Education Commentary


May 10, 2000 22 min read

Economic Integration: Do We Have the Will?

To the Editor:

Your otherwise excellent article “N.C. District To Integrate by Income” (April 26, 2000) leaves the false impression that I believe “common sense” tells us the poor will benefit from economic integration even if “studies” sometimes have “contrary” findings. In fact, the vast majority of academic studies conducted over 35 years confirm the common-sense idea that low-income student achievement will be higher in economically integrated middle-class schools than in high-poverty schools.

The notion that classmate socioeconomic status has a powerful effect on achievement, notes Harvard University’s Gary Orfield, is “one of the most consistent findings in research on education.” The effect is found not only in studies favored by liberals, but also in studies widely cited by conservatives. The seminal 1966 Coleman Report found that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.” And voucher advocates John Chubb and Terry Moe found in their 1990 study that while the racial identity of classmates did not affect achievement, the socioeconomic status of peers was “strongly associated” with achievement.

The major question is not whether poor students will do better in middle-class schools. They will. The question is whether society cares enough to muster the political will to let them in.

Richard D. Kahlenberg
Senior Fellow
The Century Foundation
Washington, D.C.

On Special Education ‘Accommodations’

To the Editor:

First, you report on the rise in the number of special education students passing state reading and language arts tests in New York (“More N.Y. Special Education Students Passing State Tests,” April 12, 2000). Then, one week later, you report on concerns about testing special education students and the use of test accommodations or alternative assessment techniques ( “Researchers Warn of Possible Pitfalls in Spec. Ed. Testing,” April 19, 2000).

One concern voiced about the use of accommodations is their potential to hinder the “path to independence” for pupils with disabilities. I would raise another concern. The permitted use of testing accommodations that seriously alter the nature of the assessment produce reports such as yours that offer unwarranted claims of improved special educational services.

To wit, in New York state the observed rise in reading and English language arts achievement among special education students may have nothing to do with these pupils’ actually reading and writing with improved proficiency. Sad to say, but after several years of wrangling, the current regulations still allow the test passages and the questions and answers on a reading test to be read aloud to the students (by a teacher or paraprofessional). On a writing assessment, an adult can serve as a “scribe,” taking a dictated response and putting it on the test paper for the student. All this in the name of “accommodation.” Thus, the results reported for special education students’ reading and writing performance can hardly be considered reliable estimates of their actual reading and writing proficiency.

Because New York state does not collect the needed information, there is no accurate accounting of the numbers of students who have their reading test read to them, nor the numbers of students who have someone else write their written responses. Thus, to suggest that special education students are being better served is ill-advised. I can think of hardly any other “accommodation” that would serve as more of a roadblock on the “path to independence” than this one that allows the use of an adult reader and writer on tests of reading and writing proficiency. Will these adults also accompany the students on job interviews and into the workplace?

The National Research Council last year, in its report on high-stakes testing, identified just this “accommodation” as an example of the sort that should be disallowed because it fundamentally altered the nature of the intended assessment and produced unreliable data. If federal officials are interested in reliable reports of the reading and writing achievement of pupils with disabilities, new guidelines on “accommodations” will be needed.

Without such action, I suggest that we will observe more schools, like one I studied, where 100 percent of the special education students achieved a passing score on the state reading test, even though none could actually read at a level even close to 4th grade level. In such cases, both the public and, often, the parents of the special education student are being misled about the effectiveness of special education services.

Richard L. Allington
Fien Professor of Elementary and Special Education
University of Florida
Gainesville, Fla.

Ravitch: Standards Aid Quest for Equity

To the Editor:

I regret that Harold Howe II thinks that I “lambasted” him because he attributes the SAT score decline to the increased participation of poor and minority students in the test-taking pool ( “Letters: Standards Backlash: A ‘Cricket’ Responds,” April 19, 2000). I have too much respect for Mr. Howe, the former U.S. commissioner of education, to “lambaste” him. I did disagree, however, with his belief that we should welcome a score decline as a sign of democratization (the title of his article was “Let’s Have Another Score Decline,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 1985).

