Education Opinion


April 11, 2001 16 min read
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Title II: Sorting Out Teacher Diversity

To the Editor:

Thank you for your analysis of the “federal accountability system” being imposed on teacher education programs through Title II (“Ed. Schools Strain To File Report Cards,” March 28, 2001). This is yet another example of attempts by government agencies to quantify a complex and multifaceted process into a simple sorting-and-ranking system based on limited empirical data. This time it is being applied to the challenging task of preparing teachers for today’s culturally and linguistically diverse public school classrooms.

Let us take California’s teacher education programs as an example of the potential negative impact of this oversimplified “accountability” system on the future of the teaching force.

California’s credentialing program is a fifth year of postgraduate studies, sandwiched in between some 22 years of public school and higher education studies and new teachers’ public school assignments. As a result of recent legislation, our elementary school teacher- candidates must complete the Reading Instruction Competency Assessment to demonstrate their knowledge and skills for literacy instruction for our linguistically and culturally diverse student population. The RICA exam is as close as we come to any sort of standardized “exit exam” for our teacher candidates, although it is not required for secondary teaching credentials. The statewide pass rate in 1999-2000 was 93 percent.

Since this is the only piece of empirical data available to rank teacher-preparation programs, the RICA passing rates are being used under Title II to sort and categorize teacher education programs into quartiles, with the threat of being publicly embarrassed for falling into the lower range.

Here is the problem. From multiple administrations of RICA since its creation in 1998, we can see a pattern emerging. The most obvious statistic is that teacher-candidates who are second-language speakers of English and/or Hispanic tend to have a lower pass rate on the test. Therefore, when one examines the pass rates from programs around the state, it is no surprise to see that many programs with higher minority-student enrollments have lower pass rates.

There also seems to be a trend based on socioeconomic factors, as reflected in the admissions standards of the universities that correlate with RICA pass rates. Several of the elite University of California campuses, which have small teacher-preparation programs with very high admissions standards for their candidates, would appear to have the highest quality of teacher-preparation programs, if they are judged by their 100 percent RICA pass rates. But the California State University system campuses that produce the majority of new teachers will be ranked lower based on this criterion.

If teacher education programs in California are to be ranked on this basis under the Title II reporting system, we will inevitably be encouraged, even pressured, to compete or take measures to improve their rankings. Are we to emulate the admissions standards and exclusivity of the “successful” programs, which have achieved a 100 percent pass rate? Are we to abandon the goal of cultural and linguistic diversity in our teaching force to protect our ranking in the public eye? Must we now teach to the test, even though we believe it measures only a limited facet of what teachers must know and be able to do to teach our diverse students?

How is the Title II report card going to help us produce the numbers and the quality of teachers our society needs? The answer is that it will not. Title II is much like holding the automobile-factory workers who install the steering wheel responsible for the quality of the chassis and the motor when the final product rolls off the assembly line. Teacher-educators do not need yet another accountability system that distorts our purposes and thwarts our progress toward real education reform.

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

Superintendents Are Central to Change

To the Editor:

In our work with Comprehensive District Education Planning, or CDEP, across 150 pilot districts in New York state, we have discovered the central importance of the superintendent in systems change. Without it, the process is doomed from the start. We also have found the importance of “defragmenting” the system by dealing with it as a whole and by using data to seek root causes, rather than jumping to “solutions” through opinion and fads (many of which are merely patches over problems).

Your recent essay from the superintendents’ work group at Teachers College, Columbia University (“Implementing High Standards,” Commentary, March 28, 2001) represents much of the “best” thinking and experience regarding the role of the superintendent. Thanks for publishing it.

Paul G. Preuss
Frankfurt, N.Y.

‘Locating Difficulty’Is Part of Teaching

To the Editor:

Thank you for the piercing Commentary by Donna M. Marriott on her experience as a struggling student of college statistics, which she likened to the plight of the “at risk” public school student (“At-Risk Learners—An Insider’s Perspective,” Commentary, Feb. 21, 2001). Ms. Marriott spoke to the heart of the issue we face as educators, how to reach every student. She listed all the excuses that educators fall back on when a student is left behind: various versions of “the parents aren’t supportive,” or “the child’s brain is defective.”

Throughout Ms. Marriott’s essay, it is apparent that her trouble with statistics stemmed not from uncaring parents or a brain defect, but from gaps in her understanding of math. If her college professor were on the ball, she would have located the difficulty and would have helped arrange tutoring. But many teachers have trouble “locating the difficulty.” This is why they resort to blaming parents and children.

As a mother and an educator, I was faced with my own son’s educational difficulties a couple of years ago. In 7th grade, he was two years behind in spelling, grammar, and math. I was able to locate the gaps in his understanding with the help of a wonderful book called The Basic Study Manual (Applied Scholastics). I home-schooled him through 8th grade and caught him up to the point that he is now getting straight A’s in public school 9th grade, including in honors English and algebra.

