Education Letter to the Editor


January 14, 2004 12 min read
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Stop the Name-Calling Defense of ‘No Child’ Act

To the Editor:

Some proponents of the No Child Left Behind Act are “playing the race card” in an effort to discredit critics of the law. Most recently, Andrew J. Rotherham of the Progressive Policy Institute said at a Washington forum that some Democratic candidates opposing the law “sound a little like [archsegregationist] Orval Faubus to me” (“Education Law Faces 2004 Challenges, Speakers Say,” Dec. 10, 2003). Kati Haycock of the Education Trust said, “Too often, the critics imply that students from low-income families and students of color simply cannot be expected to be taught to high levels.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has consistently implied that those who oppose the legislation support the perpetuation of educational apartheid. And President Bush used the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” to imply that his critics preferred low expectations for poor children.

This kind of name-calling is tragic because it avoids a desperately needed discussion about whether the law’s approach is likely to improve or degrade education for students who have not been well served. The truth is that many critics of the No Child Left Behind Act share its stated goals of narrowing the achievement gap while improving education for all, but see substantial evidence that its approach will not work.

The track record of high-stakes exams suggests that the legislation will encourage test preparation instead of real education. The result will narrow and dumb down education, while the overuse of tests will continue to drive many children out of school. These children will be mostly low-income, and disproportionately children of color, with limited English proficiency, or with special needs.

The No Child Left Behind Act will cement in place a dual system: a decent to good education for the middle and upper classes, test preparation for low-income children. But all children can learn far more than the impoverished schooling diet being force-fed in the name of accountability and high standards.

We recognize that many supporters of the law believe it will improve education. And we know that FairTest and many critics of the legislation, including African-American and Latino educators, civil rights groups, many black and Hispanic members of Congress, and the clear majority of educators who actually have to teach under this onerous law, believe that it is not the path to genuine educational improvement.

The real issue is whether it will on balance improve education, particularly for groups who have not generally had access to such education. Such a consideration needs to acknowledge that there are approaches other than those mandated in the legislation that have been proven to be more effective. Past experience has shown that the law’s test-and-punish approach will undermine both educational equity and school quality.

Our hope is that we will not wait for the damage to occur before we look to better alternatives for reform and accountability and work to implement a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act so that the nation will, in fact, leave no child behind.

Monty Neill
Executive Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.

Religious Charters? Play Out That Logic

To the Editor:

Chester E. Finn Jr.'s Commentary “Why Not Religious Charter Schools?,” (Dec. 10, 2003) was easily one of the most disingenuous and simplistic pieces ever published in Education Week.

All of us can agree with Mr. Finn that we need to assure a high-quality education for all our youngsters, and that many do not enjoy that benefit now. We need to work together to see that happen, but not through religious charters.

Why not racial-separatist schools sponsored by sects? Or fundamentalist schools that teach creationism exclusively? Why not parochial schools that espouse right-to-life tenets with public funds? Why not suicide-bomber learning centers? Why not anti-Jewish academies with our taxes?

Ultimately, why not simply abrogate or amend the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution and our Founding Fathers? A good end cannot justify this means.

Russell J. Dever
Mainland Regional High School
Linwood, N.J.

Videotaping Project Aids Teachers-to-Be

To the Editor:

A recent Commentary celebrates the teachers who, as part of the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, shared videotapes of their teaching with the international education community to be used for public study and analysis (“The New Heroes of Teaching,” Commentary, Nov. 5, 2003). The goal of the study was to provide a portrait of the kind of teaching most students experience in various countries. In your Commentary, James Hiebert, Ronald Gallimore, and James W. Stigler applaud the courage of those involved in this process that moves “educators away from a view of teaching as a solitary activity ... toward a view of teaching as a professional activity open to collective observations, study, and improvement.”

