Education Opinion


February 27, 2002 14 min read
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Reseach and Its Contradictions

To the Editor:

With regard to your lead article of Jan. 30, 2002 (“Law Mandates Scientific Base for Research”), I would like to point out a contradiction in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Although the legislation appears to encourage research-based policymaking, it also has eliminated the one policy that probably has the strongest scientific support of any education policy ever implemented: reduced class size in the elementary grades.

Tennessee’s Project STAR was exactly what is being called for: a large-scale, randomized experiment. Further, the STAR data have been reanalyzed by several research teams, in this country and abroad, and the STAR results have been replicated (in nonexperimental work) in other sites. As a result of this research, small classes have brought benefits to many children, and their teachers, across the United States.

The wording in the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act mirrors the “No Child Left Behind” plan issued by the White House several months ago, in which the class-size funds are combined into “performance-based grants to states and localities.” Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education staff members working on the class-size program have been reassigned. This marks the end of the class-size-reduction program, regardless of its scientific support and despite its positive impact, as a separate federal program.

It reminds me of the line from an old cowboys-and-Indians movie: “White man speak with fork-ed tongue.”

Jeremy D. Finn
Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo
Buffalo, N.Y.

When Science and Politics Collide

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “Law Mandates Scientific Base for Research” (Jan. 30, 2002): General “educationist” research may fall short of standards in science.

I edit the Kansas Biology Teacher, which includes brief summaries of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations of interest to biology teachers, sampling up to 100 a year. About half are biology studies; the rest are education research. Over the last 10 years, it has been disheartening to read so much classroom research that either finds the effect of a reform methodology to be mathematically insignificant (or even significantly ineffective) or fails to pose a clear and testable question, but yet concludes on the last page with a resounding endorsement of the reform.

In some cases, the graduate student writing the paper begs off by suggesting that the study had too small a sample size or was otherwise aberrant; in other cases, the conclusion simply contradicts the data.

I estimate that between one-fourth and one-third of the education theses and dissertations I see conclude with assertions that are not supported by the results of their investigations. While the graduate student must work within the sociopolitical climate of an academic committee that may be different from publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, I almost never find such contradictory conclusions in biology dissertations. The tone of these conclusions is not one of deference to supervising professors, but is one of unswerving conviction in the efficacy of the new reform.

Such schizophrenic research appears to be more common for educationist studies supporting broad reform methodologies that apply to all teaching fields, and where it is difficult to hold all of the major variables constant. I detect fewer cases of contradictory conclusions in discipline-based studies that ask narrowly defined questions in just math or science education, for instance. Indeed, discipline-based education research often contradicts the broad reforms.

If both the structure of knowledge and the mental processes of learning are different for art, math, language, science, and so on, then only discipline-based educational research would contribute toward lasting paradigms in art, math, science education, and other fields. This would help explain why so many sweeping education reforms fail, although they are supposedly “supported by research.”

John Richard Schrock
Director of Biology Education
Emporia State University
Emporia, Kan.

Making Impact Measurable

To the Editor:

Your article “National Board Is Pressed to Prove Certified Teachers Make Difference” (Jan. 30, 2002) described efforts to devise ways of testing the efficacy of teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Several people were quoted as saying that NBPTS teachers must, if they are to live up to their promise, have an impact on student performance.

Some apparently hold the view that students taught by board-certified teachers ought to score higher on the standardized tests that drive state accountability systems. This notion strikes me as very misguided.

Recall John Dewey’s point that the educator, more than any other professional, must take the long view of the impact he or she is trying to make on the student. Think back to the teachers who have had the deepest impact on you, and ask: Was that influence apparent in the achievement scores I garnered at the time? I doubt it.

The difficulty of coming up with a measurable criterion of success is not limited to education, however. Even that envied science-based occupation, medicine, faces the same problem in many circumstances. Take cancer, for example. When is a cancer patient cured? The convention is to consider five-year survival the mark of cure. But is mere survival the criterion? Does quality of life make no difference? Is a patient who refuses debilitating, aggressive treatment and lives a shorter life necessarily worse off than a person who subjects himself to such treatment and lives somewhat longer? We know how to measure length of life, but how do we measure quality?

