Education Commentary


April 21, 1999 13 min read

Value-Added Gains And Economic Factors

To the Editor:

In “Economic School Desegregation,” March 31, 1999, Richard D. Kahlenberg claims that “the data unmistakably show that in high-poverty schools--of any racial makeup--a given student will do worse academically than if she attends a predominantly middle-class school.” Mr. Kahlenberg isn’t looking at the same data I am, and I suggest his assertion is not only wrong, but dangerous.

Tennessee’s Value-Added Analysis System, known as TVAAS, tracks gains for every student in grades 3-8 every year in five subjects. Over 6 million longitudinally merged records have been analyzed for the effect of the economic background of students on a school’s ability to help those students learn. The result? There is no such effect:

”. . .[T]he percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches is unrelated to system gain. This is important because the economic status of the school population has often been cited as a factor that impacts student academic growth. TVAAS data do not support this contention. Although sometimes schools with high proportions of students from families with lower than average incomes show lower average raw scale scores, the gains their students make are comparable to those of schools with students from families with average incomes or above.”

These results are reported in “Graphical Summary of Educational Findings From the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System 1997,” published by the University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center, 225 Morgan Hall, PO Box 1071, Knoxville, TN 37901-1071; (423) 974-7336. The report is available on the World Wide Web at www.shearonforschools.com/summary/GRAPH-SUM.HTML.

Mr. Kahlenberg’s claim is wrong, and the danger is that it will focus policymakers on wasteful and unproductive efforts aimed at homogenizing student populations. Efforts to enhance socioeconomic diversity are worthwhile, but they should not receive top priority. There’s absolutely no reason students should learn less in schools with high concentrations of “poor” students. We know this because we can see schools with such concentrations that are helping their students make great gains every year. So, let’s stop looking for excuses and work to accomplish what we now know is possible.

Dave Shearon
Member, Board of Education
Nashville, Tenn.

New Mexico Polls Disagree on Vouchers

To the Editor:

The poll you cited in your article on school vouchers in New Mexico, which purported to show 58 percent support for vouchers among New Mexicans, was conducted by a Republican outfit with a vested interest in seeing vouchers implemented here (“N.M. Governor Digs In His Heels on Vouchers,” March 31, 1999). We conducted a similar poll, similar sample size (and a largely Republican one at that), which showed a 2-1 ratio against vouchers.

Virtually no one who has looked into this issue seriously supports a universal statewide voucher program. This includes members of Gov. Gary E. Johnson’s Cabinet, who have shown increasing reluctance to shut down the entire state over this issue and have backed off the “all or nothing” stance they originally adopted. It has become progressively more difficult for them to defend vouchers when even private schools and the Roman Catholic archbishop, a representative of the single largest private school system in the world, oppose them.

Apart from the inconvenience of the U.S. Constitution, there are very serious logistical and financial issues for which Gov. Johnson has offered no solutions. It is up to the governor to prove to the public that vouchers are a good idea, and to present a complete plan as to how they will work. It is not up to the legislature to come up with compromises to ideas that are virtually untenable under the law and common sense.

Eric Witt
Senior Analyst for the Speaker of the House
New Mexico Legislature
Santa Fe, N.M.

Ease Tech Standard, Change Keyboards

To the Editor:

Your article “Tech-Savvy Youngsters Getting a New Type of Lesson,” March 31, 1999, offers an interesting contradiction. The International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, has developed standards that call for students to “efficiently and effectively” use a keyboard by the end of 5th grade.

ISTE needs to go at least one step further. The efficiency of students, or anyone, on the standard American English keyboard is severely inhibited by its intentionally inefficient design.

Those of us old enough to remember manual typewriters can remember why an inefficient keying arrangement provided more efficient typing. Those little bars with the letters on them that stuck the ribbon against the paper couldn’t move as fast as a good typist’s fingers using an efficient keyboard. The bars would get stuck together, thereby slowing down the typing process.

To moderate typing speed, the most frequently used keys were put on the left side of the keyboard. The letter “e” required the use of the middle finger on the left hand. Since “e” is the most frequently used letter, efficiency would have dictated that it be under the first finger on the right hand. The letters “a” and “s” should also have been on the right (with, of course, apologies to the lefthanded who, by accident, just happened to have had something designed that benefited them).