I disagree with Mr. Howe because I think it is far too deterministic to assume that poor and minority children will always finish high school ill-prepared for college. There are plenty of examples from good public and private schools to demonstrate that this is not necessarily true. Nor is it correct to attribute the SAT score decline mainly to minority students, because white scores on the SAT fell from 1976 to 1990, while black scores increased substantially. Also, minority students cannot be blamed for the decrease in the proportion of students who score over 650.

Mr. Howe says that standards “should be as vague as possible.” I disagree about that, too. It is unfair to both students and teachers to test them without letting them know in advance what they will be held accountable for. Standards should be clear, but they should also be reasonable. Vague standards are not reasonable because no one knows how to teach them or learn them. It would be as if people who wanted to get a driver’s license were not taught the rules of the road or given practice in how to drive.

I certainly agree with Mr. Howe that tests should be valid and reliable and that students should be prepared before they are given a test. But they cannot be prepared unless they and their teachers know what they are expected to learn (standards).

Surveys by Public Agenda show that parents of all races and the general public continue to support standards, by large margins. The American Federation of Teachers recently released a poll showing that most teachers want standards. Even students tell pollsters that expectations in school are too low.

The transition from a system of low expectations to one that prepares all youngsters well for further education, citizenship, and the modern workplace will not be easy. There will be many disappointments along the way. We must persist, however, because the alternative to a standards-based school system is one that accepts vast inequities among social groups and that rejects any means of identifying and remedying them.

Diane Ravitch
Brooklyn, N.Y.

The writer is a senior research scholar at New York University and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education.

Building Maturity and a Sense of Happiness

To the Editor:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is right. There is great happiness in competence and achievement and in real work with real meaning ( “Education for the 21st Century,” Commentary, April 19, 2000). We have found in our programs nationally that children and adults understand this and truly enjoy working to achieve goals.

A few points that need to be kept in mind: Happiness and fun, which have come to be equated in the media and in popular thinking, are not the same. I resist calling any of our home and school learning activities “fun,” yet I know that they bring happiness.

Another point that unfortunately needs to be remembered is that, while children need to be with adults (I fully agree), what they really need are mature adults ... or at least adults who act maturely on most days. Building this capacity for maturity and yes, for happiness, is what my work has been about, and I thank Mr. Csikszentmihalyi for helping me articulate better what I have known for many decades.

Dorothy Rich
Founder and President
Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.

First the Apostrophe, Then the Pronouns

To the Editor:

Bravo to Edgar H. Schuster for his comprehensive discussion on the ups and downs of apostrophe use; it’s about time we hear about the apostrophe and its correct applications ( “Language Arts Standards and the Possessive ‘Apoxtrophe,’” April 19, 2000).

However, Mr. Schuster, in his zeal to take on the tiny apostrophe, must have missed the lesson on possessive pronouns. To quote from his essay: “What is a teacher—or a student—to do in such a sea of contradiction? Perhaps the best answer is ‘Keep their eyes open.’” Come on, Mr. Schuster, surely you know that “their” should read “his” or “her” or even “his or her” to agree with the singular noun to which the pronoun refers: “a teacher” or “a student.”

Back to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, sir, where you will write 50 times: “Pronouns must agree in number with the nouns to which they refer.” No apostrophe needed.

Arlene Silverman
San Francisco, Calif.

Voucher Advocates Omit Key Differences

To the Editor:

Typical of advocates of school vouchers, Kevin R. Kosar, Glenn Noreen, and Lawrence D. Weinberg prefer in their recent letters to avoid mention of the significant ways in which most nonpublic schools differ from public schools: their various forms of selectivity in admissions and hiring, their pervasively sectarian nature, and their lack of accountability to voters and taxpayers (“Market Metaphors: Three Views on Vouchers, Equity, and Civility,” Letters, April 19, 2000).

Our emphasis should be on improving public schools, not on draining support from them for the benefit of sectarian special interests.

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

Millennial Reflection Missed an Inflection

To the Editor:

It was helpful to have a scholar of the rank and status of Maurice R. Bérubé examine “the end of education” (“The Post-Millennium Blues,” April 12, 2000). He wrote persuasively and showed great historical insight—until he quoted the late teacher-educator Madeline Hunter and former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. Then I knew he was from Mars.