If those teachers and students of teaching who have thought most deeply about the nature of teaching believe that board certification captures what’s most important in a teacher’s work, and if those who have gone through the certification process believe that it has enhanced their capacity to teach children well, then the process is a valuable one. Greater confirmation is not likely to be found.

I would trust board-certified teachers to assess the adequacy of state accountability systems before I’d trust those systems to assess the value of NBPTS teachers. Indeed, many professional teachers of integrity might have good reason not to waste valuable time preparing students for state multiple-choice tests.

Francis Schrag
Professor of Education
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Madison, Wis.

New Census Choice May Skew Statistics

To the Editor:

There are many serious issues worth discussing in your article “Affirmative Reaction” (Feb. 6, 2002), but none more intriguing than the use of the newly developed statistical category “multiracial.”

This category was used in the 2000 U.S. Census for the first time, and social scientists warned that its use would make it difficult to compare any racial statistics gathered after that date with those created in earlier years. I wonder if the statistics found in the chart accompanying your article are not an example of that.

You will note that, beginning with the class of 2002 (possibly measured in 1998), the number of self-described students classified as “multiracial” increases markedly.

While the number in this category, when added to the number of African-American and Hispanic students, does not equal the number of African- American and Hispanic students found in the school prior to the change instituted in 1998 concerning affirmative action, there is a strong possibility that the fall-off of these two racial categories is not as great as claimed in the article.

Frank McDermott
Bayside, N.Y.

Rallying Around Year-Round School

To the Editor:

Lloyd H. Elliott’s conclusions in “Restructuring American Education” (Feb. 13, 2002) are a rallying cry in the quest for greater achievement and better educational opportunities for the poorest and least educated among our students today.

Our organization has just concluded its 33rd annual national conference, in which educators from across the country presented results showing that more time in the classroom makes for higher achievement, whether in a charter school, a public school, an elementary or a secondary school. Well-regarded research now substantiates that having almost three months away from formal education (otherwise called summer vacation) often cements the fate of those who need academic assistance the most— and impinges on the academic achievement for those at all levels.

Surely these conclusions are only logical. We have spoken out for such reform for decades, and now, finally, the movement has gathered momentum. Our directory for 2002 shows that more than 2 million students in the United States now have the advantage of learning year-round. But sadly, this applies to less than 5 percent of the student population.

The Southern Illinois University Public Policy Institute, under the direction of former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, issued a report this year titled “Year-Round Schools: New Century, New Ideas.” In it, Mr. Simon urges Congress to provide $900 million a year to lengthen the school year to at least 200 days.

What was good enough a hundred years ago is no longer good enough for students in this century. My thanks to Lloyd Elliott for joining in the rallying cry for this move to better education: year-round education.

Marilyn J. Stenvall
Executive Director
National Association for
Year-Round Education
San Diego, Calif.

Whole Language and the Black Arts

To the Editor:

Ken Goodman’s recent letter in which he compares himself to Galileo (“An ‘Inquisition’ for School Research?,” Feb. 13, 2002), unfortunately presents things backwards.

In the time of Galileo, the authorities were steeped in misguided superstition, subscribing to scientifically unsupported doctrine. In fact, their cosmology was unsupported even by the Scriptures they claimed as its justification.

Today, it is the authorities who are looking to science, and Mr. Goodman and his colleagues who seem to be looking to the black arts for guidance in the subject of reading instruction. As much as I share Mr. Goodman’s distaste for authorities telling us citizens what to do, there does come a time when people who use taxpayers’ funds to inflict truly outrageous and destructive practices on the population must be reined in.

This is not about freedom of speech, as Mr. Goodman and friends would have us believe. He and his colleagues are free to speak their theories all they wish. However, they should certainly be denied the freedom to implement decidedly unpopular policy at taxpayer expense.

David Ziffer
I Can Read!
Batavia, Ill.

To the Editor:

Ken Goodman’s letter on education research (Feb. 13, 2002) is based on the same faulty premises and flawed logic responsible for the demise of whole-language reading instruction, which he apparently laments.

Instead of providing a definition of what sound research might be, and then showing that whole-language research satisfies that definition, Mr. Goodman attacks a nationwide effort (from the federal government down to local schools) to ensure that children are not taught by methods that have been less adequately tested than hairspray and bubble gum.