We would like to share another courageous project, one that is emerging from a cutting-edge charter school in Buffalo, N.Y. At the King Center Charter School, four primary classrooms (grades K-3) are equipped with corner-mounted cameras. Teachers wear microphone-tracking devices that allow cameras to follow their daily routines. Preservice teachers at local college campuses watch the video, observing details of the teaching/learning environment in present time (without their physical presence interrupting the students). When the observation period is complete, each teacher attends a “collaboratory” in the distance education room, where a videoconference is held with the college professor and education students.

We agree that the teachers in the TIMMS project are pioneers in opening their classrooms to the video camera. The teachers at Buffalo’s King Center Charter School are extending these heroics by providing live, “anything can happen” virtual access to their classrooms, stepping up to the microphone to field immediate follow-up questions, and engaging in public reflection on their teaching and on student learning.

We will all benefit from teachers brave enough to share, reflect, and engage in dialogue in full public view.

Marion Fox Barnett
Associate Professor in Education
Buffalo State College
Buffalo, N.Y.

Julie Jacobs Henry
Associate Professor in Education
Canisius College
Buffalo, N.Y.

Judit Szente
Research Coordinator
King Center Charter School
Buffalo, N.Y.

Benefits of ‘Smallness': For Middle Schools, Big

To the Editor:

Regarding several articles in your Dec. 3, 2003, issue touching on the issue of school size:

Abundant research shows that creating “small learning communities” accelerates academic achievement and promotes the healthy development of young adolescents. “Smallness” fosters closer relationships between students and teachers, thereby helping personalize the education process. It also enables teachers to work together to develop a rigorous and engaging course of study, to try out new research-based instructional practices, and to reflect on results. In short, it helps build a professional learning community focused on continuous improvement.

While it was fascinating to read about Unity Junior High School in Cicero, Ill., which at capacity will be the largest junior high school in the nation (“A Question of Scale,”On Assignment, Dec. 3, 2003), we concur with Commentary writer Thomas Toch (“Small Schools, Big Ideas,” Commentary, Dec. 3, 2003) and know that creating smaller learning communities has been found to be an effective way to strengthen student academic achievement and promote the healthy development of students.

Nowhere are small learning communities more important than at the middle level, when many students first leave their relatively small neighborhood schools for large middle-grades schools that typically draw from many feeder schools.

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform recommends that national, state, and local policymakers provide resources and support to create small schools at the middle level whenever possible. In those cases where small schools are neither feasible nor affordable, the forum recommends that district and school leaders break down large middle-grades schools into smaller schools by creating houses or clusters that create a personalized environment for teaching and learning.

When schools with middle grades employ strategies such as schools-within-schools, teams and clusters with dual common planning time, small class sizes, and small schools, middle-grades students are given the best chances for attaining success.

Deborah Kasak
Executive Director
National Forum to Accelerate
Middle-Grades Reform
Newton, Mass.

Gifted Students Need Self-Directed Learning

To the Editor:

Jeannie Alford Hagy’s Commentary “The Cost of Equality,” Dec. 10, 2003, which described her failure to get her son’s school to meet the needs of her gifted child, moved me. But why, as she says, grieve for the inability to measure or recover the cost, when she can remove her son from the school, or work (along with her child) to redesign the school that is committing those crimes against all children (and they are all gifted; it is the schooling process that crushes all students’ love of learning at an early age).

A system based on self-directed learning, built on students’ love of learning and strengths—a learning, rather than a teaching system—would enable all students to develop their full potential.

Ms. Hagy should work with other parents on behalf of all students. Only then will the schools be responsive to every child and parent.

Morton Egol
Chief Executive
Wisdom Dynamics
Tenafly, N.J.

The ‘Networked School’

To the Editor:

Claiming to have seen the future of public education, Wayne Gersen describes “the networked school” as an alternative to today’s public school (“The Networked School,” Commentary, Dec. 3, 2003). Yet much about this accommodation to aid homeschooling parents has little to do with serving the public good through a system of common schools.

