Education Commentary


March 22, 2000 13 min read

For ‘Choice’ Schools, No Accountability

To the Editor:

Meaningless is too mild a term for the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau’s so-called evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (“Positive Voucher Audit Still Raises Questions,” Feb. 16, 2000).

State Superintendent of Public Instruction John T. Benson keeps asking the significant question: “If accountability is good and fair for public schools, why isn’t it fair for the schools in the voucher program?” The audit bureau’s report does not address this question. Incredibly, it lets choice schools provide almost no information on academic achievement or accountability standards.

Useless is the appropriate word to describe the program information provided. Some schools got away with providing partial or no answers to questions. Six choice schools (580 students) answered “unknown” to the question of the ethnicity of their students in January 1999. Choice schools receive millions in taxpayer money and are accountable for nothing. Why?

And why did it take months to do a report on 1998-99 information? Other than total-enrollment estimates, there is almost no substantive program information about the 91 schools participating in the parental-choice program in 1999-2000.

It took me about 10 hours over a four-day period to do a review of the audit bureau’s report. I wonder whether anyone else has read it carefully and in its entirety.

If so, perhaps they can answer this question: What is the rationale for spending millions of dollars of public funds on choice schools with absolutely no accountability or evaluation of the quality of these schools?

Dennis W. Redovich
Center for the Study of Jobs & Education in Wisconsin
Greendale, Wis.

Upgrading Math Is Slow Process

To the Editor:

Thank you for your interesting coverage of mathematics education in “A Teaching Style That Adds Up” (Feb. 23, 2000).

We agree with the educators you quoted that there are lessons to be learned from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study research. Providing students with new ways to learn math based on the TIMSS evidence, as William Jackson has done with his 8th grade students in Paterson, N.J., is indeed a labor-intensive and, as you write, “painstakingly slow” process. The same can be said about the implementation of new curricula, a process that involves professional development, informing students and community, and working through the change process.

Our work has been with school districts across the country that want to improve their curriculum and instruction in mathematics, from the elementary grades to the high school level. We have found that districts often need support in thinking through just how the transition to the type of mathematics instruction exemplified in your article can become a reality.

As an alternative to creating materials from scratch, we offer several curricula for districts to review, and we help them decide which is appropriate for their community. These curricula have been written by teams of teachers, teacher-educators, mathematicians, and educational researchers; are supported by the National Science Foundation; and have been extensively field-tested and revised before final publication. They reflect practices that emphasize skills, problem-solving, and conceptual understanding of mathematics.

Taking steps to improve student achievement involves a very serious commitment throughout the school community. Mr. Jackson’s achievement is an admirable one, and we hope others will be inspired by it to pursue new instructional practices in mathematics.

Eric Robinson
COMPASS High School Center
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
Ithaca College
Ithaca, N.Y.

Barbara Reyes
Show-Me Middle School Center
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
University of Missouri
Columbia, Mo.

Sheila Sconiers
ARC Elementary Center
Lexington, Mass.

Teaching Roughs Up the ‘High Achievers’

To the Editor:

Regarding your special edition Quality Counts 2000: Who Should Teach? (Jan. 13, 2000): The characteristics of good teachers, content mastery and high verbal scores on the SATs and the Graduate Record Examinations, also seem to be the indicators of who is leaving teaching.

I have left the classroom to be a peer-coach staff developer, thinking that my training and previous experience would be useful. But it’s worse from this vantage point than when I was in the classroom. Now I can see on a systemic level how difficult it is for these “high achievers.” I have heard comments from principals who speak derisively of the accomplishments of teachers (for example, their publications or their use of sophisticated vocabulary during teaching). I find this quite confusing, given our district’s mission and enormous staff-development program based on the adaptations of learning theory created by the University of Pittsburgh researcher Lauren Resnick.

Even during training sessions for the peer coaches, there is an intellectual chill. Many of the coaches and a majority of teachers vociferously reject “theory.” When I used the term “metacognition” in this group, for example, I was told to speak English. Is there really room for me here?

