Education Commentary


November 15, 2000 14 min read

Raised Requirements: Benefit or Detriment?

To the Editor:

In a recent Commentary, Gerald W. Bracey advises that requiring algebra of all students is a very bad idea (“The Malevolent Tyranny of Algebra,” Oct. 25, 2000). His main arguments are that the requirement will “turn kids off math” and increase the dropout rate. Further, he says that advocates of algebra confuse cause and effect with correlations; for example, the fact that students taking algebra go on to college is correlative, not causal. Finally, we are told that algebra will not provide students with a “better life.”

Having fought the battle of attempting to raise requirements, I am well familiar with all of Mr. Bracey’s arguments. Frankly, not one of them has any validity if a school district takes the time to institute procedures that make the requirement work. First and foremost, districts need to ensure that teachers have, minimally, a major in mathematics and appropriate training incorporating the belief that most students can master the basic concepts of algebra, given the appropriate conditions of learning: sufficient time, effective instruction, and favorable classroom environment (small classes and abundant resources).

Secondly, when students are not required to take algebra, we are, in effect, tracking them out of entrance into the better colleges and universities and limiting their chances of success in core courses in most institutions of higher education. If one doubts this, take a look at how many students at Ivy League colleges gain entrance without taking algebra. Or, for that matter, what are the chances for success in higher education of takers vs. nontakers?

Of course, whether algebra or any subject leads to a “better life” is arguable. In the meantime, so long as higher education institutions require algebra as a condition of entrance, most parents and readers of this publication will insist that their children/students enroll in this course. But not all parents are savvy to this game, and, without requirements, their children are often counseled into poor substitutes for a solid education.

In my view, this type of tracking is intolerable and, contrary to Mr. Bracey’s view, is indeed a civil rights issue. The fact that large percentages of students are failing algebra in Milwaukee (40 percent, according to Mr. Bracey) is an instructional problem—and also a civil rights issue—but no reason for abandoning the requirement.

On a more personal level, during my tenure as a superintendent in two districts, we raised the requirements in both mathematics and science from one to three years. For my part, I would also have included a foreign language, but the same arguments articulated by Mr. Bracey defeated this proposal: “Why do kids need a foreign language; what use is it?”

In fact, the raising of requirements, coupled with appropriate staff development, resulted in dramatic improvements in student performance on state tests. I have no doubt that these changes also resulted in greater opportunities for students to enter and succeed both in higher education and the world of work.

What bothers me most about Mr. Bracey’s argument is the underlying premise that those who advocate higher standards are unrealistic and insensitive to the real needs of students. Sadly, his views—whether he believes it or not—are widely held throughout the leadership of teachers’ colleges and higher education. The very word “requirement” is an anathema to most educators—almost as bad as learning facts rather than “problem solving.”

For the record, let me say that I believe we should always find ways to help students succeed, including sensitivity to individual student needs and flexibility in the implementation of requirements and standards. But in no way does this mean we should abandon our efforts to provide a much higher percentage of students the opportunity for a more challenging and rewarding curriculum. Requiring algebra—with well- trained teachers and appropriate classroom resources—is a modest step in this direction.

Joseph M. Appel
Superintendent, Retired
Clinton, N.J.

Don’t Disparage ‘All Children Can Learn’

To the Editor:

Gerald W. Bracey’s statement that “all children can learn” is “the dumbest slogan to come down the education pike in recent years” is itself one of the dumbest statements made by an education writer in recent years (“The Malevolent Tyranny of Algebra,” Oct. 25, 2000).

It’s true that many people don’t understand it, or perhaps, understand but disagree with it—especially those who continue to defend our present dumbed-down system. But I am happy to say that an increasing number of schools and teachers are beginning to take the statement seriously and act upon it, with positive, and sometimes astonishingly positive, results.

I have just finished a 10-day trip to Kentucky, a state which, much to its credit, has adopted this principle as a foundation of its comprehensive school system redesign, and I witnessed many teachers putting it to work to bring many students to much higher levels of learning than many had thought possible. In the process, teacher morale, student engagement with school, and real partnership with families and community are all enhanced.

Those who “don’t get it” with this concept may be trapped in assuming that the only kind of public school system that is possible is our present bureaucratic, bell- curve-infected, low-expectation system. In that kind of system, Mr. Bracey is right; “all children can learn” is a “meaningless cliché"—or perhaps even worse, a cruel joke. But we are finally learning that we don’t have to keep this ineffective kind of system, and can, in fact, design and implement a shift to a much more effective system that will educate children to much higher levels.

David S. Seeley
Professor of Education
College of Staten Island
City University of New York
Staten Island, N.Y.

