by the Instituto Mauricio Gastón and the University of Massachusetts opposed his anti-bilingual initiative in that state, Question 2; that opposition among Latinos to Amendment 31, his anti-bilingual initiative in Colorado, reached 66 percent; and that opposition to Proposition 227, his anti-bilingual initiative in California, was 63 percent among Latinos.

For a person who wants to be treated as an intellectual (“a theoretical physicist by training”? What is that?), Mr. Unz would do well to make himself better informed in the area he chooses so frequently to debate.

Francisco Ramos
Miami, Fla.

Manhattan Institute Errs in Test Report

To the Editor:

The Manhattan Institute’s recent report (“High-Stakes Tests Called Accurate Gauge of Performance,” Feb. 19, 2003) contains two fundamental errors that call into question the conclusion of its authors.

First, the researchers break no new ground when they report that students scoring high on state accountability tests also score high on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. In both cases, the instruments used were standardized achievement tests, which are deliberately designed to engineer score spread among test-takers. If they didn’t, scores might be bunched together, making comparisons among students and the norm group unsatisfactory. To avoid this pitfall, test-makers deliberately build into standardized tests items that are impervious to even the best instruction.

Second, the researchers fall into the teaching-to-the- test trap. There is nothing at all wrong about teaching to the broad body of skills and knowledge that the test items represent. Tests are supposed to support instruction. If they don’t, then the tests are largely measuring what students bring to the classroom in the form of socioeconomic status and inherited ability.

Teachers cannot be held accountable for what takes place outside their classrooms, nor can they be responsible when the assessment targets are not made perfectly clear. What is wrong is teaching to the actual items on the test. When that happens, scores rise, but students are shortchanged. The Manhattan Institute’s report doesn’t make the crucial distinction between the two approaches.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles Calif.

The writer taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and now writes an education column for The San Francisco Examiner.

Teachers’ Unions: What Is the Ideal?

To the Editor:

Ideal collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and public school administrators obviously should, as Julia E. Koppich and Charles Taylor Kerchner write, “result in contracts in which improving student achievement is central” (“Negotiating What Matters Most,” Commentary, Feb. 12, 2003). However, it seems wishful thinking for them to propose that unions will work for the passage of new state laws that permit accomplishment of the governing mechanism this goal entails.

I refer, of course, to legislation that provides school managers with the authority for “placing teachers in schools and classrooms where they are most needed.” To the contrary, there remain many signs that teachers’ unions in the foreseeable future will stubbornly continue to demand that the above item must not be part of negotiations between teachers and school officials.

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

Reading First vs. Oklahoma Program

To the Editor:

While I am not intimately familiar with Oklahoma’s training program for teachers of reading, I did note in reading your short article (“Training of Okla. Reading Teachers in Doubt,” Feb. 19, 2003) that the state has received high marks for the quality of this program.

On the other hand, strong evidence exists that the federal government’s Reading First initiative was based on a study limited in scope to ideologically preferred teaching methods, conducted on a volunteer basis, and not given sufficient time to do a thorough job of analysis. (Readers can find a comprehensive critique of the Reading First Initiative in Richard L. Allington’s recent book, Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence.)

Given the circumstances, Oklahoma should not be too ready to ditch its current training program. The federal program is not, in fact, scientifically based but, rather, ideologically and politically based.

Avtar Kaur Khalsa
Millis, Mass.

Clarifying Issues in Class-Size Debate

To the Editor:

In your article “Calif. Lawmakers Debate Adding Class-Size Leeway” (Feb. 12, 2003), there is considerable misunderstanding and some misinformation about the position of superintendents and administrators on the class-size-reduction program in California. Superintendents and administrators fully support the program, in spite of what some defenders of the status quo may say.

The flexibility that is being requested is absolutely essential to saving the program in many districts. The class-size-reduction program in California has never been fully funded, either in terms of salaries and operational expenses, or, most importantly, in terms of facilities. The program is not state-mandated, but instead entails a decision by local boards of education to provide it. In doing so, they must use monies from local district general funds (monies that come from other programs) to supplement the funds from the state. In addition, because class sizes were suddenly reduced from a typical pupil-teacher ratio of 30-to-1 to less than 20-to-1, districts had to find one-third more classrooms. There were not readily available funds to do this, so again, districts had to take from other sources.