Odds are that Mr. Bérubé is only beginning to know how learning in the human organism occurs. Breakthroughs on human learning will be the basis for the next Kuhnian revolution in education. Despite the misguided “leadership,” and unfortunate misdiagnoses of truncated theoreticians, education for the human species on earth truly does have a future. Mr. Bérubé simply missed the point of inflection.

David Kennedy
Director of Science Education
Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction
Olympia, Wash.

A Future Teacher on Corporate Giving

To the Editor:

In response to your article “Corporate Giving to Education Grows at Record Pace,” (April 5, 2000): I wonder, as a future teacher, about the help these companies are actually giving to schools. I also question their motives.

Of course, I understand that the money they have given has allowed students to receive the best possible education. But the money is not evenly distributed, creating a greater gap in the learning levels of our students.

In addition, many of these companies are donating money to schools in return for the purchase of their products. At the school where I am volunteering, for example, children bring in certain cereal-box tops for educational contributions from the makers.

If these companies were giving to schools in good faith, they would simply donate the money—and a greater percentage of their profits than they currently give. What we should be reading are more articles on the amount of money corporations themselves are making through their contributions to schools. I am quite sure that many are giving merely to be given to.

And because of the types of products schools buy and that corporations give, many of the wealthier districts become wealthier, while the poorer districts remain stagnant. This can be a Catch-22 for these districts, and can affect the education of their students.

Jeremy Schmidt
Willard, Wis.

The ‘Cognitive Wall’ and Spoken Language

To the Editor:

I believe that what Stanley Pogrow speaks of as the “cognitive wall” experienced by inner-city students in the 4th grade could more aptly be described as their limited experience with spoken language (“Beyond the ‘Good Start’ Mentality,” April 19, 2000).

Middle-class children learn language that refers to happenings outside their immediate experience not only from the all-important discussions at the family dinner table, but also from parents who conscientiously try to answer children’s “why” questions, and who read aloud to their children, taking care to explain any new vocabulary or new ideas (“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,” “The robin implored Peter to exert himself”). Children in the inner city have often had no such experiences, with the result that their vocabulary is confined to the minimal needs of here and now.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Educational Resources Information Center provides some interesting research on this subject:

  1. The vocabulary of the average children’s book was found to be greater than that found on prime-time television (Hayes and Ahrens, 1988).
  2. First graders from high-income families were found to have double the vocabulary of those from low-income families (Graves and Slater, 1987).
  3. The children in high-income families will have heard 30 million words by the time they enter school; those from low-income families, 10 million (Hart and Risley, 1995).

At the 4th grade, language that refers to the world beyond a child’s immediate experience begins to form a major part of the curriculum. Children who are already at ease with a great variety of language will have little difficulty. The others hit the “cognitive wall.” As Mr. Pogrow suggests, the cure is conversation—preferably conversation with an adult. It would seem a shame to defer this remedy until the 4th grade.

Kindergarten provides wonderful opportunities for teachers to interact with children conversationally while playing games, building with blocks, reading books, carrying on class discussions, acting out stories, and a host of other daily activities. Children learn language rapidly from such natural exchanges. The more language a child knows, the more new language he or she is in a position to learn. This explains why ordinary early-intervention programs, which pay little special attention to spoken language, have no lasting effect, and why children with restricted language inevitably fall farther and farther behind in school.

To a great extent, education is defined by language. What you know is what you can talk about. The only way we can ever hope to raise the academic performance of the children in our schools is to pay much more attention to spoken language, beginning, preferably, in preschool and continuing throughout the grades.

Helen B. Andrejevic
New York, N.Y.

Portrait of Test Foes Seen as ‘Alarmist’

To the Editor:

Your feature article “CON-Test,” (April 5, 2000) was saturated with alarmist language in order to discredit the leading opponents of high-stakes standardized testing. It begins with a scathing description of Alfie Kohn as “known for his quixotic crusades” and “his entertaining talk—its recipe one part research abstracts, two parts anecdote, and a pinch of sarcasm.”

