Education Letter to the Editor


May 26, 2004 23 min read
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Can ‘Multiple Pathways’ Pass the ‘Jesse Test’?

To the Editor:

Robert Shireman’s meditation on the phrase “multiple pathways” in education overlooks the most important meaning of this phrase(“Where Do ‘Multiple Pathways’ Take Us?,” Commentary, May 12, 2004). In a country as large and diverse as the United States, it is ill-advised to endorse a single K-12 pathway for all children. No such pathway could pass the “Jesse test"—that is, satisfy the educational visions of Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Ventura. Efforts at consensus will inevitably yield lowest-common-denominator solutions.

In The Disciplined Mind (2000), I advocate the establishment in our country of six to 12 deliberately diverse educational pathways from which families would choose. One pathway might focus on cultural literacy, a second on the arts and humanities, a third on essential questions, and so forth. Each pathway would need to cover certain essentials (for example, material on American history and government) but there would be latitude in offerings and in assessments. Because the number of pathways is small, they can be available across the country, and their claims and achievements can be monitored by a nonpartisan organization. My belief is that the provision of such pathways would mute many of the most tendentious disputes (say, between progressives and traditionalists) and satisfy 98 percent of American schools and families. The remainder could request a waiver.

Howard Gardner
Hobbs Professor of Education
and Cognition
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Mass.

Get Students to Leave Their ‘Comfort Zones’

To the Editor:

Perry Zirkel’s Commentary advocating that high schools stop the practice of eliminating class rank misses the point (“No Child Left Average?,” April 28, 2004).

Mr. Zirkel represents the colleges’ point of view—one that currently sends mixed messages to high school students. College-admissions officers, for instance, tell students to be “well-rounded,” while also insisting that potential applicants “take the most demanding courses available.” Yet, in schools using a weighted system, the student who takes a visual arts course, sings in a chorus, or learns to use AutoCad in drafting lowers his grade point average, and hence his class rank, even if he gets an A. This is because extra points are awarded only for high grades earned in what are considered “highly demanding” courses. An A in art or drafting is not equal to an A earned in Advanced Placement history or honors physics in a school that assigns extra “weight” to some classes.

While students studying diverse subject matter may be more well- rounded and have learned some valuable lessons, they have also lessened their chances of being accepted to the “elite” colleges, since a lowered class rank hurts them in the college-admissions sweepstakes.

The idea of taking the most challenging course load at the elite high schools Mr. Zirkel mocks means that students enroll in three to five Advanced Placement courses in both their junior and senior years. How can students be well-rounded and still take the most rigorous schedule of AP courses?

By eliminating class rank and going to a plain decile system, my school has encouraged students to try courses outside their academic comfort zones and explore other areas of study without jeopardizing their overall standing in the class. The new ranking system groups a larger number of students, rather than isolating each student with his own specific number.

While it would be far better to eliminate the whole system and force college-admissions officers to look at the entire package of a student’s ability and potential, we can hope that it is always about the learning and not about the grades.

James J. Landherr
Norwich Free Academy
Norwich, Conn.

Philadelphia Researcher Refines Retention Data

To the Editor:

Your coverage of Chicago’s grade-retention policies (“Studies Fault Results of Retention in Chicago,” April 14, 2004), and the studies upon which the article was based, leave readers with the impression that retention in grade does not affect subsequent student achievement. I am engaged in a study of 5th grade students in the Philadelphia public schools that suggests the situation is more complicated than you or the two source studies from the University of Chicago- based Consortium on Chicago School Research recognize.

My study uses hierarchical statistical models to determine the extent to which 2002 5th grade Pennsylvania School System Assessment, or PSSA, reading/language and mathematics test scores of students—components of the state’s No Child Left Behind law school performance standard—were predicted by factors other than the instructional programs being offered by their schools during 2002. Normal- curve- equivalent, or NCE, test scores were the outcome variables, a finer-grained measure than the criterion scores used by Chicago.

My initial findings show that retention in grade had a significant effect on reading/language scores that was strongly moderated by the social class of the student’s school. Retention in grade also had a similar, but weaker, effect on mathematics scores that was not statistically significant.

At schools with average income enrollments, retained and never-retained students did not differ, once the student-background variables were taken into account. However, at schools serving higher- and lower-income communities, the retained and never-retained students differed significantly in reading/language arts: The reading/language arts scores were increased by grade repetition at higher-income schools, but were worsened by grade repetition at lower-income schools. The analysis estimated that, at the highest-income school in the study, students gained 2.6 reading/language NCEs per retention, while at the lowest-income school in the study, students lost 1.7 NCEs per retention.