For example, Mr. Gersen’s vision calls for schools in which students are never in attendance, where there are no classes, and where enrollment is contingent upon parents’ working in the school four hours per month, as well as providing their children with four hours of supervised instruction daily.

How about those parents who care deeply for their children and education but, because of overwhelming economic odds, are part of the working poor and have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet? Where do they find the hours to fulfill these requirements?

Much of the “networked school” proposal sounds like a strategy to promote home schooling for a segment of the population that has the time, energy, and money to support it. Mr. Gersen writes that “it provides home schooling parents with a network of services, and home-schooled students with a network of learning opportunities.” It is important to remember, however, that home schooling and public schooling have different goals. Home schooling focuses on what is good for my child, while public schooling focuses on what is good for all children.

What I found most troubling about Mr. Gersen’s essay, however, was his reference to classroom teachers as “traditional trappings of [public] school.” It is hard to imagine that an individual with 22 years’ experience as a superintendent would make such an outrageous, mean- spirited, and glib generalization about people who care about young people and the future of our democracy. In my 30 years of public school teaching and work in teacher education, I have had the good fortune to know many wonderful and competent teachers who cared not just for a few children, but for all their students.

Are all public school teachers competent and caring? No, but the majority are, and they deserve our thanks and appreciation for working each day to improve public education for all of us.

Steve Grineski
Minnesota State University, Moorhead
Moorhead, Minn.

To the Editor:

For a school superintendent with 22 years’ experience, Wayne Gersen shows an amazing lack of understanding of public education in America. His assertion that “if public schools hold fast to the old way of doing things, their buildings will soon be as empty and forlorn as the steel mills in the Rust Belt” may eventually prove true. But that impending “threat” does not prompt me to create another Mountain Oaks School in my own community. The absence of a public school system is a scary thought. It would be a much greater loss to our society than would the loss of the educational bureaucracy Mr. Gersen is addressing.

What he proposes is taxpayer-supported home schooling rather than some new version of public education. I have no doubt that his description of the educational program at this California “hybrid” school is accurate, and that the school serves the needs of these students’ parents. But the problem is that, in a way similar to vouchers and charter schools, it pulls the better students out of the real public schools and leaves those students who are less motivated or have less support and encouragement.

Mr. Gersen attempts to negate this argument when he notes that Mountain Oaks has demographics similar to those of surrounding public schools. He mentions free and reduced-price lunches, disabilities, and single-parent homes to depict Mountain Oaks as a school with its own share of “tough kids,” just like traditional public schools. I have always been suspicious of the use of those criteria to define our more challenging students.

Kids are not unsuccessful in school simply because they have a disability, or qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, or come from a single-parent home. A student’s lack of success in school is far more likely to be a result of poor motivation and lack of support by parents. The fact that parents are effectively the teachers at Mountain Oaks indicates to me that they are both supportive of and involved in the education and upbringing of their children. Even Mr. Gersen himself admits that “the most striking difference between Mountain Oaks School and the typical public school is the level of parental involvement.”

Despite his warnings of doom for public schools that do not adopt the networked school model, I fail to see the benefits the public schools will derive from such a plan. Unfortunately, the new “networked school” initiative will leave the public school with less money to help special-needs students. And there is the distinct possibility that the public school will have to educate a much higher percentage of special-needs children who most likely will not be found at the networked school. I mean the students who suffer from a higher percentage of depression, anxiety, aggression, bipolar disorders, and other mental-health issues, not because they are on free or reduced-price lunch or come from single-parent families, but because they have been beaten up, abused, and neglected throughout their lives.

I cannot imagine how the public schools or the students left in them could benefit from supporting a “networked” school. Perhaps in his next Commentary, Mr. Gersen could describe how California’s Calaveras County school system has benefited from having 379 of its students attending Mountain Oaks School. That would probably make for an interesting story.

David Brothers
Chickamauga, Ga.

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Letters


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