Education Letter to the Editor


June 06, 2001 14 min read
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Accrediting Advice: Quality Is Worth Cost

To the Editor:

We congratulate Education Week on what we believe was an objective portrayal of where we are, as a profession, in the accreditation of teacher education programs (“New Accreditor Gaining Toehold in Teacher Ed.,” May 23, 2001). It is a fact that fewer than half of all programs have national accreditation, that the knowledge base for what teachers need to know and be able to do has less than 100 percent agreement, and that there is insufficient research to back a set of national standards in all disciplines.

Yet, as we view where we were 30 years ago and where we are today with regard to the assessment of teaching performance, we believe we have come a long way in reaching parity with the other professions. We have benchmarks for performance that have broad national support; we have aligned standards of national organizations and specialty areas; and this pattern of national collaboration has allowed many of us to speak a similar if not identical language about what we believe to be important in teacher education.

It appears to us that the Teacher Education Accreditation Council would like to go back to the time when there were no standards, no common frameworks, and no dialogue among professionals. Frank B. Murray’s position, as stated in the piece, paints a less than optimistic future for our profession: Let’s go back to the time when there were no benchmarks except those that we as individuals created. You can use a performance-based system if you want to, but that’s up to you. You can have one professor teaching all of your methods courses if you believe that’s a good idea. And if they supervise 18 students each semester while teaching four courses, that’s OK, because we’re not asking them to do any scholarly work.

Standards, in all cases, are not based only on research, but also on collective values, the wisdom of practice, and shared visions of quality, a consensus of stakeholders. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education Board of Examiners members are carefully trained to triangulate data, based on a set of national standards, and assess an institution’s performance based on those standards. There is no consensus under the TEAC model, and certainly no generalizability. So Mr. Murray suggests that we continue to plod along in our own unique ways, continuing to value what it is that we internally believe, beholden to no one, and maintaining what it is we do at all costs.

Ah yes, cost. Quality costs, and the sooner institutions of higher education understand that producing quality teachers costs money, the better off we will all be. Accreditation is a small price to pay when compared with the overall cost of what a poorly educated teaching force has done and will continue to do if things don’t change.

Jay R. Shotel
Professor and Chair
Department of Teacher Preparation and Special Education

Mary Hatwood Futrell
Graduate School of Education and Human Development
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.

Better Attendance Can Work Magic

To the Editor:

The authors of “Attending to Attendance” (Commentary, May 16, 2001) are right on. We don’t need more days in the school year, but we do need better student attendance on the days we have school. The school they use as an example, Hodgson Vocational High School in Wilmington, Del., should be commended for its efforts to improve its attendance rate. Attendance, time on task, and amount of direct instruction students receive are key correlates for an effective school.

At the high school in southwestern Colorado where I am the principal, we struggled with attendance rates for several years before developing a comprehensive attendance policy with teeth.

Our attendance rate was at 91 percent last year, before we put our new policy in place and held students and parents accountable for attendance. We are on a 4x4 block-scheduling system, where one day of class is equal to approximately two days in a regular six- or seven-period schedule. Absences severely impact a student’s ability to successfully complete coursework in a block schedule.

Our attendance rate this year is 95.5 percent, and the school’s grade point average seems to be on the rise, too. As was true with Hodgson High, our discipline referrals have fallen as our attendance rate climbed. Just like magic!

Ken Marang
Bayfield, Colo.

Does ‘Elitism’ Affect Views in AP Debate?

To the Editor:

Reading D. John Watson’s letter to the editor on the College Board’s Advanced Placement program (“AP Coursework: A Credential, Not a Measure,”Letters, May 16, 2001), I came to understand something: Those who have a vested interest in protecting elitism in American education are hearing the pounding footfalls of the masses chasing higher and higher levels of achievement, and they don’t like the noise.

Mr. Watson represents an institution that was founded in 1864, sits on 300 acres, enjoys a $210 million endowment, charges $20,000 for day tuition, serves 500 students in grades 8-12, and, because of its exemplary college-preparatory curriculum, empowers 100 percent of its graduates to attend four-year colleges. Considering the phenomenal increase in the numbers of kids throughout the United States taking AP classes, Mr. Watson wonders if the growth is good for students.

Put simply, the answer is yes, especially for kids who come from homes where education is the ticket out of poverty and a dead-end future. As long as research indicates that kids who complete AP courses stand a significantly better chance of not only being admitted to college but also finishing a degree, how can we think otherwise?

