Education Letter to the Editor


April 17, 2002 13 min read
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Cincinnati Teachers Were Rated on Gains

I was pleased to see your article on the progress of Cincinnati’s performance- pay program for teachers (“Study Tracks Cincinnati’s New Teacher Ratings, Test Scores,” April 3, 2002). However, I would like to clarify some of the findings from the study you cite, conducted by the Cincinnati public school system’s office of research and evaluation.

You say that the study of the Cincinnati schools’ Teacher Evaluation System revealed that “students whose state test scores were below average were taught by Cincinnati teachers who earned low evaluation ratings.” Actually, our study focused on student-achievement-gain scores and not on absolute test scores. The “gains” we report are a measure of students’ academic growth during the school year they were assigned to a teacher. It is important that readers understand that achievement gains made during the school year, and not simple achievement levels, were used to validate the ratings teachers are receiving through the Teacher Evaluation System.

The study did not find that “distinguished ... teachers’ students earned above-average state test scores in math, science, and social studies.” It did find that students of teachers who received a rating of “distinguished” for the domain of instruction, on average, had higher gains in achievement compared with the average district gains.

Likewise, the study did not determine that the students of unsatisfactory teachers “earned below-average scores on reading, math, science, and social studies tests.” Again, we did report that students of teachers who received a rating of “unsatisfactory” or “basic” for the domain of instruction had achievement gains that were below the average gains for the district.

While the distinction between achievement gains and achievement may seem subtle, that distinction is critical in understanding the study as one check on the validity of the Teacher Evaluation System.

Elizabeth A. Holtzapple
Senior Evaluator
and Study Author
Cincinnati Public Schools
Cincinnati, Ohio

‘Teacher Quality’ Is An Elusive Term

To the Editor:

I was alarmed by your recent article “Focusing In on Teachers” (On Assignment, April 3, 2002). The research showcased in this and other recent articles addresses a critical issue: the characteristics of effective teachers. But it continues to rely on test scores as the primary—if not sole— indicator of teacher quality.

The discussion of teacher quality couched in an analysis of its relationship to student achievement is logical. The element of concern in this argument, however, is how “student achievement” is defined, with standardized-test scores having recently become a proxy for achievement. This is a myopic view of both student achievement and teacher quality.

We know that standardized tests, while offering important information to teachers and parents when used correctly, are not effective at measuring school quality (even though they have been commissioned to do so) and are certainly not effective measures of teacher quality. Countless data indicate that test scores correlate more closely with socioeconomic status and the parent’s highest level of education than with what goes on inside the classroom.

Absent from this article was a broader discussion of what “quality teaching” looks like, beyond background indicators and student test scores. The debate on teacher quality and effectiveness must address what actually goes on inside classrooms. Great teachers engage students in a quest for knowledge, building analytical skills and instilling long-term understanding of subject matter. Some teachers who are effective at raising test scores do little more than drill the skills that will appear on the test and fill students’ short-term memories with disjointed facts.

Moreover, emphasizing only those aspects of teacher quality that are easily quantifiable offers no further understanding of the indicators that make a great teacher. As with most social phenomena involving humans, a real analysis and examination of what defines teacher quality is a complex endeavor.

The profession would greatly benefit from a genuine debate about these issues. A lot of money and time could be better spent if we stopped looking for easy answers and started thinking critically about teacher quality and student achievement.

Kelly Arey
Research Specialist
Center for Artistry in Teaching
Washington, D.C.

Business Metaphors Are Too Simplistic

To the Editor:

Two letters, one from Tom Shuford, a retired teacher, and the other from Joseph L. Bast, the president of the Heartland Institute (“‘Blueberry’ Flaws,” Letters, March 27, 2002), rightly find fault with the logic of a “razor edged” teacher who persuaded ice cream executive (and Commentary writer) Jamie Robert Vollmer that “a school is not a business.” The teacher got Mr. Vollmer to see that students are like “ingredients” or “raw material” used to make a product, and that schools cannot reject “inferior” ingredients the way an ice cream company can (“The Blueberry Story,” Commentary, March 6, 2002).

