Education Letter to the Editor


January 07, 2004 16 min read
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Texas Alternative Route Beckons ‘Real Teachers’

To the Editor:

Having read your article, “Texas Ponders Easing Route to Secondary Teaching” (Dec. 3, 2003), I’d like to take exception to its use of the terms “anybody” and “real teachers.” Professionals from other fields who want to teach are just that—professionals. We have college degrees as well as work experience in the 12-month, nights-and-weekends, maybe-two-weeks-off-a-year job world. We don’t want a free ride or to diminish the importance of the teaching profession.

What we want is an accredited program offered in a way that will allow us to attend the classes necessary for certification while we work to provide for our families. The only coursework most of us need is in curriculum development and student teaching. We know our subjects.

As for it all being about money, teachers’ salaries have inflated with their egos, and that’s why 85 percent to 90 percent of a district’s budget is for salaries. Don’t get me wrong; as a taxpayer and parent, I am willing to pay for a good teacher. But I am 43 years old now and haven’t met many.

Nancy Spencer
East Galesburg, Ill.

Teacher to Phila. Novice: ‘Welcome to Our World’

To the Editor:

My first good laugh for today was your News in Brief item regarding David Pitone, a computer engineer who took a district training program to become a teacher (“Phila. Schools Weighing Fate of Novice Teacher,” Dec. 10, 2003).

Mr. Pitone sought a court order to remove unruly students from his classroom and was unsuccessful.

All I could think of was that well-worn phrase that I feel sure every teacher will echo, “Welcome to our world, David.”

Janice Keim
Harrisburg, Pa.

Student ‘Cutters’ Story Elicits Challenges

To the Editor:

Your recent article “Student Self-Harm: Silent School Crisis” (Dec. 3, 2003) includes a couple of misstated facts. The first is the claim that self-injury is a manifestation of depression when, many times, it is the result of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The second is the claim that self-injurers do not feel pain. This is just not true in many cases. There are self-injurers who purposely hold cigarette lighters to their arms or beat themselves with their fists or other objects so that they will experience pain. The pain then provides a type of “release” from students’ feelings of dissociation, thus allowing them to feel real again.

In addition, some students use pain to punish themselves for actions about which they feel guilty—for instance, this is often found in self-injurers grappling with the idea that they may be homosexual.

The statement that students who self-injure will eventually encounter academic problems is simply not true as a blanket statement. Many self-injurers, former and current, are graduates of top- level universities and currently hold high-powered jobs, even while exhibiting this behavior.

Finally, it is important that school administrators distinguish between their disgust and fear of self-injury and their need to take a course of action that is in a student’s best interest.

The idea of having a child sign a no-harm policy is obviously offered with the best of intentions. Yet, if you take away a child’s only way to express his or her inner turmoil before providing the tools necessary to deal with those emotions in a healthy way, you could be looking at a possible suicide attempt. The no- harm contract should be used with extreme care, while a student is seeing a licensed counselor.

Self-injury is not a problem that will just go away, and in many individuals, overcoming it is a lifelong process. So it is not fair to expect a student to be able to stop the behavior right away or be denied access to school.

Jaime Skiba
Cheshire, Conn.

To the Editor:

After reading your article on student “cutters,” I am very concerned. Concerned that once again, schools and teachers will be burdened with trying to solve yet another social ill that has little to do with education.

The issue is that we have failed to inspire students to be good, strong, moral people. Instead, we have told them over and over again: “Be yourself.” “Standards are meaningless.” “Nothing is right or wrong anymore, and the people who tell you that they are are right-wing fanatics.”

We include everything about drugs and sex in the schools, but we avoid standards of morality. And, violà! We are shocked at new social phenomena such as “cutters.” God forbid that we put up a Christmas tree, but we are encouraged to have a group session to help our lost generation of cutters.

There is an old saying (and I am not comparing sheep to students) that goes like this: Put sheep in a field with no fence and they huddle together, move very little, and are very fearful. Put a fence around these sheep and they become less afraid and move about more. Give students that “fence,” and they will be less fearful and become more successful.

