Education Letter to the Editor


May 07, 2003 18 min read
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Remembering Risk: A Source for Data

To the Editor:

Education Week is to be congratulated for its excellent and thoughtful commentary on the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk (“Nation at Risk: The Next Generation,” April 23, 2003.) Your readers might like to know that the Public Agenda survey data cited in the section’s article “Less Than Awesome” are available in Public Agenda’s new report, “Where We Are Now: 12 Things You Need to Know about Public Opinion and Public Schools,” which was funded by Washington Mutual.

The report provides never-before-available analysis drawn from more than 25 major opinion studies on where major stakeholders in education— parents, students, teachers, school leaders, employers, and college professors— stand on a wide range of critical issues.

All of this information and analysis is available free of charge on the Public Agenda Web site at www.publicagenda.org.

Deborah Wadsworth
Public Agenda
New York, N.Y.

Risk Story Needed Sensitive Language

To the Editor:

In the article “Skating By,” included in your “Nation at Risk: The Next Generation” Special Pullout Report (April 23, 2003), you state: “Federal law puts limitations on the number of days a special education student can be suspended.” This statement, which I assume refers to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, deserves a response on two counts.

First, the phrase “special education student” is representative of many Education Week articles that do not observe “people-first language.” The use of people-first language is an important and widely accepted practice. People-first language is a concept that acknowledges the power of language to control and “otherize” people with disabilities. Consequently, people-first language requires that we use phrases that emphasize the person and not the disability, like “students with disabilities” instead of “disabled students.”

People-first language is such a powerful concept that the 1990 amendments to the IDEA—the very statute you reference— included changing the term “handicapped children” to “children with disabilities.” In 1992, then-Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania issued an executive order requiring all state agencies, boards, and commissions to use people-first language. Executive Order 1992-3 said that by using such language, we “recognize that individuals with disabilities are people first, with the rights, aspirations, and talents possessed by all of us, with their disabilities treated as a significant but secondary factor.”

As a professor of special education, I routinely reinforce the use of people-first language with my students, who are all preservice or in-service teachers. Your newspaper’s observance of such language in future issues would provide an excellent model for our future and current teachers.

My second response is this: Saying that "[f]ederal law puts limitations on the number of days a student [with a disability] can be suspended” is misleading to many readers because of the information left out. By “limitations,” your article must be referring to the procedural steps that school districts are required to accomplish before suspending students with disabilities for more than 10 days in a school year. I make this assumption because, in fact, it is possible for students with disabilities to be “suspended” for virtually any number of days— the same as students without disabilities—provided that IDEA procedures are followed.

It is important to note that this principle—extending the due- process clause of the U.S. Constitution to the suspension of students from school—was established in 1975 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Goss v. Lopez, a case that was not about children with disabilities. Accordingly, the procedural steps in the IDEA simply represent Congress’ effort to ensure that children with disabilities receive the due-process rights guaranteed to all citizens by the 14th Amendment, which prevents the government (public school) from depriving a citizen (student) of life, liberty, or property (education) without due process.

Granted, because of their disabilities, children protected under the IDEA are owed extra procedural steps, compared with their peers without disabilities, but those extra steps ensure equal protection of the law, not additional protection. The critical understanding is this: According to the Supreme Court, the Constitution entitles all students to due process when facing suspension from school. Consequently, isn’t it fair to say that federal law puts “limitations” on the number of days any student can be suspended?

Providing incomplete information only serves to perpetuate inaccurate perceptions about the laws protecting children with disabilities.

Children with disabilities are children first. Our language ought to reflect that reality, and our rhetoric should support their receiving the same equal protection of the law as children who are nondisabled.

Richard E. Dale
Assistant Professor of Education
and Special Education
Mansfield University
Mansfield, Pa.

Teacher Morale Is ‘Make or Break’

To the Editor:

John Ramsay’s meaningful Commentary “Savor the Slump: Vivian Pale’s Rythmn of Teaching,” (April 16, 2003) reminded me, a longtime teacher, of a brief list I recently pulled together for a booklet on “The Teaching Life.” They are notes and reminders gleaned from my 40-plus years of experience in the field.

