Education Letter to the Editor


March 28, 2001 13 min read
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Critiques of District 2 Are Seen as Baseless

To the editor:

It is bizarre that New York City’s Community School District 2, where we both have served as superintendent, would be attacked in your Commentary section from both the left and the right at the same time (“Two Views on Manhattan’s District 2,” Feb. 28, 2001). Is the district too progressive or too standardized? We think the answer is clearly neither.

Too much of educational discourse is colored by biases and ideologies. Both authors, Louisa C. Spencer and Lois Weiner, engage in sweeping judgments that ignore facts and the hard reality of educational outcomes.

District 2 is a diverse district ethnically (32 percent white, 68 percent minority) and economically (48 percent of the students eligible for free lunch). Academic performance on criterion-referenced state and city tests has consistently improved over the past 13 years. The district ranks second of the city’s 32 community districts in both reading and math. On the most recent state reading exams, 70 percent of the students met or exceeded standards; only 6 percent were in the lowest, basic category. The story is the same in math: Seventy-six percent of students met or exceeded state standards; only 7 percent scored in the lowest category.

Clearly, low-income and minority students are benefiting from District 2’s standards-driven approach and investment in systemic instructional improvement. Not only has the mean of student performance improved in the district over time, but also the variability between schools is decreasing. The rising tide in the district is raising all boats.

Why is this happening? Because the district is driven not by ideology of either the left or the right, but by a commitment to instructional improvement. This means that principals, staff developers, and teachers are constantly engaged in looking at and analyzing student work, discovering what works and what doesn’t based on students’ needs, and modifying practices to fit differences in school and classroom contexts. District 2 staff members are the ultimate pragmatists, and the school in which Ms. Spencer volunteers is the ultimate example.

Public School 198 is one of the poorest schools in the district and is 90 percent minority. In 1996, the school was placed on the state’s SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) list. In just two years, with a heavy investment in staff development, classroom libraries, and reading programs based on students’ needs, the school turned around and was cited by the state as the most improved SURR school in the state. For the 1999-2000 year, 67 percent of PS 198’s 4th graders met or exceeded state standards, compared with the prior year’s performance of 40 percent cited by Ms. Spencer.

Clearly, something is working in PS 198 and the district. Unfortunately for the students she tutors, Ms. Spencer would seem unable to do simple math or analyze her surroundings. PS 198 uses Open Court, an explicit phonics program, because it was appropriate for those students and because the bottom line is student achievement, not educational jargon and philosophical purity. The district’s balanced literacy program is just that: balanced. And it reflects the findings of the National Council of Teachers of English that good reading programs utilize student assessments and teach based on skills and strategies students need, rather than philosophical beliefs.

Anthony J. Alvarado
Chancellor of Instruction
San Diego City Schools
San Diego, Calif.

Elaine Fink
Executive Director
Educational Leadership
Development Academy
San Diego, Calif.

Yes, Business Model Omits ‘Humanness’

To the Editor:

I would like to compliment Davy McClay for his thoughtful and concise Commentary (“The ‘Receptivity Factor’” March 14, 2001). Without hype or defensive posturing, he has clearly outlined the differences between a business-model product and a human being.

We have strayed so far from our humanness when we look at children as products, as though, like cookies on an assembly line, we can stamp them all out the samesuccessful—if we just have the right curriculum, train all teachers to teach the same, and provide children with the right materials.

Moreover, we have set ourselves up to fail with this model. The strength of a good teacher has always been to take children where they are and lead them forward, using training and experience to meet each at the level of need. Children bloom at different times and in different ways. No product model allows for that.

Again, thanks to Mr. McClay. I hope people in Washington and the statehouses read his Commentary.

Janet Buras
Supervisor of Literacy, Pre-K-12
Collier County Public Schools
Naples, Fla.

Publishing Glitz vs. Teacher Dedication

To the Editor:

So Pearson PLC, the publishing empire Business Week recently reported as having an operating profit of $1 billion dollars in 2000, plans to widen the definition of education (“Pearson Hopes To ‘Widen the Definition of Education,’” Feb. 21, 2001). We teachers are bombarded with conflicting advice from a plethora of specialists, have to navigate the rapids of various school reforms, endure second-guessing from a stream of critics, and face the endless flotsam of untested fads. We don’t need any redefinitions from the publishing industry’s 800-pound digital gorilla.

