Education Letter to the Editor


April 21, 2004 11 min read
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Thomas K. Glennan, A Remembrance

American education lost a great friend when Thomas K. Glennan of the RAND Corp. died on April 3, 2004. Tom’s fertile mind produced some of the most influential ideas in education policy, on topics as diverse as technology use, mathematics instruction, schoolwide designs, research and development policy, and performance contracting.

He also mentored people who went on to write important books, head foundations, serve as deans, lead educational movements and associations, redesign Social Security, and influence national monetary policy.

His RAND work on foreign and defense policy was just as productive.

Tom was a true scientist, constantly searching for a useful new idea but quick to reformulate or abandon it in light of the evidence. He was a loving but demanding mentor, pushing for a sharper or deeper approach to the problem at hand and insisting that no important question could ever be fully resolved. There was no Glennan orthodoxy. When too many people agreed with him, Tom became uncomfortable and often changed his mind. He cherished sharp debate, and was happiest when his mentees, among whom I proudly count myself, looked at things in new ways.

Future educators and scholars who will not know Tom Glennan will still be affected by his work. Those of us who knew and loved him carry his example into everything we do.

Paul T. Hill
Research Professor
Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs
Center on Reinventing Public Education
University of Washington
Seattle, Wash.

Creative Expression and The Hierarchy of Needs

To the Editor:

In response to Raymond “Buzz” Bartlett and Claus von Zastrow’s Commentary “Academic Atrophy,” (April 7, 2004):

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was modified when he found that individualized artistic expression—whether literature, poetry, art, sculpture, or dance—transcends even the most basic needs for survival. Creative expression is so basic a human need that it can exist and even thrive in the face of great hardship and deprivation. Maslow, not long before his death, proposed that creativity does not fit neatly into his hierarchy, but is rather separate and equally important.

How else does one explain the artistic output of concentration-camp prisoners and others living a subsistence existence? If the liberal arts are not encouraged and recognized as important, society is doomed to stagnate.

There must be room in public education for all students to wonder, to ponder, to look beyond themselves so they may continue to grow. Society needs to nourish and promote the teaching of liberal arts in our schools, not continually nibble away at the time and money spent on them, as liberal arts are both the keepers and harbingers of culture.

Many condemn our youths as materialistic, self- centered, and self-serving. If literature, writing, art, and music are removed from our schools, how much more entrenched will those characteristics become? The creative mind flourishes and grows, makes new inventions, finds new cures for disease, and reaches out to explore new realms.

The creativity of our young people must be nourished. One learns to think by playing with words, by interpreting what others have written, and by experimenting and solving problems with materials, colors, and textures. We are shortchanging our children and ourselves if we eliminate the fine and creative arts from our schools.

Elaine Bidstrup
St. Louis, Mo.

Cato Presenter Cites Error in Speech Report

To the Editor:

Your article “U.S. Faulted on School Policies in Muslim Nations,” (March 31, 2004), covering my Cato Institute presentation on U.S. policy toward education in the Muslim world, inaccurately reported one of my recommendations. I recommend that private U.S. donors and organizations provide partial tuition subsidies to students in private, fee-charging schools. I do not recommend that such funding be provided by U.S. government agencies, for reasons explained in my paper. (Note that total private U.S. giving to foreign countries is three times larger than official U.S. government foreign aid.)

The same article correctly describes my recommendation that the United States and other Western nations eliminate their trade barriers with developing countries, so that families in these nations will have more money to spend on effective, ideologically moderate, fee-charging schools.

Education consultant Andrea Rugh is quoted in your article as calling that second recommendation “remote and indirect,” “impractical,” and incapable of guaranteeing that the poor would benefit.

This is an interesting range of criticisms, and I only regret that Ms. Rugh did not seize the opportunity to raise them during my presentation, which she apparently attended. I also regret that Education Week did not ask for my comment on Ms. Rugh’s critique.

Those options gone, I will address Ms. Rugh here. First, trade liberalization is indeed an indirect means of helping the education and welfare of the poor, but it has the advantage of having actually worked in the past (my paper provides supporting citations on this point). That history of success is in contrast to the record of direct foreign-government aid, the kind which Ms. Rugh apparently advocates. A recent series of economic analyses published in the Cato Journal finds that direct foreign-government aid has had either no substantial effect or a modest negative effect on economic growth in developing countries over the past several generations.

As for guarantees, these simply do not exist in public policy. To expect them is specious.

Andrew J. Coulson
Senior Fellow in Education Policy
Mackinac Center for Public Policy
Midland, Mich.

Credentials Database: A Sex-Abuse Firewall?

To the Editor:

I read with great interest your article on sexual abuse and misconduct by educators (“Sexual Abuse by Educators Is Scrutinized,” March 10, 2004). Charol Shakeshaft, whose work you report, is to be commended for her studies on this important topic.

As the current president of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, I am acutely aware of the need for establishing and maintaining high ethical standards for all educators.

Since 1987, our organization has maintained a centralized reporting system designed to identify educators whose professional certificates/licenses have been revoked, suspended, or otherwise adversely affected. The system, called the NASDTEC Educator Identification Clearinghouse, is serving all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity schools, and schools in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, as well as in New Zealand, Guam, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa. Serving as a collection point for professional discipline data, the clearinghouse compiles this information and disseminates it to its members.