The article portrays Mr. Kohn and other renowned educators as chieftains of a 1960s-style rebellion, and contains red-baiting stereotypes to scorn the anti-standards movement. Depicting Mr. Kohn’s lectures as from a “viable pulpit from which to rain down fire and brimstone,” and calling all opposed to standardized testing “progressive education gurus” and “refuseniks,” prevents honest discussion of the very real and complex controversy over high-stakes, industry- sponsored standardized testing.

Throughout your report, teachers questioning standardized tests are cited as teaching subjects such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. Exclusive coupling of progressive education with historical conflict discloses a bias to the critical reader, but leaves a tainted image of those opposed to standardized tests with others.

This tendency toward selective reporting culminates in the “Rebels With a Cause” sidebar, which could offend all but the teenage reader. The high school student who led a standardized-test boycott in Massachusetts is described not in terms of his academic standing or active citizenship, but as “on intimate terms with profanity": “When his dad tells him to stop biting his nails, he tells his dad to shut up.” Though this may be true, the choice of publishing only this information paints a seditious portrait of a recalcitrant radical, rather than showing an intelligent and questioning young man contributing to his school community.

Instead of presenting research-based pros and cons of state testing or clearly articulating the greater struggle of clashing pedagogical and political views, your article has provided ammunition for the conservative tide to bash those critical of state-mandated tests and the testing industry.

Dorinne Dorfman
Plainfield, Vt.

Reading Report: One Research’s ‘Errors and Omissions’

To the Editor:

The recent National Reading Panel report concludes that it is not clear that children can become better readers by reading silently to themselves (“Reading Panel Urges Phonics for All in K-6,” April 19, 2000.) Despite the panel’s repeated claims of rigor and completeness, the report contains numerous errors and omissions.

  1. Of the 14 studies of silent reading that the NRP said met its criteria, two were actually studies of the effectiveness of the accelerated-reader program, and should not have been included.
  2. Eight of the remaining 12 studies of sustained silent reading, SSR, had very short treatments. In The Power of Reading (1993), I concluded that short-term programs, those lasting less than one year, do not show consistent results, but that longer-term programs do. Some of the studies listed by the NRP lasted one or two months. It sometimes takes a while for children to settle down and get involved in a book. It is surprising that this was not pointed out, as the NRP listed The Power of Reading as one of its sources for finding studies.
  3. Ronald Carver and Robert Liebert’s study (Reading Research Quarterly, 1995) should not have been cited as evidence for or against SSR. Students were constrained with respect to what they could read, allowed only to read books at or below their level; there was heavy use of extrinsic motivators; students had to take multiple-choice tests on the books they read; book choice was very limited—the regular library stacks were off-limits, and students were allowed to choose from only 135 books; reading time was heavily concentrated, with students reading in two-hour blocks. Successful SSR programs allow access to any books readers want to read, do not use extrinsic motivators, do not make students accountable for what they read, provide a wide variety of books, and typically meet for a short time each day over a long period.
  4. In Judith Langford and Elizabeth Allen’s research (Reading Horizons, 1983), the NRP claims that while the SSR group did better, the difference was small in terms of educational importance. Not so. The difference between the groups was highly significant, t = 7.94, p<.001. This t-score converts to an effect size of 1.005, which is quite large. The NRP also claims that the researchers did not report the duration of the study. They did. The duration was six months. These lapses are surprising in a report that continually boasts of its thoroughness and completeness.
  5. The NRP claims that the advantage shown by readers in JoAnne Burley’s study (Negro Educational Review, 1980) was small. Students in sustained silent reading were compared with students in three other conditions. For one measure, the overall F was 2.72 (p<.05), for the other F = 8.74, (p<.01). Ms. Burley does not report the details of the follow-up comparisons, only that the readers were significantly better. It was not possible to calculate effect sizes from the data presented. It is not clear how the panel concluded that this difference was small, especially considering the fact that the treatment lasted only six weeks and contained only 14 hours of reading.
  6. In Zephaniah Davis’ study (The High School Review, 1988), according to the national panel, sustained silent reading helped medium-level readers but not better readers. This is exactly what one would expect. SSR is designed to help less mature readers get better; those who are already excellent readers will not show dramatic gains. It is doubtful, for example, that readers of this letter will improve if they add an extra 10 minutes per day of reading for 180 days (one school year). Gains for medium-level readers were quite impressive; I calculated an effect size of 0.79.