Not too many years ago, school textbooks were referred to by their authors’ names: Otto, Towle Biology and Canfield History. We respected these academic authorities. Then in the early 1980s, publishers figured out that they could make more money by dropping such authors and writing their own books. So textbooks were referred to by the publisher’s name, such as Scott Foresman, Holt, and Prentice-Hall. I know, as I was one of the last “real authors” to co-author a textbook series.

Shortly thereafter, I began to get phone calls from colleagues wondering what was happening. They were being contracted for $1,000 to $2,000 to write sections of books, without being consulted on the books’ structure, and then finding their names placed on the spine to lead people to think they were the authors. At this same time, the prices of textbooks began to skyrocket. Teachers and scholars were replaced with the business model of profits, and textbooks were sold as one would sell toothpaste and jeans.

According to a two-year study by North Carolina State University researcher John Hubisz, who is also the president of the American Association of Physics Teachers: “Twelve of the most popular science textbooks used at middle schools across the nation are riddled with errors. These are terrible books, and they’re probably a strong component of why we do so poorly in science on standardized tests.”

Among the books included in his study was a multivolume science series by Prentice-Hall, whose parent company is Pearson Education. According to Mr. Hubisz, its errors included an incorrect depiction of what happens to light when it passes through a prism, a reversed photo of the Statue of Liberty showing the torch in the wrong hand, and a photo of singer Linda Ronstadt labeled as a silicon crystal. One of the books even misstates Newton’s first law of physics, which has been a staple of physical science for centuries.

(The work of Mr. Hubisz and his colleagues has been widely reported, including in an article called “The Great American Textbook Scandal,” which appeared in the Oct. 30, 2000, issue of Forbes.)

And now Marjorie Scardino, the chief executive officer of Pearson PLC, says her company “intends to widen the definition of education.” No thanks. More definitions won’t lead to higher student achievement. The sole purpose of this corporate repackaging of technological fads would seem to be improvement of the company’s bottom line.

An academically oriented teacher who has good classroom-management skills and is a caring, nurturing individual will be far superior to any business plan that talks about dynamic cash flow, significant distribution strength, and corporate consolidation (whatever those mean).

We educators don’t operate from a business plan. We operate from a lesson plan, and the aim is achievement, not profit.

Harry K. Wong
Saratoga, Calif.

At-Risk Teacher Fails To Convince

To the Editor:

While Donna M. Marriott raises some valid points about how and why some students fail to succeed in today’s schools, her overall thesis is flawed (“At-Risk Learners—An Insider’s Perspective,” Commentary, Feb. 21, 2001). Here’s why.

Ms. Marriott compares her experience in a doctoral-level statistics course for which she is ill-prepared to the plight of the so-called at-risk students she teaches in school. I don’t understand how she can make that comparison.

First of all, she says that “through sheer determination, [she] got through the course.” This is a trait that does not come easily to most students, at-risk or not. Where did she acquire it? Was it from diligent parents, or from the years of experience she’s logged as an adult?

She also fails to consider the role played by her perception of the consequences of failing to get through the statistics course. She goes through a self-analysis in which she realizes that failure would have a high cost both professionally and financially. How many students understand the consequences of their failure to meet standards? What is their penalty? Do they know what it is and how it affects them later in life?

We may do our best to help students reach this kind of epiphany, but in the end, if they don’t come in with the sheer determination or the push they need to achieve, who is to blame? From my understanding of the essay, it appears to be teachers.

I believe, as Ms. Marriott does, that all students can learn. But what I think she fails to get across in her Commentary is the student’s own responsibility in the process. She shouldered a lot of responsibility for her success. When will we hold students to the same standard?

In the end, what works for Ms. Marriott may not work for everyone. Each student is a blank slate, but not all are as easily written upon as some.

Chris Lafferty
Science Teacher
Elwood High School
East Northport, N.Y.

Let Reform Change ‘Menu of Choices’

To the Editor:

Regarding “In Defense of Our Voucher Research” (Commentary, Feb. 7, 2001) and “Achievement Gains in Voucher Research” (Commentary, Feb. 28, 2001): What troubles me is that there is a demand for this kind of research.

The problem that is rightfully America’s No. 1 political issue is that we have a school system dominated by public schools that usually perform unacceptably even though they are expensive (over $7,000 per child per year) and private schools that are unacceptable because they are resource-poor. That’s what we need to change. That’s why we continue to be “A Nation at Risk.” We need reform—system transformation—to change the menu of choices.

