Education Letter to the Editor


March 03, 2004 13 min read
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Federal Overreaching? The No Child Left Behind Act Through A Constituional Lens

To the Editor:

Predictably, the No Child Left Behind legislation that forms the centerpiece of President Bush’s education policy is already being targeted by liberal Democratic critics (“‘No Child’ Law Faulted in Democratic Race,” Jan. 14, 2004). But there are elements of the legislation that should be troubling to conservative supporters of the president as well.

The No Child Left Behind Act marks a major attack on the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Often called the “reserved powers amendment,” this piece of the original Bill of Rights states: “The powers not delegated to the United States [federal government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Since education and schooling are not mentioned in the Constitution, they fit the rubric of the 10th Amendment, and thus the power to control public education has traditionally and constitutionally belonged to the 50 individual states. With its very specific mandates regarding standardized testing, student evaluation, and teacher qualifications in local schools, the No Child Left Behind law clearly violates the spirit and intent of “reserved powers” as established by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

In a similar fashion, the No Child Left Behind Act violates Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3 of the Constitution, which states: “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” Individuals who legitimately earned their teaching credentials by fulfilling previously extant state regulations have seen the No Child Left Behind legislation essentially void those credentials by establishing new, retroactive testing requirements and other qualifications. This ex post facto legislation may also be judged as “legislative punishment” or a “bill of attainder” if it results in any teacher losing a previously issued credential or teaching position.

Historically and constitutionally, the American people have opposed federal control of education and schooling. In the 2003 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll regarding public education, this question was asked: “In your opinion, who should have the greatest influence in deciding what is taught in the public schools here—the federal government, the state government, or the local school board?” The responses were 61 percent local government; 22 percent state government; and 16 percent federal government.

The No Child Left Behind legislation, with its prescriptive mandates and controls applied on a national scale, closely resembles the approach to educational governance found in centralized “ministry of education” countries. This is in direct opposition to our traditional approach that has established public education as “a national interest, a state power, and a local responsibility.”

The president and his advisers would do well to disengage the federal government from this unnecessary and constitutionally questionable involvement in the policies, practices, and personnel of local schools.

Dennis L. Evans
Newport Beach, Calif.

Take Heart Georgia: History Plan Works

To the Editor:

The proposal to change the history-social studies standards in Georgia that seems to be causing so much trouble there is essentially what we in California have had in operation for some years now (“Ga. History Plan Stirs Civil War Fuss,” Feb. 18, 2004).

The plan allows for depth, for more thorough analysis, for the infusion of literature, the arts, and music within the subject of history, and for more active learning projects. And teachers here still feel that they are hustling to get it all done. Lots of 6th grade teachers are still beefing up their knowledge of ancient world history, for example, but that gives their students a more adequate global understanding.

The three years of U.S. history (5th, 8th, and 11th grades) really does allow for a lot of depth, and the 11th grade classes actually are able to deal with post-World War II history. In addition, there is time for some review each year, and that helps deepen students’ knowledge.

The California state academic-content standards and history-social science framework can be accessed online at www.cde.ca.gov/standards/ and at www.cde.ca.gov/standards/history. And a Web site that has well over 1,500 lessons and units that all reference the California standards is available at score.rims.k12.ca.us.

Jim Hill
California State University
San Bernardino, Calif.

Should Sex Education Be Preparation for Life?

To the Editor:

Sure, abstinence is the only 100 percent safe method for preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, but the fact is that today, puberty on average starts earlier than in the past, while marriage is happening later in life than ever before (“Abstinence-Only Debate Heating Up,” Feb. 11, 2004).

The question we should be asking then is: Should we educate only for K-12 youths, or should we educate for life? Many abstinent high schoolers are not abstinent college students. Comprehensive health education is a much better system.

Jenny Wade
Stockton Unified School District
Stockton, Calif.

To the Editor:

Given the federal government’s stringent requirement that federally funded proposals must use research-based programs, it is irrational to spend increasing amounts on abstinence-only programming. There is no research indicating that abstinence- only programs are effective in promoting and maintaining abstinence. So this is a clear example of applying a double standard for the use of federal funds.

