Education Letter to the Editor


July 11, 2001 36 min read
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Parenting Classes Teach Empathy

To the Editor:

In your article on teaching parenting skills to the young (“Program Builds Young Students’ Parenting Skills,” June 6, 2001), Mary Lou Hyson expressed succinctly the program’s importance when she said that it “could help the children become more nurturing and sensitive.”

In a culture that emphasizes competition, children have little opportunity to learn how to be sensitive to and care about others. Human infants are amazingly interesting to children of all ages and, therefore, a powerful teaching tool. Planning for the class visits of infants and their parents, discussing what their needs will be and how to make the visit pleasant, and watching how parents care for their infants all prove to be a very effective way of helping children learn how to care.

As Erik Erikson proposed half a century ago in his theory of healthy development, learning how to care is a lifelong challenge that reaches its peak during the parenting years but begins the process during the early ones. If we are going to decrease the violence in our society, we must teach children other ways of relating. Teaching students how to care by giving them opportunities to learn the rudiments of parenting is one way of doing so.

Harriet Heath
Director of the Parenting Center
Thorne School—Child Study Institute
Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr, Pa.

To the Editor:

Thank you for highlighting parenting education for children. As someone who has taught parenting from kindergarten through graduate school for 25 years, I feel the need to add some clarifications.

Even when I teach parent-infant relations to graduate students, I don’t focus as much on memorizing child-development facts as on systematically observing parent-infant interactions to learn about what is involved in nurturing human relationships. Human-development literacy is something that the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan strongly recommends all students acquire before high school graduation. Many of us see the teaching of parenting skills as the cornerstone of school initiatives that promote emotional literacy and the character traits of caring and responsibility.

Watching how parents nurture and adapt to the changing needs of infants over a school year provides many opportunities for children to learn how to adapt to others, including siblings and peers. Thus, in addition to parenting education’s being valued in its own right and taught for decades by family- and consumer-science teachers, these classes facilitate the social-emotional development in students advocated by so many.

What I have learned in doing parent-infant visits is that discussing parenting themes of planning, communicating, and understanding needs, feelings, and individual differences when observing parents nurture nonverbal infants opens the door for discussing these topics as they relate to students. I find that when I raise these topics indirectly via this simple but powerful curriculum, rather than saying, “Students, now we are going to talk about the virtue of caring,” I am much more successful. Students don’t tune out.

Infants are born wanting to learn and relate to others. They are such an untapped teaching tool. In 16 years, I have never had a discipline problem in elementary or high schools during these classes. In follow-up discussions, boys share in a nonthreatening and very natural way when they discuss how their needs are similar to and different from the infants’.

I start these classes in kindergarten because, as we know from research, boys and girls at ages 3 and 4 are very much capable of learning empathy. Many authors writing on boys’ development (for example, the physicians William Pollack and Eli Newberger) talk of boys’ shutting off their emotions around age 5. Our parent programs allow boys to keep those doors open—to have a place in our classes to label their own feelings and understand their needs.

This is not a waste of time or a zero-sum game in which parenting education is seen only in terms of less time for children to do well in math and English. Children cannot learn in classrooms where they feel intimidated by other students, or where they do not learn about alternative choices, ways to communicate their needs, and ways to take everyone’s perspective into consideration. The skills we teach in our classes provide hope and options for students in their immediate lives as well as in their future roles as parents.

Dana R. McDermott
Co-Director, The Caring Project
Adjunct Professor of Psychology
Loyola University of Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

Online-Test Market: ‘A Bit More Complex’

To the Editor:

The market for online assessments in K-12 education is actually a bit more complex than your article implies (“Testing Firms See Future Market in Online Assessment,” June 13, 2001).

First of all, there are high-stakes tests (like the state assessments that are necessary for graduation or promotion, or are used for rewards and punishments of schools), middle-stakes tests (such as end-of-course tests used for grades), and low-stakes tests (such as quizzes and diagnostic tests). These types of tests require different business disciplines, technologies, and infrastructure.

For example, are the tests administered over a live Internet connection using a browser? Are the tests administered over a school local-area network from a server? Do all the students need to take the test at the same time (because of a norming period or a state requirement), or can testing be staggered throughout the year? Do the tests involve open-ended or essay questions or traditional multiple-choice questions? If they are essay questions, will a computer score them or a human reader, or both?

All of these raise psychometric and security issues. The biggest penetration of online testing into the K-12 market has been in low-stakes tests so far and is moving into mid-stakes tests. The Virginia project calls for piloting high-stakes tests via a computer-based administration. Very few companies can provide highly secure, complex delivery of high-stakes tests in a school environment. It will not be a market for dot-coms and upstarts. If you look at the professional and corporate online-testing markets, there is a clear differentiation among the companies that provide services for high-stakes, mid- stakes, and low-stakes tests.