Both the public and private sectors of the existing system desperately need significant improvement. Because current voucher programs are quite small and suffer other debilitating restrictions, the published voucher research can only compare existing choices. Comparisons of unacceptable choices should not get much, if any, attention. The voucher research we need cannot occur until we create a program capable of testing market forces.

Sending a few more children to private schools like the ones that dominate the private sector now is not the answer. Extensive debate over whether existing private schools serve voucher users better than public schools serve their peers distracts attention from the crucial fact that most public and private schools are not nearly good enough.

Making a big deal out of relatively trivial issues is a big problem. Let’s focus our research and media attention on the critical issue of how to improve the system, rather than the relatively trivial one of whether movement within the system will help those who want to move.

John Merrifield
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas

Teacher Leaders: Saving the Ship of Schools

To the Editor:

I feel like an ingrate finding fault with Roland S. Barth (“Teachers at the Helm,” Commentary, Feb. 28, 2001). On the one hand, no one has fought so long, so intelligently, and so tenaciously for the teacher as leader. On the other hand, he remains a prisoner of the same obedient and fearful psychology he has so insightfully described that prevents teachers from being leaders.

He tells of an incident involving a mixture of educators (administrators, central staff, teachers, and so on) facing the challenge of sailing the Bowdoin back to port. They succeed, and the lesson that Mr. Barth draws is that rank has nothing to do with sailing a ship or reforming a school.

I would draw another conclusion. Recognizing that all the emerging leaders were teachers, while the administrators and central staff stood by, observed, and took orders, why not simply acknowledge that the latter were displaced by the teachers? The teachers not only took over. They were the administrators.

For some reason, Mr. Barth and other advocates of site-based management seem unable to take the next logical step and envision teacher-led schools in which there is no principal. Teachers then would truly be at the helm. But Mr. Barth and teachers themselves are so fixated on a leadership figurehead that they cannot seem to contemplate a new paradigm and structure in which teachers as learning managers integrate administration and instruction.

I suspect the reason the true leadership of teachers emerged on the sailing ship is that it was not a school situation compelling obedient hierarchies, but an unfamiliar environment that released their natural leadership abilities.

In Gardenfield, Ind., there is a plastics- manufacturing plant that is run totally by worker teams. Supervisors and engineers play such marginal roles that they have been transferred to more traditional plants still requiring bosses. That Indiana plant has the highest retention rate, the most productive assembly line, and consistently leads all others in zero defects and profitability.

If you want to save the ship of schools, support totally teacher-led learning environments without token figureheads. Only teacher-leaders can bring together the two halves of administration and instruction in a holistic manner. And do so in the classroom, where reform either happens or does not.

Irving H. Buchen
Senior Fellow
Center for School Renewal
Walden University
Minneapolis, Minn.

‘Caring Schools’ Essay Is On Target, Overdue

To the Editor:

Joseph Sanacore’s Commentary “Needed: Caring Schools” (March 7, 2001) is precisely on target. His ideas are especially appreciated today, as politicians and journalists tout high-stakes testing as a panacea for improving the underachievement problem in American schools.

Mr. Sanacore embraces a “big picture” perspective that involves the coordinated efforts of such key players as teachers, administrators, parents, and community groups. One of the approaches he advocates for bringing these forces together is James P. Comer’s School Development Program, which highlights comprehensive and collective efforts for creating the type of lasting change that is “built into” the landscape of school systems.

I am well aware of the dynamics of the Comer process and of the time and energy it requires for successful implementation. Fortunately, this major commitment results in the kind of substantive change that not only rejuvenates the key players but also supports their efforts to promote excellent environmental conditions for children’s academic, emotional, and social growth.

At a time when the nation is enthralled by standards and testing initiatives, I am delighted that educators like Mr. Sanacore provide needed reminders that lasting change requires the collective energy of people who genuinely care about children as whole individuals.

For those who would like to review some of Mr. Sanacore’s more comprehensive work concerning connections between caring schools and children’s learning, I suggest they read his recent articles in the Autumn 1999 issue of Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice and the July- September 2000 issue of Reading Psychology: An International Quarterly. I read both and consider them to be gems.

A. Wercello
Hauppauge, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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