Between now and the time when audio input becomes a widespread reality, and before our 5th graders can become “efficient” keyboarders, the International Society for Technology in Education or some other such group should take the initiative in pushing for the development of an efficient keyboard. Millions of hours have been wasted since the inception of the electric typewriter. Today, with virtually everyone using keyboards for some reason or other, the potential loss in hours, work and otherwise, is astronomical.

The change could be phased in quite simply. Add the more efficient key configuration as an option on computers and allow users to either leave the keys as they are or change them based on their training and preferences. Teach children to use the more efficient configuration. Eventually, painlessly, the “new” would become the standard.

Joseph H. Crowley
Chariho Career & Technical Center
Wood River Junction, R.I.

On Phonics, Spelling, and ‘Serious Patterns’

To the Editor:

In response to Helen Bardeen Andrejevic’s letter on phonics (“Phonics Method Has Its Own Imprecision,” March 24, 1999): One of the reasons this debate seems to go on endlessly is that the term “phonics” covers a lot of different sound-based methods (as “whole word” covers a lot of sight-based methods). The one Ms. Andrejevic describes is one of the weakest, and overlooks the fact that although English has the largest number of variations between sounds and their graphic representations of any language in the world (French is second), there are, nevertheless, a lot of serious patterns that can be learned in one way or another.

When one has a sense of pattern, then the apparent exceptions stand out as exceptions, and become noticeable. For instance, “friend” is the only word in English where “ie” is sounded short “e,” and stands out accordingly--but only if one has a sense of how “ie,” and also “ei,” generally behave.

When we are faced with the need to spell a word which is spoken aloud, all we have is the sounds running through our ears. There are many ways to “do phonics,” but if the listener has no way of dealing with the sounds he hears, he can’t write the appropriate letters.

The question of how a good speller decides on what letters to use to represent what he hears is an interesting one--and not a simple one. In fact, most of so-called spelling rules are either wrong or at best only sometimes helpful, and the weaker student who relies on them for every decision he makes is in real trouble.

This subject is too big for this letter, but the writer (40 years of English teaching and a lot of research into just this question) couldn’t let the whole field of phonics take a bad rap from a single bad example.

Leonard E. Opdycke
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Teacher-Skills Study: Not a New Finding

To the Editor:

The fact that teachers read as well as any other group with comparable levels of education is not really news (“Teachers’ Literacy Skills Akin to Other Professionals’, ETS Says,” March 31, 1999). A study in 1984 found that at the end of the sophomore year of college--before future teachers started taking those “gut” education courses--future teachers had an average grade point average of 2.88. The average for other majors was 2.87.

The high school GPAs didn’t differ much either, and, analyzing information in a large data base, the study also found no tendency for teachers’ high school grade point averages to decline over the period from 1974 to 1983.

Of course, this study was commissioned by a regime seeking vouchers and tuition tax credits, in part by emphasizing the negative about public schools. The study was designed to show that people who go into teaching aren’t very bright, and when it didn’t show that, it got buried. I stumbled on to it by accident.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

Homeopathy and ADD: Don’t Replace the Imperfect With the Unregulated

To the Editor:

I am writing to protest your subtle promotion of what you incorrectly refer to as “homeopathy” to treat attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“As ADD Research Continues, Parents Seek Alternatives,” March 24, 1999).

First of all, when a practitioner uses “plants, minerals, and other natural substances ... to stimulate the body to heal itself,” he or she is practicing “naturopathy.” Homeopathy is the use of substances which are so diluted that they are essentially distilled water or alcohol.

Homeopaths believe that the agitation of a solvent like water or alcohol in the presence of some substance charges the solvent with the energy of the substance. In fact, they believe that the more you agitate and the more you dilute, the more powerful the solution becomes. This is, of course, absolutely ridiculous, and contradicts the foundations of chemistry and physics. If this were true, we would make martinis stronger by adding more gin instead of more vermouth, and tough household stains would be cleaned with the purest water instead of bleach. Theoretics aside, homeopathic remedies have been tested and found to be no more useful than placebos.