One reminder states: “I need to know how to re-energize and motivate myself so that I can help motivate those I teach.” Teacher morale and ability to get through and over slumps, so well articulated by Vivian Paley and John Ramsay, is the “make or break” of every program, every curriculum.

Dorothy Rich
Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.

Charters Can Close Achievement Gap

To the Editor:

A recent working paper, “Charter Schools and Inequality: National Disparities in Funding, Teacher Quality, and Student Support,” finds that charter schools are hiring far more noncredentialed, younger, and less experienced teachers than noncharter public schools. The report’s authors imply that this “disparity” may mean charter schools will simply replicate the achievement gap persistent in the broader public school system (“Charter Schools Found Lacking Resources,” April 16, 2003).

Those interested in charter schools as a means to help close the achievement gap may be dismayed by these findings. But a closer look at the facts points to the opposite conclusion.

Charter schools are using their human-resource dollars strategically. Using average salary and age figures masks the important fact that charter schools tend to employ a range of teacher-experience levels, hiring a few very experienced “master teachers” to mentor a group of younger teachers. With the money they save from this hiring strategy, the charter schools might choose to lower class sizes or invest in staff development. This contrasts sharply with the typical staffing pattern seen in most public school systems.

In Seattle, for example, most north-end schools, with students from high-income families, tend to have a stable staff of mainly older, more experienced teachers, while the south-end schools have high levels of turnover and a much lower average age for teachers. When schools have real budgets to spend, they make rational choices to best serve their students’ needs.

Charter school hiring and compensation are based on skill, not seniority. Economist Caroline Hoxby from Harvard University has found that, when compared with other public schools, charter schools hire more teachers who were educated at select colleges, who have degrees in specific subjects (like history or English) as opposed to education, and who have good math and science skills.

Ms. Hoxby also finds that the incremental return to such characteristics in terms of pay is higher at charter schools. (Charter schools pay slightly lower salaries on average than regular public schools do, but charter schools allow pay to vary more with teachers’ characteristics.) Many charter schools, for instance, place more emphasis on pay scales based on expertise and performance than on seniority pay scales. Caroline Hoxby’s research also suggests that charter schools may be more likely to retain highly skilled teachers. (See National Bureau of Economic Research at http://papers.nber.org/papers/w7866 .)

In the study you reported, Bruce Fuller makes an insupportable leap to conclude that his data imply charter schools will replicate the achievement gap. Reliable nationwide achievement studies are still hard to come by, but credible state achievement studies consistently show that charter schools are more likely than other public schools to improve more quickly and to improve test scores for minority students. New research from California, for example, shows that charter schools more than 5 years old are making gains more quickly than their regular-public-school counterparts with similar demographic characteristics. Credible studies from Texas, Arizona, and Los Angeles show similarly encouraging results.

Dan Goldhaber has demonstrated that traditional measures of teacher quality, such as certification and years of experience, explain only 3 percent of school improvement data attributable to teacher influence.

If we really care about closing the achievement gap, we should encourage the strategic uses of teacher hiring and placement that charter schools are employing. Maybe charter schools are proving that real control over budgets and staffs allows public schools to better leverage the other 97 percent of teacher characteristics that help students achieve.

Let the results speak for themselves, and don’t be fooled by scare tactics from people who think credentialing and hours spent in front of a class offer any guarantee of good teaching.

Robin Lake
Associate Director
Center on Reinventing Public Education
Seattle, Wash.

Multiple Leaders for Low-Income Schools

To the Editor:

Your article on the principal shortage (“Study Finds Good Supply of Principals, But Not for All Types of Schools,” April 16, 2003) rang very true for me. It is often difficult to find candidates to fill the principalships at many schools. Two of the low-income schools at which I have worked have had this problem.

Tensions among staff members at such schools are also exacerbated by the difficulties with leadership. Everyone wants to blame the principal if they don’t feel supported in this difficult work. There is a huge burden placed on the principals.

These schools need a new model of leadership, if we are really committed to leveling the playing field for low- income students. They would ideally have a leader for curriculum and teacher support, a leader for discipline issues, and a leader for all the other roles the principal is expected to play.

The three leaders should have equal power within the organization. Districts should also have access to outside management mediators to help schools work through the management and communication issues that arise from having multiple leaders (teachers need to be strong leaders in their classrooms, but they also need to be able to work together for school growth to occur).

If schools had access to quality mediation, they could resolve conflicts, or at least agree to disagree, before the conflicts affect teacher morale and therefore student achievement.

Sarah Zykanov
San Rafael, Calif.

‘Embed’ Journalists In Nation’s Schools

To the Editor:

The practice of “embedding” journalists with U.S. troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom brought the realities of war directly and immediately into the homes and consciousness of Americans.

I propose that we embed journalists in Operation Restore Respect, where the next campaign takes place in the theater of the public school classroom.

The advantages of providing the public with unedited broadcasts from journalists embedded in the classroom are numerous. Live broadcasts would expose a key contributor to the impending teacher shortage: the conditions that send eager “recruits” packing to a new career in record time (three years on the average). The public would also gain insight into the driving force behind veteran educators in the field. As journalists report the educators’ delight in their students’ accomplishments and potential, pride in their profession, and dedication in preparing children to shape the future, a new respect for those who choose the gratification of a job well done over a paycheck may begin to emerge.

Support for the “troops” is essential if meaningful change is to take place. Embedded journalists in our schools would also gain firsthand experience of the impact that orders made by officers who have never served in the classroom, let alone the field of education, have on frontline morale.

Finally, embedded journalists in schools would bring to light the importance of each and every individual’s being an informed, active participant in the election process. Educated voters can ask questions that need answers. They can determine the priorities and issues needing to be addressed. They can hold their representatives accountable for providing a quality education for their children through the wise use of their tax dollars and responsive legislation.

The dialogue these embedded journalists promise to inspire could cause all parties to think more critically about the issues surrounding education and the necessity of addressing them.

Reports from the front lines revealing the inner workings of our education system are precisely what is needed if respect for the institution of education and its agents is to be restored. Unifying reform cannot take place in an environment of mistrust and contempt.

Karen Giesler
Kirkwood, Mo.

Teaching Students About Child Labor

I am grateful for your front-page article on teaching about child labor (“Schools Take On Studies of Child Labor,” April 16, 2003). Our New York State Labor-Religion Coalition (a nonprofit, educational organization) has found that child labor is a subject that strongly engages students and increases their interest in geography, social studies, civics, history, reading, math, and economics. Such study also informs important consumer choices, such as what they wear and eat.

Your article mentioned a bill signed by Gov. George E. Pataki in 2001. This law allows New York state’s approximately 720 school districts to reject bids from manufacturers that use child labor (or horrible working conditions for adult workers). It passed into law because New Yorkers strongly agree that having caps, sports uniforms, and other apparel made by exploited children is not only unacceptable, it’s something that should in no way be supported by tax dollars. Each school district in New York is now encouraged to adopt a purchasing policy and bidding regulations that end the district’s accomplice role in the continuation of child labor.

We have found that one major barrier to education about child labor is the overwhelming nature the problem (246 million children worldwide, your article said).

Something this big often results in passivity. But I’m happy to say New York’s law is empowering students, teachers, administrators, and others to act. They are, for example, “adopting a district,” and bringing their own school districts to sweat-free purchasing status. Cities and counties are also adopting laws that reject the purchase of child-labor products. Here is a case where “thinking globally and acting locally” is proving effective.

For more information about this campaign, readers can go to www.labor-religion.org.

And for an inspiring education about what youths themselves are doing worldwide to end child labor, I highly recommend the Web site for Free the Children, an organization begun by a 12-year-old named Craig Kielburger when he read about the same Iqbal Masih mentioned in your article whom Ron Adams says “changed everything.” The Web site is www.freethechildren.org.

Brian O’Shaughnessy
Latham, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Your April 16, 2003, article on child labor mentioned classroom projects on fair-trade chocolate. Teachers wanting to learn more about these projects can contact Global Exchange to get Fair Trade Chocolate activity books and action guides for K-12 students.

All these materials are available online at melissa@globalexchange.org, or by calling (415) 575-5538.