Chicago’s summer and grade- retention programs, like the grade-retention practices that had been in effect in Philadelphia, made the assumption that a second or third traversing of material will be generally beneficial to students. The Chicago Consortium studies and my ongoing work suggest that this is not generally true. But my work suggests that this general result is misleading, at least for reading/language arts, because it is the average of two opposing trends that become visible once the social class of the school community is taken into account.

To obtain copies of this study when it is completed, please contact me at roffenbe@phila.k12.pa.us.

Robert M. Offenberg
Senior Policy Researcher
School District of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pa.

On Preschool Counting, A Grandmother Demurs

To the Editor:

As a middle-class mother and grandmother, I was surprised to read Deborah Stipek’s statement that “middle-class children do not achieve their academic advantage by repeatedly writing the letters of the alphabet and counting to 10" (“Head Start: Can’t We Have Our Cake and Eat It Too?,” Commentary, May 5, 2004). When my children were toddlers, every parent I knew, myself included, used every opportunity to count to 10 with their children, be it by counting toes and fingers, flowers, jelly beans, or crayons.

Now I am practicing counting with my grandchildren. My grandchildren and I also practice writing by copying the letters of the alphabet. The children seem thrilled when their efforts somewhat resemble my own.

I’m glad I was not deterred from doing these practices for fear that this would be considered a highly didactic instructional approach that might undermine my children’s and grandchildren’s motivation to learn. I believe that the efforts of middle-class parents to teach their children to count and write their letters (as well as other skills) are exactly what does give their children an academic advantage. This is true of any parent, regardless of his or her social class.

Eve Plotkin
Bayside, N.Y.

Seeing ‘High-Tech Smoke Screen’ in Md. Test Plan

To the Editor:

Maryland officials are throwing up a high-tech smoke screen in an attempt to hide the ugly inequities of one-size-fits-all high-stakes exit exams (“Md. Seeks New Way to Assess Special- Needs Students,” May 12, 2004). If the stakes are the same and the content of the tests is the same, what difference will it make if a student takes a test using a No. 2 pencil or a laptop computer?

If a full-fledged algebra course and associated high-stakes state exit exam are developmentally inappropriate for a special-needs student, will they suddenly become appropriate if that student has access to a computer? If a student is suffering from test anxiety because 12 years of education and a high school diploma are riding on a single test, will the student’s panic suddenly disappear because he or she can take a computer-based assessment?

If Maryland officials really want to do the honorable thing by our students, they can finally admit that, high-tech or low-tech, the policy of high-stakes testing is hopelessly flawed, dangerous, and just plain wrong for all of Maryland’s students.

Sue Allison
Marylanders Against High-Stakes Testing
Lusby, Md.

Progressive Educators May Need Thicker Skin

To the Editor:

It was impossible not to smile at Jon Snyder’s wounded outrage (“Let’s Be Reasonable,” Commentary, May 5, 2004) at the New York Daily News’ critical allusions to progressive education in a recent editorial. Now he knows how supporters of relatively traditional or conventional methods have felt over the years at continual, predominantly pejorative media treatment of their approaches, swallowed whole from progressive sources, and featuring such language as “drill and kill,” “mere facts,” and relentless charges that traditional methods smother students’ creativity and self-esteem.

Mr. Snyder suggests that only a “tabloid” would engage in such defamation of progressivism, in a hilarious revelation of academic intellectual snobbery. If he more often sampled these more compact dailies, he would know that the Daily News and Newsday are substantive, widely respected, politically and culturally sophisticated general newspapers, boasting some of the best writers in journalism.

One suspects that Mr. Snyder’s daily is The New York Times. Nobody can challenge its all-round preeminence, but among its faults has long been its coverage of education, featuring tediously consistent, virtually uncritical adoption of progressive terminology and doctrines. Some, however, see signs that recent internal upheavals have humbled the Times enough so that more balanced coverage is on the rise. To meet this possibility, Mr. Snyder needs to develop a thicker skin.

Louisa C. Spencer
New York, N.Y.

Defending Montana On Indian Education

To the Editor:

I feel that I must respond to comments in a recent article to the effect that Montana teachers spend only a minimal amount of time, mainly at Thanksgiving, teaching Native American history and traditions (“Judge Says Montana Falls Short on Indian Education,” April 28, 2004).