I wasn’t an uncaring parent, and my son didn’t have a bad brain. But he had experienced a teaching deficit that I’m grateful has now been remedied. I applaud Donna M. Marriott for pointing out the obvious: The mission of teachers is to teach. If they aren’t able to teach a student, they need to locate the difficulty and remedy it.

If our schools of education are not equipping teachers to do this, then I say abandon accepted but unsuccessful doctrine and turn to research-proven techniques. These may include approaches, such as those I found in The Basic Study Manual, which while not widely accepted in the United States, yet yield research-proven results.

Alexandra Hopkins
Former Teacher and Curriculum Writer
North Hollywood, Calif.

District 2 Critique: No Ideology Involved

To the Editor:

I am flattered by the level of reply—from two former superintendents—to my critique of New York City’s Community School District 2’s practices with respect to its underprivileged children (“Progressivism’s Hidden Failure,” Commentary, Feb. 28, 2001; “Critiques of District 2 Are Seen as Baseless,” March 28, 2001). I must have hit a nerve.

First, I stand corrected on Public School 198’s reading scores: I failed to note that the results given in The New York Times on June 11, 2000, combined “the results of the city reading tests with a similar state test administered to 4th graders.” The results quoted by Elaine Fink and Anthony J. Alvarado were for the State English Language Arts test of February 2000 alone. PS 198’s record of improvement by both measures deserves great praise.

It should be noted, however, that, ethnicity aside, only 72 percent of PS 198’s students are now eligible for subsidized lunches, compared to several other district schools with much higher percentages of deprived students that show less shining results.

Hence my much-regretted error does not invalidate my general point as applied to all of District 2’s deprived schools. Ms. Fink and Mr. Alvarado speak favorably of PS 198’s adoption of the explicit phonics program, Open Court. In February 2000, I attended a Learning Leaders event to explain to its volunteers District 2’s Balanced Literacy program and had a short conversation with the speaker, the district’s then superintendent-to-be, Shelley Harwayne, on that very subject, an exchange that has stuck nearly verbatim in my mind.

Soon after coming to PS 198, I had heard that its remarkable recovery in reading scores had owed a great deal to its principal’s insisting on the introduction of Open Court in the early grades. Ms. Harwayne’s exposition of the district balanced-reading program included no such ingredient, however, and, instead, presented with great artistry the merits of the district’s system, denying the reality of any dichotomy between phonics and “whole language” methods and explaining how the district seamlessly combines them.

But I was curious about PS 198’s introduction of Open Court, and after the program, I asked her about it. She was visibly annoyed and replied quite forcefully, yes, it was introduced because that school seemed to need extra phonics, but it would never be allowed in any other district school.

Why not, when it apparently did PS 198 so much good? Now that the district’s former superintendents boast of its adoption, let us hope that full-fledged Open Court soon spreads districtwide, and that its methods are promptly integrated into the renowned district professional-development program.

Finally, how disappointing that such distinguished figures as Ms. Fink and Mr. Alvarado associate their critics with the politically charged terms “right” and “left.” This habit is one of the bugbears of the education scene, paralyzing thought and constructive debate. Not ideology but responsible mainstream experimental research governs the identification of “best practices” in medicine or engineering, where lives depend on getting it right. The same should be true of early education.

I am astonished that an unknown school volunteer’s criticisms of a mighty school district can evoke such a tornado of defensive response. It reminds me of the old tale of the child who announces that the emperor wears no clothes.

Louisa C. Spencer
New York, N.Y.

Parents’ Extra Costs

To the Editor:

Anthony J. Alvarado and Elaine Fink are obliged to defend New York City’s Community School District 2, which they left for San Diego. While District 2 does well in testing, parents are keenly aware that students’ needs are not being met. I’m glad to hear that Public School 198 gets Open Court, with a phonics bias, while the students in other schools don’t. Is that why my child has trouble with phonics and can’t spell, along with the rest of his classmates? (Or are they all “learning disabled”?)

And I find it interesting that, on the other hand, the district implements one type of math curriculum for all. Scores are above other districts’, but have fallen in recent years, as more and more students are versed in this one-size-fits-all curriculum.

What is more interesting is that schools like PS 6 and PS 234 have parents who do heavy tutoring to supplement the lack of content their children get, and yet the district benefits from this outlay of money. Why does District 2 look so good? Because parents pay for content that their children don’t get from the district. It’s cheaper than private school.

Denise Matava Haffenden
New York, N.Y.

High School and the SAT

To the Editor:

With University of California President Richard C. Atkinson’s proposal to drop the sat as an entrance requirement to that system’s campuses (“UC President Pitches Plan To End Use of SAT in Admissions,” Feb. 28, 2001), it may be time to delve further into the impact of having college acceptance as the purpose of our high schools.

I use the term “college acceptance” very specifically, since any activities, college or otherwise, that follow the college-acceptance process have little or no relevance for high schools. If they did, high schools would do follow-up studies of their students, which, by and large, they do not. If they did, high schools would be embarrassed that three out of 10 of their college-bound students never make it to the second year of college.

