Education Commentary


March 24, 1999 13 min read

Governance Panel: Where Are Teachers?

To the Editor:

If it were not so foolish, it would be amusing to see yet another blue-ribbon committee established, this time to examine school governance (“ECS Convenes Group To Explore School Governance,” March 3, 1999).

There is the obligatory teachers’ union representative, but not one classroom teacher among the 18 politicians, business executives, superintendents, and high-profile education celebrities.

Could part of the problem of school governance be similar to the makeup of this committee--no meaningful teacher involvement?

Tedd Levy
Norwalk Public Schools
Norwalk, Conn.

Raise Expectations, Expect Low Scores

To the Editor:

In a recent letter, John E. Lensch alleges that “over 97 percent” of Virginia’s students failed the first round of the new Standards of Learning tests, a statistic he then uses as the foundation of his letter, in which he accuses the Virginia board of education of deliberately ignoring “common sense, reason, and what we know to be true” in setting the new, higher standards (“Testing ‘Snapshots': Base Evaluations on a Continuum of Scores,” Feb 24, 1999).

Here is one important thing we know to be true: Contrary to Mr. Lensch’s assertion, 97 percent of Virginia’s students did not fail the new tests. The truth is that on the 27 different SOL tests, the percentage of students who failed ranged from a low of 28 percent on high school English and high school biology to a high of 70 percent on high school U.S. history. On 19 of the 27 SOL tests, failure rates were less than 50 percent, and the average student-failure rate for all tests was 44 percent, not 97 percent.

In truth, the 97 percent figure Mr. Lensch uses is the percentage of Virginia schools that have not yet reached the accreditation criteria they will be required to meet in academic year 2006-07, which is seven years from now. Confusing this figure with the percentage of students passing the initial round of tests gives a greatly distorted picture of the Virginia test results.

The results were fully expected by the board of education, given Virginia students’ performance during the early and mid-1990s on other tests, both state and national, and given that we did, in fact, raise standards and expectations of both schools and students. When you raise expectations, you expect relatively low scores the first year, especially in subjects such as history, in which we have added much new material.

Reasonable people can disagree reasonably on Virginia’s ambitious, sweeping effort to raise standards. We on the Virginia board of education are open and more than willing to discuss our new standards with those who disagree with us. We have already made adjustments in the testing process based on valid concerns raised by educators such as Mr. Lensch, and we will make more in the future. But the debate about Virginia’s new standards must be informed by reason and facts, not conclusions based on gross factual errors. border="0">

Mark C. Christie
Virginia Board of Education
Richmond, Va.

Why Make Children Pay for Demagoguery?

To the Editor:

The push by state governors to end “social promotion” is just another sad example of crowd-pleaser school reform that will end up doing much more harm than good (“Texas Moves Ahead on Social-Promotion Curb,” March 3, 1999). This is really a policy of retention--flunking kids, if we call it by its real, rather than euphemistic, name. Which students are the ones who will be retained? We know already that such policies will disproportionately affect minority students. In states like California and Texas, with highly linguistically and culturally diverse student populations, language-minority students will be harmed the most. California, for example, has 25 percent of its total school-age population classified as limited in English proficiency.

In California, this is an especially cruel policy in light of the passage last June of Proposition 227, restricting bilingual education. The new law requires that English-language learners receive a one-year program of English instruction before being mainstreamed into regular classes. In other words, for at least one year, the focus of instruction must be on teaching these children language skills, with literacy and content learning taking a back seat. Then, the children will be expected to catch up in the content they missed out on while learning English, with English-language and literacy skills that are far from being fully developed. Then, if they don’t make two years of academic progress for every one year of instruction between grades 1 and 4, they face retention.

This accelerated academic progress must take place in classrooms where teachers are not required to have any specialized training whatsoever in teaching language-minority students and in programs designed with native English-speakers’ needs in mind, not theirs. These children have no guarantees of receiving appropriate instruction to address their language-development and content-area-learning deficits, either before or after being retained.

A recent study of achievement factors among Hispanic students conducted by researchers at the University of California, Santa Clara, found that students who were overage in high school due to retention and other factors were 80 percent more likely to drop out of school before graduation (Sociology of Education, 1998).