The NRP report missed a number of important studies. In The Power of Reading, I found a total of 41 studies of the value of sustained silent reading in school. In 38 out of the 41 comparisons, readers in sustained silent reading did as well or better on tests of reading than children who spent an equivalent amount of time in traditional instruction. I found nine studies that lasted longer than one year; sustained silent reading was a winner in eight of them, and in one there was no difference. The NRP did not cite any of these studies, even though some appeared in very important, widely read journals. Some spectacular omissions include the Fiji study by Warwick Elley and Francis Mangubhais, published in the Reading Research Quarterly (1983), and Mr. Elley’s Singapore study, in Language Learning (1991). The latter contains a review of several other successful SSR studies that the NRP failed to mention.

For those interested in examining the huge research base for sustained silent reading and similar programs, the following World Wide Web site will be useful: ccnic14.kyoto- su.ac.jp/information/er/biblio.html.

Finally, it is of interest that the National Reading Panel’s report devotes only six pages to pleasure reading. In contrast, 66 pages are devoted to phonemic awareness and nearly as many to phonics.

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

Gay Students: Questioning Groups’ Objectivity

Thank you for publishing an article about the many problems faced by sexual- minority students as part of your special report on teenage suicide (“Homosexual Students: A Group Particularly Vulnerable to Suicide,”Teen Suicide: The Silent Epidemic, April 19, 2000). One of the most serious problems facing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youths that is not shared by “skinny boys and fat girls” is that organizations like the Family Research Council are producing a steady stream of propaganda aimed at dehumanizing, marginalizing, and reinforcing existing prejudices against them.There are news stories in which the inclusion of the Family Research Council’s opinions would make a great deal of sense, but we have to question the editorial decision to include comments by the council’s senior policy analyst, Peter LaBarbera, and to reference his suicide-denial writings in this particular story. We hope that a similar story about the problems of religious-minority youths in religiously homogeneous schools would not prompt Education Week to reference propaganda materials from organizations that find the beliefs of religious minorities “morally wrong.”

The legal rights and real needs of minority students do not depend on the beliefs of Mr. LaBarbera or the Family Research Council.

Barbara Purdom
Christopher Purdom
Interfaith Working Group
Philadelphia, Pa.

To the Editor:

Your April 19, 2000, article on homosexual students and suicide failed to mention that the “gender discussion” clubs run by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network do not discuss ex-homosexuality. Instead, they promote the homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender lifestyles to young students. Ex-gay men and women are never presented as optional role models to confused or curious youths who are in desperate need of role models.

In fact, GLSEN has spent thousands of dollars in publishing and distributing the anti-ex-gay booklet “Just the Facts” to every public school district in the country, as noted in your article. This infamous booklet condemns the ex-gay community and is but one more example of the homosexual lobby’s intolerance of former homosexuals and lesbians.

Other examples abound. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is spearheading a campaign to silence radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s support of recovering homosexuals. Gay activists lobby the American Psychological Association to declare unethical any therapy that supports ex-homosexuality, thereby denying struggling homosexuals continued treatment. Lesbian activist and Los Angeles City Council member Jackie Goldberg endorses a council resolution officially condemning an ex-gay conference held by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, an association of mental-health professionals specializing in reparative therapy for homosexuals. The fifth annual “Coming Out of Homosexuality Day” conference resulted in assault-and- battery charges against gay advocates after they harassed ex-gay speaker Michael Johnston.

Educators need to face the real issue of sexual orientation in their schools—oppression of ex-gays by a determined gay educational agenda. If the safety of students were truly sought by gay community leaders as claimed, they would cease their ongoing efforts against ex-gays in the public schools. For the well-being of our young people, we urge all educators to include ex-gays in any discussion or presentation of sexual orientation.

Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, or PFOX, and NARTH can supply ex- gay speakers and information upon request. Let’s stop this discrimination against ex-gays and support our youth.

Regina Griggs
National Director
Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays
Alexandria, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters