Education Opinion


September 05, 2001 17 min read
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Memphis Reform: A Failed Hodgepodge

To the Editor:

If ever anyone needed to make the case for vouchers, charters, or other alternatives in education, I suggest that they read your excellent article on the elimination in Memphis, Tenn., of whole-school reform (“Memphis Scraps Redesign Models in All Its Schools,” July 11, 2001). As an educator, I am embarrassed and appalled at the total lack of focus and direction, from inception to elimination, that characterizes this flawed experiment with our children.

To begin with, no fewer than 16 different models were instituted. Apparently, we have so little confidence in our knowledge of appropriate content and teaching methodology that we have to constantly invent “new” and “different” approaches with catchy names and titles. State and national standards are insufficient; research on teaching and learning, inadequate.

Complicating the matter further, the two superintendents, present and former, hold totally different views of the benefits of the reforms: One says they don’t work, and the other advises they have had permanent, positive effects on the culture and attitudes of the staff. Educational researchers, instead of clarifying the matter, add to the confusion, providing conflicting reports—with data showing both significant progress and inconsequential gains (and some losses).

Is there a solution to this hodgepodge of educationalese? I submit that there most certainly is: We know what content and skills students need to learn, and that teaching strategies need to be appropriate to the student population. Instead of spending millions of dollars and turning systems upside down with the whole- school reform, I recommend that we hire highly qualified teachers with solid academic backgrounds, particularly in English, science, and mathematics, who understand their disciplines and use strategies that enable students to learn essential key concepts and skills.

With a cadre of these highly skilled instructors, we will accomplish more than all the different reforms often being presented as “the” best solution to low student achievement.

Joseph M. Appel
Retired Superintendent
Clinton, N.J.

Teacher Induction, Louisiana-Style

To the Editor:

Congratulations for running Harry K. Wong’s informative essay on teacher-induction programs (“Mentoring Can’t Do It All,” Commentary, Aug. 8, 2001). In publishing it, you are definitely on the right track in educating the public about induction and its tremendous benefits for the new teachers entering the field.

Our school district, the Lafourche Parish schools in Thibodaux, La., was mentioned in the essay. I am the director of the induction program the author cites—a program that has literally turned our entire school system around. Mr. Wong writes that the state of Louisiana is “considering” adopting Lafourche’s FIRST program as a statewide model.

You may be interested to know that the state has recently adopted the program as its model, and that every district in the state has begun receiving training on induction practices. The effort is called Louisiana FIRST (for Framework for Inducting, Retaining, and Supporting Teachers), and the state department of education has published a document on the induction component.

Readers can access this information on the Internet at http://ww w.doe.state.la.us/DOE/OQE/certification/LAFirst_r1.pdf (Louisiana FIRST).

Annette Breaux
Lafourche Parish Schools
Thibodaux, La.

Flaws in Florida’s Voucher Program

To the Editor:

The article on Florida vouchers for students with disabilities missed two interesting features of the program (“Florida’s ‘Other’ Voucher Program Taking Off,” Aug. 8, 2001). First, students do not have to attend special education classes. They could use the voucher for regular school education. Parents might push the limits of the definition of “disability” to get their children into the program.

Second, the voucher program allows “topping up,” whereby parents can add family money to pay tuition to expensive schools. This could be the model that opens the way to vast inequality in voucher-supported private education in the future.

Terry M. Moe, in his book Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public, argues that 85 percent of Americans oppose topping-up. But the Florida disabilities voucher program—which may become the largest voucher program in the nation—has it.

Brian Peterson
Associate Professor of History
Florida International University
Miami, Fla.

Urban Teacher Gap Should Be a Priority

To the Editor:

Four articles in your Aug. 8, 2001, issue caught my attention. You note in a front-page story that while math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have increased, the gap between white students and their African-American and Hispanic classmates has not narrowed (“Math NAEP Delivers Some Good News”). Julian Weissglass, in a Commentary, continues this theme (“Racism and the Achievement Gap”).