While I don’t intend to leave teaching, I do plan to return to the classroom. Your report on teacher quality helped me see that my best contributions are those made to students.

I am a fourth-generation teacher. My mother told me not to let anyone know about my academic preparation or my high verbal skills, but until I worked in the system, I had no idea what she meant.

Grace Stell
San Diego, Calif.

On Teaching Methods for Teachers-To-Be

To the Editor:

After reading “Teacher-Preparation Programs Need Retooling, Standards Board Says,” (March 8, 2000), it struck me how little attention is being given to the question of whether the pedagogical methods promoted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are effective or whether they are intended to produce the kind of schooling outcomes desired by the public. There is ample evidence that teacher-educators idealize learner-centered/progressive teaching and reject teacher-led/directive approaches. The NBPTS standards are certainly congenial to these views.

An article I wrote for the National Association of State Boards of Education’s new journal argues that the favored methods are not suited—indeed, are not intended—to produce what the public wants (“Aligning Teacher Training With Public Policy,” The State Education Standard, January 2000). No wonder there is widespread skepticism about the teacher education community’s ability to reform itself. The NBPTS and its collaborators are using the banner of reform to promote another version of what teacher-educators want, rather than what the public wants.

J.E. Stone
Professor of Education
East Tennessee State University
Johnson City, Tenn.

Age and Language: Final Thoughts Essayist Responds

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to several letters inspired by my recent Commentary (“Is There a ‘Child Advantage’ in Learning Foreign Languages?,” Feb. 9, 2000). The focus of the letters on learning in young children underscores the importance of drawing attention to the literature confirming that older learners also have the capacity to acquire a second language. This was clearly the emphasis of my article, which was originally titled “Foreign-Language Learning: It’s Not Just for Kids Anymore.”

In his letter, Kent Jones (“In Language Learning, Earlier Is Better,” Letters, Feb. 23, 2000) does not address the topic of linguistic ability and age, but does broach the fascinating subject of “language in the mind” and how language may influence our perception of the world. John Lucy has recently done some extensive research on this issue, often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and his work suggests that learning other languages may have the benefit of broadening one’s perspectives (see Grammatical Categories and Cognition, 1992, as well as Language Diversity and Thought, 1992).

As for Gladys Lipton’s letter (“Foreign Languages: The Scales Tip in Favor of Starting Early,” Letters, March 1, 2000), the aggressiveness of her response is made all the more puzzling by her focus on issues completely irrelevant to my argument. As Ms. Lipton is well aware, the study she cites by Eileen Rafferty (1986) concludes by stating: “This finding supports the notion that, beginning as early as the 3rd grade, second-language study facilitates the acquisition of minimum skills in the native [my emphasis] tongue.” These results are very encouraging, but they in no way concern linguistic ability in the foreign language. Similarly, Ms. Lipton refers to children’s acquiring “greater openness to other cultures.” This is a key advantage to foreign-language study at any age, but is certainly a poor example of “solid” evidence in favor of a biological child advantage in acquiring linguistic skills.

Concerning the focus of my Commentary, there are indeed, as Ms. Lipton writes, a number of researchers who have concluded that a child’s brain is somehow more receptive to learning the linguistic elements of a foreign language. In “Three Misconceptions About Second Language Learning” by Stefka Marinova-Todd, Catherine Snow, and me, on which my piece was based, we provide one of the most comprehensive reviews to date of studies both for and against a biological critical period for foreign-language acquisition (TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring 2000). This article demonstrates how conclusions in support of a biologically based “child advantage” are not always in keeping with evidence provided in the studies.

For example, in his March 1 letter, Jorge Amselle mentions work by Norman Relkin for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Cornell University Medical College. Interestingly, in my Commentary, I cite such a study under the primary author, Karl Kim. As I wrote, and as is explained in greater detail in our TESOL Quarterly article, Mr. Kim, Mr. Relkin, and their colleagues show clear brain differences, but do not link them to language proficiency. Similarly, Harold Chugani’s interesting work, which I also refer to in my Commentary and which Ms. Lipton mentions, does not link age differences in glucose metabolization to better language skills. In other words, these impressive biological differences have not been shown to be linguistic advantages.

