Education Letter to the Editor


March 20, 2002 14 min read
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Peer-Grading Case: Why We Sued

To the Editor:

In your article on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in my lawsuit concerning peer grading (“Peer Grading Passes Muster, Justices Agree,” Feb. 27, 2002), you state that “the district offered to excuse Ms. Falvo’s children from peer grading, but refused her request to stop the practice altogether. She sued the district under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.”

A previous article, “Court to Judge If Law Forbids Peer Grading,” (Nov. 21, 2001), similarly states, “‘It is undisputed that the district accommodated any request the Falvos made with respect to their kids,’ said Jerry A. Richardson, the lawyer for the district.”

Both of these articles make it look as if the Owasso (Okla.) School District accommodated any request that I made with respect to my children—especially to stop peer grading. I want to clarify that the only accommodation made for my children was to allow each child to walk up to the front of the classroom and “privately” tell the teacher the grade, only after another student had graded the paper.

I want to make this point perfectly clear because the quotes from the Owasso school district place the reason for this lawsuit in a false light. From the earliest meetings with teachers, meetings with principals, and with letters to the administration, my only request was to allow my son Philip to grade his own papers. This request was repeatedly denied over an 18-month period because Owasso claimed that Philip would cheat; therefore, another student would be required to grade his paper. I had no choice but to turn to the judicial system.

In the transcript of testimony from the original federal district court hearing (Case No. 98-CV-765-K, Oct. 14, 1998) in Tulsa, Okla., Rick Thomas, the 6th grade principal, stated that it could open the door for cheating if the students graded their own papers (Page 64). Seventh grade principal Bobby Joe Coke also testified that students would not honestly grade their own papers (Page 84).

Had the district accommodated my request to allow Philip to grade his own papers, this situation would have remained a local issue, and the courts would not have had to intervene. If it were “undisputed that the district accommodated any request the Falvos made with respect to their kids,” it would have been absurd to file a lawsuit, and there would have been no reason why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit would have heard an appeal. Our attorney simply filed for declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as damages for his fees. At no time were we seeking monetary damages for ourselves.

Kristja J. Falvo
Owasso, Okla.

Drop Crude Surveys; Return to ‘Three A’s’

To the Editor:

After reading your Feb. 27, 2002, article “New Student-Survey Policy Worries Some Researchers,” I am convinced that we must rein in the agencies and organizations that have been interrogating our children with crude, repulsive, and intrusive surveys for more than two decades.

Surveyors such as the “Search Institute” of Minnesota and Lloyd D. Johnston of “Monitoring the Future” should be gathering and analyzing hard data from existing sources; for example, from local social-service organizations, area hospitals and emergency rooms, mental-health organizations and clinics, planned-parenthood organizations, police departments and emergency services, and drug- and alcohol- rehabilitation centers.

Schools should not intrude in the private sphere of the family; they should instead get back to teaching the three A’s—academics, athletics, and the arts.

At the same time, parents should not abrogate their responsibility to ensure the well-being of their children. Parents must be active. They cannot expect schools to pick up the slack for them.

Carole Nunn
Ridgewood, N.J.

Seeing Only Polemic In ‘10-Step Solution’

To the Editor:

“The 10-Step Solution” (Commentary, Feb. 27, 2002) offers us probably the worst thing any big urban district should do to improve achievement. If this represents the thinking of Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, then no one should seek licensure from that organization, based solely on the quackery of this essay.

Mr. Wise and his co-author, Marsha Levine, who directed NCATE’s Professional Development Schools Standards Project, continue to talk about mythological standards that are simply a political polemic still untested and untried in American public education.

They claim that you must first identify the 10 percent lowest-performing schools in a district, then throw all the adults out of those schools and replace them with only expert teachers who really care and share in a new commitment. This is quackery and totally unsubstantiated. It sounds great in corporate-capital America, but schools cannot follow a corporate-capitalistic paradigm.

The Commentary writers then suggest that urban systems establish a partnership with some college or university and begin a continuous professional-development mentoring program similar to what goes on in a teaching hospital. This way, they imply, you can have scientific, management-type accountability. They call this approach a reconstituted professional-development school.

At this point, the authors suggest you select only master teachers to mentor the other teachers. And, oh yes, these master teachers must be properly certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Now here comes the clincher: “Create a management and instructional system that ensures that a mentor teacher is responsible for the achievement of every student.” In other words, this mentor teacher will make certain these kids learn. If you’ve never worked in an urban area, this may sound plausible.

