Education Letter to the Editor


March 31, 2004 17 min read
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Facts on California’s ‘Performance Index’

In your front-page article “Accountability Conflicts Vex Schools” (March 10, 2004), you report the following: “In California last year, 78 percent of schools met the state’s ‘academic performance index’ goal of increasing tests scores by 5 percent. Yet, just 55 percent of the state’s schools achieved adequate progress under the federal rules.”

This difference is easily understood, once the preceding paragraph’s error has been fixed: The academic-performance-index, or API, goal—officially known as a school’s API growth target—is not a 5 percent improvement. Rather, the goal is set by subtracting the school’s API score from an API score of 800, which is the state’s actual target API for all schools, and calculating 5 percent of that difference.

In other words, the API growth target gives schools 20 years to come up with the true minimally acceptable score! Thus, if a school scores 780 this year, its growth target for the next year is only 1 API point improvement (subtracting 780 from 800, to get 20, and then calculating 5 percent of that, which is 1). If the goal were a true 5 percent improvement, the school’s goal would be an improvement of 39 API points for the following year.

Similarly, a school scoring 500, which puts it in the bottom 10 percent of all California schools, need only make a 15-point improvement to meet its API growth target. At that rate of progress, it’s likely that the present students’ children will be attending the school before the true target of 800 is met.

California’s API growth target is good politically because it allows schools to celebrate their academic success, even when most of their students are performing very poorly in reading, language arts, and mathematics. But if the goal of accountability is to provide a true picture of a school’s rate of academic improvement and generate challenging goals for staff members, this is a very deceptive metric and one that is in drastic need of revision.

A better metric—one which probably produces results similar to those of the No Child Left Behind Act’s metric of calculating the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced"—is to insist that schools “close the gap” between their academic-performance- index scores and the true API target score of 800 by 10 percent to 20 percent each year, rather than settling for a 5 percent improvement. Perhaps 10 percent gains could be labeled as “adequate progress” and 20 percent gains could be labeled as “superior progress.”

It is also time for someone to rank California districts’ academic progress by their percentages of schools with API scores of 800 or better. A simple percentage of this kind is very hard to explain away if it remains low; and in districts with at least 10 schools, that percentage should be expected to rise each year until all the schools in the district are scoring at this minimum level.

Steven Frankel
The Assessment Group
Playa del Rey, Calif.

Water-Quality Alert Seen as ‘Distraction’

To the Editor:

In response to “Schools on Alert Over Water Quality” (March 17, 2004):

We should be most concerned with what schools are putting into students’ heads, not their stomachs. I was born in Jersey City, N.J., in 1944, and was raised there. In those days, water pipes were made of lead. I will turn 60 this year and show no ill effects from my schools’ drinking water. Given the current state of education today, articles like this are little more than a distraction from the real problems of education.

Joseph Cascarelli
Westcliffe, Colo.

Gambling Revenue Is Not Pa. Group’s Issue

To the Editor:

Your article “States Bet on Gambling to Raise Money for Schools” (March 10, 2004) oversimplified Good Schools Pennsylvania’s mission, and misrepresented our position on gambling revenue as a source of funding for public education.

Good Schools Pennsylvania gives voice to and advocates for the 1.8 million children attending public schools in Pennsylvania. The focus of our efforts is driven by our commitment to educational justice, and our belief that citizen involvement is a key aspect of successful, broad-based education reform. By engaging grassroots advocates in the conversation about education, our organization is broadening and enriching the reform dialogue.

Our primary goal is not to take a position on how state revenue should be generated—that is the responsibility of the state General Assembly and the governor. Rather, our purpose is to build consensus around the need for increased state funding for public education.

Among our grassroots base, opinion varies about sources of state revenue: Some education advocates have no objection to gambling revenue, while others are opposed for a variety of reasons, including its effect on the impoverished in our society. But those who oppose gambling revenue have been the most outspoken about their willingness to pay an increased state income tax to support our children’s schools.

