Education Letter to the Editor


February 07, 2001 11 min read
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An Analogy for the Purveyors of Rigor

To the Editor:

Your Quality Counts 2001 article titled “Finding the Right Mix,” (Jan. 11, 2001) lays out the current problems of the education wars in masterful fashion. It covers the progress that has been made as states accept more responsibility for improved learning; and it uncovers the misuse of tests and the present unfair effects of standards and test scores.

The article quotes Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve Inc., as saying that “we now run the risk of unfairness, in terms of this first wave of older students. I just think that’s an issue that states really need to pause and think through.” Although Mr. Schwartz may not speak for all the CEOs he represents, it’s refreshing to discover such a humane element among the purveyors of rigor.

As the worship of accountability moves forward under its banner of standards and tests, students in ill-supported schools, often from ill-supported families and sometimes with ill-prepared teachers, suffer the privilege of organized failure in their schools. That misfortune is seen by Achieve as powerful motivation to work harder in spite of inadequate schools and unmet needs in the lives of America’s poor families.

While efforts are now being made to help these handicapped schools, the problem is still widespread. Indeed, the requirement of standards and tests through “legislated learning” has been so rushed that a countermovement to standards and tests is gaining momentum. So Mr. Schwartz suggests that the states should “pause and think"—a concept that is in the right direction but inadequate to the situation.

Without major changes in the preparation, salaries, and working conditions of teachers, without decent lives for low-income Americans, without teacher involvement in defining the nature and use of tests, and without an ethos of purpose and support in each individual school, the race for high test scores alone will be self-defeating.

Back in the early 1990s, both governments and educators were committed to providing a “level playing field” before requiring improved academic performance. Enthusiasm for higher standards and high stakes tests, however, has been so dominant that many school districts find many students trapped into failing state-required tests, a condition that is most evident in schools serving the most needy children.

When we teach children to swim, we recognize that some learn quickly and that others require more time and attention from adults. Their encouragement and patience in shallow water builds confidence. Eventually, all of them learn to swim, some just well enough and others with hopes for the Olympics. These aspects of learning are dolefully absent from the current requirement of testing every youngster in the same way at the same time. Too many of them are confronted with tests they can’t understand, and they fail: an experience that destroys confidence. If swimming had been their purpose, they would have drowned.

My hope is that this analogy will help the states do something, rather than just pausing and thinking. The use of high-stakes testing is now without the control of judging the readiness of students to jump into the deep water.

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

Variable Staffing: A Recycled ‘60s Idea

To the Editor:

It’s unfortunate that none of the people connected with the Teacher Advancement Project (“Teacher Re-Creation,” Jan. 10, 2001), including those associated with the Arizona Department of Education, Harvard University, the Milken Family Foundation, and the Phoenix school district, expressed any awareness that this project appears to be a copy of an earlier effort. It would be helpful and important for this generation of reformers to have some understanding of what was happening in the 1960s and 1970s.

The “Differentiated Staffing Project” began at Stanford University in the late 1960s and later moved to the University of Massachusetts, when its creator, Dwight Allen, became the dean of the University of Massachusetts school of education. Some of the districts that operated differentiated- staffing programs included Temple City, Calif., the Timberlane (N.H.) Regional High School District, and the North Miami Beach (Fla.) Senior High School District.

Several models of variable-staffing patterns were developed, the most basic of which was the type described in your article. One major difference between then and now is that the original models were developed in order to create better environments to help kids learn. The Phoenix model apparently was developed to replicate business practices. Why would anyone really want to do that?

Ken Michaels
Wellington, Fla.

Morality: It’s More Caught Than Taught

To the Editor:

William A. Proefriedt bemoans the alleged absence of “religion and morality” in public schools (“Real Losses,” Commentary, Jan. 17, 2001). A few observations are in order.

Morality is more caught than taught. A properly run public school is an institution in which students absorb moral values from a good staff.

After the court-ordered removal of school-sponsored devotions in 1962-63, public school enrollment increased and nonpublic enrollment decreased, largely due to shrinkage of Roman Catholic schools after the demise of essentially Protestant religious exercises in public schools.

Teaching religion in schools was problematic in Horace Mann’s day—it was one of the reasons for the founding of Catholic schools—and is even more problematic today, even unconstitutional. Even teaching “about” religion is fraught with problems, given the complexities and difficulties of the subject, the inadequacy of teacher preparation and textbooks, the absence of agreement on what to teach, and the very real lack of serious public interest in education “about” religion.

Finally, there is no necessary connection between teaching religion in school and morality, as was shown in an Education Week article some years back, “Catholic Educators Surprised by Data on Student Values” (April 31, 1987).

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

Has Humanism Been Triumphant After All?

To the Editor:

William A. Proefriedt writes in “Real Losses,” (Jan. 17, 2001), “We secular humanists ought to recognize that with the long breaking of the connection between religion and public schools ... we have suffered a very real loss.” Who’s he kidding? Secular humanism has been the religion of the public schools for the past three decades.

In Humanism as the Next Step, American Humanist Association President Lloyd Morain and his wife wrote in 1954, “Humanism is the most rapidly growing religious movement in America today.” In the 1960s, when God and prayer were kicked out of the public schools, values were still taught. So who became the new moral authority for deciding what’s right and wrong? As the leading educator Theodore R. Sizer, writing with his wife in Five Lectures ... on Moral Education, said in 1970, “Moral autonomy ... is the ‘new morality’ toward which we are to guide ourselves and other people. ... Clearly the strict adherence to a ‘code’ is out of date.” Three years later, the Humanist Manifesto II declared: “Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction.”

