Education Letter to the Editor


January 08, 2003 19 min read
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‘Highest Praise’ for Harold Howe II

To the Editor:

For the many thousands of us within the American educational community who owe Harold Howe II a debt of incomparable gratitude, I can only express our unbearable sadness at his passing (“Howe Pioneered New Federal Role in U.S. Education,” Dec. 11, 2002). “Doc” Howe for us was not only a shining example of what a caring, compassionate, and supremely wise educator should be, but also a model of what it means to be a great human being.

His lifelong devotion to the fight for a fair, just, and equal American education system and his unequaled concern for poor and minority children and their families deserve the highest praise his profession and his country can possibly give.

Evans Clinchy
Senior Consultant
Institute for Responsive Education
Northeastern University
Boston, Mass.

A Less Costly Route To ‘What Works’

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to your article “Schoolwide Reform Improves Test Scores, Analysis Finds,” (Dec. 11, 2002).

When I was a graduate student at a major university, the most important thing I learned was that the vast majority of educational “research” is not worth the paper it is printed on. There are so many variables involved that it is easy to “guide” the data down the desired path.

Before the federal government pours millions of dollars into endorsing and funding such programs as Success for All and Direct Instruction, I suggest that the U.S. Department of Education send its own investigators into an experimental school in September and then again in June. They should listen to the children read and make an independent determination of “what works.”

Linda Johnson
Long Beach, Calif.

Schools Chief Earns His ‘Gentleman’s C’

To the Editor:

We read with interest Eric J. Smith’s Commentary (“Good-Bye to the Gentleman’s C,” Nov. 27, 2002), in which he described the positive impact he had on student performance in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, from the time he became superintendent to the time he left for a similar position in Anne Arundel County, Md. He attributes the improvements to the establishment of clear goals, the building of staff commitment, and overall leadership.

For the improvements he documents, he gets an A. For implying that he started from ground zero in a school system that was floundering until he arrived, he gets, at best, his own gentleman’s C.

A major problem that crops up whenever a new superintendent moves into a district is the tendency to trash whatever accomplishments the prior superintendent may have made. Although this approach makes good journalistic copy, it in fact sends a message to members of the staff and community alike that their work in the recent past was for naught; and it devalues the hard work of teachers and many others.

In those cases in which a new superintendent is faced with a system that has failed miserably prior to his arrival, he or she does need to expose that fact and get down to the business of turning things around. On the other hand, when a new superintendent comes to a school system that is on the right track and has the data to prove it, he or she needs to acknowledge past performance and continue to build on or even accelerate the trend.

For whatever reason, Mr. Smith decided to portray Charlotte as a failing system when he arrived, ignoring the public data to the contrary. He ignored the fact that for the five years prior to his arrival, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level on the state test increased meaningfully in almost every grade and subject tested; that the percentage of students scoring a 3 or better on Advanced Placement exams more than doubled, while at the same time, enrollments in AP increased; that the number of students in the International Baccalaureate program went from zero to 2,600; and that enrollments in higher- level classes increased from 21,113 students to 32,745.

These statistics do not diminish Mr. Smith’s claims to success during his Charlotte tenure. Rather, they signal to Mr. Smith and others in the profession that public education will get the respect it deserves only when it can prove that the institution itself (and not any one person) is effective, and that truly successful and professionally secure leaders are able to acknowledge past successes of their peers and work to enhance and accelerate them.

If this doesn’t occur, public education will continue to be seen as being in crisis and searching for that one savior who can make a difference.

Dan Saltrick
Jeff Schiller
Former Assistant Superintendents
Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte, N.C.

More on the Need For Term Papers

To the Editor:

Extended research papers in high school must be encouraged not only in history, but also in English and other courses as well (“Relegating Student Research to the Past,” Nov. 20, 2002; “Term Papers: A Sad Decline; Some Possible Solutions,” Letters, Dec. 11, 2002). Good writing, competent research, and clear thinking—all of which are developed in a semester-long research project at the high school level—are no longer the province of a couple of classes, but are necessary throughout the curriculum.

As a college literature and composition professor, I need entering college students to have a set of skills to build upon, rather than a blank slate to instruct from scratch. Students likewise need continued practice at those skills, not only for academic but for professional success.

More than ever, in our information- rich but analysis-poor culture, writing, researching, and critical-thinking skills are paramount to the development of ethical citizens who can seek their own answers in a culture that increasingly uses its most sophisticated mechanisms for the manipulation of public opinion.