The organization’s professional-practices committee promotes proactive strategies for prevention of and accountability in dealing with educator offenses in every jurisdiction. For the past eight years, NASDTEC has sponsored a professional-practices institute designed to provide information, training, and resources on educator-misconduct issues.

The NASDTEC mission is to promote the implementation of a professional-practices infrastructure in every jurisdiction. This will help facilitate the effort to better identify and address incidents of educator misconduct across the educator continuum. When such incidents are identified and result in disciplinary action against an educator’s license, then we must assure that the information is properly maintained and shared with appropriate stakeholders across all boundaries, so that the potential for a repeated offense is eliminated.

It is my hope that the U.S. Department of Education, Ms. Shakeshaft, and all other interested stakeholders will join with NASDTEC to fulfill this mission.

Sam Swofford
National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification
Sacramento, Calif.

To Promote or Hold Back?

John Merrow’s Commentary (“Get Rid of Retention and Social Promotion,” March 31, 2004) says what informed educators and psychologists already know: Retention and social promotion are not the answers to the No Child Left Behind Act. In fact, these “solutions” decrease children’s learning.

Mr. Merrow points out that early education is conducted in age-segregated classrooms for the convenience of teachers, who then are to treat all 6-year-olds in the same manner. Every parent who has had more than one child, or observed the children of others, knows that all 6-year-olds are not the same. Yet our politicians have fashioned laws based on the premise that they all learn in the same way, at the same rate.

The solution proposed by Mr. Merrow is for teams of teachers to work together with groups of children of varying ages, using “ability grouping” to put together children of different ages who are at the same level of performance. Besides getting rid of social promotion and retention, however, we need to get rid of the term “ability grouping.” It implies that students of the same intelligence level are being placed together, but what Mr. Merrow is really proposing is performance-level grouping—the placing of students together whose present performance level is the same. This is a term that Robert H. Anderson and I advocated in our book, Nongradedness: Helping It to Happen (ScarecrowEducation, 1993).

In addition to the term “performance-level groups,” the terms “skill-development groups” and “achievement-level groups” are more accurate descriptors than ability grouping. These are not permanent groups, as students should be moved whenever their current performance level exceeds or drops below that of the assigned group. For that reason, it is best to make these groups for working on specific skills, and use group names to indicate those skills (for example, long vowels, main idea, or two-digit addition). During each school day, children will experience a variety of different groupings, as teachers plan the types and sizes of groups depending on the learning objectives.

I recommend some changes to Mr. Merrow’s plan to make it more workable and also more acceptable to the general public. For instance, students would start school in a school beginners’ unit for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, with a group of teachers. Once students had exhibited evidence of reading readiness, they would be moved to a primary unit composed of 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds, together with a group of teachers who would work with them to reach a “3rd grade” level. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that students in the 3rd grade be on level, and that testing begin at this time.

Teachers need to monitor progress to ensure that students move to the next group after achieving the agreed-upon performance level. This would get rid of both retention and social promotion. Research has shown that most students placed for three years in a nongraded or multiage primary unit emerge at the end of 3rd grade reading on grade level. By definition, there is no retention or social promotion within a nongraded unit.

The intermediate unit would consist of 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds, with students who reach a “6th grade” level of performance moved to the upper unit for 7th and 8th graders. There is a current movement to return to the K-8 elementary school as a solution of the middle school problems. Essentially, students in this multiage unit would remain in neighborhood elementary schools, closer to home for both parents and students. Once again, movement to the high school would depend on demonstrated performance. Individual students in the school’s beginners’, primary, intermediate, and upper units would not be identified by grade levels, and movement to the next unit would be based on performance. High schools would be more subject-oriented, with a small, “schools-within-a-school” organization, so that teachers in a school unit collaborate and students are not lost in the process.

Getting rid of retention, social promotion, age segregation, and the term “ability grouping” are essential to a rethinking of schooling. Teachers’ collaborating rather than working in isolated classrooms is another essential element. None of the components of this plan are new or untried. If the focus is on how children develop and learn, and our schooling structure facilitates that, more children should become successful learners.

Barbara Nelson Pavan
Emerita Professor of
Educational Leadership
Temple University
Philadelphia, Pa.

To the Editor:

The only problem with John Merrow’s Commentary is that it makes sense. Most of the difficulty in finding an education system better than our current one is changing the paradigm we live with.

Mr. Merrow’s radical concept is to combine ideas to formulate the best plan. He does not stick with one answer, but rather seeks multiple solutions.

I applaud him and hope his ideas make education leaders think and change their practices.

Gregory Steinbach
DeSisto School
Stockbridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing John Merrow’s Commentary on the failings of retention and social promotion, and the use of multiage groupings as a way to maximize learning without failure.

Though I am a supporter of multiage groupings, I believe we need to go further. Schools can and should be standards-based, but they need also to allow for the one variable that rarely seems to be discussed: time. Much has been said about the concept that “education is not a race but a journey.” But in our current K-12 system, a student who may need more than 13 years to succeed is at greater risk of failure.

One educator I spoke with recently said that in true standards-based programs, no one fails because everyone meets the standard. The obvious variable is time. Mr. Merrow cites the thoughts of John I. Goodlad on the added costs associated with retaining students in grade. I would add that the costs of not giving them the time they need for learning mastery are far greater, including unemployment, prison costs, and welfare. The necessary time must be provided, and in a way that respects how individuals develop, learn, and grow. Not everyone matures at the same speed.

Mark L. Taft
Academy School
Brattleboro, Vt.


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