Rebellious Youths Need ‘Inside’ Help

To the Editor:

I am in agreement with the goals of alternative criminal-justice programs that seek to alter the mind-set of rebellious juveniles (“Directors Share Successes From Alternative Programs for Juvenile Offenders,” Oct. 25, 2000). But I believe that we, as parents and educators, must create rigorous alternatives in the lives of all those young people who need role models, structure, and mental and physical empowerment.

Instead of forcing minors to complete prison sentences or enter group homes, we as a society can offer them military-style training that will foster rigorous mental, physical, and psychological discipline.

In order to improve self-esteem, change a person’s attitudes and behaviors, and help impoverished communities, we must start from the inside.

Rae Goodman
Bronx, N.Y.

‘Extracurricular’ Is Out of Date

To the Editor:

I commend you on the article (“Extra Benefits Tied to Extracurriculars,” (Oct. 18, 2000). It shows the importance of student activities in the life of young people and the benefits derived from participation. It is a message that the National Association of Secondary School Principals has been preaching for years.

Researcher Bonnie Barber’s comment, “When funding gets tight, don’t cut activities,” is one that we particularly support. However, I have a concern that the use of the term “extracurricular” in the article, when referring to school-sponsored activities, does not support the notion that Ms. Barber proposes. “Extras” are what get cut in a budget crisis!

If we are serious about the value of school- sponsored student activities, then we should never call them “extracurricular.” The NASSP has recommended that we scrap this outmoded term and think of student activities as “cocurricular.” Most colleges and universities have already adopted the term “cocurricular activities” in recognition of their educational value. At the secondary level, some states have legal statutes that refer to some activities as extracurricular, reflecting the thinking at the time.

However, philosophically, today’s educators, parents, and students would be better served by referring to these activities as cocurricular, or simply student activities.

As your article points out, students who participate in cocurricular activities generally do better in high school and beyond. So let’s stop thinking of student activities as extras and get more students involved, so that they too may benefit.

Rocco Marano
Department of Student Activities
National Association of Secondary School Principals
Reston, Va.

Helping a Lost Generation

To the Editor:

On behalf of more than 8 million members of the National Geographic Society, I would like to voice a hearty “Amen” to Walter A. McDougall’s Commentary about the importance of geography education (“Knowing Where You Are,” Oct. 11, 2000). He makes a quite eloquent case for the alliance of geography and history. Geographic analysis can shed light on the allocations of wealth and power among nations, and history gives geography chronology and human context.

“We are all geographers,” Mr. McDougall observes, “from the moment we learn to navigate the playpen ... to the careers we pursue as adults.” Geography has a facility for bringing meaning to isolated facts and helps us understand our environment. Its tools serve planners, business executives, farmers, governments, and countless others, including historians. A geography-professor friend of mine collects the business cards of his former students. The spectrum of their employment is remarkable.

I do not, however, share Mr. McDougall’s pessimistic assessment of the state of geography. Perhaps I am unduly optimistic, but I believe geographic literacy is improving. True, it didn’t have much farther to fall a decade or so ago. Our Gallup poll in 1988 brought a new meaning to the phrase “the lost generation.” Young people who couldn’t find their own country on a map didn’t inspire much confidence.

We were so apalled that the board of the National Geographic Society launched a large and long-term commitment to get geography back in the schools. As a result of our efforts, geography got back on the national radar. To the surprise of many educators, the state governors added geography to their national education goals along with history, English, science, and math.

Of course, saying and doing have different degrees of difficulty. The National Geographic Society funded a “Marshall Plan” for training that opened teachers’ eyes to the value of the subject and its potential for enhancing the learning of other subjects. In 15 years, the society-led, grassroots program made “geo- evangelists” of more than 30,000 teachers. These teachers carried the message to tens of thousands more in their own schools.

The work is bearing fruit. Fewer than a half-dozen states in the mid-1980s held out any expectation that students should demonstrate a command of geography. Today, virtually all state curricula include geography among the subjects that students are expected to master.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a national assessment of geography. It showed that a dire situation in 1986 had improved. About 70 percent of the students performed at “basic” or better, and about a quarter scored “proficient.” Granted, geography achievement didn’t offer much to brag about, but considering that the subject was absent from the schools for decades, there was cause for hope. Best of all, the 1994 test gave us a baseline for measuring progress when geography is again tested early next year. We will know then how far we have come and how far we have to go.

On balance, the National Geographic Society’s investment of more than $100 million in this cause seems like a good bargain. We can say with some assurance that we moved the geography “down marker.” Perhaps more encouraging, we tapped a great well of energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence among the nation’s teachers. Mr. McDougall and I, and our fellow historians and geographers, can take some comfort from that.