I stated above that class sizes went from 30-to-1 to less than 20-to-1. This is at the heart of the current issue. Your article states that “if class size in one grade in one school goes over 20 ... the entire district will lose its state class-size-reduction funding for that grade.” This is not accurate. If any class goes over 20, not the entire grade level, the district loses money. Because of this “hard cap,” districts assign from 17 to 19 students per class, in order to have room for new students and not lose the funds or be forced to make combination classes in midyear.

California public schools expect to lose $2.2 billion from this year’s adopted budgets and planned spending (there is only one-third of the year left to make up for two-thirds already spent), and another $1.5 billion next year.

School superintendents and administrators agree that smaller class sizes make for better teaching and learning environments, but so do other programs and services. There are many contributing factors to effective student learning, such as better-prepared and -trained teachers, better facilities, better materials and equipment, and better home and family support. Class size is just one of those factors, and in this era of budget cuts, every aspect of school district operations must contribute to fiscal solvency.

Allowing district administrators to have more flexibility in managing the class-size-reduction program by averaging 20 students per class with no class over 22 is reasonable and necessary.

Ruben L. Ingram
Executive Director
School Employers Association
of California
Irvine, Calif.

Canadian Largess: An Insider’s View

To the Editor:

I read your article on the W. Garfield Weston Foundation’s teaming with the Fraser Institute to provide grants for private schools in Canada (“Foreign Exchange,” Feb. 5, 2003).

Here’s the problem. The Canadian province of Ontario used to have at least one of its school boards in the top- 10 rankings of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other respected bodies. Parents could send their kids to public school with a fair expectation of cleanliness and excellence. No longer. Since 1995, a very conservative government followed policies prescribed by the Fraser Institute to cut billions of dollars of support to schools and confront the public school system with a barrage of reforms to keep protest at bay.

It worked. One of the big policies was to amalgamate manageable school boards into megaboards. Many of these urban boards are cash- strapped and feature poorly maintained, sometimes dirty schools. The province has had to take over the three largest urban boards.

Why the Weston Foundation, the charity arm of the Canadian grocery conglomerate Loblaws Companies Ltd. is contracting out to a foundation determined to minimize public education is unclear. But the program for private school grants, advertised weekly in grocery fliers around the province, is likely to undermine a once-great Ontario public school system.

Susan Dykstra
Toronto, Ontario

On Summaries of Plans to Plan ...

To the Editor:

I wanted to express my appreciation for the Commentary by Mike Schmoker (“Planning for Failure?” Feb. 12, 2003). Stronger emphasis on his philosophy—teachers’ working together to improve instructional delivery by sharing successes and failures and striving for continuous improvement—would contribute to immediate increased achievement in education. This philosophy, echoing from the rafters, would help support and empower teachers to do what they truly wish to do—teach.

As it is, the various plans and plans to plan and summary of plans are leading to complete confusion and frustration and achieving nothing.

Linda Bonin
Santa Clara County Office of Education
Health, Physical Education,
and Safe Schools
San Jose, Calif.

Talk on Child Care Irks a Professional

To the Editor:

In her comments to early-childhood leaders who attended the regional academies sponsored by the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services (“Early-Childhood Educator ‘Academies’ Spark Discussions,” Jan. 22, 2003), Shannon Christian, the associate commissioner of the federal child-care bureau, noted that “most 3- and 4-year- olds in out-of-home care do not attend formal preschool programs. Instead, they are in child-care centers, in family child-care homes, or in the care of a family friend or relative.”

I was more than a little appalled to read these quoted comments of a federal official in charge of child care. They reflect a serious lack of understanding for the many child-care centers with well-established preschool programs and the growing number of family child- care homes with such programs.

Yes, there are child-care programs in this country that are providing solely custodial care. However, due to federal and state quality initiatives, the number of accredited early-childhood programs in centers and family homes is on the rise. To lump these committed early- childhood professionals in the same category as relative care is a serious disservice to their hard work.

Cindy Jurie
Sanford, Fla.