Daniel T. Kline
Anchorage, Alaska

To the Editor:

Reading and writing in research are reciprocal. Writing allows one’s innermost thoughts—including higher cognitive skills— to “make sense of” ideas, and challenges the writer to deeper concept development and mastery of thought. Teachers should not be allowed to decide if a research paper suits them; the district should decide the means to challenge students to higher academic requirements. If a child can write well, he can speak well. Have you listened to the general public’s daily use of grammar lately? I wonder if there’s a connection.

J. Britt
Pittsburgh, Pa.

On Small Schools, Ask More Questions

To the Editor:

Here’s hoping that your Report Roundup item (“Smaller Schools,”) of Nov. 20, 2002, summarized only an abbreviated version of the report “Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools.” If not, the report is a classic case of making a point with numbers that misses the point— or of totally ignoring the relationship of cause and effect.

The report finds that small schools are safer than large schools, and that they send more students to college. If these conclusions are drawn from aggregated data, all small schools and all large schools are included, regardless of their locations. Anyone could have come to the same conclusions without the assistance of high-powered researchers. It is little wonder, however, that an architectural firm and a rural school group would be the prime sponsors of this report.

We should ask a few questions about the report’s “findings,” particularly as they relate to high schools: Where do we find large schools? Is it the same place we find higher rates of criminal incidents? Is it the same place we find higher percentages of socioeconomically challenged students, those not likely to see college as an option?

Conversely, where do we find small schools? Is it the place we find relatively low rates of crime? Is it the same place we find relatively lower percentages of socioeconomically challenged students and those who, even when economically challenged, come from households more likely to encourage college attendance?

If we reversed the localities of the large and small schools, would the findings be the same, or would they more likely be reversed also?

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

Math Initiative Betrays a Bias

To the Editor:

We appreciate your reporting of the White House mathematics initiative (“Bush to Push for Math and Science Upgrade,” Nov. 20, 2002). However, you might also have reported that the selection as federal grant recipients of three professors— Douglas Carnine, R. James Milgram, and Tom Loveless (all chosen by a process that was not peer-reviewed)—represents a biased and limited perspective.

We need a balanced approach, not another iteration of the one-sided argument these three professors have continually espoused. The initiative as presently enacted is a serious mistake. The existing research—the full body of educational research, not a selected subset—makes a powerful counterargument to the unabashedly conservative views of these researchers.

The complete research picture, while not definitive, is becoming increasingly convincing. For example, perhaps the largest database we have includes the international comparisons that show clearly that teachers in the countries outperforming the United States integrate meaningful concepts and problem-solving with skill learning and follow the spirit of the recommendations made by America’s National Council of Teachers of Mathematics more closely than teachers in the United States do.

Douglas Clements
Williamsville, N.Y.

On School Choice In New Zealand

To the Editor:

Letter-writer Walt Gardner is in good company in mistaking New Zealand’s public-school- choice program for a full-blown voucher experiment ( “For Voucher Results Try New Zealand,” Letters, Nov. 13, 2002). Those who don’t know the difference between a market and New Zealand’s 96.5 percent government-owned system include several academic scholars and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, among others.

In a competitive market, and in a full-blown, Milton Friedman-style, universal voucher system, there would be numerous independent schools, and educators would be free to set up schools and to set the price of their services. Unpopular schools would transform themselves or close. Popular schools would expand and be copied. New Zealand’s program of public school choice lacks all of those critical market features.

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

Think of Obesity As a Disability

To the Editor:

I couldn’t agree more with the points that former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher made in his essay for Education Week on the problem of obesity in children (“Pound-Foolish,” Oct. 16, 2002). This is an extremely alarming issue that affects the future health of our entire nation.

We generally find that if students don’t participate in a sport, they simply don’t exercise. Unlike their parents, who go off to the gym or walk in the neighborhood, children are either in organized sports or indoors in front of a television or a computer screen.

A related problem is that the food portions we provide are supersized. For many adolescents, the occasional second helping becomes the norm, and eating as much as one can at every meal becomes the routine.

Schools need to take responsibility for students who are seriously at risk of obesity or are presently obese. They should be treated with the same care and dedication we offer children with disabilities. In fact, the model of intervention we have used so successfully in assisting disabled students should be applied to the seriously overweight child.

Professionals and parents should join together to identify the contributing factors that lead to the child’s problem. They should develop an individually designed plan to help the child, much as we do when developing an individualized education plan, or IEP, for the special education child. Through careful selection of attainable goals and objectives and coordination with the family physician, a plan that leads to improved health and functioning can be developed and implemented.

