Education Letter to the Editor


March 14, 2001 11 min read
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Debating Florida’s ‘Voucher Effect’

To the Editor:

Florida has an accountability system whereby failing schools are given grades of F and, if they do not improve, their students become eligible for vouchers. In your article “Study Finds ‘Voucher Effect’ in Fla. Test Gains,” (Feb. 21, 2001), you report that pro-voucher researcher Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute attributes the improvement of 76 failing schools in Florida solely to the threat of vouchers. How he can distinguish the effect of the voucher threat from the effect of being designated as a failing school escapes me.

North Carolina has a state accountability system that is similar to Florida’s, in that low-performing schools are publicly identified as failing. Similar to the pattern in Florida, the number of schools designated as low-performing fell from 125 the first year to 15 the second year. Since North Carolina has no voucher program, its pattern of improvement clearly had nothing to do with vouchers. Instead, it reflected school responses to the shame of being labeled a failure, increased scrutiny, and intervention from state assistance teams.

Given that similar factors are at work in Florida’s accountability system, I suspect that most, if not all, of the improvements in school performance in that state are attributable to the state’s administered accountability system, not its voucher program.

Helen F. Ladd
Professor of Public Policy Studies and Economics
Sanford Institute of Public Policy
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

A ‘Flunking Effect’?

To the Editor:

I wish I had the confidence exhibited by the authors of the Manhattan Institute-sponsored study (“Study Finds ‘Voucher Effect’ in Fla. Test Gains,” Feb. 21, 2001) that student achievement in low- achieving Florida schools has actually improved (and that the threat of vouchers motivated this improvement).

Without getting too technical, I would note that the design of the study ignored a research-design recommendation my colleague Anne McGill-Franzen and I made almost a decade ago. When looking for the effects of high-stakes testing (or vouchers or other reforms), researchers cannot ignore the impact that flunking kids has on reported achievement levels.

This is especially true in short-term studies like the Manhattan Institute study. Flunking low-achieving students simply removes those students from the grade-level cohort tested the following year. This has the effect of artificially raising the achievement reported for each grade level. When we examined the flunking patterns of schools reporting rising achievement after the implementation of a school grading scheme, we found that the reported achievement gains were due to increased levels of flunking.

In other words, student achievement in the low-achieving schools we studied did not actually improve, even though the average test scores reported to the state did improve. Had the authors of the study you reported on adequately addressed this issue, I would find their report more credible. Their failure to do so suggests that either they have little relevant experience in designing such studies, or the research was intended to produce the results reported.

Richard Allington
University of Florida
Gainesville, Fla.

Online Information, Minnesota Pay Plans

To the Editor:

Your Feb. 21, 2001, article “Lawmakers Plunge Into Teacher Pay” makes several references to Minnesota’s ideas about alternative compensation, fashioned, we hope, to attract and retain the brightest and best to the teaching profession.

Minneapolis is, to the best of our knowledge, the only district in the state to have a plan anything like ready to go. Your readers may wish to see some of the planning, and can do so by referring to the information through our releases page at our World Wide Web site: www.mft59.org/docs/relea ses/releases.html.

The key articles are the ones specifically about the Continuous Improvement Compensation Plan, or CIC.

Jay Ritterson
Minneapolis, Minn.

‘Freak Dancing': A Craze With a History

To the Editor:

I believe your article on “freak dancing” (“‘Freak Dancing’ Craze Generates Friction, Fears,” Feb. 28, 2001) has been published at least 10 years too late. Although the behavior you describe as freak dancing was not popular at my middle school, when I entered high school in 1989, it was common at dances, parties, and other places students got together. The only difference now, it seems, is that the craze is hitting the suburban and parochial schools.

At Centennial High School in Columbus, Ohio, our chaperones were fairly strict about how close and in what positions the dancers were. I think that was the best way to control the grinding (as we called it then), at least at the dances. Still, I never viewed it as a sexual act. The dancing was an opportunity to express oneself and to attract the attention of the surrounding crowd.

Although I “grinded” on numerous friends, males and females alike, sexual intercourse never played a part in the action (nor resulted later in the evening). In fact, I always found slow dancing to be more intimate than continuously thrusting my hips into somebody else.

My suggestion: Teach students about respect and self-concept, so that the bumping-and-grinding that is inevitable will not have the negative effects implied in the article.

Katie E. Wentz
Edinboro, Pa.

Cyberspace Program Is Systemwide Effort

To the Editor:

In your recent article “Teacher-Training Programs Turn To Cyberspace,” (Commentary, Feb. 14, 2001), you identified Kym Cochran as a student enrolled in an online teacher-preparation program through California State University-Fresno.

In point of fact, Ms. Cochran is enrolled in CalStateTEACH, a California State University systemwide program. While CSU-Fresno is one of five regional centers that support the program, CalStateTEACH is administered statewide by the CSU chancellor’s office. California State University is a 23-campus system.

Students in the CalStateTEACH program use customized print materials, CD-ROMs, and videos. They also enjoy significant personal attention from learning-support faculty members and on-site mentors. Faculty members visit students personally and provide critical feedback. Students also attend five Saturday seminars during the course of the program.

On behalf of CalStateTEACH, I commend you for your attention to the important issue of teacher preparation and your positive portrayal of Ms. Cochran’s experience. Readers can find more information about CalStateTEACH by calling (877) 225-7828 or visiting www.calstateteach.net.

Joanna Dee Servatius
Director, CalStateTEACH
Office of the Chancellor
California State University
Long Beach, Calif.