What’s most important is that citizens continue to hold lawmakers accountable for providing adequate and equitable funding for our public schools, and that we succeed in pushing our state to increase its financial commitment to public education.

Janis Risch
Communications Director
Good Schools Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pa.

More on ‘Trustworthy’ Reading Research

To the Editor:

The publication of The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research (“Book on ‘Scientifically Based’ Reading Research to Debut,” March 10, 2004) offers another repackaging of the National Reading Panel report, this one aimed, according to co-editor Peggy McCardle, at helping teachers understand where all the advocates of the panel’s (so-called) scientifically based reading research conclusions “are coming from.”

Surely many teachers will quickly recognize where these advocates are coming from when they find that in a volume aimed at helping educators “decide what is trustworthy and what’s not,” the volume contains not a single alternative appraisal of the “scientific evidence.”

Several books critical of the National Reading Panel report, including my own, have been published. A considerable number of articles in peer-reviewed professional journals have found serious problems with the report. One National Reading Panel member, Joanne Yatvin, offered a “Minority View” that was published in the report. Yet the editors of The Voice appear so intent on not confusing educators’ decisionmaking on “trustworthy” research that not a single essay in the volume offers an alternative voice.

And speaking of trustworthiness, contrary to Timothy Shanahan’s straw- man interpretation, the primary condemnations of the report’s findings have had little to do with its absence of “qualitative research.” Rather, criticisms have been based primarily on the report’s misreading and misrepresentation of the very research it examined.

On the other hand, Mr. Shanahan is trustworthy in saying that “a more inclusive review of the literature would have had little or no influence on the panel’s conclusions.” As I discuss in Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies (2003), a reading of the minutes of the NRP meetings shows that the majority of the panel decided in its very first meeting—and before a stitch of evidence was collected—what did and did not count in beginning reading. And— surprise—these a priori conclusions were affirmed by the National Reading Panel’s subsequent “review” of the research.

Gerald Coles
Ithaca, N.Y.

Equal Opportunities, Or Equal Outcomes?

To the Editor:

Judging from the tone of Kevin Welner’s rebuttal (“Expand That List of ‘Nattering’ Radicals,” Letters, March 10, 2004) to my previous letter to the editor (“Equity and Tracking,” Letters, Feb. 18, 2004), I apparently struck a nerve by taking issue with the radical egalitarian philosophy that dominates in educational circles.

Mr. Welner somehow got the impression from my letter that I am not in favor of providing all students with the educational opportunity they deserve. As a 10- year teacher in a Title I school and now a supervisor for eight years of mostly bilingual teachers in a large urban district, I am committed to helping all students develop academically to the fullest extent possible.

But I also am perplexed when academically advanced students receive no special treatment and even have their intellectual gifts downplayed. We don’t do this with students who exhibit other talents. Cheri Pierson Yecke mentions in The War Against Excellence (2003) how “ironic it is to consider that, in 1987, Robert Slavin himself proclaimed that the achievement of high-ability students suffers when they are held to the pace of their less able classmates, a phenomenon that he christened the ‘Robin Hood Effect.’” Even Mr. Slavin’s Success for All reading program groups children by reading ability.

As Mr. Welner surely knows, research can be found to support almost any instructional practice. I encourage him, as well as all anti-tracking advocates, to obtain a copy of Ms. Yecke’s book. It not only articulates the problems associated with heterogeneous grouping, but also the underlying social goals of radical egalitarians. As she notes, they seek not only to ensure equal opportunity but equal outcomes, something which most would surely agree is at odds with American ideals.

Randal Jones
Alternative Certification Program
Houston Independent School District
Houston, Texas

Helping Head Start Help Pupils With Disabilities

To the Editor:

There is a serious “cart before horse” problem with the National Reporting System for Head Start (“Debate Continues Over Head Start Assessment,” March 10, 2004). Specifically, one of the core child characteristics measured is “disability"—using the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act/special education definitions.