Many of our state’s fine teachers devote much of their class time each year to the study of Native American culture. And the great majority of Montana students receive a well-rounded education in our public schools.

Most of Montana’s schools are in close proximity to one of our state’s several Native American tribes and, thus, have ample access to resources to implement the study of Indian tradition and diversity. Our state history cannot be taught without including Native American culture as part of the study.

Joan Andersen
Fromber, Mont.

More Common Sense on How Quality Develops

To the Editor:

Frederick M. Hess says in his recent Commentary (“Status Quo vs. Common Sense,” April 14, 2004) that the “simple truths” for school reform are “responsibility, merit, and opportunity.” But many of us who “dabble” in pedagogical reforms understand that licensure barriers will not disappear (or be “stricken”) tomorrow, nor will teachers’ unions. Neither of these things would necessarily be for the good of kids, anyway.

How exactly would Mr. Hess elaborate on the vague language he uses in his essay on common-sense reform, such as, “contractual relationships should be modified so that ineffective educators can be identified and either remediated or fired”? What does “ineffective” mean?

I believe Mr. Hess is misguided when he professes faith in test-based accountability and market competition to drive quality. Educators work with children, who learn in a variety of ways, not with numbers. And school administrators aren’t in a position to simply fire all teachers who cannot bring their students to X level on Y test by the year Z.

At the beginning of his Commentary, Mr. Hess writes that the essential skills of civilization are literacy, numeracy, and a “broad understanding” of history and the sciences. It’s peculiar that by the end of his essay he is advocating for student mastery of the “gatekeeping skills” of reading, writing, mathematics, and a “fundamental grasp” (hey, wasn’t that a “broad understanding” just a moment ago?) of the sciences and history. It seems his standards are slipping before his own eyes. How can he expect us “dabblers” to reform education when those that criticize in this manner are usually simplistic, vague, or in his case, both?

Mr. Hess might be advised, finally, that the arts play a vital role in gatekeeping and are certainly essential skills in modern society. Unfortunately, they do not (and won’t) cooperate well in the numbers-crunching and test-obsessed reform he and many others put forth.

Quality in the arts, in relationships, in dialogue when making meaning, is often elusive, and for good reason. Quality is developed over time.

Common-sense reform, as Mr. Hess describes it, doesn’t have the common sense to realize these simple truths.

Joseph Fusaro
National Board Certified Teacher
Visual Arts Chair
Nyack Public Schools
Nyack, N.Y.

Middle-Level Education: It’s Beyond Organization

To the Editor:

Sue Swaim, in her Commentary “Strength in the Middle” (April 21, 2004), is right on the money.

As members of the middle-level task force for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, we agree with her assessment of both Cheri Pierson Yecke’s book, The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools, and the RAND Corp. report “Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School.”

We are urban, suburban, and rural middle-level principals who work in a variety of grade structures: 6-7, 6-8. K-8, 5-8, and 7-9. Our schools are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. We clearly understand that middle-level education is not about grade organization, but about practices appropriate for 10- to 15- year-old students.

As practicing middle-level administrators, we know that good middle-level education is responsive to student needs and structured so that every student is supported for academic achievement. Successful middle schools go beyond the stereotypes of the “mini high school” or a “touchy feely” place where academic rigor is missing.

Ms. Swaim points out the need for educators knowledgeable in middle-level practices. We agree. As principals, we want to hire teachers who are both highly qualified in content and highly effective in practices. Young adolescents deserve teachers and administrators who challenge them, understand them, and appreciate them. This is best achieved through specific middle-level training programs and ongoing professional- development opportunities.

We find it ironic that those research-proven practices that have been successfully in place for over 30 years are still considered by some to be a “movement.” We think that Ms. Yecke and the authors of the RAND report need to spend time in our schools—and we invite them to do so.

Middle Level Task Force
National Association of Secondary
School Principals
Reston, Va.

Task-force members include: Janet Kinahan Altersitz, Glendale, Ariz.; Julie A. Brilli, Pulaski, Wis.; J. Neal Clark, Bardstown, Ky.; Patricia Kinney, Talent, Ore.; Kevin J. McHugh, Yardley, Pa.; Douglas S. Lowery, Hilliard, Ohio; Sandra L. McLaughlin, Plymouth, N.H.; Les D. Potter, Orange, Fla.; Jeffrey D. Schumacher, Ankeny, Iowa; Marion L. White- Hood, Mitchellville, Md.; Terry L. Wolfson, Minnetonka, Minn.; Thomas R. Zach, Pacifica, Calif.; Barry Stark, Firth, Neb.; and John Nori, Reston, Va.

