Succeeding on Tests Isn’t Accountability
To the Editor:
You are falling into the word games surrounding high-stakes testing (“Researchers Debate Impact of Tests,” Feb. 5, 2003). Holding bigger sticks of standardized testing over the heads of younger and younger children isn’t stronger accountability; it’s educational malpractice.
This “standardized-tests-with-higher-stakes-means-stronger-accountability” theme rears its ugly head in the Stanford University study you reported on. That study rated the strength of various states’ accountability efforts and assigned higher ratings to states that reward and punish younger and younger students with standardized-test scores. The automatic assumption is that higher stakes mean stronger accountability. This assumption is simply wrong.
In Virginia, we are busy making the test statistics dance to the rhythm of the politicians. Manipulating and massaging the pass rates to increase the percentages of schools labeled accredited (all legal and sanctioned by the state, mind you) masquerades as rising student achievement. Other measures outside of our Standards of Learning tests simply aren’t matching the rising pass rates. In the end, the children and our communities will pay the price.
People do need to start talking about high-stakes testing and not just about methodologies for studying their effects, as Margaret E. Goertz suggests in your article. Parents across the country have begun the conversation about taking back their schools from the testing mania that pervades our children’s education.
Martin Carnoy, one of the authors of the Stanford study, is right when he says, “There’s lots of reasons to be against tests.” Let’s start with the mistaken belief that accountability is defined as bubbling-in a few more correct answers on standardized tests.
Write as I Say, Not as I Write?
To the Editor:
Ironically, Thomas Newkirk’s recent Commentary “Writing and Pleasure” (Feb. 5, 2003) illustrates what the author condemns. He seeks to persuade readers that writing ought to be taught as gratifying in itself and not a means to an end: “a good college, a good job, a good score.” In the essay, he characterizes the teaching of “tight forms” as “formulaic five-paragraph writing” and “hamburger” composition.
To convince us, Mr. Newkirk illustrates the benefits of having learned the conventions of persuasion in writing. His introduction and conclusion have similar language about standards and testing. The introduction raises questions that lead to his thesis, expressed near the end of the introduction: “I want to say something about the gratifications of writing.” He has three points to make: (a) Training in writing is like riding a stationary bike only and is boring, with gratification too delayed; (b) writing practice ought to be more social; and (c) good writers “listen to the text” and digress rather than following a formula. He ends with three practical bullets and a conclusion.
It looks like a five-paragraph essay to me, persuasive by means of analogy, reason, and illustration, ending with three tight applications—all bookended by an introduction and a conclusion.
Mr. Newkirk is a professor of English. Where did he learn to write like this? Where did he learn to carefully move readers to care about his subject and then persuade them to his thesis? Not from nature, but probably from good teachers who taught him the devices of persuasion, so that now he can experience the gratification of expressing himself well.
Would that all our children could receive the same training in writing!
Dan Vander Ark
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Some Criticisms of High-Stakes Tests
To the Editor:
Laurence Steinberg claims in his recent essay (“Does High-Stakes Testing Hurt Students?,” Commentary, Feb. 5, 2003) that no one should oppose high- stakes testing “if the tests that teachers are teaching to are measuring things we want our students to learn.” This ignores at least three obvious problems with even the best forms of high-stakes testing.
1. There are many “things,” to use Mr. Steinberg’s elegant diction, that we want our students to understand and be able to do well that cannot be measured through even the most expensive high-stakes tests. So the more we rely on high-stakes tests, the more we remove complexity and sophistication and personalization from the curriculum.
Most states, though, are using cheap, multiple-choice high-stakes tests, which do even more damage to complexity and personalization.
2. Some people know “things” quite well indeed, and yet they cannot convey them effectively through high-stakes tests for a variety of cognitive and psychological reasons. Some people know “things,” and they might be able to convey what they know through high-stakes tests if only they had more time, which usually is not available.
3. The more significance you give to high-stakes tests, the more you narrow the curriculum. If we test math and reading and science with high stakes, as President Bush and Congress require that we do in a few years, we will see social studies, history, writing, the arts, world languages, physical education, and any other possible subjects fade from schooling. Listen to teachers in Texas who have written about how schools have become test-prep academies for examples of this phenomenon.