Dave Bell
Portland, Maine

Achievement-Gap Study Draws More Response

To the Editor:

If our schools are ever going to raise the academic achievement of African-American and Latino students, we have to stop making excuses for deficiencies (“Study Probes Factors Fueling Achievement Gaps,” Nov. 26, 2003; “Achievement Gaps,” Letters, Dec. 10, 2003).

At an urban high school I ran last year, we reduced the class-failure rate in the first quarter by over 50 percent from the previous year, while at the same time raising the minimum passing grade from 60 to 70. We then were able to significantly reduce class failures, by another 48 percent within two quarters, while raising standardized-test scores by 20 percent in both language arts and mathematics. Applying the “broken-window theory” to our school also enabled us to reduce discipline referrals by nearly 70 percent within six months. Teachers rarely had to send students to my office.

Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have provided educators, especially urban educators, with such a tremendous service through their recent research, analysis, and publication. They have demonstrated, through quantitative evidence, that African-American and Latino students, even those in urban environments, can prosper academically when administrators and educators provide an environment conducive to learning (“Book Cites Role of Culture In Achievement Gap,” Oct. 29, 2003.)

Schools such as North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., and those in the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) system show that high academic standards can be maintained in urban schools. I’ve witnessed firsthand the spectacular gains possible through a concentrated school effort. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed intransigent institutional resistance to providing students with high-quality education. Fads and failed theories are retrod, renamed, and retried over and over again. Many promising urban students are sacrificed to the pursuit of so-called innovation and “cutting edge” myths.

With so much quantitative evidence to the contrary, why do so many educationists use stale rhetoric and institutional “talking points” to attack the Thernstroms and to insist that African-American and Latino students are predestined for failure? Why do so many adults deny so many children a promising future?

Kevin T. Brady
American Institute for History Education
Woolwich, N.J.

To the Editor:

The politicians and business leaders who exert such influence over education are so focused on the academic that we who work in the public schools, especially those in poor areas with limited resources, are not allowed to meet our students’ needs.

Students tell us they want to learn how to be good parents, how to buy a car, and how to balance a checkbook. But they are required to take Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, chemistry, and so on. Students tell us they want to go to school in the mornings and work in the afternoons. No one listens to them.

Each and every student I have ever taught has had his or her own unique talent—a “light to shine.” Our politically driven education system, however, does not put children first. There are very few nuclear families in this dysfunctional society, and we must rethink what can be done to reach and teach all children. Importantly, at the secondary level, we need mandatory parenting classes. We need to put children first.

Dianne Hearn
Sweetwater, Texas

To the Editor:

To think that just the 14 indicators analyzed in your story on the racial and ethnic achievement gaps in American education could be used to address such a far-reaching social dilemma is crazy. This is a problem that reaches far into the communities and social workings of economically challenged or darker-skinned people. When education is valued, it will succeed, no matter the economic status or skin color of the students.

The one indicator missing from the report is how communities value success in education. Right now, my economically challenged, darker-skinned students value other things: their family, culture, and community support—those things that take time, money, and resources away from education. Until this changes, what we have will have to do. Change is hard and must come from within.

Gina Spencer
Andrew Jackson High School
Jacksonville, Fla.

A Choice Quote— And Interesting Math

To the Editor:

In commenting on the report by the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education (“Panel Says Choice’s Benefits Worth Risks,” Nov. 19, 2003), did Chester E. Finn Jr. really say, “They really have picked very carefully and very intelligently the middle 60 percent of the choice debate, leaving a good 15 percent on either side to scream at them.”? Interesting math.

Dennis Evans
Irvine, Calif.

Is ‘Networked School’ A Voucher Scheme?

To the Editor:

Wayne Gersen’s Commentary “The Networked School,” (Dec. 3, 2003) raised more questions than it answered.

Is the “networked school” idea aimed at privatizing education?

Since most home schooling tends to be pervasively sectarian and politically conservative, would “networked schools” mean public support for the kinds of indoctrination prohibited in public schools?