Why does the focus on college acceptance inhibit education reform? Let’s begin with the SAT. Any test must start from some body of learning—a curriculum. The curriculum from which the SAT is derived is in no way connected, as Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve, points out in your article, to the curriculum behind the high-stakes accountability exams being used in many states.

Why are they not connected? The College Board makes no claims, that I am aware of, that the SAT is anything more than a predictor of one’s potential as a college freshman. The assessment process is rudimentary and does not lend itself to more than rote learning and math answers (rather than process). One would expect that the curricula behind the high-stakes state exams are far more comprehensive, and that the assessment processes are much more thought-provoking. This would explain why the two tests are not connected.

As Mr. Gandal also points out, parents and students get mixed signals about state tests and the SAT. What parent is going to push for changes in the high school curriculum to more appropriately align it with the high-stakes testing, if he or she knows that the high-stakes curriculum is not aligned with the SAT?

Changing from the SAT curriculum and testing methodologies could actually cause the SAT scores to go down. What high school principal would be willing to take this chance and face the parents of the Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Stanford hopefuls? Where is the motivation to move the curriculum to a higher level?

There’s more. The high school credit, the Carnegie unit, is a college-prep device. In order to distinguish between high schools and colleges, the original Carnegie Commission defined what a high school was and what a high school student had to do to qualify for a bona fide college. High schools were to offer courses in the various disciplines. If a student spent an hour a day for each day of the school year in a discipline, he or she would earn one credit.

It was this process which cemented the single-discipline mentality of high school courses— one hour of English, one hour of social studies, and never the twain shall meet.

As you may have noted, the process defined time. There is nothing that guarantees any defined content for the time. Take English, for example. Ask 100 English teachers what a student must learn to pass English 11, and you will get 50 to 100 different answers.

The credit exists because it is a tool used by colleges to determine who will be accepted. It has no basis in specific content. This fact is bemoaned by many colleges that are required to offer remedial programs for students who have not learned the content the colleges thought was learned as part of earning the credit.

We now confound the problem with grades. We take a course with no standard definition, say Biology 2, and give it a grade. What teacher can define the learning behind the grade given by another teacher? What exactly does it mean when we report that a student received an 87 in Biology 2? It sounds very exact: 87 in Biology 2. In fact, 87 is a number no one can explain (most often, not even the teacher satisfactorily), which is being used to rate a student’s learning in a course in which no one other than the teacher can define the content that was taught.

Who uses grades? As has been noted in these pages previously, not businesses. Why would an employer want to know that a student earned a B in English 11, when there is no standard definition of either English 11 or a B? Who uses grades? Colleges. Grades are maintained for transcripts. Fortunately, colleges have very advanced mathematicians on staff. Who else could take X (the unknown content) and multiply it by Y (the unknown level of learning) and use the answer to make supposedly rational decisions about whom to accept for college?

We then carry this absurdity to another level. We take all of these grades and all of these credits and we develop a grade point average. Who cares about GPAs and class rank? Parents. Why? Because class rank is important in getting into a “good” college. Colleges like to brag about how many valedictorians and salutatorians they have applying. It’s important to be “at the top of the class.” It is so important that schools put weighted ranks in place, so that non-college-bound kids wouldn’t clutter up the upper levels of class placement. It is so important that top-level students will manipulate their course schedules to gain an advantage—not in learning, but in GPA.

Education reform at the high school level has been bedeviled by the notion that college acceptance is the terminal event in the lives of all high school students. Courses are taught so that students will do well on the SAT. Some courses are taught specifically for the SAT. This impedes movement into more thought-provoking content and assessment. Courses are taught for credits rather than content. Once a student determines he or she has been mathematically eliminated from earning the credit, all effort stops and discipline problems begin. What is being learned has no apparent value. All of the rewards, including graduation, are tied to the credits.

The same applies to grades: What is learned runs a distant second to the grade earned. Students, as well as parents, will fight tooth-and-nail for a grade. Have you ever heard anyone fight to know more about Milton or Burgoyne? As to class rank? It would be nice to think all of this competition to “learn” more than others would have some beneficial effect, like, perhaps, developing a love of learning. Sadly, it may be that the damage done in terms of stress, cheating, and the other negatives far outweighs any benefits of knowing who the first in the class is.

We really do need to reassess why we have high schools. Is the college- acceptance letter the be-all, end-all purpose of our high schools? Is there not something beyond that letter that might be worth preparing for? Should we prepare students to actually finish college? Should we prepare them for earning a livelihood (beginning preparation either in high school or in college)? Should we prepare students to participate in family units, to take part in their governments and social organizations, to enjoy the arts and leisure activities? Can we do all of these things, not because they’re college-prep programs, but because they’re what really happens after that college-acceptance letter does, or doesn’t, come?

John Dewey advised us to “relate the school to life.” Nowhere in Roget do life and “college-acceptance letter” share the same page.

Joseph H. Crowley
Chariho Career & Technical Center
Wood River Junction, R.I.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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