Advocates of whole language (not necessarily Mr. Goodman) would like the definition of sound research to be so broad that virtually any set of unreliable anecdotes is enough to validate whole language—and business can continue as usual.

“Nothing less than an inquisition is being waged by federal law against teachers and school administrators to limit their practice,” Mr. Goodman concludes. But in fact, whole-language advocates have spent 20 years waging an “inquisition” against people and curricula that advocate systematic, explicit, field-tested instruction on “phonics,” comprehension, spelling, and writing. They are not now the subject of an inquisition. The failure of whole language has merely been revealed.

Lisa Leppin
The Classical Tutor
Mukwonago, Wis.

Smaller Schools, Greater Choice

To the Editor:

The superiority of smaller schools is one of the few reforms upon which there is widespread agreement. It gets a lot of press, which has been evident in numerous Education Week articles, essays, and letters to the editor this year. So why do the authorities keep building huge schools? Answer: Small schools won’t be politically viable without subject and learning-style specialization and school choice.

An attendance area will always contain children with a wide variety of interests and learning styles. That’s probably also true of the siblings in large families. Only large schools can offer the variety of programs their families will demand, and thus provide some relief from the one-size-fits-no- one effect of assigning children to schools based on where they live. The small, specialized schools we need will continue to be the exception, not the rule, until we allow school choice without financial penalty.

John Merrifield
College of Business
University of Texas, San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas

Ideal Principals

To the Editor:

I read with an interest close to my heart the Commentary “Caught Between Nostalgia and Utopia,” by Sheryl Boris-Schacter and Sondra Langer (Feb. 6, 2002). Their conclusions are right on, and their conclusion about being an effective school leader while having a life, although somewhat blunt, is also right on target.

As a doctoral candidate and middle school principal, I began a Quixote-like quest as part of my studies. I was in search of principals who were doing more than merely surviving in the system. I was looking for those I believed were “out there” and thriving.

I traveled to schools throughout the state and narrowed my search to 10 extraordinary individuals. I began a process of “entering into their world” through school visitations, dialogue, and extensive shadowing. I invited them to visit my school as well. Through a process of tape-recorded conversations and narrative scripting, I was able to come up with 11 themes that were common among these principals. It is uncanny how they match the conclusions of Ms. Boris-Schacter and Ms. Langer.

I am fortunate, in that I am married to a woman who chose to stay at home and run a home business while our children were younger. I did not enter school administration until later in my career. When our last child began the challenging middle school years, I brought her to my school. Although this took some adjustment, it worked well for both of us. Now, as I near the end of my career, I realize that there will be fewer leaders to pass the torch on to.

I work with a wonderful assistant principal who is a quick study, energetic, and possesses outstanding leadership qualities. He has all the makings of an outstanding principal. But he is also a father, with two young children. The demands on his time are only just beginning. He will face a critical fork in his career path all too soon. Under the current system, he cannot be effective in both roles.

I find it interesting how our school systems constantly search for the perfect principal. The classified sections are filled with a laundry list of qualities and expectations that cannot be met under the current system. It is now school districts that have become our Don Quixotes, as they continue their often fruitless quests for leaders in a system that grinds all but a small percentage of principals down toward the plains of mediocrity.

Gary Stebbins
Rogers Middle School
San Jose, Calif.

To the Editor:

As an elementary principal and an attentive reader of Education Week, I have appreciated your articles on the shortage of school principals nationwide. The Commentary by Sheryl-Boris Schacter and Sondra Langer was of interest because they cite, as one of the reasons for the shortage, the fact that “the pay differential between the principal and the teacher is often minuscule.”

I have found that observation to be true, with as little as $3,000 sometimes separating the highest-paid teacher’s salary from that of the principal. And because teachers have the ability to coach or sponsor activities, adding some extra money, the difference often is wiped out entirely. Yet principals work much longer hours and have a longer school year.

So it was also of interest, thumbing through the workplace advertisements in the Marketplace section of that same issue, to come across an ad from the Florida State University Schools calling for applicants for the principalships at an elementary and a middle school. In the lower left of the ad, the school system states that “salary is commiserate [sic] with experience.”

I guess what Ms. Boris-Schacter and Ms. Langer say is true. Maybe we all should “commiserate” about that salary offered by the Florida State University Schools?

Thomas Lamorgese
Medford, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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