Some naturopaths do prescribe homeopathic remedies. They also prescribe nutritional supplements, which include vitamins, minerals, and herbs. These are classed as “dietary supplements,” and under the federal Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, cannot be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

When I purchase a bottle of aspirin, the drug in the aspirin is regulated. It has been tested and found safe in most cases. An exact dosage is present in each capsule. Studies have been conducted to prove that aspirin does what its manufacturers claim. Contraindications have been noted, and warnings are clearly printed on the label.

Were I to purchase a bottle of St. John’s Wort, on the other hand, none of this information is required. It is not known what the active ingredient in St. John’s Wort is, and because the strength of this substance is unknown, the dosage may vary from capsule to capsule. We suspect that St. John’s Wort is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, but there is no requirement that the packaging inform us that people taking blood pressure medication should not take St. John’s Wort, even though this combination has been credited with several deaths.

You can claim that St. John’s Wort relieves acne, although in fact there has never been any suggestion that it does; it is supposed to relieve depression. There also is no legal requirement for its purity. Grass clippings could be mixed with the St. John’s Wort. In fact, if you sold a box of grass clippings that was labeled “St. John’s Wort,” you could be prosecuted by the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising, but not by the FDA.

Naturopaths are themselves suspect. Although they claim to be a natural alternative to physicians with standard medical degrees, their own education is lacking. They are not qualified to be primary-care physicians. The fact that they do prescribe homeopathic remedies is evidence of their ignorance of basic science, human physiology, and pharmacology.

Teachers, like most of the general public, are generally not well-informed about the legal issues regarding dietary supplements and the training of naturopaths. Your article suggests that they should be open to these therapies as a possible alternative to Ritalin, although all of the experts quoted in the article suggest that these therapies are, at best, “experimental.” Lehigh University Professor George J. DuPaul was being kind when he described homeopathic and naturopathic in these terms.

You owe your readers better information than the fact that some people are opting to test substances that are unregulated over substances that work, if not perfectly.

Lauren Eve Pomerantz
Programs Coordinator
California Space & Science Center
Montclair, Calif.

Reading Data: ‘Meaning and Skills Are Not at War’

To the Editor:

Gerald Coles’ Jan. 27, 1999, letter--complete with graphic art and advertising for his book--shows how important the so-called literacy debates are to essayists like Mr. Coles as well as publications like yours (“No End to Literacy Debate: Coles Responds to Foorman”). You may believe such exchanges are productive, but the accompanying art and the headline are misleading and maintain the appearance of the so-called debate.

Meaning and skills are not orthogonal, not at war, and whoever said that “meaning” wasn’t a “skill”? I hesitate to respond further since it will only perpetuate the silly exchanges that generally occur when Mr. Coles stirs the pot. However, his claims about the results from our study require that we provide interested readers with the data, particularly since you did not bother to check the facts. The data speak for themselves, and we are more than willing to let readers decide whose analysis of the data is credible and whose is constructed simply to tell a story and/or sell a book. I have never initiated any exchanges with Mr. Coles. I will simply state that Mr. Coles does misrepresent my views about reading and would encourage the interested reader to go to primary sources and not rely on his misinterpretations.

We provided the data from our study to Mr. Coles, but cannot attest to the accuracy of his analyses, since he has provided us with no details on his recalculation of the effects. I have no intention of contributing to him financially by purchasing his book to determine exactly what he did, particularly since it is not peer-reviewed. The notion that he analyzed the data more closely than we did is pure hyperbole, as a review of the actual data shows. He did not analyze the data so as to take into account the nesting of students within teachers and the differential precision in teacher-level means that result from having unequal sample sizes. Simple analysis of classroom means based on sample sizes ranging from one to eight ignores important information regarding the precision of those means. Trying to reconcile Mr. Coles’ statements about our data with the actual data suggests that his reanalysis of our data is little more than a projective test for him.

In the interest of allowing readers to make fully informed decisions, we provided Education Week with a table of means and sample sizes so that the reader could see how Mr. Coles misrepresented our data. However, Education Week imposed a space limitation that precludes presentation of the data. We refer the reader to our World Wide Web site (cars.uth.tmc.edu) where the full reply and data may be found, clearly showing that Mr. Coles’ assertions about our study are baseless and without merit.

Barbara Foorman,
Director and Professor
Center for Academic and Reading Skills
University of Texas-Houston Medical School
Houston, Texas

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as Letters