Education Opinion


May 28, 2003 17 min read
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Computer Grading: ‘A Step Backward

To the Editor:

Regarding your special issue “Pencils Down: Technology’s Answer to Testing” (Technology Counts 2003, May 8, 2003), I must ask an often-ignored question: “Why spend more money on technology than on the student?”

And what about alternative assessment, such innovations as portfolios and the like? How would technology address this?

Technology’s answer to education is the same as its answer to everything else it has replaced or “enhanced": efficiency and speed. So my thoughts on the introduction of technology into the assessment arena are not nearly as favorable as yours.

In talking about efficiency (read: expediency), we must first address what a computer actually does. It merely performs preprogrammed calculations much faster than a human being can. However, it can only perform calculations based on a programmer’s input. When it comes to testing and grading exams, shouldn’t a teacher (preferably the same teacher that taught the subject) grade the exam? After all, these tests are supposed to assess what a student has learned from the person who taught him or her the material.

With these mundane, multiple- guess exams, which are all technology can accurately assess, what will become of exploratory and “self-thought” answers (such as what shows up in essay exams)? The answer to that betrays one reason why the American system of education is fast becoming the American system of training: We don’t promote much self-reflection in our students. Thought doesn’t seem to count for anything. How can computer-based testing score an essay of the student’s thoughts about or understanding of a particular subject, other than by checking for errors in grammar and style? It cannot, at least with any semblance of accuracy.

In education, we need to stop thinking in terms of speed (and, of course, comparison) and start teaching our students to do well in life—not just on an exam or a game show. Who cares what date a certain event occurred, if the student cannot understand the context and the consequences of that event?

In short, I believe that technology used for the purpose of grading exams and assessing students is a step backward. This function of technology may “enrich” software developers, but it will not enrich our students. Technology cannot provide an accurate representation of what a child is truly capable of doing, in or outside the classroom. His or her teacher is probably the best judge of that, not some far-removed software designer.

Derrick L. Clady
Schweinfurt, Germany

Reading Groups and Pop Psychology

To the Editor:

J. Elizabeth Gladden’s recent essay (“Where Have All the Reading Groups Gone?” Commentary, May 14, 2003) surprised me quite a bit. It surprised me because I actually had believed that most early-elementary educators kept pace with research on effective instructional techniques.

In their classic study of 1st grade reading instruction, Robert Dreeben and Rebecca Barr clearly demonstrated how whole-class reading instruction robs low-ability readers of opportunities for oral-reading practice. When assigned to smaller, homogeneous learning groups, these children get more oral-reading practice and make greater gains in reading ability.

Are some elementary educators unfamiliar with the Dreeben and Barr study? Or are they merely working from the worn-out perspective of self-esteem pop psychology?

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

‘Feeble Excuses’ for White-Prom Flap

To the Editor:

The attempts by Superintendent Wayne Smith of Taylor County, Ga., to defend his school system (“In Some Southern Towns, Prom Night a Black-or-White Affair,” May 14, 2003) look just as feeble in print as they sounded in his interview on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” He laments that he and his school board have been “beaten up by the media” and made to “look like a bunch of hicks.” (Deservedly so, in my opinion.)

Mr. Smith and his board may not be able to stop students from having their own prom, off school grounds, but they can certainly make it clear to both their students and their community that the school has no involvement in the planning of such an event and does not condone it.

Instead of this clear and simple type of response, Mr. Smith’s defense seems to be a combination of “it’s always been done this way” and “we’re not in the prom business.” I find no evidence to support either of these excuses.

According to your article, an integrated prom was held last year and this year. So much for the “it’s always been done this way” excuse. More troubling to me is the superintendent’s contention that the district is “not in the prom business,” suggesting that the school system has no role in the planning or organization of a prom. If that is true, I would be interested in hearing an explanation of his comments in your article relating to “the dance” as being the “main project” of the class officers at Taylor High School. (Let’s not even mention that they have white officers for the white folks and black officers for the black folks.)