While Mr. Watson’s independent school has “supported a vigorous Advanced Placement program for years,” it is now questioning the program’s “validity and utility” for its students. Why? Because, as Mr. Watson writes, “as more students take AP coursework, it will be devalued as a mark of academic distinction.” In other words, if kids can get the same curriculum in public schools, if poor kids can access what has traditionally been the province of the rich, then elite schools and programs lose their luster.

Mr. Watson concludes with this: “We have become a country obsessed with getting to the next checkpoint in the race.” I fear his real concern is that he doesn’t like the fact that, more and more, we are realizing that all kids can participate in the race if we give them the training, support, inspiration, and rewards they deserve.

Mike Riley
Bellevue School District
Bellevue, Wash.

Michigan School Plan Offers a Clear Path

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “School Accreditation Plan Drawing Criticism in Michigan” (May 16, 2001):

Public education in Michigan is at a critical crossroads. One path leads to a future of reform and improvement, in which public schools are held to high, objective standards for the academic achievement of students. The other retreats to a time during which reform was stifled because such standards did not exist.

The first path has been paved by the state board of education and the Michigan legislature, with the imminent implementation of a proposed revision of the state accreditation system. The path backward would dismantle that new system.

Although state accreditation has existed for several years, it has served as an ineffective tool for holding schools accountable, since it demanded very little from a school to avoid being deemed unaccredited. Moreover, because the old system used dozens of factors to determine accreditation status, priorities were confused and diluted.

The improved system, on the other hand, would use five standards: (1) student achievement on the reading, math, and science portions of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests; (2) sufficient student participation in MEAP (necessary to give the tests validity); (3) equity of MEAP results among student demographic groups; (4) improvement in MEAP performance over time; and (5) a self-assessment of the implementation of school improvement plans.

By holding schools accountable to these clear, concise, and objective criteria, the revised system would strongly encourage reform that improves academic achievement. In fact, the power of these criteria is evidenced by the recent hue and cry of protest from certain quarters of the public education establishment over the upcoming implementation of the standards. Although the state superintendent of public instruction is holding a meeting on June 18 to hear the concerns of education organizations, we must hold the line in holding schools accountable in accordance with these standards.

Among other complaints, these interest groups argue that the revised system relies too heavily on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. Yet, if we desire to hold schools truly accountable for student performance, we must design a system based on academic achievement, and the best measure of such performance is MEAP. Unlike other standardized tests, MEAP is aligned to the state’s model core curriculum. The curriculum is designed to ensure that Michigan’s students have the knowledge and skills to effectively participate in our system of self-government, obtain gainful employment, pursue higher education, and become contributing members of society. By using MEAP, the revised system will provide an objective measure of whether schools are fulfilling those needs. While not perfect, MEAP is a well-respected and well- designed series of tests more than competent to gauge student learning in various subjects.

The critics also argue that schools should not be held accountable for academic achievement because many factors outside the school affect it. Yet we cannot let outside factors become excuses for failure. Studies reveal that many schools outperform their peers in like circumstances. Those “effective schools” shun the excuse factory in the most difficult of circumstances and educate children. The time has come to also hold the ineffective schools accountable.

The most troubling contention raised by the plan’s opponents, however, is that the standard for being deemed “not accredited” is too high. To the contrary, the standard is too low. To be considered not accredited, a school must have fewer than 25 percent of its students meet state standards in all three subjects tested. In other words, at least 75 percent of the students in a school must fail to meet state standards in reading, math, and science for that school to be considered not accredited.

Despite this appallingly low threshold, we expect there will be hundreds of schools that will not receive accreditation. By complaining that the number of unaccredited schools will be too high, the critics obfuscate the point. That any school will fail to meet this low threshold is unacceptable; that hundreds will fail to do so reveals a dramatic, systemic failure of public education.

We should not design, as we did in the past, a system that only holds accountable the very worst schools. Instead, we should design a system that holds all schools accountable to basic standards, and let the chips fall where they may.

If we truly care about academic achievement in Michigan, we must move forward with the improved accreditation system and remove the roadblocks that have stymied thousands of dedicated, hard-working educators trying to improve their schools.

Michael David Warren Jr.
Member and Secretary
Michigan State Board of Education
Detroit, Mich.

Voucher Support

To the Editor:

The May 23, 2001, edition of Education Week contains a story on my new book, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (“Public Warming to Vouchers, Book Argues.”) In most respects, I thought it was reasonably accurate. But I was disappointed to read, in a summary statement that presumes to capture the book’s central theme, that I claim Americans “strongly favor” the concept of vouchers. Also, the caption below the picture says I argue that “when given accurate and full information about vouchers ... the public supports them by almost 2-1.” And the headline announces, “Public Warming to Vouchers, Book Argues.”