The drive for more grade-level retention is not a cure for a “cancer” in the schools, it is the cancer. Why make children pay the price for poor educational policies and political demagoguery that result in inadequate programs and gross educational inequities? Our society must not let politicians at the state and national levels get off the hook of “accountability” to minority communities that are negatively impacted by politically appealing but educationally unsound policies promoted out of the lawmakers’ ambition to secure votes.

Jill Kerper Mora
Assistant Professor of Teacher Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

School-Size Debate: 35 Years Unchanged

To the Editor:

I read with interest the recent Commentary by Andrew Rotherham (“When It Comes to School Size, Smaller Is Better,” Feb. 24, 1999). His arguments echo the research and arguments made in 1964 by Roger G. Barker and Paul V. Gump in their book Big School, Small School: High School Size and Student Behavior. In their study, there was a negative relationship between school size and individual participation in the school’s behavior settings. In the smaller schools, a higher percentage of students held positions of importance and responsibility, and they held these positions in more varied settings.

For these and other reasons, students in smaller schools reported greater satisfaction with respect to developing competence, to being challenged, and to achieving moral and cultural values. Students in smaller schools were more attracted to participation in extracurricular activities and settings. This was particularly true for at-risk students. Messrs. Barker and Gump concluded that “a school should be sufficiently small that all of its students are needed for its enterprises.” Mr. Rotherham’s Commentary seems to indicate that, 35 years later, our conclusions about school size should remain the same.

Al Pearson
Gustavus Adolphus College
St. Peter, Minn.

‘Virtues Don’t Spring From a Vacuum’

To the Editor:

Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin attempt to offer a solution to the character education dilemma by shifting vocabulary (“Values, Views, or Virtues?,” March 3, 1999). The dilemma encountered with values or viewpoint education, as the authors point out, is that both involve personal opinions about the underlying values, whether we are talking about general moral issues or current hot topics like abortion or gay rights.

Mr. Ryan and Ms. Bohlin propose that we shift our focus to the cultivation of virtues. They tell us that “views are simply intellectual positions, and values evoke neither a moral commitment nor the promise of leading a good life.” On the other hand, they say, “Virtues ... enable us to give shape to and lead worthy lives.” Virtues evoke “emotional responses” resulting in “good actions,” such as kindness and generosity, instead of stirring up trouble over controversial issues.

The authors, in effect, propose leading with the heart: Let’s try to develop virtues in children and sidestep the values and viewpoints controversies. I infer from their Commentary that the authors think good values and viewpoints will develop from the practice and attitudes of virtue.

Having previously considered the possibility of substituting “virtues” for “values” in discussions about character education, I concluded that virtues do not spring from a vacuum. Virtues are actually the fruit of values, not a substitute. If a child values honoring his parents, then he is more likely to develop the virtue of obedience to his parents. If he values knowledge, then he is likely to develop a virtue of diligence in his studies. If a child values truth, then he is likely to cultivate the virtue of honesty.

If we expect children to develop virtues as a precursor to or aside from values, then they will be required to draw upon some inner motivation by asking themselves questions like, “Why should I be kind to another child?” or “Why should I be diligent?” The only available answers for the “valueless” child will have to come from enlightened self-interest: for example, “If I’m nice to them, they will probably be nice to me.”

True virtue requires action beyond enlightened self-interest. The virtuous person is one who consistently does what is right even if there is personal cost involved. True virtue is motivated by values that are outside the child. Mr. Ryan and Ms. Bohlin are correct in stressing the hollowness of values and viewpoints without the exercise of virtue. But I think their attempt to sidestep values and viewpoints leaves us with nothing but emotional, wishful thinking.

Cathy Duffy
Westminster, Calif.

Volunteer Programs in Two States Touted

To the Editor:

I applaud Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio for his plan to challenge 20,000 volunteers to help children learn to read (“Ohio Governor Proposes Volunteer-Based Reading Plan,” Feb. 17, 1999). In Michigan, we have used a similar approach with the Alliance for Children’s Education initiative, or ace. The response from citizens, organizations, and businesses across the state has been powerful.

The alliance is a statewide effort by the Michigan board of education, the state department of education, and Gov. John Engler. The alliance calls on schools, businesses, and volunteers to help give children extra one-on-one attention and encouragement to become better students and contributing members of society. To build on the proven success of these programs, the alliance encourages districts and schools to begin or expand volunteer mentoring programs and enlist businesses to encourage employees to become volunteer tutors.