A third article reports that, as a result of white flight to the suburbs, urban schools grew more segregated during the past decade (“Schools Grew More Segregated in 1990s, Report Says”). And finally, Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is reported to have advocated universal preschool (“AFT Leader Calls for Universal Preschool”).

Over the years, I have watched as many talented New York City teachers were recruited by suburban districts offering better pay and environments more conducive to learning. As a result, the city’s schools must recruit inexperienced and often uncertified teachers.

If we implement universal preschool, suburban districts will need to hire more teachers, and will undoubtedly turn to urban schools to find them. The teacher shortage in the urban schools thus will intensify. That will contribute to white flight, as well as the flight of many of the best minority students. And the achievement gap between white and minority students will remain the same, or perhaps grow larger. This, to me, is racism.

Universal preschool is a good idea, but one whose time has not yet come. We need first to recruit sufficient numbers of teachers to enable urban districts to find qualified and certified teachers for every classroom. Then we need to have the national will to increase educational funding, so that urban districts can afford to retain the teachers they have. Only then can we consider universal preschool.

Stephen J. Denig
Assistant Professor of Educational Administration
St. John’s University
New York, N.Y.

Boredom and the Impact of Maturity

To the Editor:

I see two primary areas of concern with Ron Rude’s essay “Isn’t That Interesting!” (Commentary, Aug. 8, 2001). One is that he does not seem to factor age or developmental level into his analysis. I would maintain that the ability to learn despite a lack of interest is definitely a function of maturity. Thus, what should be expected of the school in terms of “making it interesting”’ differs greatly in the early-elementary years from what is expected in the high school years.

Expecting 5-year-olds to attend for significant periods of time to material they find uninteresting is pointless, while expecting the same out of near-adult high school students seems more reasonable. The transition between the two states is a gradual one, with different kids advancing at different rates. Even as an adult, I learn new material much more easily if it is presented in an interesting manner. But yes, I can put up with a dry delivery.

The point is that boredom tolerance should be viewed as an adult skill, not to be generally expected of young children.

My second problem with the essay is this: “Boring” seems to mean somewhat different things to Mr. Rude than it does in our household. He seems to be equating boredom with material that is either delivered in an uninspiring manner or takes effort to master. What I see my kids labeling as boring is endless repetition of material they mastered years ago. That’s also pretty much what I recall labeling as “boring” during my own student years.

Mr. Rude’s term-paper assignments might have been considered onerous, but they wouldn’t have been called boring in this construction of the term.

Often material that is much too difficult for the learner, as well as material that is too easy because it repeats what he or she already knows, tends to get labeled “boring.” It seems to me that schools could pretty easily get away from this problem if they stopped using age as the main criterion for instructional grouping.

Trindel Maine
Palmdale, Calif.

Disclaimer Urged for Letter Writer

To the Editor:

Mike Schmoker begins his letter “Puzzled by Critical ‘Bell Curve’ Letters” (Aug. 8, 2001): “Bravo to Douglas B. Reeves ... " and continues in a laudatory fashion. From the letter, one would not find any hint that Mr. Schmoker even knows Mr. Reeves. In fact, though, he is a part of the Center for Performance Assessment, which Mr. Reeves runs.

An honest letter would have disclosed this relationship.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

Why Go to France for Preschool Ideas?

To the Editor:

The article “Preschool Perspective, En Français” (On Assignment, July 11, 2001) does a nice job describing the French crèche program and the American delegation of early-childhood advocates’ response to what they saw as they looked for practices that could be adapted to fit the American model. I was especially interested in the delegation’s comments, and found many parallels with another educational model often overlooked.

There is a comprehensive model for early-childhood education that recognizes the early-childhood years as a distinct and important period, one in which children are respected joyfully and provided carefully prepared environments in which to learn and not be pushed. This model is replicated successfully around the world and has been adapted to the American culture. It can be seen without traveling to another country, because many examples of it exist in American communities today: Montessori.