These characterizations misrepresent my book. Perhaps the single most important thing to know about public opinion, which I emphasize in the book again and again, is that Americans are quite sympathetic to the public schools and afraid to do anything that would harm them—but that they also tend to think private schools are better, and are open to the idea of vouchers. They are on both sides of the issue at once. This presents the voucher movement with its most fundamental political challenge: how to make progress with a public that tends to like its ideas, but is not interested in revolutionary change and indeed is risk-averse about any change at all.

Throughout the analysis, I also emphasize that the very notion of “public opinion” is nebulous, and that we have to be careful in making claims about it. My evidence does show that Americans tend to have positive views toward vouchers, and this is especially true for people who are low in income, minority, and from disadvantaged school districts. But the evidence also shows that Americans are quite uninformed on the topic, that their opinions are not well developed, and that they can be swayed by considerations on both sides.

For these reasons, I emphasize that different survey items can be expected to come up with different levels of voucher support, depending on how the questions are worded—and that we are wise not to think of public opinion in terms of a “true” level of support that my survey, or any survey, can somehow measure. One of the book’s key analytical questions, accordingly, is: How can we make sense of public opinion, given that the views people express are often soft and subject to change? The analysis tries to provide some reasonable answers—and goes well beyond a simple look at percentages (for example, that Americans “support” vouchers by 2-1), which threaten to be quite misleading.

There is more to the book than I can convey here. It is over 400 pages long, and I made every effort in the six years I worked on it to construct a careful, thoughtful analysis that will stand up to scrutiny. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my conclusions, whether about public opinion per se or about its implications for the political prospects of the voucher movement.

But I do think that people who actually read the book will see that I do not make simplistic claims about the great popularity of vouchers—and that the article in Education Week misrepresents the very essence of my argument.

Terry M. Moe
Professor of Political Science
Stanford University
Senior Fellow
Hoover Institution
Stanford, Calif.

School Journalism

My thanks to Freda Schwartz for writing such an outstanding essay about school journalism programs (“Reading, ‘Riting, Reacting,”Commentary, May 16, 2001). Administrators too often are not in tune with what we’re accomplishing and do not understand its importance. Today, so many readers cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction in what they read. They could be brainwashed and not know it.

My high school’s principal is very supportive of student expression, and he understands the sense of power and insight young journalists may gain by practicing their craft. Sadly, publications advisers will never receive enough money for all the time they spend mothering, doctoring, carrying a large editorial stick, and feeding the enthusiasms of their young staff members.

I salute Ms. Schwartz for the years she has put into this challenge. I advised school publications in Oklahoma for 17 years, and have now completed two years of doing so in Texas. Nothing surpasses the feeling of accomplishment a teacher gets on seeing a student’s delight and pride in a published story or photograph. That’s our real payoff.

Ruste Jacobs
Flower Mound High School Publications
Flower Mound, Texas

To the Editor:

What a great Commentary! I totally agree with Freda Schwartz.

I might be one of the fortunate few publications advisers who have the support of an administrator. But the problem I face is the lack of dedicated students. They lack the drive and commitment that were prevalent a few years ago. Kids today want instant gratification. The better students would rather take band.

I’ve been advising the school newspaper for about 25 years and just started up with the yearbook again, after 13 years without it. I’m afraid I still love it. Just wish the kids would. Thanks to Ms. Schwartz for speaking for so many of us.

Faye T. Tanaka
Mililani, Hawaii

To the Editor:

How wonderful to have confirmation of our elementary school move to create a thematic journalism program. Now dubbed “The School of Student Communications,” our 4th and 5th grade students produce a self-sustaining monthly newspaper (12 to 16 pages), and our K-5 students have a literary magazine. Next year, we will introduce videotaping and digital cameras—maybe even an “anachronistic” photography darkroom.

As a former high school journalism teacher and practicing reporter, I have seen students blossom as they are “published.” Our staff, just yesterday, agreed to go forward with turning our little school into a performing communications center for students. We have had a “journalist in residence” this year who will stay with us next year to enhance our program. In a district that has a competitive enrollment and open-admissions policy, this is proving to be an attraction to parents and to new staff members.

Nakonia (Niki) Hayes
Seattle School District
Seattle, Wash.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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