Does high-stakes testing encourage teaching to the test? Mr. Steinberg says, “Probably.” A weak answer. I think “yes” is a lot more likely, if your job and your future employment depend on test scores and compliance.
Does high-stakes testing lead to increased learning? Isn’t it interesting that President Bush, whose “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 calls for scientific data repeatedly as the foundation for policy and curriculum, has plunged the nation into a high-stakes testing experiment with enormous consequences, with absolutely no data showing that this strategy will be successful for young people?
School of Education
Joseph’s Impact on Math Is Also Noted
To the Editor:
Your article on the departure of Marion Joseph from the California state school board highlighted her efforts with regard to the teaching of reading (“Phonics Champion Marion Joseph Quits Calif. State Board,” Jan. 29, 2003). She also has had a substantial impact on the teaching of mathematics and science. For example, she and other members of the state board of education, including Janet Nicholas, changed the direction of mathematics education in the state by restoring a focus on the subject-matter content of mathematics.
They promoted the idea that the mathematics in state documents (such as California’s mathematics standards), in statewide tests, and in school textbooks should be correct. They also promoted the importance of quick recall, facility with basic skills, and the avoidance of calculators in mathematics learning in the early grades.
Professor of Mathematics
University of California, Berkeley
An Idea for States On School Funding
To the Editor:
Here in Texas as in many other states, the search is on for a new revenue stream to help fund public education. A quick look at www.banknd.com will lead the reader to that funding source.
The Bank of North Dakota is the only state-owned and -operated bank in the nation. Any other state could clone this idea and with some modifications, such as chartering an Economic Development Bank, provide a much-needed source of revenue for support of public education.
Of course, the banking lobby would be unnerved by the idea, but shouldn’t the schoolchildren come first?
Some would say why; I prefer to say, why not?
Grand Prairie, Texas
Test-Prep Novel and Testing’s ‘Dark Side’
To the Editor:
Your uncritical, lighthearted approach to reporting on the publication of the “test-prep novel,” The Ring of McAllister, was disappointing (“A Tome for the Timorous and Tremulous,” Feb. 5, 2003). If students can score significantly better on a standardized test because they have read a single book crammed with “essential SAT words,” then the test itself is suspect, perhaps invalid, and unreliable. A quality assessment instrument is all but “prep-proof” (with the exception of students’ becoming familiar with a test’s format).
The issuance by Simon & Schuster and Kaplan Inc. of The Ring of McAllister gives the lie to test-makers’ claims that their products assess long-term student achievement. We’ve known for years that tests such as the SAT I are, in effect, good measures of student socioeconomic status. With the publication of this opus, we’re reminded that standardized tests are also helpful indicators of who has had the opportunity to take a test-prep course, or—ugh—who has read a test-prep novel.
Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology
Eastern Michigan University
Do Latinos Support Bilingual Ed.? Yes.
To the Editor:
Ron K. Unz claims that the recall of Nativo Lopez from the Santa Ana, Calif., school board is evidence that bilingual education is not popular, even among Latinos (“Calif. School Board Member Recalled Over Prop. 227,” Feb. 12, 2003). If this is true, why did 95 percent of the 4,000 Latinos recently polled by the Cheskin Group say they supported bilingual education?
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.
Seeing Budget Bias In New York State
To the Editor:
The New York state education budget as proposed by Gov. George E. Pataki (“N.Y. Governor Proposes Deep Cut in School Aid to Fill Big Budget Gap,” Feb. 5, 2003), though harmful to all school districts, will devastate the state’s minority schools.
While in wealthier districts, state aid may be 5 percent of the total budget, poorer districts may get 50 percent of their money from the state, as they have no other way to pay their bills. For example, districts as different as the property-wealthy Great Neck and the property-poorer Hempstead are both to lose 10 percent of their state aid; however, Great Neck will lose $721,000, while Hempstead loses $5 million.
And to make matters worse, the Great Neck taxpayer will have to pony up less than 1 percent more in property taxes to accommodate that loss, while the average Hempstead homeowner will pay almost 10 percent more. And as a percentage of income, this discrepancy is even more devastating.