Responses to Brown at 50: Weariness, Hope, and Lingering Shame

To the Editor:

In response to your poll of public school teachers and students on questions of race and education (“Survey Probes Views on Race,” May 12, 2004):

No matter what the perceptions of teachers and students may be in the poll, the bottom line is that the 1954 findings of the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka remain true today: Racially segregated education is inherently unequal. It’s a national tragedy that our politicians lack the backbone to challenge the incredible racial bigotry that undermines our great nation by maintaining American apartheid in our schools and our housing.

I am ashamed of the continuing role urban and regional planning has played in establishing and maintaining American apartheid and hope that the new initiatives of the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Certified Planners will succeed in producing communities that are racially and socioeconomically integrated throughout. We can never be one nation until apartheid in our schools and housing ends.

Daniel Lauber
American Institute of Certified Planners
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

I am weary of reading and listening to media accounts that Brown v. Board of Education ended public school segregation in the United States.

There is no United States school district. The decision applied only to districts where state law had authorized or permitted racial segregation.

The 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), in which the Detroit board of education and municipality sued the state of Michigan and 53 suburban districts in an effort to create a metropolitan district, ended the reach of the federal judiciary into state educational systems in de-facto-segregation districts.

Since 1975, six district reform movements have emerged that can be linked to what Brown federalist advocates failed to achieve: broadening the range of educational opportunity for all students in segregated districts. The six movements are:

1. State-sponsored, application magnet schools. There are now 12.

2. State-sponsored suburban-urban metropolitan school districts linked to state constitutional protections. The Sheff v. O’Neill case in Connecticut is a current example. The Kansas City, Mo., case is an extinct historical example.

3. In-district magnet schools and special application programs. Federal funds started in 1979-80. In the proposed 2005 federal budget, there is a $101 million allocation to support local planning.

4. The charter movement.

5. The voucher movement.

6. State-authorized cross- district-enrollment options. Minnesota and New Jersey are examples.

Brown did not desegregate American schools, because there are no “American” schools. Try enrolling your child in one.

Brown did give rise to beliefs and policies, which are now available to some students, in some districts, in some states.

Let’s stop the weary words about Brown and recognize, support, or attack reality and not fiction.

Harry Stein
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Racial and class integration in public schools ensures that my brown-skinned African-American child will receive an excellent, high- quality education. Currently, she attends a school with the student demographics of approximately 50 percent white, 20 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Asian-American. In addition, the school’s students are overwhelmingly middle-class.

In this environment, my child receives an excellent education. She is at a school with very little teacher turnover. All of the teachers are certified. There is a challenging curriculum in place (my child is almost fluent in Spanish). The facility is not the best, but every day, teaching and learning are occurring in the classrooms. Parents (including me) hold the school responsible for giving our kids the best education possible.

I first enrolled my daughter in a school across town, where the student demographics are approximately 60 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic, 9 percent white, and 1 percent Asian-American. That school is overwhelmingly poor, with approximately 85 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. Very few of the school’s teachers are certified, and teacher- and principal- turnover rates are high. The curriculum is not effectively implemented because of a level of incompetence found throughout the school.

Two different schools; two totally different environments. At my child’s first school, parents were involved but mostly at the entertainment level. They appeared at school for student-centered programs, such as the fall play, a musical recital, or the talent show. There was little conversation among parents about academics and the need to better the school culture. Often, teachers had conferences with parents about behavior, hygiene, and dress code, rather than academics. Sometimes, I would challenge this mindset, to no avail.

I believe that integration of race and class ensures a better education for students because it ensures different perspectives, values, and experiences in the classroom. An integrated school also can increase parent interaction across race and class lines, a source of strength that might otherwise remain untapped.

Audrey N. Sanders
Houston, Texas

To the Editor:

I have found that when I am “colorblind” in my classroom, my students will rise to the occasion.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that he wanted to see a society where people are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. The sooner we take the same approach in schools and raise the standards of character for our students, the sooner we are going to be able to help them succeed in school as well as in life.

The demands for basic human decency and civility are the same, regardless of skin color or ethnicity. If we want to prepare the future leaders of our country, we’d better quit focusing on what is different about us, and just accept that we are each different in our own way. When we have done that, we can begin to focus on where we can come together and work on common goals, such as decency, civility, excellence, and moral character.