Finally, Mr. Wise and Ms. Levine say you could possibly have the district pay half the teachers’ salary and use Title I funds to pay the other half. But more importantly, they say: “A district that follows these steps would put into place a strategy for staffing its schools with a flow of teachers who can succeed. A reliable and adequate supply of qualified teachers is a critical factor in breaking the cycle of low performance in urban schools and improving student achievement.” They gave exactly one line to finance.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education is preaching voodoo education. Why? Nowhere in the world, and especially in the United States, do you have very poor school districts excelling academically, as measured by standardized tests to determine how well these kids do compared with others in the country. The truth is that poor children with the same economic and social environments perform in the same manner in Chicago, New York City, Newark, N.J., Beijing, London, and Paris.

Why do we continue to allow those outside urban education to say what is good for urban schools and students? Mr. Wise and Ms. Levine should learn that it’s poverty and not certification that weighs most heavily in the equation. Certification is a very small part of improving urban education.

As long as we continue to be duped with credentializing quackery and legitimized national testing programs to ensure accountability, poor children in poor schools will never succeed.

We should stop this accreditation hucksterism and remember that all schools are microcosms of their society. So long as American capitalism continues to promote the sorting and selection process in the schooling enterprise, it only stands to reason that, unfortunately, we also promote the sorting and selection of teachers.

Henry R. Przystup
Adjunct Professor
Kean University
Educational Consultant
Milltown, N.J.

The ‘Bottom Line’ In Accountability

To the Editor:

The thrust of your article “Demystifying ESEA: Companies See Opportunity” (Feb. 27, 2002) seems to be that school districts are in distress and desperate for the products and services companies are marketing. I particularly like this statement: “Consultants and businesses are leaving behind no opportunity to come to the rescue of districts with ESEA-related products and services, from workshops about the law to computerized accountability systems that claim to meet federal requirements.”

Interestingly, in the March 4, 2002, issue of Time, Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is said to be focusing that company on “services ... the lucrative contracts that midsize businesses across America, overwhelmed by the demands of new technologies, are increasingly willing to pay for.” Sound familiar?

Districts of all sizes are just as overwhelmed by the demands of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with its emphasis on creating and computerizing data. They lack funding to defray the enormous expense; they cannot pass it along to consumers. But they can cut programs and personnel to pay companies eager to assist them.

Dedicated educators are as easily persuaded by powerful marketing schemes as anyone else, and ever pressed for time. During my two decades of teaching, I often found colleagues lacking the time even to examine textbooks. “Whatever the others want is fine” was a common view. Materials were often chosen by the one person willing to study the samples.

Today, companies are paranoid about protecting their products. Our district just entered into a costly contract for an experimental program for teaching algebra. As a board member and former algebra teacher, I wanted to peruse the materials prior to voting my approval. No such luck. The company had refused to leave any samples for us to study.

How will busy educators sort through the mass of materials being marketed under the guise of ESEA compliance? What criteria will be used? Who will actually study sample materials before costly contracts are signed? How big will corporate profits be? What will schools be forced to cut to free up funds? Will the fruits of all this marketing truly benefit our children?

Yearly testing is a key component of the legislation. Companies are selling guidebooks and workshops to students, parents, and teachers. Education Week has reported on test-prep as a growth industry, along with the management of computerized databases filled with student records. According to recent news reports, there appear to be close ties between education-based companies and the Bush administration, a not surprising sort of “Eduron” situation.

Computerized accountability systems will be required by the ESEA. Business Week reports on the vast sums being spent by school districts to create databases. The Pittsburgh public schools built a $25 million database; Fairfax County, Va., spent $11 million. California is creating an expensive student-information system; other states will follow. The business magazine notes that “more than a dozen states have linked their new databases to a nationwide data-exchange program being organized by the U.S. Department of Education under a 1994 congressional mandate.”

Teachers and administrators don’t create these multimillion-dollar, Internet-run databases; companies-for- hire do. Your headline “Companies See Opportunity” is an understatement. Districts will become dependent on the products and services being marketed and sold. They will struggle to find ways to pay, unaware of cost-benefit ratios. Beware as our children’s real education needs are surely left behind.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Board of Education Member
Willard, Ohio

Reading Instruction Becomes Test Prep

To the Editor:

Thanks for reporting sanely on the most recent contribution to the reading wars, a RAND report that is a partial antidote to the No Child Left Untested/Bush/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development/National Reading Panel/Reading First/McGraw-Hill (these are all names for the same hydra) attack on public education (“RAND: Don’t Let Basics Obstruct Comprehension Strategies,” March 6, 2002.)