But as we know, neither Head Start programs nor pediatricians (nor doctors in general) do a decent developmental screening to identify very young kids with disabilities, much less get them needed services. In fact, in California, these numbers are especially tragic: We are dead last among all 50 states in the percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds in special education, with only 3.7 percent of California kids enrolled, compared with 5.04 percent nationally.

Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, compares this year’s National Reporting System to “the first pancake in a pan that is used to gauge the heat but not served to anyone.”

I’d add that, without good developmental screening and follow-up that identifies and helps kids who need it, this system also is like a pancake the cook forgot to add the baking powder to. That is, the result is pretty flat and useless.

Here is an idea for language in the Head Start law to improve Head Start’s ability to identify and help very young kids with disabilities, developmental delays, and social-emotional problems:

Within 45 calendar days of a child’s entry into a Head Start or Early Head Start program, grantees and delegate agencies must screen a child for developmental delays and/or disabilities with a high-quality developmental screening instrument. For purposes of Head Start, ‘high-quality developmental screening instruments’ are any that an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement cites as having ‘excellent psychometric properties’; having adequate sensitivity, specificity, validity and reliability; and having been standardized on diverse populations.

This approach piggybacks on the language in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on developmental screening. It would currently give the OK to three high-quality screening tools, all of which rely on parental observation, which is far more accurate in identifying problems than a pediatrician’s “clinical assessment” (eyeballing). The three tools are the Parents’ Evaluation of Developmental Status (PEDS), the Ages & Stages Questionnaires, or the Child Development Inventories.

Note that this language is sufficiently flexible so that, if the AAP expanded the list of “excellent” screening tools in the future, those tools could be used, too.

The full April 2003 report on the overview of the Head Start National Reporting System is online at http://ca- headstart.org/Overview of the HSNRS_OMB1.pdf (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader).

Margaret Dunkle
La Canada, Calif.

The writer is a senior fellow in the department of health policy at George Washington University’s school of public health and health services, in Washington.

Nurture, Training, and Alternative Routes

To the Editor:

Your article about the Texas proposal for an alternative- certification plan for teachers in grades 8-12 correctly identified a problem facing many states that have streamlined, or are considering streamlining, the process to become a teacher (“Texas Model: Go Directly to Class Without Teacher Training,” March 10, 2004).

The apparent rationale for such programs is to provide large numbers of otherwise qualified teachers for our hard-to-staff urban and rural schools.

Forget for a moment how qualified these folks are who have had no formal pedagogical training. How will such new teachers acquire quickly the skills and strategies they will need not only to survive, but to thrive? More important, what can be done to guarantee students and parents that these teachers are more than just “highly qualified” by virtue of a college degree in some subject?

Taking “how to” courses on weekends or over the summer is often a case of “too little, too late.” What is needed is an expansion of the mentoring and induction programs already in place in many districts, as they provide the necessary day-to-day support novice educators require. Many districts already have embedded meaningful induction and mentoring programs into their schools’ culture because of ongoing relationships with local colleges or universities and through the creation of professional-development schools.

A professional-development school provides intern teachers with a supportive clinical experience that many think is superior to more traditional approaches. Such schools also create a wealth of experienced, well-trained mentor teachers who have both the desire and the training to provide alternative-certification teachers with the practical help they need regarding classroom management and instructional strategies.

In this environment, there also is heavy emphasis on interpersonal skills and team-building. These programs put stress on inducting novice teachers into the culture of the school. It’s quite common in a professional-development school, in fact, to see those who have been through the mentoring-induction program volunteer to serve as mentors for new teachers as soon as they have acquired tenure. They seek to provide the same nurturing and caring atmosphere for their protégés that helped them become successful teachers.

Wouldn’t all novice teachers—alternative- and traditional-route alike—benefit from exposure to such motivated teachers?

Jeffrey Scheetz
Professional and Secondary Education
East Stroudsburg University
East Stroudsburg, Pa.

In Abuse Reporting, Take Care With Facts

To the Editor:

In response to your article about sexual abuse in public schools (“Sexual Abuse by Educators Is Scrutinized,” March 10, 2004), I would like to say that this subject needs careful reporting, based on in-depth, meticulous research. Careers have been lost when students have deliberately and willfully made up false accusations against staff members. This is as important a matter for consideration as is the devastation suffered by students who are abused.