Kevin Ward
McEachern High School
Cobb County, Ga.

Funding the ‘No Child’ Law: Charges and Countercharges On a Contentious Issue

To the Editor:

William J. Mathis repeats the tired claim that the federal No Child Left Behind Act is an unfunded mandate, because it does not provide enough money to prepare all students to meet basic performance standards in core academic subjects (“Two Very Different Questions,” Commentary, April 21, 2004). Apparently, he believes that state and local governments, which provide better than 90 percent of all school funding, have never had any such obligation—despite provisions in state constitutions that explicitly require an efficient, adequate education for the students of the state.

The No Child Left Behind law simply asks states to document that they are actually doing the job they have had a constitutional obligation to do. It is not the first federal law to do so. In 1994, Congress required each state to establish a comprehensive standards and testing program. The most reform-minded states led the way, providing guidelines for others to follow. It only takes careful historical study, not any crystal ball (as Mr. Mathis imagines), to figure out what the earlier law required, what states had been doing, and what new obligations the No Child Left Behind Act imposed. This research reveals—quite clearly—that the new law’s procedures are more than adequately funded. (For details, see our Commentary, “The Contentious ‘No Child’ Law II: Money Has Not Been Left Behind,” March 17, 2004).

Instead of acknowledging the historic role of state and local governments in the provision of education, Mr. Mathis complains that the federal share of total education spending has fallen from 9.8 percent to 7.4 percent. Unfortunately, he gives no dates to go along with his figures. When one attends to such details, one discovers that the slide in federal funding began in 1980 and continued through the 1990s. It is the No Child Left Behind law that has reversed this trend by increasing the federal share from 7.1 percent to a projected 8.2 percent in 2003-04.

But instead of cheering this rise in the federal commitment, Mr. Mathis further misleads his readers by insisting that appropriations under the law fall short of authorization levels. As any well-educated schoolchild knows, however, authorization levels are used by Congress to establish ceilings on spending rather than floors—in defense and transportation no less than in education, in years when Presidents Clinton and Carter were in office no less than when Presidents Reagan and Bush were. Similarly, the rule that says expenditures for schools with high levels of food-stamp eligibility can go as high as 40 percent above the state average is a ceiling, not the floor Mr. Mathis makes it out to be.

It is understandable that interest groups and lobbyists will cook the figures in order to make pleas for more federal dollars. That is an old gambit, used by defense contractors, road builders, and, now, by local school officials. But educators, whose job is to convey accurate knowledge to students, have a special obligation not to misrepresent the facts.

Martin R. West
Research Associate

Paul E. Peterson
Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

The writers are co-editors of No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of School Accountability (Brookings Institution Press).

To the Editor:

William J. Mathis erroneously describes our recent Education Next article on No Child Left Behind Act cost estimation (“Exploring the Costs of Accountability,” Spring 2004) in several key respects. First, he states that our study was confined to administrative costs, but in fact, our article analyzed both administrative and instructional costs. Indeed, much of the piece critiqued Mr. Mathis’ own estimate of the cost of instructional adequacy, a fact that readers might have expected him to disclose.

Second, Mr. Mathis misunderstands a key problem with the successful-schools model and misrepresents our proposal for addressing it. That model takes the average spending level from a group of successful districts and defines it as the minimum necessary expenditure. But outside of Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average, this is mathematically impossible: The minimum must be less than the average. We set it well within the observed range of districts meeting annual yearly progress, a modest one standard deviation below the average. Mr. Mathis inexplicably states that we set it at two standard deviations below average.

Finally, Mr. Mathis charges that articles such as ours are partisan, perhaps because U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige cites them in his speeches. But our paper has been positively reviewed across a bipartisan spectrum. The Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank for the Democratic Leadership Council, writes that “overall, this is the most thoughtful entry yet in the No Child Left Behind funding debate.” Those who read our article for themselves may or may not agree with that assessment, but we are confident they will find Mr. Mathis’ representation of it to be false.

Robert M. Costrell
Chief Economist
Massachusetts Executive Office for
Administration and Finance and
Professor of Economics
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Amherst, Mass.

James A. Peyser
Massachusetts Board of Education
Milton, Mass.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Mathis alluded in his original draft to the fact that the writers’ Education Next article critiqued his own work, but this was edited out of the final Commentary. We regret the omission.

A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Letters


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