Gilbert M. Grosvenor
Chairman of the Board
National Geographic Society
Washington, D.C.

Immersion Facts

To the Editor:

California’s Proposition 227 allows only one year for limited-English-proficient children to acquire enough English to do regular instruction in the mainstream. Your article “Ariz. Eyes Calif.'s 1-Year LEP Classes,” (Nov. 1, 2000) maintains that the results so far in California are unclear, because the state does not collect this kind of data. But California provides a separate analysis for English learners who have been in the United States for more than one year, and for those who have been in this country for one year or less.

Examining the district that supporters of immersion proclaim to be the purist and most enthusiastic in terms of applying 227, Oceanside, a total of 3,258 children were still considered limited-English-proficient after one or more years in the program. This represents 88 percent of the limited-English-proficient children in the district and 20 percent of all the children in the district. One can only conclude that the one-year limit is inadequate. These percentages are nearly identical to statewide figures.

Oceanside administrators claim that their rate was low “because the district neglected to pay much attention to it.” The claim is made, in other words, that Oceanside neglected to move children out of the program who deserved to be reclassified. But a look at scores on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition shows that this does not help matters much. Leaving high-scoring children in the program should increase the average Stanford-9 score for limited-English-proficient children.

Consider the Stanford-9 reading scores for English-learners who have been in the United States longer than one year in the Oceanside district. The usual score needed to be reclassified is 33. In 2000, the mean for 2nd grade English-learners who were in the United States more than one year was 33, which means that one-half of the 2nd graders didn’t achieve the reclassification standard. The mean for grade 5 for those here one year or more was 21, far short of the mark. And remember, many of these children have been in the United States longer than one year.

Let’s look at another “success story” for immersion, from a New York City board of education report. When this report was released, the media claimed a victory for English immersion over bilingual education (“N.Y.C. Study Adds Fuel to Bilingual Ed. Debate,” Sept. 13, 2000). How well did the immersion children do?

They were in a program very similar to the one called for by Arizona’s Proposition 203 and that provided by California’s Proposition 227. For English-learners entering the system at kindergarten, only 44 percent acquired enough English to enter the mainstream after one year. For those entering at grade 1, 24 percent made it. For those entering at grade 2, 28 percent succeeded, and for those entering at grade 3, only 16 percent entered the mainstream after one year.

Please note that I have included the best possible cases, the ones that should provide the strongest evidence for immersion. These two examples are considered to be success stories for English immersion, and fall far short of the one-year requirement. There are others:

  • A University of California, Riverside, study done by Douglas Mitchell, Tom Destino, and Tira Karem reported that English-learners in a Proposition 227-style immersion program improved only from 2.18 to 2.84 on a scale of 1 to 5 in one year, where 4 equaled sufficient proficiency to survive in the mainstream. After a second year, their rating was only 3.24.
  • Professor David Ramirez of California State University-Long Beach reported that children in immersion were nowhere near ready for the mainstream after one year, even though 70 percent knew some English before they started school. At the end of the 1st grade (two years of exposure), only 21 percent reached the “redesignation” standard, and at the end of grade 2, only 38 percent achieved that level.
  • Ann Goldberg reported that 90 percent of the English-learners in the Bethlehem, Pa., school district in an all-English program scored in the “beginner” range on a test of oral proficiency in English after one year, clearly insufficient for a full academic program in English. Ms. Goldberg presents the following case “to illustrate typical student growth": “Jesennia was evaluated initially before kindergarten entrance in April 1993. ... After a year in the English-speaking kindergarten, the tester wrote that Jesennia could now understand simple directions, identify simple nouns, and distinguish correct adjectives. Her expressive skills were still quite limited.”
  • Kevin Clark has provided data for a full academic year of progress in California’s Orange Unified School District under a sheltered- English-immersion approach. Some 84 percent of the children studied already had some English competence at the beginning of the year. Nevertheless, by the end of the year, only 47 percent reached a level where they could even handle “modified” instruction in English—and 30 percent were already at that level at the beginning of the year!

I discussed some of these studies in a debate with Ron K. Unz, the organizer of the Proposition 227 initiative campaign, on April 14, 1998, in San Francisco. He did not comment on the studies, but only said that the one-year period is not rigid and can be extended: “If it takes longer, that’s fine.” The fact is, however, that both Propositions 203 and 227 state that sheltered English immersion will be done “during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.”

Those wishing to avoid litigation will certainly stick to this: Districts will make policy and courts will make rulings based on what is written in the initiatives, not on Mr. Unz’s interpretation. And the one-year period is not just a little short of the mark—it is very, very far off the mark.

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

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters