Education Opinion


October 01, 2003 10 min read
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In Support of Multiage, Nongraded Classes

To the Editor:

Your front-page headline reading “Once-Popular ‘Multiage Grouping’ Loses Steam” (Sept. 10, 2003) was probably written by a pessimist. The statistics presented in your article, after all, demonstrate that the majority of Kentucky’s elementary schools (52 percent) are organized as “nongraded” or multiage classrooms.

Also, as the Louisville principal Stephen Tyra explains, even as he allowed teachers to return to teaching a single grade, he also had them combine multiage and multi-ability classes for special activities and assured that students were shifted to classes best suiting their needs, thereby meeting compliance with the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.

In addition to nongraded primary classes, other important KERA correlates are teacher collaboration and developmentally appropriate practices. The combination of these three elements is considered necessary to improve learning for students.

As one who provided some of the initial training programs for Kentucky, I am aware of the state’s commitment to staff development in the beginning years. However, the changing economy has limited continuing efforts, which are crucial for all staff members and essential for new teachers. In addition, the timelines for the initial implementation were reduced, as politicians became impatient and demanded “instant” reform.

The longer students are in multiage classes as compared to single-grade classes, the greater are the social-emotional and academic benefits. This trend has been evident in over 40 years of research studies. However, the practice of nongradedness has waxed and waned as the economy has waxed and waned.

In good times, multiage, developmentally appropriate classes have flourished. But once the economy goes sour, it is “back to basics,” with accountability and testing of students and teachers being loudly proclaimed by the politicians.

I admit to being an advocate for nongraded, multiage classes. I have worked on the research since the 1960s, been the principal of a nongraded, team-teaching school, and with Robert H. Anderson published a book on the subject, Nongradedness: Helping It to Happen. My advocacy is based on experience, an understanding of the theoretical concepts behind the practice, and the research evidence.

My hope is that this latest accountability emphasis won’t totally destroy the magnificent efforts already made to improve Kentucky schools.

Barbara Nelson Pavan
Emerita Professor of Educational Leadership
Temple University
Philadelphia, Pa.

Better ‘Text Navigation’ to Aid Boys’ Literacy

To the Editor:

Thomas Newkirk’s observations in “The Quiet Crisis in Boys’ Literacy” (Commentary, Sept. 10, 2003) carry with them several powerful implications for ways to shape instruction to address what has been called elsewhere “the new gender gap.” In addition to those factors Mr. Newkirk identifies as contributing to many boys’ weaker performance and more limited engagement in reading and writing, I would identify yet another based on recent research.

While many boys (and at least some girls) express a preference for texts that present more than one “entry point” and can be navigated in alternative ways by readers, the vast majority of reading selections students see in school are linear-discursive and must be navigated in a single, predetermined way. Widening reading choices to include not merely more informational selections, but those that are “chunked” and infused with a rich variety of text features such as charts, diagrams, and insets, will encourage more active “construction work” as readers construct meaning.

Including such selections in classroom libraries and as instructional resources builds on many boys’ strengths and inclinations as readers while giving many girls an opportunity to expand their reading repertoires.

Gail Lynn Goldberg
Educational Consultant
Baltimore, Md.

The writer is a co-author, with Barbara Sherr Roswell, of Reading, Writing, and Gender (Eye on Education, 2002).

And Newspapers Help ...

To the Editor:

Teachers concerned about boys’ literacy should bring newspapers into the classroom on a daily basis (“The Quiet Crisis in Boys’ Literacy” Commentary, Sept. 10, 2003). Most boys start with the sports pages, then gradually migrate to other parts of the newspapers, increasing their vocabulary and acquiring knowledge of current events and business in a natural way.

Carrying around a newspaper can be masculine.

Today’s news has the drama of a Shakespeare play: Think of the scheming politician, the troubled leader, the family conflicts told so well in the plays. These characters and plots show up in the newspaper all the time.

Today’s news often ends up in history textbooks. Teachers can help students grasp history by comparing and contrasting today’s news with textbook material: Students are often astonished at how history repeats itself.

Newspaper writing style is accessible to many struggling readers, most of whom are boys. Who, what, when, where, why, how are easy to decode in the crisp sentences of news columns.

Thousands of teachers have written me of the positive impact the newspaper I work for has made in the lives of their students, from grades 4-12. These are students who were at first wary of reading The New York Times, but with practice became, in one teacher’s words, “addicted to it and complaining when they don’t have it.”

Best of all, independent research has shown over the past 30 years that newspapers make a significant impact on test scores measuring reading, writing, and vocabulary.

Most newspapers in America have Newspaper in Education, or NIE, programs that offer free or very low-cost deliveries. Readers should simply call their local newspapers and ask for information. The boys in your school will thank you (and so will the girls).

Ellen S. Doukoullos
Newspaper in Education Manager
The New York Times Knowledge Network
New York, N.Y.