H.J. Blackham, a founder of the 4 million-member International Humanist and Ethical Union, proclaimed, in The Humanist in 1981, that if schools teach dependence (in a moral sense) on one’s self, “they are more revolutionary than any conspiracy to overthrow the government.” He was absolutely right. A leading secular humanist, Paul Blanshard, noted in a 1976 article in that publication that the fact that “Johnny is in school until he is 16 tends to lead toward the elimination of religious superstition.” And another leading secular humanist, Sidney Hook, explained in the publication a year later that religious beliefs would be undermined “only by indirection, [by which] I mean the development of a critical attitude in all our educational institutions that will aim to make students less credulous to claims that transcend their reflective experience.”

The battle for what values Americans adopt has clearly been in the public schools, as John Dunphy said in a prize-winning essay in The Humanist in 1983: “The battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom ... between the rotting corpse of Christianity ... and the new faith of humanism. ... [H]umanism will emerge triumphant.”

Has it emerged triumphant? Not long ago, the Josephson Institute of Ethics polled more than 20,000 middle and high school students and found that an amazing 47 percent acknowledged that they had stolen something from a store in the past 72 months. Do public school teachers and secular humanists tell students to steal? Absolutely not. But they do say the student is an autonomous moral decisionmaker who should make up his own mind about what is right or wrong based on the situation.

This could lead some students to say, “Most of the time I don’t steal, but that store owner ripped me off on the price of a sweater, so in this situation I didn’t see anything wrong with shoplifting something from him.”

D. L. Cuddy
Raleigh, N.C.

The writer is a retired teacher and university professor who also served in the U.S. Department of Education.

The Semantics of ‘No Child Left Behind’

To the Editor:

Educrats are adept at semantics, and the public needs to beware. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Rod Paige, the new U.S. secretary of education, used a phrase of President Bush’s often, a promise to “leave no child behind.” But how accurate is that claim in Texas?

As you reported last spring in the front-page story “Testing System in Texas Yet To Get Final Grade,” (May 31, 2000), “Almost everyone agrees that the numbers of Texas students who stay back in 9th grade are peculiarly high. ... The timing of what is sometimes called the ‘9th grade pileup’ is significant because students take the high school exit tests in 10th grade.” The article adds that research shows “repeating a grade is the single biggest predictor of whether a student will drop out.” Texas dropout rates are among the nation’s worst. Further, as you report, “Texas scores [on the SAT] remained flat over the last decade.”

To this savvy parent and teacher, such facts suggest that both low-achieving and high-achieving Texas students are indeed being left behind. So what do President Bush and Secretary Paige mean with their promise to leave no child behind? Perhaps high-school-age students are not considered children?

I believe Mr. Paige used semantics to evade questioning by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D- Minn. I was watching the hearings when the senator prodded Mr. Paige on the issue of high-stakes testing and how federal funding might be dependent on such testing. Sen. Wellstone wanted assurances that no single test would be used to determine a student’s ability to go forward or to earn a diploma. In other words, that “multiple measures” would be used.

Mr. Paige replied: “I do agree that one test offers very little information. You need multiple tests. ... My basic principle is to ask those who benefit from federal funds [to show results]” (“Speedy Confirmation Expected for Paige,” Jan. 17, 2001). He added that “there is room for discussion about what results means.”

Yes, indeed, and what does “multiple measures” mean? Your front-page story “Test Debate: What Counts as Multiple?,” (Jan. 10, 2001) cites Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, “the bible of test development and usage,” for the concept that high-stakes decisions “should not be made on the basis of a single test score.” Your article then posits that “what is meant by a ‘single test score’ and by ‘multiple measures’ of performance is far from clear.” Yet, “such distinctions can make a crucial difference in the futures of hundreds of thousands of students,” you conclude. Could that mean they might be left behind?

Ann Smisko, a member of the curriculum and assessment branch of the Texas state education agency, notes that students must pass all portions of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, but have many chances to retake the test. “That is our definition of multiple measures,” she explained to Education Week. “We give kids at least eight tries on this test before scheduled graduation, and kids and young adults can continue to have opportunities to take and pass the test some other time.”

The opposing view, given by Scott R. Palmer, the deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, is that multiple chances to retake an exam and multiple measures of performance are not the same. “I think it’s pretty clear that these are different things,” he said. The University of Colorado educator Lorrie A. Shepard asks: “If students failed the test twice, would there be some other way that they could prove that they had the competencies? And, if not, states really are not using multiple measures.”

I submit that Sen.Wellstone was fooled by semantics; that Rod Paige’s assurances of using multiple measures relied on his narrow interpretation of that phrase. Mr. Paige’s view seems out of sync with policies of the Education Department’s office for civil rights. I predict that growing numbers of America’s schoolchildren will indeed be left behind, as strict accountability becomes the nation’s new education mantra.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Board of Education
Willard, Ohio

Fla. Online Student Isn’t a Cheerleader

To the Editor:

I just wanted to let you know that your article on Florida High School (“Cyber Learning at Online High,”On Assignment, Jan. 24, 2001) said that I was a cheerleader, but I am not. I play volleyball and basketball.

Melissa Sutton
Belle Isle, Fla.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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