A Clarification on Drug for ADHD

To the Editor:

Dr. Patrick Ciccone’s letter regarding medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“Abuse Potential of ADHD Treatment,” Letters, Jan. 22, 2003) calls for a point of clarification.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical societies have long identified stimulant medications as the recommended standard of care because, up until now, they were the best options available for the treatment of ADHD’s symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Thankfully, we are making great scientific strides in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. For example, we now have another therapeutic choice in the form of the first nonstimulant ADHD medication, called Strattera, which became available to physicians and their patients in January.

Logically, medical society guidelines that were written before the introduction of a nonstimulant medication cannot be taken as an endorsement of the superiority of stimulants over the nonstimulant.

Strattera is significant because it offers a new alternative. It is the first prescription drug approved for the treatment of ADHD symptoms in children, adolescents, and adults. And as a nonstimulant, it is more convenient for physicians, parents, and children. What is essential is that children on any medication be seen regularly by their physicians.

Dr. Loraine Stern
Clinical Professor of Pediatrics
University of California, Los Angeles
Department of Pediatrics
Los Angeles, Calif.

‘Adding It All Up': Differing Views on Traditional Math Instruction

To the Editor:

I read with interest, and with some dismay, the recent article “Adding It All Up” (On Assignment, Feb. 19, 2003). I’m a bit dismayed because of the continuation of this tired debate over math curricular reform. The arguments presented are the same we’ve heard for over a decade, and they shed no new light on the issue.

There are three key points to keep in mind when thinking about math curricular reform. First, it is unfair and incorrect to depict the “traditional” approach to math instruction as one in which “real-life problems” are withheld from students until after they’ve endured rote instruction. In fact, good “traditional” math teachers have always stressed conceptual understanding through the presentation of “real life” problems.

This contention can be supported in several ways (for example, a review of mathematics textbooks and curriculum guides over the past 100 years). Most notably, it is revealed in empirical data from the late 1980s and early 1990s (National Education Longitudinal Study: 1998) that high percentages of teachers and students report emphasizing and being exposed to conceptual learning and problem-solving activity in their math courses.

Second, the advocates of reform have failed to distinguish between “traditional” instruction and “poor teaching.” The NELS: 98 data also indicate that in the early 1990s, between 20 percent and 30 percent of high school students sampled were taught by math teachers who could not identify the answer to a simple algebra problem or explain why the product of two negative numbers produced a positive result. Liping Ma’s comparative study of 3rd grade teachers exposed similar problems of teacher quality.

This problem of teacher quality leads to a third key point related to the construction of experimental studies of curricular effectiveness. As suggested in your article, it is extremely difficult to control for the many factors that can threaten the validity of such experiments, such as teacher quality and motivation, students’ entering and dropping out of curricular programs, and so forth. Advocates of reform will always be able to find some case where students in a particular program will outperform their nonprogram peers. But such special programs have not been shown to be either portable to other situations or robust against the problem of teacher quality.

To wrap it all up, it seems clear that students are more likely to learn more math when they are exposed to mathematically knowledgeable teachers and a balanced program combining conceptual understanding with skills practice and—yes—even rote learning.

Roger C. Shouse
Associate Professor of Education
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pa.

To the Editor:

Critics of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards ask for evidence that the new constructivist curricula and teaching methods are effective. They maintain that “research hasn’t delivered nearly enough evidence to warrant schools’ switching” to new approaches.

What they refuse to acknowledge is the overwhelming body of evidence collected over the past 40 years that mathematics instruction, as it has been practiced in the United States, is a failure. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, is merely the latest and most exhaustive of studies to demonstrate this.

Your article states that the TIMSS in 1996 found that 8th graders were “in the middle of the pack,” and that 12th graders “fell below average.” This understates the actual findings. According to “Highlights From the TIMSS,” published by the National Center for Education Statistics, 8th grade U.S. students “scored below the international average in mathematics” (below all the other G7 countries), while 12th graders’ performance “was among the lowest in both science and mathematics, including ... our most advanced students.” Every other international comparison since the launch of Sputnik had similar findings.

These terrible results cannot be blamed on the “New Math” of the 1960s or the “fuzzy math” of the 1990s. Mathematics teaching in most American schools hasn’t changed since the Second World War.