Patricia Kuhl, also cited by Mr. Amselle, has done extensive work on infant auditory perception revealing that language exposure does indeed have a positive effect on sound discrimination, but this occurs during the first year of life and thus seems remotely related to academic language instruction. There is, of course, a correlation between age and good pronunciation of a second language. Yet, as our TESOL article demonstrates, there is no convincing evidence, not even in the studies by Stephen Krashen and Michael Long to which Ms. Lipton refers, that any biologically limited period such as puberty is the crucial cutoff point for acquiring a good accent.

As Mr. Amselle points out, I wrote that adults face far more obstacles (environmental, psychological, and others) than do children when learning another language. This is why many more adults than children have problems with second languages. These problems, however, are not due to some biological “critical period” which condemns older learners to certain failure. Research shows that children, in general, have an important learning advantage, but not, as Mr. Amselle writes, a “natural language advantage.” Adults who master foreign languages, as well as children who do not, do indeed disprove the rule that age alone determines linguistic success.

Rather than be interpreted as biased criticism of early foreign-language exposure, this should be seen as encouraging both for young children and for the majority of learners who start acquiring a second language later in life. There are many reasons to start learning foreign languages at an early age. Yet is it misleading to suggest that the cause is lost if one does not, or that later learners are at a biological disadvantage. We should thus be optimistic that proficiency in a new language is a reachable goal—not just for young children, but for everyone.

Brad Marshall
Acting Course Head and Teaching Fellow in French
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Age and Language: Final Thoughts ‘Cited Inaccurately’

To the Editor:

It is a rare privilege to be cited inaccurately in two letters to the editor on two different topics in the same issue of Education Week (Letters, March 1, 2000).

Jorge Amselle claims that I think literacy skills transfer equally easily from first to second languages, regardless of the differences between the two. Not so. When the alphabets are similar, transfer will be greater. Correlations between reading in the first language and second language are, for example, higher for Spanish and English than for Chinese and English; Tregar and Wang found that for 4th graders, the correlation between English and Spanish reading was spectacular, r = .95; for Chinese and English reading, it was lower, r = .4, but still present (“The relationship between native and second-language reading comprehension and second-language oral ability,” in C. Rivera, ed., Communicative Competence Approaches to Language Proficiency: Education and Policy Issues, 1984).

What is interesting, however, is that there is still a robust transfer effect even when the writing systems are very different: Children who are literate in their native language have a much easier time developing literacy in a second language compared to children without literacy in the first language, regardless of the alphabets used. This conclusion is supported by psycholinguistic research showing that the processes of reading and learning to read are very similar in languages with different orthographies (Krashen, Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education, 1996).

In her letter, Gladys Lipton cites our edited collection (Krashen, Scarcella, and Long, Child-Adult Differences in Second Language Acquisition, 1982), which, as she points out, contains papers indicating that those who begin second-language acquisition as children tend to develop better accents than those who begin as adults. But it also contains papers showing that in beginning stages of second-language acquisition, older is faster than younger: Older children progress more quickly than younger children, adults more quickly than children.

Because of the tremendous practical importance of English in the United States, the finding that older children acquire more quickly than younger children in beginning stages does not mean that English should be delayed in the case of children acquiring English as a second language. This is an argument for bilingual education, not against it: Well-designed bilingual programs provide more rapid development of English than all-English alternatives. This is supported by the results of several meta-analyses (for example, Willig, Review of Educational Research, 1985; Greene, Bilingual Research Journal, 1999).

In the case of foreign-language acquisition, Ms. Lipton, in my view, makes a very important point: If it is the case that those who start younger have more openness and better attitudes, this may be more important than any differences in rate. In my view, our goal in foreign-language education is to help students reach the intermediate level and give them the tools they need so they can continue to improve on their own. Does it really matter how quickly they make it to this level as long as they do so? If those who start younger have better attitudes, perhaps they will be more likely to continue their efforts in second- language acquisition.

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

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters


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