History, Social Studies, and the ‘Patriotic’

To the Editor:

Chester E. Finn Jr. and his “contrarians” have the right idea when they note that social studies is “muddled” (“‘Contrarians’ Launch Salvo at Social Studies Traditions,” Sept. 3, 2003). I think, however, that they are making this point at the wrong time. As I noted in a letter published in these pages earlier this year (“Turf War?,” Letters, Feb. 12, 2003), the National Council for History Education and other organizations have already convinced many curricular policymakers and teachers of the importance of history (as distinct from “social studies”). Mr. Finn and his colleagues ought to recognize the extent to which the side they support is winning.

At the same time, claims by social studies proponents that there is little difference between the goals and methods of history and those of social studies are disingenuous.

Students need to learn history, real history, and that means the good and the bad—and not just the “patriotic.” Social studies as it was taught in many places for many years will not provide this, but neither will “politically correct” history of either left or right.

Paul Regnier
Washington, D.C.

Life After Graduation Indicates School Quality

To the Editor:

How should a school’s progress be measured? Not with standardized tests, annual yearly progress, arbitrary qualifications, and endless unfunded dictates from above (“State Reports on Progress Vary Widely,” Sept. 3, 2003). If you must measure, look at the “outputs” produced by the education system after graduation into the larger world.

How are the individuals who have gone through the system performing after three, five, and 10 years beyond the classroom? (Carefully selected information over time, not the measurement mania we currently endure.) Might I suggest measuring books read every month? (Think of the wealth of information such data would contain.)

Use that information (remember, data without context is meaningless) to determine what improvements or fine-tuning might be required—and not the output of a series of short-duration, meaningless (in terms of learning) tests designed by those who create and control the present system.

We would then discover that teachers know what they are doing, and that those who manage the system are completely out of touch with reality.

The barriers to joy in lifelong learning were created by a content-driven, Prussian-style institution that is the framework within which teachers must work.

This is my humble assessment after 40 years in the business community and a few short years (and a lot of research) attempting to walk in a teacher’s shoes.

It is time for reasoned anger and an unrelenting demand that teachers be allowed to “take joy in their work.”

Chuck Fellows
South Lyon, Mich.

Teachers and Merit Pay: Are Intrinsic Rewards Better Motivators— Or should We ‘Lay a Little Gold’ on Our Best?

To the Editor:

Alfie Kohn’s Commentary “The Folly of Merit Pay” (Sept. 17, 2003) was right on the money (pun intended). Professionals from all walks of life will primarily be motivated by the intrinsic rewards of doing something they enjoy, believe is worth doing, and find congruent with their personal beliefs.

The latter is often cited by the management guru Peter Drucker on why stock options don’t motivate many of the engineers and computer programmers employed in companies such as Microsoft. What these professionals appear to desire most is a corporate culture that values relationships and creativity and conveys a sense of shared purpose. If the success of “carrot and stick” motivators is questionable in the private sector, why then attempt to implement them in the public schools?

Michael Cleary
Department of Allied Health
Slippery Rock University
Slippery Rock, Pa.

To the Editor:

More frequently than not, I find the arguments of Alfie Kohn right on the money, but his Commentary on merit pay is a mixed bag of right and wrong.

He is correct in arguing that merit-pay programs in the K-12 teaching sector have had a checkered and usually short-lived record. And the reasons he gives—administrators’ setting the goals and evaluating teachers’ attempts to achieve them; strained relationships among teachers, particularly the merit-pay recipients vis-à-vis those not rewarded—are true enough. One could suggest, however, that these problems are the price of doing business, that merit pay is still useful despite them.

Where Mr. Kohn slips is in his implication that extrinsic motivation (merit pay) vs. intrinsic motivation (teaching for the joy of it) is a zero-sum game, with more of the former resulting in less of the latter. I question why an earnest commitment to teaching effectively is diminished if one is recognized and rewarded for doing it superbly. The 25,000 highly accomplished teachers who have earned the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification and the additional monies that, in many states, accompany that achievement are surely not less intrinsically motivated to continue to do well.

Two more points: For many teachers, it’s a real downer, a motivation killer, to be reminded each payday that an ineffectual teacher receives the same salary as they, the quality teachers, do, merely because both share a common degree and amount of experience—and this, despite knowledge of the ineffectual teacher’s failure to help his students.

Which leads to the second point: Just as everyone knows who the weak teachers are, so also do they know who the good teachers are. Ask any principal to name her four best teachers, and she’ll do it in a New York minute. Why not provide them with recognition and monetary incentives?

Years ago, I published a Commentary, “ ‘Vivids’ and Portfolios Do Not a Master Teacher Make” (June 19, 1985), in which I suggested that schoolhouse folks vote for the best teachers from a list of those who had been in the school for at least three years, long enough to be known by colleagues. All would vote— fellow teachers, administrators, students, parents, secretaries—using whatever criteria they wanted, and all criteria would be subjective. I had a lot of confidence then, and still do, that the highest vote-getters would indeed be the best teachers.

If that’s the case, let’s lay a little gold on the top three or four. I believe they could handle it without losing enthusiasm for what they are doing or overly upsetting their colleagues who, after all, participated in their selection.

Ted Hipple
Teacher Education
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tenn.


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