But both letters make the mistake of saying that the right analogy is to see students instead as “customers.” That is certainly better than thinking of them as inert raw material, but the “customer” analogy is also dangerously flawed. Customers have no direct role in producing what they buy, and need only accept or reject what is offered to them.

If we want to think of education in terms of “product,” then we surely have to see the “product” we want as learning, and realize that students are at least the “co-producers,” or even the prime producers, of what we want schools to produce.

This is not just a matter of choosing metaphors for poetic effect. How we conceive of the role of students has profound effects not only on teaching, but also on our mental models of “school” and even of the broader policy framework for public education.

Mr. Bast, for instance, uses his “customer” analogy to argue for a “market based” policy framework for education, so that students and parents can have the same choices of schools as customers of other providers. This gravely oversimplifies the role of students and the issue of privatizing public education.

On a broader scale, the “customer” analogy reinforces one of the most insidious and widespread flaws of the prevailing bureaucratic model of public schooling, since, even without the customer analogy, it tends to produce mental models of teachers as the prime “producers,” teaching as “the delivery of instructional services,” and students as passive recipients of whatever teachers “deliver” to them.

As another letter on the same page, from Marilyn Page, points out, if teachers don’t help students “become analytical, independent, and in-depth thinkers and solid problem-solvers, they become the opposite: dependent, shallow, or nonthinkers who become part of the problem” (“Democracy Needs Critical Thinkers,” Letters, March 27, 2002). That is just what our overbureaucratized public school systems and their mind-sets have been producing on a massive scale, despite all the rhetoric about the need for teaching “critical thinking.” The passive “customer” role for students further entrenches these mind-sets instead of setting us on the right track for productive schooling.

The most important answer to those who want to compare schooling to a business is to remind them that students are the prime producers of what we want, and that, since they are neither employees, passive “customers,” nor “raw materials,” teaching, schools, and school systems are very special institutions that have to be designed, managed, and led so that they will have the greatest chance of helping these prime producers develop into motivated and responsible learners.

In trying to come up with the best concept for students in a proposed new policy framework for public education in my 1981 book Education Through Partnership, I finally settled on calling them “partners” to emphasize students’ key role in “producing” learning. But I realize that this also is not a perfect image, since many people feel that this would imply that students have to have equal status and authority with teachers.

So, perhaps we just have to acknowledge that the role of “student” is complex, and cannot be captured by simple analogies to other roles, just as the concept of “school"—particularly “public school"—is complex, and cannot easily be compared to other “service providers” or “businesses.”

David S. Seeley
Professor of Education
City University of New York
Graduate Center
and the College of Staten Island
New York, N.Y.

The Best Reason for School Attendance

To the Editor:

A thoughtful consideration of your recent article on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s stance on a charter school’s tough attendance policy (“LAUSD Orders Charter School to Scrap Its Attendance Policy,” March 27, 2002) raises some interesting questions. Though you consider a charter school’s right to develop internal policy without districtwide school board approval, I came away from the article with a different question: How can a student who misses enough class periods to merit a failing grade possibly earn straight A’s in that class? It just doesn’t seem right.

I am a strong advocate of attendance policies. But attendance policies for their own sake are meaningless. Students should attend school so that they can benefit from the many opportunities school has to offer. Students who do not attend strong educational programs consistently should understandably miss learning opportunities.

A grade of A should demonstrate that a student has taken full advantage of and has benefited from the educational opportunities available within the school. When a student earns an A even though he has missed numerous class sessions, a significant problem exists. Perhaps too much grade inflation is occurring?

Grade inflation would allow students who did not take full advantage of their educational opportunities, or master the learning objectives within them, to get the highest possible grade. Perhaps not enough educational opportunities were offered to students—an even worse predicament. In that case, students could fulfill class requirements even if they missed many classes.

School attendance is important. But it is important only because it allows students to take full advantage of their educational opportunities. Attendance without corresponding learning is meaningless and arguably a deterrent to good education.

Andrew Pass
Farmington, Mich.