You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Smith. Your board’s position may be that they “are not in the prom business,” but if class officers in your high school are responsible for planning a prom, then you are in fact allowing, if not encouraging, such an event to take place.

As a teacher and administrator in public schools for almost 30 years, I am both embarrassed and disappointed that grown adults, especially professional educators, can behave in such a way.

David Brothers
Chickamauga, Ga.

What We Mean By Standards

To the Editor:

Jim Julius takes me to task for using “a very broad brush to paint a multifaceted idea” in my letter of April 23, 2003, regarding the standards movement (“Defining ‘Standards,’” Letters, May 14, 2003). I hope that the following will clarify my position, and at the same time contribute to the ongoing debate.

Standards, or more precisely content standards, are what used to be called goals or objectives. These curricular aims have always been and will always be vital to effective instruction.Unless teachers know what knowledge, skills, and effect they hope to bring about in students, their success in the classroom will be vitiated.

The standards movement, however, as exemplified by the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, carries a high risk of harming students and undermining teachers. Under the law, states are permitted to develop their own tests to assess student achievement—and by extension, teacher competency.If a state chooses to use instructionally insensitive tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, school performance will be mismeasured.That’s because these tests largely assess what students bring to the classroom in the form of socioeconomic status and inherited ability, rather than what they learn in the classroom through instruction.

If states elect to use standards-based tests that are ostensibly designed to measure a state’s officially approved content standards, the picture that emerges will likewise be distorted.The reason is that most of today’s standards-based tests attempt to assess too many curricular aims, provide teachers with too little idea of what is to be tested, and offer no feedback about which content standards have been mastered by their students.

The public is entitled to know if students are being well taught, but the standards movement as it now exists will not provide the answer.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

Urban Teachers Need Resources

To the Editor:

Whether we discuss teacher certification or teacher retention in urban districts, several critical issues must be addressed (“The Human-Resource Factor,” Commentary, April 16, 2003). The lack of meaningful staff development for urban teachers, coupled with a lack of community-based services to support schools, often creates unfavorable working conditions. The staff development that is available doesn’t provide the rigorous training and skills enhancement needed to create “exceptional teachers.”

Moreover, the issue of teacher certification becomes a moot point when we factor in the inability of urban districts to provide safe working environments, solid instructional practices, and educational resources that complement statewide standards. These issues make many educators leave urban districts in pursuit of safe suburban schools that provide teachers with an environment more conducive to instruction.

During my tenure as a classroom teacher in the Baltimore public schools, we were seldom afforded basic resources: chalk, paper, textbooks, toilet paper for the children’s restroom, and so forth. In circumstances such as these, the issue becomes much larger than whether a teacher has completed the recommended coursework and mastered objectives on an examination. Many of the uncertified teachers I worked with possessed two fundamental traits that can’t generally be obtained in graduate school: compassion and resiliency.

If the Bush administration is really interested in “leaving no child behind,” corrective measures must be taken to bring urban schools to a level of parity with other schools in the nation. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, this nation must address the fact the schools are still separate and unequal.

David Miller
Urban Leadership Institute
Baltimore, Md.

Missing the Pluses Of Catholic Schools

To the Editor:

Having spent three wonderful days celebrating Catholic education, I find it difficult to believe that Education Week, in writing about the conference I attended, deemed it necessary to write so much about the negative (“Catholic Educators’ Group Marks Centennial With Look Ahead,” Reporter’s Notebook, April 30, 2003).

In particular, I found Bishop Wilton D. Gregory’s keynote address to be quite different from what was described in your article. He spoke of the wonderful qualities of Catholic schools and how well we serve diverse populations across the nation.

Of course, there are issues in Catholic schools that need to be addressed, as in every public, private, and independent school. Education Week makes those issues clear. What is missing, however, is a description of the wealth of educational opportunities that were afforded to Catholic-school educators during those three days. Those opportunities deserved some of the editorial space taken up by what was not talked about and the lengthy discussion of legal issues. A much more balanced picture would then have emerged of the great work Catholic educators do.