I agree with your view that it is easy to overestimate the current size of the market. Worldwide, the non-K-12 computerized-testing market is well over $1 billion now and is growing in double digits. I believe that, when K-12 is ready, the same companies providing high-stakes, computer-administered tests in those other markets will move into the K-12 space, rather than the current low- to mid-stakes providers mentioned in your article.

John Oswald
Computer Adaptive Technologies Inc.
(A Houghton Mifflin company)
Evanston, Ill.

Cost of Competitions May Force Some Out

To the Editor:

The proponents of National History Day are right on target when they say that the program excites young learners about the field and is well aligned with standards (“Academic Contests Shaping Curricula for the Humanities,” June 13, 2001.)

Of all the many “new ideas” that have come my way and gone during the past 30 years in education, student participation in National History Day is one that I’ve stayed with year after year because I recognize its many benefits. When I meet up with former students, they never fail to let me know how much their History Day experience has meant to them as they went through high school, college, and in some cases, graduate school.

Unfortunately, the National History Day program, like many other worthwhile competitions, has the potential of dividing the haves from the have- nots. Regional, state, and national levels of competition are becoming costly to districts with more pressing needs.

Over the years of my career, I have been fortunate to have students reach the state level on many occasions, and twice to have them reach the national level. As my budget shrank, the costs of both regional and state competitions increased. This year, I was fortunate to have a student reach the state and national levels of the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee and was pleasantly surprised to learn that no school expense, other than transportation, was involved.

An interesting follow-up to your article would be to look at how such competitions are funded and to learn whether or not students from poorer districts are as well represented as those from affluent districts. (Pennsylvania’s state History Day coordinator, Avis Kuntz, has indicated that her office may be doing just that.)

Having been a part of National History Day for almost its entirety, I was pleased to read your careful analysis of both its pitfalls and pleasures.

Carole A. Briggs
Brookville, Pa.

In Training Leaders, Change Is Slow

To the Editor:

Although I applaud the changes happening in the graduate program in educational administration at Mississippi’s Delta State University (“At Delta State U., Principals Find Focus,” June 13, 2001) the fact that these changes are attracting so much attention is all too telling.

Organizing students into cohorts, doing some team-teaching, and—wonder of wonders—emphasizing meaningful internships are all things we could and probably should have been doing decades ago. Indeed, some programs were doing so, yet programs in school administration (or, using newer nomenclature, programs in leadership and policy analysis) remain largely unchanged and, in many cases, of very low quality.

The fact that a participant in Delta State’s program now “handles discipline differently from the way he did as a coach” (and that serious conversations about academics are going on, but only “behind closed doors”) does little to convince me that programs preparing principals are really getting much better. The comment in the story that test scores at the school in question are the lowest in the county (and, it should be noted, that the state that county is in is generally known for being one of the lowest-performing states in the nation) is perhaps a more powerful comment on the impact of school principals over time. Maybe this “new” program will turn things around. Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

Is it a good thing that these changes are being made? Yes, but until programs in school administration (or leadership or policy analysis or whatever they are called) truly and meaningfully recognize that what teachers know or don’t know and do or don’t do is the key to student achievement, many principals (often laughingly referred to as “instructional leaders” by their faculties) will continue to be part of the problem in educational reform.

Schools are about teaching and learning—not conducting public meetings and making snappy presentations.

Sam Minner
Truman State University
Kirksville, Mo.

End-of-Course Tests: A Big Downside

To the Editor:

After reading your article on end-of-course testing (“States Turn to End-of-Course Tests To Bolster High School Curriculum,” June 6, 2001), I couldn’t help but be alarmed. As a resident of New York state and a student at the State University of New York at Cortland working toward a degree in elementary education, I have a lot of experience with end-of-the-year testing. That more high schools nationally are implementing such tests is a tragedy.

Your article suggests that there are many advantages to these tests, and then briefly mentions that their downside is that they may constrain the curriculum and perhaps even lower standards in high-performing schools. Personally, I think these potential downfalls are pretty big.

All students should be able to attend schools that have a broad curriculum with subjects they not only have an interest in but also will need for success in life. We must focus more on getting students to want to learn, so that they will be able to ask the questions that make their learning meaningful. Narrowing the curriculum and making students memorize more facts is not the way to “raise the standards” of learning.

Erin Travis
Endwell, N.Y.

Senate Shift Means Education Victory

To the Editor:

The recent power shift in the U.S. Senate may set the stage for enhanced equity in and fair funding of education (“Senate Shifts as Spending Fight Looms,” May 30, 2001)).

In 1975, the federal government committed itself to funding 40 percent of its special education mandate. That promise has not been kept. Current funding is at about 14 percent, and local districts are forced to short-change other programs in order to comply with this unfunded mandate.

We should hold our elected representatives accountable. We should demand gutsy decisionmaking. I applaud Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont’s fight for education. He apparently believes that now is the time for the aforementioned commitment to be fully honored. The economy is certainly strong enough, and a budget surplus exists. History is being made: Education issues have changed the Senate.

