Education Opinion


October 11, 2000 15 min read
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Low Stakes Remedy for Test Concerns

To the Editor:

I find Mark Musick’s essay, “Show Us the Tests” (Commentary, Sept.6, 2000), to be an extremely frightening one. Even more disturbing is to read that he holds the position of chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

I cannot fathom that Mr. Musick thinks that all that is needed to stem the growing opposition to high-stakes testing is to show the parents the test. First of all, as research shows, the whole notion of high-stakes testing is wrong. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that putting all of our educational eggs in one basket is not appropriate. True assessment requires multiple instruments over time. Even colleges and universities do not decide admissions based solely on the score of one test.

Second, test publishers are already making millions on publishing and correcting these tests, as well as producing all sorts of materials, texts, and whole programs geared for success on their tests. To add to this bank account the charge for multiple forms, so that parents can have a look, is only increasing test publishers’ financial success.

If this happens, the same factors in play already will be perpetuated: Those parents who are involved and who have provided for their children from the beginning (print-rich backgrounds and many experiences) will be the ones poring over the tests, hiring attorneys, and complaining. Those who haven’t and don’t provide for their children will not know or care. Teachers will be on the carpet all the time to prove to parents that they are teaching to the test and covering the material tested.

I teach graduate education classes at a local university, and the fear and concern is upsetting. Good teachers in schools serving economically deprived students are wringing their hands over what will happen to their students, their schools, and their jobs. Showing those parents the tests is a ridiculous solution to the problem.

I have a graduate degree in reading, teach graduate and undergraduate classes in reading, have taught elementary/middle school for 28 years, have co-authored three books on reading, and have a doctorate in curriculum. I have followed this developing issue with interest and concern, as all of Florida’s public schools are graded after the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results appear in the newspapers. I am watching good teachers resign because they do not agree with, and cannot abide by, what is happening. I am aware of statistics concerning immigrant and economically disadvantaged children in our schools, and I am amazed that Mr. Musick thinks the solution to the high-stakes- testing problem is to “show us the tests.”

Liz Knowles
Tamarac, Fla.

Riley’s Michigan Trip Stressed Key Issues

To the Editor:

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has made no secret of his interest in class-size reduction and the prevention of youth violence. So I was surprised to read that Republicans in Congress have questioned the purpose of the secretary’s trip to Traverse City, Mich., on July 6 (“Republicans Question Purpose of Riley Trips,” Sept. 13, 2000).

I worked on education issues in the Washington office of Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., this past summer as an education fellow from Michigan State University, and I attended the Traverse City event. At the public forum, Rep. Stupak spoke on the importance of class-size reduction and shared survey data from schools in the 1st Congressional District that he represents. Traverse City community members, business leaders, educators, parents, and students shared information about their coordination efforts in the creation of a program to help prevent youth violence and isolation. Since both of these topics are of interest to Secretary Riley and Congressman Stupak, it was appropriate for them to be there to emphasize the importance of these issues.

Since I also teach at a middle school in Cadillac, Mich., I thought it was an outstanding opportunity to have Secretary Riley come to this northern region of the state to reinforce the importance of class-size reduction and recognize the Traverse City community’s cooperation in efforts to prevent youth violence. The visit highlighted the importance of education as an issue that needs to be part of the public debate, and was perfectly in accordance with Secretary Riley’s role as steward for the education of America’s children.

Brenda J. Wilson
Mackinaw Trail Middle School,
Cadillac, Mich.

Commercialism: Whose Definition?

To the Editor:

You write that the U.S. General Accounting Office “uses a broad definition of commercial activities” in its report on such activities in schools (“Most States Don’t Limit Schools’ Business Deals, GAO Says,” Sept. 20, 2000). I was just wondering whose definition is being used in such a broad manner, for the activities listed in your story seem to be limited to marketing and promotions.

What led Education Week to conclude that the GAO was using a broad definition, when the paper has previously suggested, in “The Business of Running Schools” (Dec. 8, 1999), that education is itself a commercial enterprise? I would argue, in fact, that the GAO report uses the concept of “commercialism in education” in the narrowest of senses, in reference to marketing in schooling.

Of course, making this distinction makes less and less sense as the lines between public schooling and commercial education become more and more obscured, as evidenced by the fact that you recently included coverage of the Federal Trade Commission’s report on motion-picture marketing practices (“Congress Grills Hollywood Over Marketing Practices,” Sept. 20, 2000).

But for those interested in schooling that is free of certain forms of commercialism (some forms of commercialism must necessarily exist), it would seem to be in their best interest to choose words carefully and to distinguish between those forms.

For example, it may be acceptable that schools buy textbooks from a large corporation (a commercial activity), but some people may object to the CEO of that same corporation being appointed as the superintendent of their school district. Or, some people may object to marketing in school, but have less to complain about in the educative power of those same marketing techniques in their own living rooms.