Melissa Schweisguth
Fair Trade Coordinator
Global Exchange
San Francisco, Calif.

Remaking Iraqi Schools

To the Editor:

Your article “U.S. to Remake School System in Postwar Iraq” (April 16, 2003), is long on critiquing education in Iraq under the old regime and very short on understanding what it takes to change, let alone “remake,” a school system that has to serve a diverse population. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s apparent naiveté is just as striking.

Though your article acknowledges the problems associated with revising the curriculum and pedagogy of the old regime by quoting Joseph Braude and Andrea B. Rugh, its failure to discuss the role of teachers and communities is stunning. Even more naive is the USAID’s expectation that anything significant can be accomplished in a year. That will hardly be enough time to set up participatory processes for successful implementation of change, and that’s if everything were to go well.

Experience around the world in countries with educational conditions similar to Iraq’s now has shown that local action to improve education has greater potential for success than centrally driven reforms. Corruption is reduced if the community receives the funds to fix or expand its schools, because the transaction is more transparent and makes responsible those who want their children’s education.

In countries where teachers’ salaries are too low to sustain a family (which I suspect will be the case in Iraq for the near future), teachers only come to work regularly when there are other incentives. Experience in Africa, Asia, and South America over the last 10 to 15 years has found that incentives like the following help create more effective teaching: an insistent and supportive supervisory structure, adequate teaching materials, frequent professional-development opportunities, local planning and implementation of funded school improvement activities, and in-kind gifts and appreciation from the community in which a teacher serves.

Since the 1980s, many countries have developed effective models of implementation that use decentralized approaches to improving primary education. For example, India’s District Primary Education Program has successfully begun to change teaching and learning for over 50 million students in tens of thousands of village primary schools by combining local implementation of construction with the supply of textbooks, grants for materials to teachers and schools, and local teacher-development activities.

By putting the resources in the hands of local people with a strong technical-support network, there has been more educational success and less loss of funds than in previous centrally administered programs.

Countries as diverse as Brazil, Chile, Senegal, Guinea (Conakry), and Madagascar have similar experiences with local planning and implementation models that drive educational change. Still, even after years of experience, significant changes in pedagogy are just becoming permanent in some places.

In the United States, I think all experienced educators know that teachers change their teaching methods slowly and only when they see that it makes their jobs more efficient as well as more effective. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, by David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban, records the American experience over the last 100 years and testifies to the conservative power of teachers.

The international ethnographical literature on teacher behavior has also begun to document how implicit beliefs and frameworks for social behavior condition and sustain what teachers do in their classrooms in other cultures, regardless of the pedagogy they are trained to use (for example, Teaching and Learning: The Culture of Pedagogy, by Prema Clarke).

Remaking school systems to teach differently is not easy or fast, even in the best of circumstances.

And here we have the USAID apparently looking for help to “make” Iraq capable of teaching democracy by the end of a year, when even the form of democracy in Iraq will almost certainly not yet have been decided. Furthermore, the U.S. investment is expected to introduce “child-centered, inquiry-based, participatory teaching methods.” We’re still trying to become effective at this in our own country after 100 years, and there are plenty of critics who suggest that this is a dangerous direction for pedagogy to aspire to.

Even if one accepts the premise that this kind of pedagogy is good for everyone, we should note that almost 15 years after the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, where there is a commitment to change, the school systems are still struggling to inculcate more child-centered and inquiry-based teaching attitudes and methods.

Your article leaves me concerned that in education, as in other aspects of the U.S. adventure in Iraq, the United States government has assumed that there are simple solutions to that country’s terribly complex problems, when experience everywhere else tells us that this cannot be so. My hat is off to the Academy for Educational Development for deciding not to participate in such a shortsighted misadventure.

Personally, I remain dumbfounded and perplexed as to how a nation as rich and well-educated as ours can be so simple-minded, both in conceptualizing an approach to help Iraq and in reporting on this approach. What’s that tell us about our own success in educating Americans using the kind of education that the USAID is asking a contractor to introduce in Iraq?

Ward Heneveld
Senior Educator, Retired
The World Bank
Enosburg Falls, Vt.


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