It’s time to hold all programs to the same level of accountability, and to stop excluding the pet programs of the political leadership.

Wendy L. Sellers
Eaton Intermediate School District
Charlotte, Mich.

Japan’s ‘Lesson Study’ Is Drawing U.S. Interest

To the Editor:

I enjoyed reading about Japanese “lesson study” and the work going on at Paterson School 2, in Paterson, N.J. (“In ‘Lesson Study’ Sessions, Teachers Polish Their Craft,” Feb. 11, 2004). Principal Lynn Liptak and the School 2 teachers have provided a real model for how lesson study can work within the confines of a regular school day. The Paterson teachers also have been generous in sharing their experiences with lesson study at open houses both in Paterson and at the Japanese School in Greenwich, Conn.

Our project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is currently implementing lesson study in 20 secondary schools in Massachusetts, and conducting research into how secondary teachers respond to this new form of professional collaboration. The middle and high school mathematics teachers in our project are welcoming the opportunities lesson study offers: to observe lessons, to collaborate as a department, and to experiment with a student-centered approach to lessons.

We are very encouraged by results so far and look forward to sharing what we are learning about starting and coaching lesson-study groups at the secondary level. Lesson study has engendered a great deal of interest in the United States, but those of us who are involved are still relatively scattered about the country, making it especially important to be able to read about other projects.

We extend our thanks to Paterson School 2 for sharing their successes and struggles in this pioneering effort.

Jane Gorman
Project Director
Lesson Study Communities in Secondary Mathematics
Education Development Center Inc.
Newton, Mass.

Trust Educators More On Research, Practice

To the Editor:

Many of the assertions in Karin Chenoweth’s Commentary (“Knowing What Works,” Jan. 21, 2004) are inaccurate and have been refuted by educational research and practice.

She says, for example, that “we have almost no idea what works.” Really? As a former high school teacher and a current doctoral student in education working as a college instructor, I can say that my colleagues and I have a lot of ideas about what works, why, and in what contexts. These ideas derive from recent as well as time-honored research in the field.

For example, National Research Council-sponsored publications such as “How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice” (1999), “Improving Student Learning: A Strategic Plan for Education Research and Its Utilization” (1999), and “Scientific Research in Education” (2002) summarize useful recent research in education, specifically on student learning, to assist researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in using the research base in their decisions affecting practice.

Policy decisions in education too often are made by legislators with no background in or understanding of educational research and practice—and with scant regard for what educators themselves may know about what works. This is why publications like those from the NRC are so important to informing the public of what we actually do know.

Ms. Chenoweth does address an important issue: the gap between research and practice. But she reveals a lack of understanding about what educators know. This is exemplified by her failure to note, in her recommendation that we use randomized controlled trials, that doing so would inevitably involve ethical problems. If I, as a researcher, had a strong basis for believing that a particular program or curriculum would benefit students, could I ethically put some students in a control group that did not receive that program or curriculum?

The bottom line is that it is vitally important that the news media become more aware of what research has demonstrated about the practice of teaching and learning, and then transmit this understanding to the public so that together we can create a more effective and sustained dialogue on the continued development of our educational system.

Kathryn Byrnes
Doctoral Student
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colo.

Calif. Reading Scores Show ‘Test Inflation’

To the Editor:

In my Dec. 10, 2003, letter to the editor (“New NAEP Results Show Need for Library Funds”), I pointed out that National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in California had not changed since 1992, despite the eradication of whole language and a rush to skill-building. In a letter of response (“‘Data Speaks for Itself’ on Reading Reforms’ Impact,” Letters, Feb. 18, 2004), Rick Nelson notes that 4th graders taking the NAEP reading test in 2003 would not yet have had the benefit of systematic phonics because most districts didn’t begin intensive systematic phonics until 1999. Mr. Nelson also maintains that the Los Angeles Unified School District has supplied evidence in favor of systematic phonics with spectacular grade 1 scores, and notes that increases in scores since 1998 on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition in California as a whole also support the systematic-phonics position.