Through continual monitoring and refinement of the plan, we can move the child to a better state of health. Doing so is as much our responsibility as dealing with other behavioral or health issues.

Timothy J. Hamway
Director of Special Services
Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public Schools
Scotch Plains, N.J.

School Choice and District Revenues

To the Editor:

A recent letter claimed that vouchers and charter schools actually benefit public schools by taking only part of the total per-student funding, while losing the entire student (“Can Choice Benefit District Revenues?,” Letters, Nov. 27, 2002).

The writer, John A. Cairns, sarcastically remarked that school leaders who cannot understand this “may not be able to pass even 4th grade math.”

Mr. Cairns then went on to give an example: “Assume $5,000 per child for 500 students,” he wrote, “or total revenues of $250,000.” Unless there was a typographical error, it appears that Mr. Cairns would not fare very well on a math test, himself.

Let me correct his math and his reasoning.

Five hundred students at $5,000 each amounts to a loss of $2.5 million, not $250,000. At a ratio of 25 students per teacher, the net effect on a district is that it will hire 20 fewer new teachers than if the 500 students remained. Even using a generous figure of $50,000 per teacher in salary and benefits, the district has only reduced its revenues by $1 million. Thus, instead of Mr. Cairns’ analysis that “the district would retain $125,000 to use for the remaining kids,” the reality is that the district now must reduce by $1.5 million its spending on students who choose to stay in public school.

This is one of the points rarely made in school choice discussions. The students who “choose” to remain in public schools that operate on larger scales of efficiency are harmed by those who choose to divert tax dollars to less efficient and (generally) less effective private alternatives.

Neil Quirk
Vice President
Akron Education Association
Akron, Ohio

Boards: Just Say No To More Technology

To the Editor:

I have read with great interest the pieces “Technological Progress: An Oxymoron?,” (Commentary, Nov. 6, 2002), “Internet Access Has No Impact on Test Scores, Study Says,” (Sept. 4, 2002), and “U.S. Lagging in Graduation Rate, Report Says,” (Nov. 6, 2002), followed by the astute letter of concern by Betty Raskoff Kazmin (“Technology Needs More School Study,” Letters, Dec. 4, 2002).

In comparing access to computers with graduation rates, there actually does appear to be a correlation, but it’s a negative correlation: The more computers in the school, the lower the graduation rate. These kinds of hard data, as pointed out by Ms. Kazmin, should send a powerful message to the schools and the computer companies that unlimited technology is not necessarily good for student achievement. (Although I suspect the companies have known this for quite some time.)

It is now up to the individual school boards to study the issue and feel free to say no to more technology.

Karla Christensen
Garfield County Superintendent
of Schools
Jordan, Mont.

‘The Wizard of Oz’ Fails as Metaphor

To the Editor:

Howard Good’s attempt to use “The Wizard of Oz” as a metaphor (“Off to See the Wizard,” Commentary, Dec. 11, 2002) doesn’t work because the Bush administration’s ultimate goal is not to improve public schools but to dismantle them. The new rules emanating from the U.S. Department of Education that force good schools within a district to accept students from failing schools even if there is no space available give the lie to the rhetoric coming from the White House.

The rules are merely the latest in a series of absurd regulations from the anti-government, pro-private-sector forces ruling the country. And it’s working as planned. The National Association of State Boards of Education estimates that properly funding the testing mandate of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which wrongfully constitutes the basis for determining failing schools, is between $2.7 billion and $7 billion. This sum is a bonanza for the testing companies and textbook publishers, dominated by McGraw-Hill, Houghton-Mifflin, and Harcourt General, known collectively as the Big Three.

When the nation’s support for public schools is finally undermined based upon preposterous rules and dubious test-score results, the stage will be set for total privatization, all in the name of educational quality. I urge Mr. Good to devote his next essay to this subject, rather than engaging in educational fantasy. His journalistic talents are too good to be squandered.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

Bush School Plan Cautions and Caveats

To the Editor:

In “Can the Bush School Plan Work?,” (Commentary, Dec. 4, 2002), Michael Casserly holds on to the notion that the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 has merit because it is well-intended: How could educators complain about wanting all children to achieve at high levels? In my own 30-plus years in this business, I’ve never met a teacher or an administrator who does not want children to succeed.

What is the problem then, as once again we scurry to implement another “new” federal mandate? The problem is simple: It is another federal mandate.