Education program cuts will most certainly occur in Hempstead at a time when its high school graduation rate and its scores on state tests, like those of most other poor school districts, are below those of neighboring districts.
New York will be denying high school graduation to students who don’t pass the nation’s most demanding tests at the same time it plans to renege on its promise to assist schools in providing the necessary services.
East Hills, N.Y.
Add Puerto Rico To Quality Counts
To the Editor:
As the president and co-founder of Sapientis, an education and leadership nonprofit organization working in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I was disappointed to find that Puerto Rico was not included in your annual report, Quality Counts 2003: “If I Can’t Learn From You ...” (Jan. 9, 2003).
Puerto Rico’s department of education works under the auspices of the United States and is the third- largest school district (behind New York City and Los Angeles), with approximately 615,000 students, 1,525 schools, and 40,000 teachers. Unfortunately for its considerable size, Puerto Rico’s education system is experiencing a dearth of resources, and the department of education is struggling to meet the requirements of the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001.
Of the 615,000 students, over 81 percent are eligible for free or reduced- price lunches. Illiteracy in Puerto Rico is at 11 percent, compared with 3 percent in the United States, and 40 percent of Puerto Rico’s population does not hold a high school diploma. According to Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Cesar Rey, 52 percent of students who start 1st grade drop out before graduating from high school.
The poverty rate for children between the ages of 5 and 17 is a staggering 58.5 percent. And student achievement data show that more than 43 percent of students who are below the poverty line are less than proficient in Spanish, their native language, and about 58 percent are less than proficient in English.
So, like many other districts, the public education system in Puerto Rico is facing some serious challenges that need to be addressed.
Exacerbating the problem is the difficulty Puerto Rico encounters in recruiting and hiring highly qualified teachers. At the start of the 2001-02 school year, there were more than 800 teaching vacancies in Puerto Rico’s public schools. According to a report submitted last March to the U.S. Department of Education, 3,029 teachers “are in need of a certification at the moment.” Identifying and hiring highly qualified teachers is only going to become more difficult.
Like every other district in the country, Puerto Rico is responsible for meeting the requirements outlined in the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act and should be held accountable for doing so. That is why I am always surprised when Puerto Rico is left out of the national dialogue on education reform. Including Puerto Rico in studies such as Quality Counts 2003 is critical for the improvement of the island’s public education system.
We cannot apply different standards of accountability to different areas of the United States. By neglecting Puerto Rico in national studies, we are doing just that.
President & Co-Founder
San Juan, Puerto Rico
To Honor Heroes, Tell Their Stories
To the Editor:
During the service at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to mourn the lives and dreams lost on the shuttle Columbia (“Shuttle Crash Fails to Deter NASA Interest,” Feb. 12, 2003), President Bush spoke of how, as young children, these astronauts dreamed of flying planes, traveling to space, “walking on air.”
Listening, I began to think of the young children in our care, of their potential, their dreams, and the opportunities before them as Americans in a modern world.
How do we, as educators, pay tribute to the Columbia astronauts, their families, and the many other Americans who have seen the unobtainable as obtainable and, in the process, given so much to their country?
We can tell their stories.
I fear that with each new generation, we become another step removed from our past, and our children become another step removed from understanding the meaning of our history.
We must not tell them only of the battles Americans have fought, but instill in them the ideals for which those battles were fought. We must remind our students not just of the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia, but of what those losses meant to a nation born out of the desire to live freely in mind, body, and spirit.
The greatest honor we can bestow on the seven we mourn is to give to current and future generations an understanding of the privileges we have been given, the responsibilities that come with our inherited liberties, and the sacrifices too often necessary to keep a dream alive.
Richard J. Thomas
School Administrators Association of New York State
Failing Process: The Planning Process and ‘Organized Ignorance’
To the Editor:
Mike Schmoker has had a number of fine insights into continuous school improvement. His recent Commentary (“Planning for Failure?” Feb. 12, 2003) is not among them.
Mr. Schmoker’s planning vocabulary is no less muddled than that which he excoriates. He dismisses “improvement planning,” “strategic planning,” “comprehensive planning,” “comprehensive reform planning,” and, by implication, all forms of planning with the same simple bromide that all we need to do is get teachers working collegially in small teams.