I commented on the 2003 NAEP scores because California’s low performance on the NAEP in 1992 was blamed on whole language. I am unaware of documentation showing exactly which districts moved to systematic intensive phonics and when they did it, but whole language has been gone for quite a while. The purge began in 1995. The NAEP scores haven’t changed.

I also read about Los Angeles Unified’s grade 1 scores in the newspapers. I was unable to find any information about the tests given and the actual numbers anywhere on the Internet. I wrote the district testing office three times, to no avail. The only time officials there responded, they sent me the grade 2 data, which are available on the Internet. One cannot reach serious conclusions based on press releases.

Mr. Nelson is correct in pointing out that Stanford-9 scores have gone up in California since 1998, but systematic phonics does not deserve the credit. The Stanford-9 was given for the first time in California in 1998. Robert Linn and others have shown that the first time a standardized test is given, scores appear low, and then they rise each year, until the test needs to be recalibrated. California experienced “test inflation,” and had a particularly severe case because of the intense pressure to increase test scores.

But uncontrolled standardized-test scores are a lousy way to judge the efficacy of a treatment or teaching method. Despite the claims of the National Reading Panel, controlled studies have not demonstrated the superiority of intensive phonics instruction. (See my previous letters to Education Week, “Report on Reading Was ‘Bad Science,’” June 11, 2003; “‘Whole Language': Attack and Counter,” Oct. 30, 2002.)

Stephen Krashen
Rossier School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

Three cheers for Education Week for its subtle plug for “grammatical correctness” in the letter headline “‘Data Speaks for Itself’ on Reading Reforms’ Impact.” The quotation is from the last sentence of Rick Nelson’s letter. The last I knew, data were still plural.

George Hanford
President Emeritus
The College Board
Cambridge, Mass.

Equity and Excellence: Author Responds to Critics of Essay On Detracking

To the Editor:

Your Feb. 18, 2004, edition contained three letters to the editor in response to my Jan. 28, 2004, Commentary, “When Excellence and Equity Thrive” (“Equity and Tracking,” Letters). Each of the three makes assertions or raises questions to which I feel compelled to reply.

First, Julie Greenberg’s letter inaccurately describes my high school. We serve a diverse population—12 percent Latino, 8 percent African-American, 3 percent Asian, and 77 percent white. Our free- and reduced-price-lunch population is 11 percent this year. During the years of my study, the average was 13 percent. Our district does not have a lunch program for elementary students; therefore the statistic she reports is not an accurate reflection of poverty. Our level of spending per pupil is not out of line with Nassau County, N.Y., school spending.

In any event, how much we spend has little to do with detracking—there are neighboring districts that spend more per pupil that (a) track students and (b) have lower achievement. Since detracking, our New York Regents-diploma rate for minority students has increased from 40 percent in 1998 to 82 percent today. The average rate for the state of New York for all students is in the mid-60s. Clearly, we are closing the achievement gap.

In response to Randal Jones, while I am not familiar with either the National Bureau of Economic Research or its study, the preponderance of the literature demonstrates that low-track classes result in lower academic achievement. The study usually cited by Tom Loveless, when claiming that African-American students are advantaged by tracking, is a 1989 study by Adam Gamoran and Robert D. Mare. In 1991, however, Samuel R. Lucas and Mr. Gamoran re-examined the data and found that tracking disadvantaged African-American students.

Finally, in response to the queries of Jarek Garlinski, 37 percent of our senior class are International Baccalaureate diploma candidates. The percentage of our students who achieve it exceeds the world mean for successful completion. We do provide foreign-language instruction in heterogeneously grouped classes throughout high school—all junior and seniors taking language take either IB French or IB Spanish, with learners of various abilities in the same class, and our scores each year approximate the world mean. Lastly, the increase in the number of students taking Advanced Placement calculus is associated with a statistically significant increase in scores.

Detracking is a whole-school reform that requires thought, planning, hard work, and creativity. It is also a reform that meets with stiff resistance because it challenges deeply held beliefs about intelligence and learning. For our students, the benefits of detracking have been enormous.

Carol Corbett Burris
Rockville Centre, N.Y.


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