Finally, it would also seem to be in Education Week’s best interest, as a newspaper, to make consistent distinctions in order to communicate clearly and effectively.

Joe Pattaphongse
Oakland, Calif.

British ‘Managers’ Could Work Here

To the Editor:

The article “Bursars Ensure Budgets Pay Off for Students” (Sept. 20, 2000) describes an emerging trend in England: appointing a “business manager” for the No. 2 administrative post.

The comparable role in the United States would be assistant (or vice) principal for administration.

The key words in the article, in my view, are that “business managers take on almost every other duty that might distract the school’s director from focusing on student achievement.”

Our view, as management consultants to the nonprofit sector, as well as public and private schools, is that any nonprofit organization can benefit by having both a chief executive officer and a chief operating officer.

The CEO is the overall boss and the program expert; the COO handles “everything else.”

This works for the choreographer running a dance company or a physician running a hospital just as well as it does for a principal running a school.

The hitch is that, in education, we do not prepare people for this role adequately. With few exceptions, it is very difficult to get a combined M.Ed.-M.B.A. degree.

Gerald D. Levy
Education Group
National Executive Service Corps
New York, N.Y.

Help Foster Children by Pooling Efforts

To the Editor:

Thank you for the article “Academic Fate of Foster Children Gaining More Attention” (Sept. 13, 2000). Your continuing coverage of the education of children in foster care is critical to keeping attention on this important issue.

The New York City and Seattle efforts to combine child-welfare and school district data and resources to improve educational outcomes for foster children are hopeful but very challenging. In any community, these two systems, which must confront multiple priorities with inadequate resources, need supportive partners from community-based-advocacy and direct-service organizations and foundations in order to improve school achievement.

In Seattle, we are fortunate that a foundation partner, Casey Family Programs, has joined our organization, the city’s division of children and family services, and the Seattle public schools, providing funding and personnel to support the collaborative efforts we hope will lead to a shared database and aggressive educational services for children in foster care.

Other foundations concerned with school reform have a vital role to play in funding similar collaborative efforts to improve school outcomes for one of our most vulnerable student populations.

While children in foster care make up only a small percentage of any district’s students, they have a big impact on teachers and other students because of their frequent transfers and periods out of school, high dropout rates, and learning and behavioral difficulties. Yet, with a strategic tutoring service, these children’s achievement can outpace their peers’.

It is time for school districts, child-welfare administrations, community-based nonprofits, and foundations to unite in behalf of these children and create systems reforms and direct-service interventions that will facilitate success instead of failure in school.

Janis Avery
Executive Director
Seattle, Wash.

Governance Report Should Spur Reform

To the Editor:

I hope your front-page article “Governance Report Calls for Overhaul” (Sept. 20, 2000) will create some interest among boards of education and superintendents in collaborating to reform the governance of schools. This is an issue that has had too little attention to date.

The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium of the Council of Chief State School Officers has particular interest in two of the recommendations contained in the report, issued by the Educational Research Service and the New England School Development Council.

One recommendation is to “create national standards for superintendents that would revamp certification and graduate school programs.” Please note that in 1996, the ISLLC published “Standards for School Leaders,” a set of standards for all school leaders based on the latest available research and much input from stakeholders. These standards have been adopted or adapted by over two-thirds of the states. Several states and many institutions of higher education are also using the ISLLC standards to revamp licensure and graduate programs.

Through the ISLLC, several states have contracted with the Educational Testing Service to develop and administer licensure tests for principals and superintendents. The School Leaders Licensure Assessment has been operational for more than two years. The School Superintendents Assessment will be administered for the first time this month. A portfolio that can be used for relicensure purposes is being piloted in five states.

A second recommendation, that we “overhaul graduate education programs to provide aspiring superintendents with the skills to work as a team with board members and the community,” is also being addressed by several groups: the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, the state chiefs’ council, and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, most prominently. In fact, NCATE is in the process of revising its standards for national recognition of school-leader- preparation programs, based on the framework of the ISLLC standards.

I invite any organization that seriously wants to implement the recommendations of this new report to call the ISLLC at (202) 336-7038.

Neil J. Shipman
Project Director
Interstate School Leaders
Licensure Consortium
Chapel Hill, N.C.

Asia’s Success in Math Stems Not From Culture, but From Teaching

To the Editor:

I was intrigued to read your article “U.S. Schools Importing Singaporean Texts” (Sept. 27, 2000). I teach at the Paterson, N.J., school mentioned in the article as using the Singapore textbooks to supplement the math program in grades 1-8. My 8th grade classroom was the focus of an earlier article, “A Teaching Style That Adds Up” (Feb. 23, 2000), on our use of Asian methods to teach mathematics.