He envisions schools where teams of teachers meet “regularly—and continuously—to design, test, and then adjust their lessons and strategies in light of their results.” What results? How does the district become sufficiently focused to identify this as a need? How does a district make this happen? How does a district keep its focus on core purposes while several dozen independent teacher-teams meet in isolation?
Mr. Schmoker’s suggestion guarantees that districts will further aggravate their already severely fragmented state. Today, schools are fragmented into buildings, grades, departments, programs, and other varieties of “turf.” What process does he suggest to align and focus district resources to ensure that his suggestion happens? Certainly not a plan.
Yes, as Mike Schmoker says: “Teachers, working together, have the capacity—right now—to improve instruction.” But not outside the aligning function of a clear, concise, dynamic planning process that becomes the way schools do their business—every day and every way. Certainly, quality of instruction is important, but there are many out-of-class reasons why instruction may be weak and beyond the power of teacher committees to resolve.
Yes, there are many problems with planning processes carried out by districts used to just “doing school” and seeing no need to change fundamental procedures. Having isolated teams of teachers discussing the improvement of instruction when all other resources are not focused on that end is not the answer.
Michael Fullan, referenced by Mr. Schmoker, had this to say at the recently held National Staff Development Council conference in Boston: “The minimum unit we will work with is the district.” Finally, someone has said publicly that the “building” is not the unit for change. There was much applause.
Mr. Fullan emphasized the need for “systems change"—hence the need to work at the district level. Having worked with many districts in the area of comprehensive district educational planning, I was elated to hear that he had finally come to this conclusion. A conclusion Mike Schmoker so vociferously disregards.
Paul G. Preuss
The writer, now retired, is a former teacher, principal, superintendent, and director of the New York State Technical Assistance Center for Comprehensive Planning.
To the Editor:
Thank goodness for common-sense Commentaries such as Mike Schmoker’s. Its timing was perfect—right in the middle of the current school year, when I am assessing first-half efforts and prioritizing plans for the remainder of the year. As my school’s math coordinator, I have been inspired by the progress that has occurred when our faculty has met regularly to address crucial pedagogical issues.
I am currently a member of my school’s curriculum- mapping committee. Our efforts began last year, with the administration identifying mapping as a primary agenda item for faculty meetings, as well as a major focus for in-service days. Both the committee and the full faculty have had many enlightening discussions during the year that have helped further refine our approach to this important form of curriculum documentation. While we had an overall mapping plan in place, thanks in part to committee members’ attendance at several conferences, the procedures have been revised at times. This has been due to questions and input from the faculty that have arisen because of the ample timing and collaboration built into the process.
Teacher isolation and lack of group decisionmaking occur too frequently in our field. I hope that, as educators, we can all experience the sense of accomplishment and ownership that comes from addressing meaningful issues over a sustained length of time. As is supported by Mr. Schmoker’s fine examples, this gift of time and collaboration is clearly the most crucial factor in any school-related project.
To the Editor:
Project Follow Through, the largest study on reading pedagogies ever conducted, pitted several dozen approaches in a research “horse race.” The most successful approach, Direct Instruction, was designed by Siegfried Engelmann and his colleagues, a team whose roots were largely outside the education system, though its members had a lot of experience working with disadvantaged students. The least successful approaches, according to this massive study, were those home-grown models designed by teachers themselves.
Thus, the most reliable, abundant source of data we have on the topic refutes Mike Schmoker’s contention that teacher collaboration, in and of itself, is the best strategy for improving a school, or even a very good strategy.
Much more important is having a clear, coherent curriculum with clear, sequential lessons. Asking the teachers both to write such a curriculum and deliver it is like asking a Shakespearean actor to be Shakespeare and perform him. Very few can do both.
More evidence that this is so can be found in the recent meta-analysis of studies of comprehensive school reform models. It shows that the two interventions with the biggest effect sizes are Direct Instruction and Success For All—both highly scripted curricula designed for teachers but not by teachers. (The fact that a lot of teachers don’t like them is only further evidence that “conventional wisdom” in education—the sort of wisdom produced by routinized collaboration—cannot be trusted. The bottom line is that the data show these programs work for kids.)