John R. Alfone
Assistant Superintendent for
Elementary Education
Diocese of Bridgeport
Bridgeport, Conn.

Black Teachers: Why They Lag in National Certification— And What to Do About It

To the Editor:

The article “Blacks Apply, But Unlikely to Win Certification” (May 7, 2003) exposes some of the shortfalls of the expensive and well- publicized certification program of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. And while the Dan Goldhaber study that is the focus of the story breaks little new ground, its findings should give all educators reason to be concerned.

African-American teachers are simply not being national- board-certified in proportions anywhere near their percentage of total teachers. Not in North Carolina (with the most nationally certified teachers and most intensive mentoring and outreach programs), not in Mississippi (with very high bonuses, very low average salaries), probably not in any state.

Mr. Goldhaber is not the first to note this problem, nor the first to offer no suggestions. He is just a researcher commissioned to come up with a description of the problem, not find a solution. It also must be quickly added that this study did not touch on any possibility of pedagogical bias, nor did it look at a single student test score. A study by Mississippi State University’s Peggy Swoger, publicized on the NBPTS’s Web site as news, showed that the passing rates for blacks in Mississippi was 21 percent, and for whites, 71 percent. Another earlier study showed that the passing rate for blacks nationally was about 11 percent.

In Mississippi, a “solution” is being attempted by increasing the “outreach” (public relations, advertising, mentoring) at two black universities. Other attempts to solve this problem include asking Lloyd Bond (famous for pro-NBPTS research at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) to take a look at it. He found little basis for the racial discrepancies. Just life, I guess.

Ann E. Harmon, the director of research and information at the NBPTS, is quoted in your article as stating: “If we knew what was causing the adverse impact, we’d be able to do something about it.”

Ms. Harmon: Have you ever thought about looking at the progressivist pedagogical bias that is at the heart of everything the NBPTS does—every publication and advertisement, every assessment? Could it be that African-American teachers are more traditional teachers, less likely to use the learner-centered, multiple-intelligences, learning-styles “best practices,” or the constructivist, self-esteem-enhancing, cooperative-learning, “developmentally appropriate” methods demanded by the NBPTS process?

Could it be that black teachers more often find themselves in schools where structure becomes vital, where discipline cannot be taken for granted, and where the pretty lessons that are supposed to look so good on the videotapes just don’t work? Or could it be that many black teachers just want to teach their own classes in the way that works, and are reluctant to be fooled by one more white game that they correctly figure to have little chance of winning?

Sure, there are many exceptions, and there are many black teachers who have won national-board certification, and there are black educators on the NBPTS. I don’t say that it is not possible to be black and board-certified. What I am saying is that, if we look at the statistics, we will see that this is not happening often enough, and that the people whose job it is to know why aren’t telling.

The NBPTS is not a racist organization, but in states like Mississippi, its programs are promoting a return to a kind of de facto racism, a sort of two-tiered teacher-salary system that took 100 years to get rid of the last time around. Ann Harmon is once again dead wrong when she says, “It would be shortsighted and simplistic to say that [state policies] shift resources to affluent districts.” It does not take a mathematician to see that this is exactly what NBPTS bonuses do. In this sense, it is pulling in the opposite direction of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, and I would suspect that the No Child Left Behind people will be taking a close look at it.

In Mississippi, the Swoger study reported that more than 30 percent of board-certified teachers are in districts deemed “excellent” by the state. Conversely, those districts on probation or “warned” status have only 1 percent of board-certified teachers. Them that has is them that gets.

The silver lining here is that national-board-certified teachers have not been proven to actually produce better student learning, as measured by test scores. So students aren’t necessarily suffering. But the inequity in salaries is eating away at the 99 percent of U.S. teachers who are not national-board- certified.

I look forward to the usual numerous replies from board-certified teachers across the country coming to the defense of their public relations agents and their hefty bonuses. Just stick to the stats.

John Tuepker
U.S. History Teacher
Long Beach, Miss.