The program’s executive partners and participating schools begin by engaging a company or organization specializing in mentoring-tutorial efforts. One such organization, HOSTS (Help One Student to Succeed), has been particularly successful in engaging the business community because of its structure, training, and track record of academic results. HOSTS school partners include Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, K-Mart, Consumers Power, Steelcase, and Herman Miller. Many companies have actually purchased the HOSTS strategy for their partner schools. Kellogg’s chief executive officer, Arnold Langbo, initiated a program to assist Kellogg communities across America with the implementation of the HOSTS strategy.

During the 1997-98 school year, the average gain in Michigan for the students served by the ACE program was 2.5 years of reading-level growth. This is the result of more than 29,000 volunteers, who gave 663,000 hours of time to help schools help children.

While some may question whether Ohio can recruit 20,000 volunteers to help children, with a population 1.5 million larger than Michigan’s, that goal may actually be too small. Perhaps we can create another Michigan-Ohio rivalry that will generate as much interest as the football rivalry, but with everyone a winner, especially our children.

Michael R. Williamson
Assistant Superintendent
Michigan State Department of Education
Lansing, Mich.

Information on the Alliance for Children’s Education can be obtained by calling or writing Jan L. Ellis, Michigan Department of Education, Office of the Superintendent, PO Box 30008, Lansing, MI 48909; (517) 373-9391.

To the Editor:

Our experience in Delaware indicates that Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio’s efforts to promote volunteerism will dramatically accelerate student achievement.

It is relatively easy to recruit mentors. If you begin with the simple belief that all communities love and want to help their children, then plan a mentor-recruitment campaign based on that belief, the community will respond. The challenge, of course, is to ensure that the mentors will have the training, support, and infrastructure to take full advantage of their talent and commitment.

In the Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington (and over 60 percent of all Delaware districts), we use the HOSTS (Help One Student to Succeed) structured-mentoring strategy to provide the academic focus to our efforts. Gov. Thomas R. Carper and the state legislature have provided funding for HOSTS in the last four state budgets, and an independent evaluation shows that HOSTS students are averaging a two-year gain in reading in only seven months. In our 10 HOSTS sites, we averaged 2.5 NCE gains on the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test.

In Red Clay, we have over 1,300 mentors for our school population of 13,000 students, or a ratio of one mentor for every 10 students. The ratio is similar for the state, with almost 10,000 mentors for our state population of 100,000 students.

Robert J. Andrzejewski
Red Clay Consolidated School District
Wilmington, Del.

Phonics Method Has Its Own Imprecision

To the Editor:

Patrick Groff writes that the great debate between phonics and whole language centers on “whether precise word recognition is needed” by children learning to read (“Reading Story Told in Verbal Shorthand,” March 3, 1999).

As a matter of fact, the method he champions, phonics, is one of the most imprecise methods of recognizing written words imaginable. Phonics asks the child to identify an unknown written word by learning a sound for each letter and then pronouncing those sounds in sequence. But there is no way that this can lead to precise word identification because every word contains at least one of the five written vowels and 23 two-vowel combinations of English--none of which has any stable pronunciation. (There are 29 different associations between written vowel and spoken sound just in the last sentence of Mr. Groff’s letter: seven for “a"; five for “e"; three for “i"; one for “u"; one for “ou"; three for “ea"; one for “io"; one for “ow"; and one for “ee.”)

Faced with hundreds of different but perfectly legitimate vowel pronunciations in English, phonics generally “simplifies” things for the learner by teaching 10: a long and a short sound for each of the five vowels.

It is difficult to say which method confronts the student with more barriers to learning to read--whole language, which for the most part leaves him or her to get words by guess or by golly, unaided by letter sounds--or phonics, whose pronunciation rules for vowels are so inaccurate that memorizing them actually prevents the learner from arriving at the correct pronunciation (and identification) of more than half the words in any normally written paragraph or story.

Helen Bardeen Andrejevic
New York, N.Y.

Maine Reading Essay Draws More Kudos

To the Editor:

Kudos to you, Brenda Power, for taking a stand against the “Draconian reading reforms” of California (“Reading Reform: Lessons From Maine,” Jan. 20, 1999). I, too, am disgusted with the attention California receives.

Education Week: In the future, please feature long-range, positive reform efforts such as Maine’s.

Marie Alsop
Title I Program Director
Monongalia County School System
Morgantown, W.Va.

A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 1999 edition of Education Week as Letters