Common sense may tell us that collaboration is a good thing, like apple pie, to promote collegiality, buy-in, a shared sense of purpose, and problem-solving on details. But beyond that? I don’t know what schools you’ve been in or what teachers you’ve been around, but the ones I find in urban systems are (with a few exceptions) the last folks I would go to for the solution(s) to what ails them. Absent a solid curriculum, solid content knowledge, and solid behavior-management systems (all things that are most often devised and imparted from outside the school), their “collaborations” tend to produce the same thing that the infamous five- paragraph essay produces in the poor kids they struggle to teach: organized ignorance.
No, what teachers need is not more talk among themselves. (I know this is a simplification of Mr. Schmoker’s view, but more sophisticated “processes” tend to break down in implementation.) They need effective instructional tools, training in how to use them, a data-collection and analysis system, and subject-area mastery. And they will get these things by and large from others.
Federal Influence: What Washington Should, Could, and Must Not Do for Public Schools
To the Editor:
I wish there were a national curriculum (“Federal Influence Over Curriculum Exhibits Growth,” Feb. 5, 2003). Living in Florida, I have many students who come and go throughout the year. If there were a national curriculum, I would not have to wonder (as much as I do) about whether or not these students will know what they need to know for my math class.
Murdock Middle School
Port Charlotte, Fla.
To the Editor:
I would like the government to set up a national standard concerning when key information is taught in schools. For example, during middle school, most districts teach the states and their capitals. I moved from state to state when I was younger, and kept missing important information because each district taught it in different grades.
When it comes to deciding on the teaching methods to be used, that is best left to the teachers and parents—the ones who know the children the best.
To the Editor:
Most (if not all) politicians have little or no real understanding for what is or is not an appropriate curriculum for students. The government is constantly looking for an equal standard that fits all, or for some watered-down version that may fit all. Politicians have difficulty understanding the concepts that all children do not learn at the same rate or with the same strategies, and that all teachers are not the same.
I believe that the federal government should be involved in funding. But lawmakers need to really be out in the schools, looking at and learning about what is real in education today, not simply using schools as backdrops for photo-ops.
All of the controversy over whether New York City should use the Month by Month Phonics program is typical of the kind of lack of understanding politicians have for the fact that no one program is the be-all, end-all to fulfill the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001’s requirement for research-proven strategies. They should read Richard Allington’s What Really Matters to Struggling Readers: Designing Research- Based Programs to see the “realness” of trying to find programs that will fit this research-based requirement.
To me, the Bush administration seems tied to particular viewpoints about what best helps children learn. If those who make and carry out our laws don’t get real about learning about what is real with schools today, the reality of such a narrow viewpoint controlling what is learned or how it is learned will become the norm, and the children I teach who are in the lower quartiles will continue to be shortchanged.
Patricia A. Tomlinson
To the Editor:
After researching how much states spent in 2002 (approximately $405 billion) to produce essentially the same curriculum, purchase outdated textbooks, and still have other countries outperform us in science and math, I thought I’d toss up a suggestion.
It appears to me that an obvious solution is to develop a national education Web site that would do the following:
- Leverage the best in-class resources (without copyright restrictions) and maintain up-to-date computer-based curricula in all major subject areas for K- 12 education, curricula that are graduated to entice the slowest learner and challenge the fastest learners.
- Give states and localities a framework to develop and substitute or augment material for their areas. This would allow states that oppose certain content, based on whatever objections, to post alternatives for their students.
- Provide performance testing at points along the way to verify that students are achieving the learning goals.
- Make the material taught amenable to many levels of learning, so that students could drill down into the subjects they’re most interested in. Testing would also show areas where the curriculum might need improvement to teach the core content.
- Post curriculum on the Internet, so that everyone would have access to accurate information for reference. This would level the playing field for those cities currently struggling financially, and for parents who choose to home school.
- Allow classroom time to then focus more on teamwork and group exercises and less on lecture.
Democracy and our system of justice depend on a literate and skilled populace to make informed decisions. As an engineer and the father of a 1-year-old, I firmly believe we could have this system in place by the time my son is ready to start kindergarten. I estimate that it could be developed in five years at a cost of $6 billion. This is approximately 1.5 percent of the current money spent in this area. The obvious place to build this would be at the federal level.