The article tells us the report says that “more study is also needed to determine the impact that assessment—particularly standardized tests that do not adequately test comprehension—has on curriculum and instruction.” The tests that claim to assess reading actually assess a unique genre of reading, found nowhere outside the tests themselves. So what can they possibly tell us about real reading? Instead, they have corrupted reading instruction into test prep.

Your article says, “The group found that the current knowledge base is ‘sizable but sketchy, unfocused, and inadequate as a basis for reform in reading-comprehension instruction.’” If the report is referring to the NRP report’s research, it’s right. But there is plenty of real research out here that gives us clear direction for teaching for meaning and comprehension, most of it pointing to whole-language theory and practice.

Susan Harman
California Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CalCARE)
Oakland, Calif.

Active Democracy: Teaching By Demonstration

To the Editor:

Barbara Landau and Marc F. Bernstein couldn’t have written more complementary essays for your March 6, 2002, Commentary section if they had tried. In “Educating for Citizenship,” Ms. Landau calls for teaching students about democracy through pedagogy consistent with its inherent virtues—"discourse, debate, and the open exchange of ideas.” In “Student ‘Demonstrations’ Also Test Student Knowledge,” Mr. Bernstein writes of demonstrations that assess student learning and ability more ably than tests do.

As a former high school American government teacher, I’ve witnessed time and again how meaningful, effective, and enjoyable “demonstration” opportunities can be for students struggling to understand what it means to live, grow, and participate in a democracy. Studying American constitutional principles as static notions does little to convince students that their rights, as enumerated and protected in our Constitution and centuries of case law, give them agency in their lives, communities, and country.

I served just recently as a judge in the Pennsylvania state finals of the “We the People ...” competition and saw again the value in using demonstrations to teach citizenship. In this competition, federally funded and administrated through the Center for Civic Education, whole high school classes “testify” and are questioned before panels of adult judges from their communities and states. As a judge, I witnessed exemplary students from six Pennsylvania high schools do remarkable jobs demonstrating what they’d learned.

Moreover, these sophisticated, engaged, and excited students demonstrated that they could apply what they’d learned to their own experiences with the fluid and insightful use of history, philosophy, and political theory. They articulated what it means for them, and for others, to balance individual and civic interests in a republican democracy.

Taken together, Ms. Landau’s and Mr. Bernstein’s arguments for civic education and student demonstration are essential for the education of active citizens. We can hope that teachers at all levels will take these essays as inspiration to consider the many possible ways to engage students meaningfully in exercises that teach them what it means to live and thrive in a democracy.

Todd S. Parker
Swarthmore, Pa.

‘It Simply Does Not Calculate’

To the Editor:

Unmanned drones ply the skies over Afghanistan seeking elusive targets. A suspicious vehicle is targeted, the missile fired. A direct hit!

A pill is swallowed. The miniature camera aboard scans the colon walls for abnormalities.

Legislation is pending to prohibit the cloning of humans. Swine organs may replace human organs in the next decade.

Global-positioning technology is in our automobiles; it also follows us into the woods each November on the quest for the elusive whitetail.

The search for life on Mars goes on unabated. We map the heavens.

I go places, worldwide, in the warmth of my den. I access information and order products—they are delivered to my door within days, sometimes sooner. Oh, the magic of the Internet.

Why, I not only checked my spelling this morning, I literally checked my grammar. Right here on my home computer.

All of this occurs in the United States, the unchallenged leader in the world of science and technology. No other nation even comes close to the accolades and accomplishments of this country.

There has never been a nation that has come as close to “ruling the world” as the United States of America today. Obviously, we don’t control the world. Nor are we all-powerful. We have had little success in finding Osama bin Laden or other al Queda leaders, for example. But who will question that we are the world’s most influential nation? We consume the largest share of the world’s resources. We are “first among nations.”

Science, mathematics, and technology are the foundations for our success. Without the help of the top physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists, where would we be? Certainly, not No. 1.

Where were the vast majority of these individuals educated? In the high schools, colleges, and universities of the United States. The best and brightest from other lands are sent to our graduate schools.

Why, then, do I constantly face the notion that our schools are second-best? Why am I told that our mathematics students rank 13th among the developed nations? (“Scholars Critique Advanced Classes in Math, Science,” Feb. 20, 2002; “International Comparisons: An Excuse to Avoid Meaningful Educational Reform,” Commentary, Jan. 23, 2002) Why does my state of Wisconsin spend $6.8 million on an ill-fated graduation test (“Citing Deficit, Governor Now Proposes Wis. Delay Exam,” Feb. 13, 2002)?

It simply does not calculate.

Michael A. Dishnow
Guidance Director and Webmaster
Community School
De Soto Area Schools
De Soto, Wis.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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