What is to prevent “networked schools” from promoting religious, political, and ideological segregation in the most sensitive parts of the curriculum: social studies, language arts, and biology?

Doesn’t the “networked school” idea mean essentially private control of curriculum over which taxpayers and elected school boards would have little or no control?

Isn’t the “networked school” little more than a creative form of the school voucher scheme that most Americans have rejected in state referendums and opinion polls?

How is the “networked school” idea very different from the failed “shared time” scheme of a generation ago?

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Washington, D.C.

Small-Schools Bipartisanship: Few Left-Right Disputes’ Here

To the Editor:

Oddly enough, Thomas Toch (“Small Schools, Big Ideas,” Commentary, Dec. 3, 2003) chastises us progressives—specifically, Theodore R. Sizer, Ann Cook, Dennis Littky, and Deborah Meier—for forgetting that the reforms we advocate are often close to those that conservatives prefer: freedom from external bureaucratic entanglements.

Hardly. This is in fact what we have all four been claiming for a long time, and it is perhaps the central message of all the speeches and articles we have all made for years. It’s nice on occasion to find these crossovers; and I’m inclined these days to think this is not a right/left issue at all.

Ted Sizer has been closely identified for many, many years with aspects of what is now called the charter school movement.That’s hardly a secret, but something he has proudly proclaimed. (Smallness isn’t even one of the Coalition of Essential Schools’ 10 principles.) Dennis Littky has never been primarily famous for small-schools advocacy so much as “let us do our thing"—and that “thing” has more to do with where and how kids learn best. And while he insists on public schooling, he hasn’t cared too much whether it came in the form of local or state auspices.

Virtually everything Ann Cook and I have written has pushed the point that true conservatives also make: Too much and too explicit state intervention is not good for the school-based authority needed for raising kids well.The Julia Richman Education Complex in New York City, where Ann Cook works, is an example of the marriage of the best of both public education and the chartering idea. For myself, for nearly 40 years, I’ve been writing about my favorite three: smallness, choice, and sufficient school- based authority over the stuff that counts, including how we should be held accountable (not whether).True, I argued it was best accomplished through public education, not charters, and above all not privatization. True, we have all reached the conclusion that smallness is a helpful precondition, not an answer.

In fact, I always counted on conservatives to be my allies in case a president of the United States ever tried to pass such a radically centralizing bill as the current No Child Left Behind Act. It turned out that, like liberals, they were mostly against federal or state intervention only when they were out of office. Of course, in the history of this issue, the left has traditionally (and rightly) been more leery of localism on the basis of the racist history of local schooling and states’ rights, and less inclined to knee- jerk anti-unionism.

All of us rest our case for the schools we have on forms of mutual judgment by both the constituents to the school and external authorities as the best, if inevitably flawed, form of accountability. Probably a fairly “conservative” argument, but also at the heart of the idea of democracy.

And all four of us have long championed the idea of standards. Ted Sizer even reinvented the idea for modern reformers. It’s true we are all also skeptical of attempts to confuse standards with standardized tests, and instead favor making important decisions based on what kids can do in more authentic ways.

Still, I appreciated Tom Toch’s placing me in such good company, in an otherwise interesting and supportive article on the small- schools movement.

The time has come to stop criticizing small-schools advocates for thinking size alone will make the difference. I’ve yet to meet that straw man—right or left, friend or foe.

Deborah Meier
Co- Principal
Mission Hill School
Boston, Mass.

To the Editor:

Many writers manufacture straw men to attack, or conjure enemies to combat, as a way to make their pieces more gripping, but Thomas Toch carried this practice to an absurd extreme in his half-baked Commentary “Small Schools, Big Ideas.”

With absolutely no evidence whatsoever, other than an April Fools’ Day spoof that appeared in The Education Gadfly, the weekly news bulletin published by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and the failure of a journal article to mention the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr. Toch concocted the specter of “conservative school reformers” being “very unhappy” about the Gates Foundation’s small-schools initiative and warned his readers of dire consequences "[i]f conservatives successfully attack the nascent small-schools movement.” Balderdash and hokum.