Science, Math Woes Are Tied to Standards

To the Editor:

Arthur Eisenkraft, the president of the National Science Teachers Association, presented an excellent outline of the steps needed to create systemic change in the way our education system presents math and science (“Rating Science and Math,” Commentary, Feb. 14, 2001). But he overlooks one important issue: The standards-based assessment being touted as the solution to the problem continues to require that our math curriculum be “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Recently, I asked our elementary math teachers to compare our curriculum and our math series to the New Jersey mathematics framework. The goal was to eliminate all of the extraneous topics not considered important enough to be included in the New Jersey math assessments. But the result was that almost no topics were eliminated.

So our curriculum continues to be “a mile wide and an inch deep” because that reflects what is on the state of New Jersey’s 4th, 8th, and 11th grade math assessments.

We have been told that the state assessments, especially in the area of math, follow the national standards set by organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the NSTA. If these organizations’ leaders can’t decide what should, and what should not, be included, I suggest they look at what is being taught in the curricula of those countries with which we are always being compared.

James DiRenzo
Byram, N.J.

Booting the Dodge Ball

To the Editor:

Ban dodge ball for promoting violence and maintain funding for football? Duh. (“Dodge Ball Takes a Drubbing in Several School Districts,” Feb. 21, 2001.)

What’s required is an approach to activities that modifies them to: reduce danger, promote healthy, inclusive action, and offer advantages to those who employ strategic logic.

You have only to watch the Japan National Dodge Ball Finals to realize that the American version of the game is just that: a version.

Mike McClain
Okinawa, Japan

To the Editor:

Should we teach dodging skills to children? Certainly. Can we use three-person dodge ball? Probably. Are there other ways to teach dodging? Yes. Will some children love to play dodge ball during recess? Yes. But does it have an educational purpose for all children? Probably not.

There are groups of children who, in a game of dodge ball, learn only that they can be a bully or a target of bullies. The children who feel picked on and ridiculed are often the ones who are eliminated first in dodge ball. Teachers should not have to teach dodge ball. Nor, if they can use dodge ball in a developmentally appropriate manner, should they be barred from using it.

The bottom line is that there should be a specific reason to have this game in the schools.

Michael Dumin
Radford University
Radford, Va.

To the Editor:

I do not play dodge ball now. But when I did, I have to say, it was enjoyed by all. No one sat out, balls were so lightweight that you couldn’t tell when they hit you, and there was movement all the time. We never played the same form of dodge ball more than two days in a row.

My question is this: Are children not human targets as goalies in soccer or hockey? It all goes back to whether specialists use improper equipment, play the game too often, and don’t use it as a teaching tool for skills and fitness. The best approach is professionalism, common sense, and remembering to keep the kids’ best interests in mind.

Carmen J. Bachmeier
Burlington-Deslacs Elementary
Burlington, N.D.

To the Editor:

I guess dodge ball is the root cause of all the violence we have in this country. It must be physical education teachers’ fault, for allowing dodge ball to happen through the years.

My physical education classes play non- elimination dodge ball with gator-skin balls, and the game was voted the third most popular in the school. (Out of 653 students, dodge ball got 603 votes.) As for liability, there is not an activity we do in which some risk is not involved. Every physical education teacher can be liable.

We need to be more concerned about large gym classes, facility problems, and equipment needs.

Larry Barbour
Dallas, Texas

To the Editor:

Most of the quotes in your article on dodge ball missed several important points. First, in this day and age, when school violence is so prevalent, why would any physical educator or recreator want to promote a game that involves throwing objects at people? There is not another sport that involves dodging objects that are hurled at you purposely. Why don’t we just teach how not to miss your target when engaged in a drive-by shooting?

Good physical educators are so busy teaching and enforcing appropriate social skills (the ones so many parents neglect to teach their children) with cooperative activities, that they would not even consider having their students play a game like dodge ball. These same physical educators are also busy teaching children how to get fit and stay fit for a lifetime. They are busy teaching them the movement skills they need to learn for participation in a host of lifetime sports, so they can enjoy a life filled with physical activity.

It is only the lazy physical educators and those who have no idea what the word “professionalism” entails who are still playing the traditional version of dodge ball in their classes. Professionals attend conferences regularly, read journals, and stay in tune with the latest in terms of what is best for the children they teach. Professionals dumped traditional dodge ball in physical education classes years ago.

Robin D. Reese
California State University
Sacramento, Calif.

To the Editor:

Actually, in Malawi, Africa, where I come from, we call dodge ball a different name, Mahanaim. We found out that our Mahanaim resembles a type of ball played in Israel. (Incidentally, we have developed a local name for it. We call it “Phada.”) It is a treat to a lot of students. They love it. We use a cloth type of ball, but other teachers use the regular ball. Among the skills used are dodging (hence the name here), catching, throwing, aiming, and so forth.

I think we need dodge ball in our schools. After all, in real life, children will face all those things we want them to avoid in dodge ball. Dodge ball, go forward!

Mark Tembo
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Va.

To the Editor:

Dodge ball and variations of it can be invaluable, with inclusion of all types of students. It is up to the teacher to make sure there is short-term elimination, use of safe balls, and participation by inactive students.

The biggest liability, with gator-skin balls, is students’ hurting their arms from throwing too hard.

We play dodge ball only once or twice a month, and the students are begging for it. Usually, it is a choice between dodge ball and some other activity, and dodge ball is the choice of from 80 percent to 90 percent of the two classes we run at the same time.

Our students who do not throw well still love the game we play, because we have allowances built in. Any creative teacher can make dodge ball useful and fun.

We have over 40 variations of throwing games using the gator-skin balls. We have each game written up in a lesson plan and have even thought of putting a book together for safe and active dodge-ball games for 5th through 8th grades. After your article, and comments from scholars who apparently have not been in middle school classrooms as instructors, we are more inclined to do just that.

On paper and in theory, dodge ball doesn’t seem that great an idea. But to the vast majority of students, it is simply fun.

Patrick Wilson
Englewood, Colo.

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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