To the Editor:

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has successfully created a process for identifying accomplished teachers, a concept eagerly embraced by our organization. Quality teachers in all classrooms, particularly for those students who require greater support, has been a major focus for the National Alliance of Black School Educators, as part of its professional-development mission.

The opportunity to collaborate with the NBPTS through a series of programs that provide our membership of 6,500 with the opportunity to recruit teachers with whom they work is critical to our mission. Achieving national-board certification for our teaching community is a goal that we will continue to work toward, and one in which we see constant progress.

The development of effective support systems is critical to successful candidacy, and our organization is pleased to be a partner in this effort. The National Alliance of Black School Educators conducted a three-year demonstration program on identifying successful support mechanisms that resulted in certification of African- American teachers. Those “best practices” are used in our support centers currently being operated jointly by NABSE and the NBPTS.

Quentin R. Lawson
Executive Director
National Alliance of Black School Educators
Washington, D.C.

Unequal Equation: One Photograph Yields Two Interpretations

To the Editor:

While reading your article “Small Schools Hard to Start, Report Finds,” (April 23, 2003), we encountered a photo of a teacher, Andrea R. Martin of Avalon School in St. Paul, Minn., standing before a written equation in which there are several errors. Ms. Martin is shown attempting to factor the basic quadratic expression x2+x-30. However, the expression x2+x-30 in itself cannot be considered an equation.

A true equation, as defined in Harold R. Jacobs’ Elementary Algebra, is “any mathematical sentence that contains an equal sign.” Basic algebra inculcates this concept early on, and most people can identify an equation as an expression that has been set equivalent to another one. Thus, Ms. Martin is incorrect in defining the expression x2+x-30 as an equation; it is merely a polynomial. Instead of instructing her students to “Factor equation,” Ms. Martin should have written the problem as “Factor polynomial” in order to remain true to the fundamental rules of mathematics.

Yet another error occurred in her solution, which depicted the expression as factoring into (x-5) (x-6). This answer is incorrect. The accurate solution when factoring x2+x-30 should be (x+6)(x-5). Only this rendition of the polynomial yields the real roots of the expression.

Unless your intention was to insert this photo as some sort of practical joke in order to provoke a response in your readers, we find it quite pathetic that such blatant oversights could be overlooked by Education Week, a prominent publication and major influence in the national learning community.

No wonder U.S. students have been shown to perform so poorly in the area of mathematical sciences; inadequate and unqualified teachers—people who don’t understand the fundamentals of mathematics—are teaching them. This truly illustrates the abysmal state of education that our country has been stuck in for the past several decades.

Sara Austin
Steve Stuckert
Madison, Wis.

To the Editor:

It is good to know that readers of Education Week are looking closely at the articles, but it is interesting to me that Sara Austin and Steve Stuckert think they can tell by looking at one picture what is going on in a math lesson. (See the letter to the editor above.)

First of all, the article is about opening small high schools, not about teaching math. What is being shown in the picture is not “Andrea R. Martin trying to factor an equation.” It is, rather, a discussion about why (x-5)(x-6), a solution given to Ms. Martin by a student, is incorrect. At Avalon School, we value developing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in our students.

In addition, Ms. Austin and Mr. Stuckert write that the teacher in the photo is incorrect in defining the expression x2+x-30 as an equation. Of course, when x2+x-30 is taken out of context, as it is in the picture, it would not be an equation. But what the reader can’t see is the equation x2+x-30=0 written on the board outside the frame of the picture. The x2+x-30 was removed and taken out of context so that we could work on that section.

I am saddened by how quickly Sara Austin and Steve Stuckert reached their incorrect conclusion and then lashed out at Education Week and the many wonderful teachers in this country. If you want to be a critic, you should at least find out the basic facts before you reach a conclusion. Also,this is probably not a good way to critique education in this country: by looking at one picture and then making up a story about what is going on in it, or in the classroom it represents.

Andrea R. Martin
Avalon School
St. Paul, Minn.


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