A veteran journalist like Mr. Toch should be ashamed of himself, especially when this fiction gets in the way of the handful of worthwhile points in his essay. I don’t know a single “conservative” education reformer who is opposed to small schools per se, though I know plenty of folks on left, right, and center who don’t see smallness itself as a cure- all for bad schools or an inoculation against educationist folly being perpetrated in classrooms.

The Gates team understands that perfectly well (even if some of their grantees may not share my definition of educationist folly). They deserve plaudits for calling the country’s attention to the fact that vast, anonymous educational institutions don’t work for many children (though, ironically, in this same issue of Education Week, your On Assignment feature, “A Question of Scale,” reports on a new, 4,000-pupil junior high school that Cicero, Ill., is very proud of).

If there’s an argument worth having, it’s not about the size of a school but, rather, whether it and the system in which it’s located also attend to solid curricula, high standards, effective teaching, strong leadership, and honest-to-God school choice. But, contra Thomas Toch, that’s no tidy left-right dispute.

As for the April Fools’ Day edition of The Education Gadfly, we spoofed everyone in sight, including ourselves. It’s outrageous—not to mention humorless—for Mr. Toch to fasten on such a thing as if it proved that conservatives have it in for the Gates Foundation. No, I’m not wild about every single thing that every single one of their grantees is doing—but for Pete’s sake, that’s also the case with the Fordham Foundation’s own (infinitely smaller) list of grantees! Foundations of every stripe can only hope that the good they do outweighs the bad.

Chester E. Finn Jr.
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative: Envisioning a ‘Partnership’ in Educational Research

To the Editor:

The exchange between Tony Wagner (“Beyond Testing: The 7 Disciplines for Strengthening Instruction,” Commentary, Nov. 12, 2003) and Patrick Groff (“Qualitative Data and The Eye of the Beholder,” Letters, Dec. 3, 2003) underscores the long- standing friction between advocates of quantitative and qualitative research. Most advocates seem to regard the two approaches as mutually exclusive. Yet as someone who firmly believes in the use of data to improve education, I think the right kind of qualitative research could make quantitative studies far more valuable.

With a bit of regression analysis, I can identify those schools that outperform their peers with essentially similar students. By repeating that analysis for additional tests and additional schools, I can identify those schools that consistently outperform their peers over time and over multiple subjects. By looking at how their students scored when they moved on to the next level of schooling, I can even check that the schools’ scores weren’t artificially inflated.

What I cannot do easily is identify the reasons for those schools’ performance. Schools are notoriously prone to mislabel their educational practices, in part for political reasons and in part because they are often genuinely unaware of how to accurately describe their practices. There is even less reliable information on what the teachers do or how the schools are led.

Starting about 40 years ago, a series of studies seemed to show that educational outcomes were largely driven by student socioeconomic status. The researchers also determined that the schools had little effect. None of the school factors the researchers looked at—what one study labeled the “accreditation” factors because those were the things accrediting agencies counted—seemed to make a significant difference in student outcomes.

In retrospect, however, it appears that the researchers were hobbled by the limitations of their data. It is becoming increasingly clear that schools can have a major impact on student achievement, but these impacts have far more to do with teaching practices, the program used, and school leadership than with the accreditation factors. Unfortunately for the researchers, they were stuck with the accreditation factors because the more important factors were not measured.

Qualitative research that accurately categorized teaching, educational programs, and leadership at schools could be invaluable in finding the relationships between these and student achievement. For example, if it were desired to compare the effect of two different math programs, qualitative research could be used to assure that the classes in the two samples actually followed the program they purported to follow.

Perhaps I am being overly optimistic in envisioning such a partnership between quantitative and qualitative researchers. The qualitative researchers I know are very ideological, viewing themselves as advocates of particular practices, rather than dispassionate analysts. Still, the value could be great.

Bruce Thompson
Professor of Management
Milwaukee School of Engineering
Milwaukee, Wis.


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