Much of what was presented in your article as positive aspects of the French crèche and preschool programs are integral aspects of good Montessori infant and toddler and preschool programs:

  • Well-trained and educated teachers, many with college degrees, plus one to two additional years of specialized training for a particular age group.
  • Teacher-preparation classes that emphasize child development and how to observe a child, then match his or her developmental needs to corresponding activities.
  • Child-size environments with developmentally appropriate materials and activities.
  • Environments designed for children to move and learn using their senses.
  • Lessons that have clear educational purposes—based on a child’s developmental characteristics, need, level, and interest.
  • Dedicated time for children to explore activities without interruption.
  • Positive parent-school communication, with a relationship established to support the child’s development.

Montessori education also effectively addresses some of the problems the article noted with the French crèche and preschool programs:

  • Individual attention, with individual and small-group activities emphasized, not large groups.
  • Specialized teacher training for each developmental level.
  • A philosophy that recognizes and values cultural diversity, promoting cross-cultural understanding.
  • Success in inner-city programs, public and private, through establishing strong positive relationships with parents and community leaders.

As American educators grapple with ways to improve preschool education in this country, they may want to look around in their own backyards, and visit several good Montessori infant and toddler and preschool programs. They may be pleasantly surprised by what they see.

Cheryl M. Smith
Director of Professional Services
American Montessori Society
Boone, N.C.

NAEP Delay: ‘A Threat to the Civic Mission of the Schools’

To the Editor:

Education in civics and government is a central purpose of education, essential to the well-being of American democracy. Currently, the best way we have to determine how well we are educating the next generation of citizens is through the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment in civics. It was a long 10 years between the most recent of these indicators, from 1988 until 1998. Now comes word that the National Assessment Governing Board (chartered by Congress to oversee naep) has voted to delay the next scheduled assessment in civics from 2003 until 2005 (“NAGB Delays Civics Test as Possible Other Testing Strains Budget,” July 11, 2001).

While a delay of two years may not seem significant, the fast pace of change in standards, assessments, and education reform makes such a delay a threat to the civic mission of the schools. Since the last NAEP civics report card in 1998, 18 states have adopted state standards with civic education content, and seven states have revised, or are in the process of revising, standards with civics content. Without an assessment in 2003, we will have to wait two to three critical years to learn, through the NAEP results, whether or not those newly implemented state standards have improved student performance in civics and government education.

I appreciate the governing board’s concern about the preparation involved in initiating the annual assessments in math and reading called for by the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative. The problem, according to the governing board, is a matter of resources. Rather than delay the scheduled 2003 NAEP civics assessment, the board and the U.S. Department of Education should either reallocate resources to accomplish both efforts or make the case to Congress to do so.

Equally troubling, the decision to delay the civics assessment is yet another sobering example of the devaluation of the need for civics and government education. Civics is a subject on par in importance with math, science, and reading. Since the earliest days of the nation, our Founders recognized the civic mission of schools: to prepare informed, rational, humane, and participating citizens committed to the values and principles of American constitutional democracy.

The civic mission of our nation’s schools was reaffirmed in the national education goals included in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994:

“Goal 3 Student Achievement and Citizenship ... [A]ll students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including ... civics and government ... so that they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment. ... All students will be involved in activities that promote and demonstrate ... good citizenship, community service, and personal responsibility.”

While most states have adopted standards with some form of civic education content, few have done so adequately. Likewise, few states have paid the necessary attention to curricular requirements, assessments, teacher preparation, and continuing education. All are necessary elements of an effective approach to civic education.

The reality today is that if a subject is not assessed, it receives less attention in the classroom. The 1998 NAEP civics assessment revealed that only 26 percent of high school seniors reached what NAEP defined as the proficient level, meaning that they had a good understanding of how governments work and the ability to apply what they learned to concrete situations. This is a standard of performance all students should attain for the schools to meet their civic mission. Is it really wise to wait five years, nearly half of a student’s school career, to learn if we have improved or, perhaps, done worse?