We became interested in Japanese-style lessons in 1997, after viewing the Third International Mathematics and Science Study videotapes. We began to experiment by using these techniques: beginning each lesson with a recap of the previous lesson; presenting a challenging problem; allowing students time to solve the problems individually, and then cooperatively; allowing the students to present solutions; engaging them in discussion and debate of the solutions and errors; teaching the salient mathematical points; posing similar, more complex, or practice problems; repeating the procedure; and, finally, summarizing the main points of the lesson. This way to teach math is typical in Japan, and has proven to be effective with our students.

When we looked at the curricular aspects of TIMSS, it was evident to us that, as the TIMSS researcher William Schmidt has said, curricula and textbooks in the United States are “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Many mathematics texts and programs we studied, including those endorsed by the National Science Foundation as “exemplary,” were found lacking. So we obtained translations of Japanese and Russian mathematics texts, as well as textbooks from Hungary, Korea, and other high-scoring TIMSS nations.

The curricula of these high-scoring nations, we found, were remarkably similar: They were very focused, with a limited number of topics taught in depth, for mastery, not merely “covered” at each grade level.

None of the U.S. math programs we examined, including those recommended by the NSF, could compare to the texts from these high-scoring TIMSS countries. The only solution, we decided, was to write our own curricula and lessons for grades 7 and 8. Teachers at our school worked cooperatively in the summer to develop lessons that were both engaging and centered around a limited number of important topics.

Despite our efforts to narrow the topics, our curriculum inevitably became a hodgepodge of the diverse topics typically tested in this country, owing to both the state standards and the prevailing “testing” culture. The problem, we found, is that, unfortunately, none of the topics our students are expected to understand and perform well on tests is addressed with enough depth for students to truly comprehend.

We also confronted problems from the culture of teaching and teachers’ understanding of mathematical concepts. We began a process the Japanese call “lesson study” under the guidance of Makoto Yoshida and Clea Fernandez of Teachers College, Columbia University, with the assistance of teachers from a Japanese school in Greenwich, Conn., as well as other academic experts.

A common Japanese form of professional development, lesson study allowed us to plan and develop well-thought-out lessons that were taught, observed, revised, and taught again at a “lesson-study open house.” We learned a lot from this experience, both in pedagogy and content knowledge. And we realized again that the lack of a focused curriculum like the one that Japanese teachers use made lesson study difficult.

Though we were aware that Singapore had ranked No. 1 among the 39 countries taking the TIMSS assessments, we did not know that its textbooks are written in English. A couple of years ago, we were given Xerox copies of some pages from the Singaporean texts and workbooks, and we decided to order the books from Family Things, the West Linn, Ore., distributor mentioned in your article..

After examining these materials, our teachers became enthusiastic, especially when they they were able to see some of the lessons from the teachers’ guides modeled in classrooms. Though they are different from ours, the teachers’ guides have some excellent lessons, activities, and games that, when used thoughtfully in conjunction with the texts and workbooks, are effective in developing deep understanding of fundamental mathematics. We also were impressed by the fact that noted mathematicians as well as educators had recommended the books.

We do not believe that these textbooks from Singapore are a panacea for the ills of American education. But we do believe they are a step in the right direction.

With all due respect to the former National Council of Teachers of Mathematics president, Gail Burrill, quoted in your article, the common warning about Asian programs’ success being due to their delivery in a “different” and “homogeneous” culture doesn’t hold water. Although there are cultural considerations in play, the secret of Asia’s mathematical success is not in the culture, but in the methods, materials, and content knowledge of the teachers. The Singaporean books are sound mathematically and represent the standards espoused by the NCTM better than most U.S. textbooks.

In these texts and teachers’ guides from Singapore, students are truly “making sense of things, exploring and investigating patterns, and building skills and conceptual understanding,” as Ms. Burrill proposes. It should also be noted that, unlike the suggestion in your article, the Singaporean books are not like Saxon Math.

Of course, Singapore does not have a corner on the market for good textbooks. Similar ones from Japan, Korea, Russia, Taiwan, China, Hungary, and other high-achieving countries are more advanced and mathematically sound than typical U.S. texts. As your article pointed out, however, teacher professional development will be essential if American teachers are to use such books effectively.

Here is an example of a problem from Singapore’s 6th grade textbook that students are taught to solve with visual representation, a method introduced at the 2nd grade level:

“David and Betty each had an equal amount of money at first. After David spent $18 and Betty spent $42, Betty’s money was ²/³ of David’s money. How much money did each of them have at first?”

Have your readers solve this and then tell me whether or not, as Ms. Burrill maintains, “A lot of the conceptual understanding that we would think is important is not evident from looking at this material.”

Bill Jackson
Mathematics Teacher
Public School No. 2
Paterson, N.J.


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