To the Editor:
The federal government has gradually encroached upon the states’ constitutional oversight of education in local schools via school boards. By dictating the use of particular programs, such as Reading First, it has become an advocate for growing federal control of schools, using direct manipulation of the curriculum.
While the office of the U.S. secretary of education became a Cabinet-level position in the Carter administration, it has been reduced to the equivalent of the press secretary of education for the president. This should change. The Department of Education must be a powerful political voice for all children, a responsibility that should begin with encouraging the states to examine a variety of best practices for local communities to apply as they struggle to improve lives and learning.
If the federal government has any public role in education, it should be leading the dialogue on the equitable funding of public schools.
The federal government needs to listen to the citizens before it speaks on our behalf, and to hear before it acts. As citizens, we must use the ballot box to be heard. It is our country, our Constitution, and they are all our children.
Urban Teacher Preparation Instructor
University of Missouri-St. Louis
St. Louis, Mo.
Culture Clash: Classroom Values Can Vex Native-Born Students, Too
To the Editor:
In the article “Culture Clash” (On Assignment , Feb. 5, 2003), you relate the concern of immigrant families whose conservative-Christian or other traditional values conflict with the “tremendously destructive [American] culture” that these parents believe prevails in our schools and communities. The Harrisonburg, Va., school district is to be commended for its efforts to serve a large immigrant population with strategies described in your article: communication through newsletters translated into students’ native languages, the ability to “opt out of ‘family life’ classes, or sex education,” and allowing girls “from cultures that require modest dress to wear sweat pants instead of shorts for gym class.”
I am confident that most, if not all, schools make similar accommodations as we try to be sensitive to such families, and we certainly should do so. But what about children born and raised in this country whose families share the same beliefs? Many native parents in my community and others like it share Leonard Yavny’s beliefs, expressed in your article: that “Darwin’s theory of evolution contradicts biblical truths ... [that] youths shouldn’t be taught about sex ... [and that their children should not] be exposed to Halloween.”
In general, you use the word “culture” synonymously with “nationality.” In education vernacular, we do not use the word so broadly; we recognize that families, schools, and communities represent their own distinct cultures. If that is the case, is there a daily culture clash that goes unnoticed in our schools?
The problem this article brings into focus is not simply that we need to modify our sensitivity to immigrant families. If anything, we all could do more to facilitate these children’s transition into the life of our schools and communities. But I believe that schools in general, and teachers in particular, need to develop the same sensitivity toward American children whose families share the beliefs espoused by the immigrant families in the article. That culture clash can be just as devastating to the child who comes to school speaking the same language as the other students, but not at all sharing the larger belief system that operates within the school.
I have observed teachers with the best intentions who never considered how the conservative Christian child feels at hearing Harry Potter books read in class, or how the Pentecostal girl feels when mocked for never wearing anything but a long skirt to school. For these children, such experiences are considered just a part of coming of age. There is no liaison on staff to work with such families.
It is our responsibility as administrators and teachers to become sensitized to differences of all subcultures. As a conservative Christian, I can sometimes see why many families pull their students out to school them at home, although I do not agree with that practice. I have always worked in the public school system, and my children were educated in public schools. I trust American schools because I believe that ultimately, school personnel want what is best for students.
We administrators would not for a minute tolerate any overt form of bullying or derision within our school, but are we as sensitive to the derision of a conservative child’s values? The “destructive” popular culture referenced in this article may be the culture of choice for many Americans, but it is not the culture of choice for all. The article refers to the “difficulty [of] negotiating the two different worlds of home and school.” The fact is that many children contend with two different worlds.
When the family from just down the street asks that their child not be required to participate in the obligatory dinosaur unit in kindergarten, or the 8th grader says that she does not want to be in the room when evolution is discussed, or the 5th grader tells his teacher that he is not allowed to read a book that has anything to do with magic or sorcery, or the 12th grade girl is offended by the graphic language in one passage of Grendel, how do teachers react? With derision? With mockery? With understanding?
Such complaints are very real and valid—just as valid as those of the Ukrainian families in your article.
East Middle School