Joanna Calderwood
Rockport, Maine

Teachers’ Merit Pay: Too Many Variables, Too Little Input

To the Editor:

In response to “Teacher Vote on Merit Pay Down to Wire,” (March 17, 2004):

Any plan that links students’ standardized-test scores to pay is a very bad plan, as test scores are contingent upon a number of factors outside the teacher’s control. These include: socioeconomic status; nutrition and health; home environment; parental practices and attitudes about education; past learning experiences; and students’ attitudes about teachers and authority, their own learning, and their feelings and beliefs about testing—just to name a few.

However, it is true that teacher pay must be changed. There has not been a model yet that has proven worthy of national application—mostly, I believe, due to the ambiguousness and subjectivity of what constitutes good teaching, how it will be assessed, and who is qualified to assess it as such. Although the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has clearly articulated what good teaching is, many states do not recognize and value these standards, nor do they actively promote and subsidize the substantial cost of NBPTS certification.

In addition, many teachers are not compensated on the salary scale for the hundreds of hours required to participate in the program when they have attained certification. (Just recently I read that NBPTS certification will qualify me for three units of graduate credit. Honestly, this is farcical, given that I have never worked as hard in any graduate course as I have for NBPTS certification.)

Another enormous obstacle is that collaboration between and among all school staff members, which is the most essential element in increasing student achievement, will cease to exist under merit-pay systems. We will see well- educated professionals turn into corporate-curriculum-delivery staffers holed up in their cubical classrooms and offices to ensure that they get their well- earned piece of the bonus pie and their “not as [fill in the blank] as I am” neighbor doesn’t cut into their slice.

The profession will end up looking like a Dilbert cartoon. This is a clearly undesirable, not to say unethical, outcome, given that education is largely responsible for cultivating the world’s most precious resource, children.

Lori Walton
Colton, Calif.

To the Editor:

From what I have read about the Denver pay-for-performance plan, the resulting raise to teachers would be minimal. The bureaucracy to create the system and maintain it will cost millions to begin with, and hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to sustain. This takes money away from the classroom.

We know from James S. Coleman’s report in the 1960s that the home environment is responsible for up to 90 percent of students’ academic achievement. Let’s place the money where it will do the most good, in improving the home environment.

Keith Newman
Philadelphia, Pa.

To the Editor:

Education is the main activity linked to a child’s development. In other words, with no education there is no development. Shouldn’t we teachers have a decent salary? Both experience and formal education (degrees) produce knowledge, so neither of them should be neglected in a salary scale. I’d say merit pay should be in addition to, not instead of.

Arturo Celis
Universidad del Quindío
Quindío, Colombia

To the Editor:

I see a downside to merit pay because, as a longtime teacher, I feel I’ve earned my higher salary. I make sure to keep current on new programs, sign up for in-service workshops, and am always ready to learn. Although I find some tried-and-true methodologies worth keeping, I also know that I must stay current with my technology-friendly students and continually update my knowledge.

Merit pay says that some teachers are better than others because they know more, or they stay longer, or they sign up for more committees. But I believe all teachers, new or otherwise, must continue to learn. It’s simply part of being a teacherespecially in the age of MTV and “The Matrix.”

We cannot give merit pay to teachers as an incentive to push up students’ test scores. That would result in teachers’ only working for the merit pay, not for the benefit of students. And what happens if a good teacher has mostly low- ability students in her classroom and their scores go up only by 2 or 3 points? Will she lose out on merit pay?

Who will decide who gets merit pay? What happens to schools in poor districts? Do teachers in affluent schools get all the merit pay?

There are many issues to consider, but the most important one is whether or not children will be better prepared for the future. This cannot be resolved by people who make policy. It must be decided by those who implement the program—by teachers.

Cecilia Sanchez
Jesse G. Sanchez School
Salinas, Calif.


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