Education Letter to the Editor


October 04, 2000 17 min read
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Governance Cure Is Worse Than Malady

To the Editor:

While much of the material in “Thinking Differently,” the governance report by the Educational Research Service and the New England School Development Council, is consistent with good practice, encouraging changes in state laws to define school board powers may be just what the doctor didn’t order (“Governance Report Calls for Overhaul,” Sept. 20, 2000). In fact, it may make the situation worse.

As an association that has taken a lead role in addressing the critical nature of the superintendent and administrator shortage, we believe that the answers to issues currently faced in leadership positions in education cannot be found by asking state legislatures to step in and legislate relationships. We believe that encouragement of more frequent, honest communication between superintendents and boards of education is one key to resolving issues that sometimes divide them.

The nature of the relationship between boards and their chief executive officers should be developed at the local level, with policy and the superintendent’s and board’s job descriptions providing the written specification of their roles and responsibilities. Review of the way that relationship works should be done on a regular basis, with an outside facilitator, if appropriate.

We encourage boards to work together as a team, with adequate communication, from the time the superintendent is chosen. Having state laws define how the team will work together would be counterproductive to building a relationship based on trust and understanding.

Robert Rader
Executive Director
Connecticut Association of Boards of Education
Wethersfield, Conn.

Blue Ribbon Schools: Blueprint for Reform

To the Editor:

I would like to call your attention to factors that were missing from your article on the Brookings Institution study by Tom Loveless, the director of its Brown Center on Educational Policy (“Brookings Study Suggests Progress in Higher-Math Skills, Not Basics” Sept. 6, 2000).

Both the article and the study missed some important aspects of the Blue Ribbon Schools Program and seemed to concentrate exclusively on test scores. There was no mention of how test scores are disaggregated to show large improvement in learning for disadvantaged students. There was no mention of on-site visits or of the research base for the Blue Ribbon Schools selection criteria.

The only way to do a valid assessment of a school’s success is through an on-site visit. No one can read a narrative description of a school and determine the school’s quality, nor can test scores be the sole means of determining that a school is exemplary. I have visited schools with extremely high test scores, and most of these schools should be exemplary schools. However, I have also found teachers at such schools using worksheets to teach to a test. In other schools, there were high-performing students from families at high socioeconomic levels, and these advantages helped students achieve. But high test scores do not guarantee that the school has high-quality instruction or that the school is exemplary.

By contrast, I recently visited a school that had test scores barely above the 50th percentile, indicating an average school. A majority of its students, however, were migrant students, and over half them could not speak English when they entered the school. A three-year study of these non-English-speaking students showed that they were consistently scoring above the 50th percentile on nationally normed tests. In this school, I found comprehensive programs and special interventions that were designed to meet the needs of the students. This school had used Blue Ribbon Schools criteria to develop a blueprint.

The U.S. Department of Education constantly reviews the Blue Ribbon Schools criteria to ensure that high standards are maintained. In 1995, with the help of experts in assessment, curriculum, leadership, and professional development, and of teachers, parents, and students, the criteria were completely revised and since then have been raised again.

In 1997, Policy Studies Associates evaluated and revised the program. The achievement criterion established was that schools achieve above the 60th percentile or that they improve by 11 percentage points on tests over five years. The Education Department continues to evaluate the criteria to maintain high standards.

The Blue Ribbon School application is a comprehensive instrument that looks at all parts of a school. It is an excellent tool to use for school reform. Low-performing schools may use the criteria to analyze themselves and to use as a blueprint for school improvement.

If we are to provide all students with a quality education, we must carefully use our programs that examine outstanding schools and provide a gateway to disseminate programs, ideas, and concepts. If readers thoroughly examine the criteria from the Blue Ribbon application, they will find that the road map provided could lead school reform for the entire world.

Bart Teal
Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Institute
Nova Southeastern University
Chapin, S.C.

Know Students Well Is Best Safety Advice

To the Editor:

The recently released FBI report “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective” reaffirms many recommendations that school-safety professionals have been making for years (“All Threats Aren’t Equal, FBI Cautions,” Sept. 13, 2000). The reactions to the report also validate the fact that balanced attention, not the extreme responses of either overreacting or ignoring threats, remains the most appropriate approach for schools in addressing safety concerns.

The careless use of checklists, computer software, and other gadgets put forth in recent years by the exploding number of overnight experts in the field can easily place school officials in a position of greater risk in terms of both safety and liability.

Efforts to create a “profile” of violent school offenders will always be difficult, if not impossible, owing to the nature of youth behavior itself. One of the most important methods for early detection of a potential for violence is, in fact, for educators to look for negative changes in behavior. These are often small and incremental changes, rather than those that happen dramatically or overnight. To detect them, educators must know their students as individuals—a task that requires time and energy, not just checklist profiles and computer software.

Law enforcement can provide important information to schools. But reports such as that by the Federal Bureau of Investigation must be viewed in the context of adequate staff training and well-developed procedures.

Kenneth S. Trump
President and CEO
National School Safety and Security Services
Cleveland, Ohio

Voucher Claim Rests on a Faulty Premise

To the Editor:

David Barulich claims that voucher efforts will continue to fail in elections until certain changes are made in the approach used by voucher advocates (“Four Reasons Why Voucher Plans Lose Elections,” Commentary, Sept. 6, 2000). He apparently accepts as fact that nonpublic education is inherently superior to public education, claiming that “the skeptics respect the excellence and concede the academic superiority of private schools” even though they oppose vouchers. Yet he offers no evidence that this is the public view, or that there is valid research to back the claim of superiority.

He writes that these skeptics “aren’t interested in making public schools operate more like private schools.” Why should they be? Public schools and private schools have very different missions. Public schools are inclusive, open to all, and offer opportunity to everyone willing to take advantage of it. Private schools have the luxury—and it is a luxury—of selecting which pupils they will accept to further their specific purposes.

Pro-voucher forces will succeed, Mr. Barulich says, only when they shift their focus from vouchers to individual students. In Michigan, this year’s pro-voucher forces claim that their plan will “leave no child behind.” Yet, when asked what happens to the students still in a public school if the children of the most involved parents leave to attend a voucher school, there is no reply. So far, the only response I’ve heard is: “That’s a good question.”

Mr. Barulich’s solution is a system of state-developed, criterion-referenced tests to determine the minimum level of achievement necessary for a student to advance to the next grade. These “cut scores” would be determined on every pupil or a random sample of achievement by pupils in public schools. Once this process was concluded, children in nonpublic schools would take the same tests and have to meet the same achievement level in order to receive a “scholastic achievement grant,” money provided to the children’s parents to continue tuition at their nonpublic schools.

It’s not clear how this would help more children enroll in nonpublic schools. The real reason that many private schools would welcome public money is that it is needed to fund nonpublic schools now operating below capacity. There appears to be no comparable financial award for public school students.

Having public students take the test and provide data on necessary achievement for promotion before nonpublic students even take the test gives a huge advantage to the nonpublic students. If anyone thinks they won’t know what’s on the test long before they take it, he or she hasn’t been paying attention to what the free-market system in education can create. So, grants provide nonpublic school students a powerful incentive to do their best, and advance knowledge of test questions is an additional benefit.

Yet Mr. Barulich blithely states that, for now, details about dollar amounts, recipient qualifications, special education testing, and other issues are omitted from the description of his plan. Such details, when factored in, could completely discredit the idea.

He seems to believe that, as he writes, “it is possible to oppose vouchers and tuition tax credits, yet still favor government aid for private school choice.” On what he bases that opinion, I don’t know. But I certainly hope he’s wrong.

Public education is for all children; private education is for the selected few. People should be free to choose where their children will go to school, but they have no justification for expecting the public to pay for it other than in the public schools, which are open to all.

There are many choices within most public school systems. And standards-based reform in the public schools is succeeding. It is vital to this nation’s future that we not lose sight of the importance of educating all students for successful adulthood in a rapidly changing, technology-driven, ever-shrinking world. We cannot turn back the clock. Vouchers, “scholastic achievement grants,” or other quick fixes will not assure success for America’s children. Involvement and commitment from parents, educators, and communities will.

Dorothy Beardmore
Michigan State Board of Education
Rochester, Mich.

‘E-Learning,’ ThroughThe Lens of Flaubert

To the Editor:

Peter J. Stokes’ “How E-Learning Will Transform Education” (Commentary, Sept. 13, 2000)offered the reader so many familiar rings that it reminded me of Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Flaubert, perhaps a bit more ironic than the consultant Mr. Stokes, felt that the France he lived in was so weighted with conventions that one could compile a dictionary which listed ideas so received, so trite, so tame that anyone could structure a conversation around them without the effort of thought or the risk of giving offence.

From Mr. Stokes’ breathless title, “How E-Learning Will Transform Education,” to the uplifting vapor of his last sentence, I counted no fewer than 30 thought clichés. Knowledge workers of the globe unite!

How can we resist the inspiration of a “literacy” which substitutes for the Oxford English Dictionary definition of literate as “acquainted with letters or literature” a new, unacquainted definition in which “literate” means like, you know, adept or whatever. Read, for instance, Mr. Stokes’ explanation that e-learning “is a means of becoming literate involving new mechanisms for communication.” (Perhaps imprecise verb structures will be the mechanism for this new literacy.)

We are fortunate to have the future so firmly in the involvement of enthusiasts like Mr. Stokes. As he assures us (and, for a fee, the U.S. Department of Education) in the forceful, visionary, yet reassuring last sentence of his report: “The work accomplished so far suggests that e-learning can play a substantive role in developing [or involving!] a new breed of literate citizens for the global economy of the [uh ... new millennium? global millennium? technically literate infrastructure?—nope, already used “infrastructure"—oh, I know—] 21st century!” Jeepers!

Bruce E. Buxton
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

Blaming Progressivism (And Embracing Its Mirror Image?)

To the Editor:

How ironic that Diane Ravitch (

Sept. 13, 2000) blames the progressive movement for the very same things that are being enacted today by the standards movement she supports: encouraging racial and class divisions, putting the needs of industry before the rights of individuals, misusing tests to deny students equal opportunities, and promoting anti-intellectualism. (Ironic, too, that Ms. Ravitch fails to see that “standardism” is also a movement, in that it is based on a philosophical position, drives public policy, and sanctions particular instructional practices.)

First, by demanding levels of achievement from students without providing the means to attain them, the standards movement scapegoats poor and minority children and drives them away from education. One does not have to be a Brookings Institution fellow to notice which students are being denied promotion and graduation in our nation’s standardized schools, and which ones are dropping out.

The standards movement also focuses on preparing workers for industry. The central argument underlying the call for higher standards is that the United States will not have enough skilled workers to meet the demands of a technological age unless schools do a better job of training them. No one claims that meeting standards will make students happier, more responsible, or more appreciative of the aesthetic aspects of life.

In addition, the standards movement uses tests to sort and classify children far more than progressivism ever did. In an increasing number of states and school districts, tests are the sole determiner of who gets promoted, who has to go to summer school, and who gets a high school diploma. Students’ effort, classroom performance, and learning progress are irrelevant in most versions of standardism.

Finally, despite all its talk about the importance of knowledge, the standards movement is profoundly anti-intellectual. In only a few short years, it has reduced most of our nation’s classrooms to test-preparation factories where thinking, discussion, serious reading, and reflective writing are seen as diversions from the true business of raising test scores.

If Diane Ravitch truly wants the educational quality for all children that she advocates in the book excerpt you published, she is beating a dead horse in attacking the long abandoned excesses of progressivism and betting on the wrong horse in championing the current excesses of standardism.

Joanne Yatvin
Portland, Ore.

To the Editor:

In no way do I consider myself a scholar, as is Diane Ravitch. But as a classroom teacher, I think I have read almost everything written on both testing and tracking. In nothing that I have ever read on tracking did I see its origins traced to progressive educators.

To the contrary, numerous articles and books place the sorting-and-selecting process for students in the hands of a racist and prejudiced society that believed new immigrants were intellectually inferior and could handle only less difficult material. The testing movement also was assisted financially by foundations that supported the eugenics movement, which wanted to rid the country of the supposedly unfit.

More than two decades ago, on the floor of the National Education Association-New York delegate assembly, I spoke against tracking, and was considered radical. Ironically, today all New York state students are held to the same high standards. And the tracking advocates of that earlier era are having problems changing their instructional strategies to teach all students well.

Richard J. Milner
Norwich, N.Y.

Defending Math Teachers Against ‘Experimentation’

To the Editor:

I rise to defend math teachers against “Yours Is Not To Reason Why” (Commentary, Sept. 6, 2000). Between 1964 and 1996, I spent 20 years teaching math classes in Los Angeles’ public and private secondary schools. Students entered my pre-algebra classes in grade 7or 8, bringing a variety of skills, concepts, and work ethics. My goal for the course prior to algebra was to build a solid foundation for their future success. Since I also taught algebra, I knew how important that foundation was.

Partnerships, publishers, and pundits do not teach math to children; classroom teachers perform that challenging role. Rarely does a middle school math teacher find that all her entering students are at the same starting line. Rather, she must set her ideal finish line, then go full speed ahead to arrive there without leaving students behind. The student in your Commentary knew how to plug in numbers when given formulas for the area of simple polygons. How much geometry should he have known? America’s 6th grade math courses vary greatly.

My geometry unit for pre-algebra classes began with vocabulary. Students memorized and were tested on terminology, from angles and adjacent to perpendicular and polygon, to quadrilateral and equilateral. How else would they know what we were talking about? They learned about various polygons, circles, and composite figures and computed perimeter and circumference. To study area, we used graph paper to create area formulas, from triangles to trapezoids. I demonstrated how the area of a circle is slightly less than four times the radius squared, so they would understand why A = x r2.p x r2.

Eventually, students memorized the formulas. My tests required that they name the figure, write the proper formula, and calculate and label the answer. I always included word/story problems about gardens or carpeting or fences in which students had to figure out whether it was an area or perimeter problem, then solve it. Knowing their formulas was an advantage, as they understood. We were not only learning how to find the area of geometric figures, but how to use data for problem-solving.

As students went forward into algebra and more-advanced math and sciences courses, they would rely on data stored in their heads. Pythagorean theorem, the PEMDAS device for order of operations, perfect square numbers beyond 100, formulas for volume of various prisms or slope of a line or interest on a loan, quadratic formula; imagine if one had to constantly figure each out, rather than having it mentally stored.

My textbook did not determine my expectations. My colleagues and I developed them, then selected textbooks that best suited our goals. When California rejected real math in the 1990s, making it impossible to purchase appropriate pre-algebra and algebra books, we teachers held on to our existing books until California came to its senses. Teaching math effectively had never been a greater challenge; teachers were determined that our students not be victimized by educrats’ experiments.

In many school districts across America, that experimentation continues. Why are states using math programs already proven not effective? Why are publishers of computerized materials taking so much scarce school money? Why are elementary teachers who never teach algebra designing the math course prior to high school algebra? I recently advised my Ohio school district on the benefits of Saxon Math to develop mastery and understanding of concepts and skills. May it be as successful here as it is nationwide. I salute teachers whose students can reason why and be able to multiply as they go forward in mathematics.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Retired Los Angeles Math Teacher
Member, Board of Education
Willard School District
Willard, Ohio


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