Mr. Casserly cites a number of successful districts and the systemic methods they have been using to improve student learning. His examples are good ones, and they point to what schools can do when given the chance to introduce change that is planned, implemented over time, and well worth the wait for outcomes.

Unfortunately, these same critical components of success are not part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, the law is yet another quick shot from the hip. When the president came riding into town, the “Texas miracle” became the path for all of us to take, like it or not.

It is too bad that the legislation’s good intentions might be lost, as Mr. Casserly writes, in a “national catfight over whether the letter of the law is more important than its grand intent.” But I am one educator who’ll take no blame for that. The law includes sections on school prayer, the rights of the military to have freer access to students, and other questionable entanglements. When we couple these with the Bush administration’s continuing push for vouchers, it becomes obvious that good intentions will have a difficult time finding their way out of this law. Who is to blame for that?

Education remains a major part of our national agenda. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a way to place all students on the same page. We seem to know what works, but no one has yet had the courage to stand back and let these workable solutions happen. Ironically, the progress being made by the districts Mr. Casserly refers to had its initial beginnings well before the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted. Can anyone say “Goals 2000"?

Paul C. Gagliarducci
Superintendent of Schools
Hampden/Wilbraham Regional School District
Wilbraham, Mass.

To the Editor:

The Bush education plan should be given a fair chance to succeed or fail on its own merits. But to my way of thinking, one critical area is being ignored: research on the effects of learning disabilities in adults, such as myself, who weren’t diagnosed until later in life (those age 30 and up, for example).

In the Canadian province of Ontario alone, estimates are that one in seven of the region’s homeless population have learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, or a combination of both.

These people were yesterday’s “problem children” in school and were effectively thrown away by society. Think about it.

Robert M. Trygar
Cottonwood, Calif.

Evidence and Ideology

To the Editor:

In your article (“Can Choice Benefit District Revenues?,” Letters, Nov. 27, 2002), Jon Baron is quoted as saying, “There’s been no improvement in education over the last 30 years, despite a 90 percent increase in real public spending per pupil.”

It’s pretty amazing that Mr. Baron, the executive director of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, would ignore the evidence of educational progress during the 20th century—and the last 30 years in particular—to make such an outrageously false statement. Doesn’t the following qualify as improvement?

  • In 1970, only about 57 percent of whites age 25 or older had completed four years of high school. By 2000, that figure had climbed to 88 percent.
  • In 1970, fewer than 37 percent of all blacks age 25 or older had completed four years of high school. Today, the percentage is nearly 79 percent.
  • In 1970, only 15 percent of white males and fewer than 9 percent of white females over the age of 25 had completed four years of college. By 2000, those percentages had increased to over 30 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
  • In 1970, only about 6 percent of all blacks over the age of 25 had completed four years of college. By 2000, that percentage had more than doubled, to over 16 percent.

In viewing the “long-term trends” in the National Assessment of Educational Progress data from 1970 to 2000, it would appear that the trends are fairly flat, that there has been, as Mr. Baron claims, no real improvement in 30 years. However, there are two NAEP assessments: One is the “long term” assessment, and the other is the “main” assessment.

According to NAEP, “The long-term trend mathematics assessment measures students’ knowledge of basic facts, ability to carry out numerical algorithms using paper and pencil, knowledge of basic measurement formulas as they are applied in geometric settings, and ability to apply mathematics to daily-living skills (such as those related to time and money). The computational focus of the long-term trend assessment provides a unique opportunity to determine how our students are measuring up to traditional procedural skills.”

However, the “main” NAEP assessment involves questions that are more reflective of the kind of problem-solving skills and conceptual understanding that states are demanding of their students. And in this kind of “main” NAEP assessment, which has been in use since 1990, there has been significant improvement across the board in the past decade.

While there is no question that educational policy needs to be “evidence based,” the danger is that political considerations will so narrowly define what constitutes evidence to exclude, or ignore, counterfactual evidence that contradicts a preordained ideological position. In the words of our president, “values trumps data.”

By falsely claiming that there has been “no improvement in education over the last 30 years,” Mr. Baron and others lay a foundational lie upon which the cause for the privatization of public education can be built.

Privatization of public education may in fact turn out, based on the evidence, to be superior in all respects to publicly managed education. But such a conclusion should be based on a careful compilation and review of all the evidence, and not just “evidence” that has been contorted and massaged to fit a pre-existing ideology.

F. Joseph Merlino
Project Director
Greater Philadelphia Secondary
Mathematics Project
La Salle University
Philadelphia, Pa.


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