What message is sent to teachers, students, and the general public by less frequent civics assessment? It is a message that civics matters less, which is ultimately contrary to our nation’s commitment to its civic ideals. I urge all parties involved to work to ensure timely assessment of civics.

Charles N. Quigley
Executive Director
Center for Civic Education
Los Angeles, Calif.

Support for Change: We Need More Than Pontification and Penalties

To the Editor:

Marianne B. Cinaglia makes an observant and necessary point in “Riding the Reform Rapids” (Commentary, Aug. 8, 2001). I now have this quote from her essay on the wall of my cubicle here at Indiana University: “Because most teachers believe they are performing satisfactorily considering the milieu in which their particular schools function, the chances for change are minimal unless attitudes about what is important shift.”

The standards debate and other school reform initiatives that are receiving so much attention in the press need to be informed by this point. When the educational establishment stands up and says, “We are going to change our product and improve its quality,” someone else has to stand up and say, “Wait, doesn’t that mean that we have to change our processes?”

The standards movement does not stand a chance of success if standardized testing is going to be the measure of success. A change as necessary as improving the quality of education needs to be supported by more than pontification and stiff penalties. Teachers need tools to support the process of helping each child to master a rigorous set of skills called for in the standards. Teachers need to be treated as professionals who have valuable professional opinions about how best to present the content of the standards. Teachers need to be expected to assess progress toward the standards and benchmarks. Teachers need to be supported in this assessment effort so that each child can be helped to an accurate understanding of what he can or cannot do.

As Ms. Cinaglia points out, “attitudes about what is important” need to shift before we can expect real change. Until teachers are supported in helping each child understand what it is he can or cannot do, the rhetoric about standards and turning out world- class students will remain empty blather about an unattainable goal.

John Keller
Bloomington, Ind.

To the Editor:

Marianne B. Cinaglia’s analysis is a step toward insightful understanding of why the university has only a marginal effect on teaching practice. But it falls short. First, she is mistaken about the “goal” of our present school reform. She says it is to “educate productive citizens for the 21st-century economy.” Who says? Big business? Why does big business get to make this decision? Are there no other goals for education?

Second, she is right that change will be slow in education but not for the reason she states. It’s not that teachers are so difficult to change—her example of the jovial 30- year teacher who modeled his career on his predecessor’s is extraordinarily weak—but that teachers have the final responsibility to educate students and can’t go chasing after every new theory that flies out of the university.

Ms. Cinaglia must surely recognize that many of her colleagues’ theories—serious and important at the time that they were proclaimed—have landed on the junk pile of educational thought. Teachers have been burned by innovation and, wisely, they are cautious about endorsing a new idea. They are especially cautious when the proponent is a zealot whose faith in the purity of his idea clouds his understanding of the harsh realities of the classroom.

Third, it all takes money. And Ms. Cinaglia’s approach will be time-consuming and expensive and, most likely, piled on top of the other teacher responsibilities that threaten to erode the good work of all teachers. And if anything is clear in the big-business reform agenda, it is that they don’t intend to spend more money on schools.

Finally, Ms. Cinaglia needs to overcome the reform tendency to subordinate the teachers. Treating them as “students” is the wrong step. If the practitioners are not equals in the process, if their insight and understanding are not valued equally with the knowledge of the researcher and the insight of the university proselytes, then change will take even longer. No experienced educator appreciates being treated as a novice and having her knowledge discounted or trivialized.

All that said, Ms. Cinaglia’s solution to the problem of change has merit. It will take time. It must involve a closer connection between the university and the classroom. And the blend of theory with teacher induction and professional development is appropriate. If she can pull all this off without costing the teachers time and money and without piling more jobs on top of teachers who are already overburdened with data collecting and a certificate paper chase, her idea should be considered.

But if it means adding even 10 minutes more work per week solely to promote the professional reputation of some remote, unpublished, born-again professor of education, we’re not interested.

Bill Harshbarger
Arcola, Ill.


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