So how can anyone advocate business as usual? Pay attention to the backgrounds of those who oppose reform. Cited in your article, Michael McKeowen, a co-founder of Mathematically Correct, is a professor of medical science, while Bastiaan J. Braams is a professor of mathematics. Other critics active with Mathematically Correct have similar positions: David Klein, professor of mathematics; Wayne Bishop, professor of mathematics and computer science; David Joyce, professor of mathematics and computer science; David Gelernter, professor of computer science. And so on.

These are among the very top 1 percent of our population in math proficiency. They spend most of their professional lives working with college students in the top 5 percent of our population—the tiny minority for whom skills-based instruction was effective. They are thus well insulated from the vast majority of American students who experience mathematics as a collection of arbitrary rules, who see math as irrelevant to their lives, who learn to hate math and vow to stay as far away from it as they can. Invisible to Mr. McKeowen and Mr. Braams are the large numbers of students who fail algebra and whose failure in algebra practically dooms them to fail high school.

I have degrees in engineering and computer science, but I have also taught math full time in the Chicago public schools. I now have the privilege of working with other teachers who dedicate their daily lives to helping their students make sense of mathematics. I find it offensive that these university math professors think they have anything to tell us about what works and what doesn’t work with kids.

Can we say it again, please? Traditional American mathematics instruction is a proven failure! Against that background, the existing evidence of success of the Interactive Mathematics Program and other standards-based curricula is a powerful reason to change.

Thomas McDougal
Chicago Secondary Mathematics
Improvement Project
Chicago, Ill.

Parental Fund Raising: Paying for the Basics When Taxes Won’t

To the Editor:

Last year, our school district was faced with the unpleasant reality of again making deep cuts in the budget after our mill-levy election failed (“Parents Buy In to Paying for the Basics,” Feb. 12, 2003). Teachers and support-staff members were fired, programs were dropped, and decisions were made not to replace worn and outdated textbooks or to keep up routine building maintenance. A majority of our extracurricular programs were cut, including our entire middle school sports program, our state championship tennis team, and others. We were faced, in short, with a situation that has become increasingly more common nationwide.

In our case, a group of parents and community members stepped up and created several avenues to raise money, including a middle school booster club. Our local country club also formed a foundation to bring in much-needed funds. Granted, the school programs that have the best chance of being funded by such work are those for which donors have an affinity, and this may leave some of the less popular or less visible programs behind. Because this is a relatively new situation for us, we are trying to work closely with district administrators and the school board to make choices as equitable as we can.

We would prefer not to have to spend all this time and energy on such a task, but all of us feel deeply that our children’s educational opportunities are of prime importance. Also, because we are in a small, rural community, the possibilities for organized sports and other competitive venues are extremely limited.

If the traditional methods of funding education were adequate, parents such as myself would be happy to step back. Until that happens, we don’t see what our options are. We are not willing to let our children receive substandard educations and have reduced or nonexistent extracurricular programs without doing what we can. If the critics have other alternatives, we would like to hear them.

Corrine Gantt
Hamilton, Mont.

To the Editor:

Efforts to close the so-called “achievement gap” require policymakers and others to think carefully about public school funding in general and fund- raising/development efforts in individual schools and districts in particular. These issues are complex.

If we were truly committed to providing an equitable, high-quality education to all of America’s children, property-tax money would be funneled into a single pot to be distributed equitably to all children in the state, in terms of per-pupil funding. But since this approach is so unpopular (and why that is so needs to be addressed in depth elsewhere), we must fully examine other fund- raising efforts that, in effect, widen, rather than close, funding inequities.

Parental fund raising, though it sounds wonderful on the face of it, also presents a whole host of operational issues for already overburdened school personnel, such as one-upsmanship among individual parents and the conflicts that might involve, and the need to provide logistical support for fund- raising efforts, such as bookkeeping, record-keeping, and so on. Are we in danger of creating situations in our schools where some parents may become “more equal than others”?

Individual fund-raising and development efforts—at the school or even the district level—will work, I’m afraid, to privatize public education and to help sustain current inequities.

Cynthia A. Barnes
Education Commission of the States
Center for Community College Policy
Denver, Colo.


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