Tech Vision: Getting the ‘Big Picture’ Across to Students And Their Teachers

To the Editor:

I read with enthusiasm Laurence Goldberg’s Commentary “Our Technology Future” (March 20, 2002), and found his vision of the next steps needed for educational hardware consistent with my view of what it is our K-12 students need to be carrying around with them daily. I feel, however, that Mr. Goldberg may have stopped short of answering his own question.

We will not be able (even those of us who truly believe that technology can transform learning) to accomplish this goal by merely giving students the wireless hardware they need to have ubiquitous access to information and tools. For students to have the full range of resources that are currently available and would be transformational, their tablets should have personal digital assistants, or PDAs, built in so that their schedules, assignments, and contacts with fellow students are with them wherever they go.

Resident on those wonderful tablets, along with high-speed, very broadband Internet access with excellent graphics capabilities, must also be software that has been specifically developed to enable students to make use of the information they gather. And none of these tools will, in themselves, be able to transform learning if the teachers of these students are underprepared to fully incorporate them into their learning and teaching plans.

This vision of the future of learning continually emphasizes, as it certainly should, the learning part of the equation. It is my hope that part of what we will be transforming is teaching. True educational change will begin to happen as teachers become coaches, and parents open their minds to the possibility that classroom learning doesn’t have to look and feel like it did when they went to school. Full-frontal teaching and drill and practice for homework should become a thing of the past.

True, many of us did learn that way and are still here to tell the tale—we survived, we say, and so will our children. But take a look around, open up your eyes and your minds to the fact that the world isn’t very much like it was 20 years ago. Then go visit your children’s classrooms, and you’ll find that they are like the ones we sat in as kids.

What Mr. Goldberg is calling for should be applauded by all of us who have a vision of how technology can serve our future. But we should not fall victims to the same dilemma that confronts many educators today: Many schools have the hardware that’s currently state-of-the-art, yet only the “techie kids” know how to use it maximally. We know now that the hardware, software, and applications must be developed concurrently, and that the content of the curriculum must be the central focus of this development.

If we can provide our children with multimedia access to content, thus addressing the full range of learning styles that children bring to the learning environment, and also give them the skills they need to master both the content and the accessibility—while providing a culturally rich and safe learning environment in which to take risks, ask questions, raise problems, and be guided to find solutions—then, and only then, will we have transformed learning.

For the first time in my lifetime, we as teachers have the resources to do this and do it well. It’s up to us to make it happen.

Joyce M. Baron
Educational Consultant

Tuxedo, N.Y.

The writer is the project director for the creation of a new public middle/high school that will serve as a lab school for the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

To the Editor:

It was with great interest that we read Laurence Goldberg’s Commentary. Like Mr. Goldberg, we are concerned about the integration of technology in schools. Like him, we feel compelled to reiterate in our work that technology is an undeniably integrated component of our present and future daily lives, and that we must move forward knowing this is so.

Mr. Goldberg writes of the technological vehicles by which instruction is or will be delivered, or that make students able to actively participate in instruction. We are most concerned with student participation, specifically with the great need to teach students how to use, access, and understand the technological instruments being provided them.

Beyond that, students also need to know how to function in the greater substructure of technology that permeates our society. They need to understand technology in a way that enables them to be active citizens and make responsible, informed decisions in a technological age. We in technology education refer to this as “technological literacy.”

Technological literacy is something that all citizens need and deserve to attain through our public school system. But, as a Gallup poll sponsored by the International Technology Education Association (http://www.iteawww.org) shows, most people do not really understand how broad and encompassing today’s technology is; they tend to relate technology primarily to computers and the Internet. When they are provided with a fuller definition, one that stresses enhanced abilities through technology to shape their larger environment, the public overwhelmingly supports technology education in schools.

With this in mind, we try to emphasize the “big picture” of technology and how it affects student learning. It is in this way that we can “transform learning"by providing students with the ability to use, access, and understand future technologies, such as the ubiquitous, integrated, wireless system Mr. Goldberg envisions.

William E. Dugger Jr.
Shelli D. Meade
Technology for All Americans Project
International Technology Education Association
Blacksburg, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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