Federal and state unfunded mandates seriously hinder local school efforts. This isn’t a matter of bipartisanship, it’s simply about having the guts to put as a priority our nation’s children.

Hal Nelson
Brandon, Fla.

Reaching Everyone in High Schools

To the Editor:

As a site administrator at a highly regarded central California high school of nearly 2,900 students, I can relate very well to and appreciate the comments on high school achievement presented by Marilyn Crawford and Eleanor Dougherty (“Updraft/Downdraft,” Commentary, June 6, 2001). Yes, too often educators “talk the talk” but fail to “walk the walk” in taking a hard look at what evidence supports their efforts to ensure that all students are mastering specific standards-based competencies. Social promotion does still exist, no question.

We’ve taken a closer look at what Gerald Anderson, the former superintendent of the Brazoport schools in Texas, speaks of as “essential agreements” among educators on what constitute the most critical instructional objectives we should be focusing our efforts on. We can do it all, but at what cost? I believe your Commentary authors’ suggestion of examining so-called artifacts of actual student work, and comparing such evidence against the standards by which our state has defined the “what” we must teach, is a major need. After we do this, we can address the “how” of teaching that content.

It’s frustrating for teachers to do it all. Not that they can’t or won’t. It’s more a question of do they have the resources, time, mentoring, support, and administrative patience to try, fail, and try again in producing strategies that meet the needs of all studentsthose born into underprivileged environments as well as those born into “success tracks.”

Let’s all continue to look hard at what we do to mask the “invisibles” in our schools.

Ken C. Testa
Clovis, Calif.

Protect All Students From Harassment

To the Editor:

Your article on harassment of gay students makes some very good points (“Report Says Schools Often Ignore Harassment of Gay Students,” June 6, 2001). But it also reminds me of the way some teachers feel about contributing to the education of special-needs youngsters: “Those kids belong to the special education department, and they need to take care of them; I don’t have the training to deal with those types of kids.”

“Those” kids belong to all the teachers in a school, and it is every staff member’s responsibility to share in the education of all the students. It is also every staff member’s responsibility to protect all youngsters in his or her care from abuse. Some teachers ignore harassment and bullying of gay students because they feel it is not within the realm of their responsibility to intercede, or because that just might be “taboo” in the eyes of their colleagues or the community.

Many administrators avoid dealing with these issues because they hope the issues will just go away, or because they think that to confront the bullies in these cases would only cause more problems. What these teachers and administrators fail to accept is that all young people have the right to expect the opportunity to receive an education free of harassment, bullying, hazing, name- calling, or any other form of intimidation. We as administrators and teachers have the charge of our school districts, states, and the federal government to protect all youngsters from abuse in any form.

I have to disagree, however, with the idea of making new rules just for gay students. Schools don’t need more rules, but they do need to strictly enforce their existing rules equitably. Teachers and administrators should be champions for all the students in their trust.

Ken Marang
Bayfield High School
Bayfield, Colo.

To the Editor:

I think it’s vital to point out, as the mother of a student in your article did, that it’s not only the students who truly are gay who are harassed. Students who are perceived as gay, and especially young boys thought to be effeminate by their peers, are also hurt by the harassment that goes on.

I mention this because those people in the population who are not willing to stand up for the rights of gay students may be willing to stand up for the right of all children to be free from verbal and physical harassment.

Martha Murphy
Grants Pass, Ore.

TEAC Audit Process of ‘Grave Concern’

To the Editor:

Your article on the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (“New Accreditor Gaining Toehold in Teacher Ed.,” May 23, 2001) contained several statements needing explication. Professional preparation based on national standards from the profession has been a sine qua non of professions for many years. It guarantees to the public that practicing professionals have the knowledge and skills deemed essential.

The Council for Exceptional Children, the largest organization of special educators in the country, has invested considerable expense, time, and effort to develop standards for the preparation of special educators. The CEC is proud of its standards, and of its work in program accreditation with the National Association for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.

TEAC’s audit process, on the other hand, relies on whatever idiosyncratic goals the hierarchy of an institution wishes to espouse. Under the TEAC process, it would be up to the university or college to decide unilaterally the standards it would address. There is no expectation that programs preparing special educators will address the national standards of the special educators.

Can you imagine accrediting medical schools or any other professional schools this way? Can you imagine even evaluating K-12 schools this way? The TEAC audit process is clearly a case of the proverbial “fox guarding the henhouse.” It will result in many institutions’ continuing to use teacher-preparation programs as “cash cows” to fund other programs and services.

While the CEC heartily agrees with TEAC that we need a system for assuring the public that professional preparation programs produce quality professional educators, we feel its audit process gives false assurance to parents, students, and the public at large that graduates of the program have the knowledge and skills considered essential by the profession.

With the increasing demand for high-quality special educators, there are pressures from many quarters to lower standards. Without the benchmark of national special education standards against which to measure quality, special education teacher- preparation programs face increasing pressure to lower program standards, with concomitant reductions in quality.

The Council for Exceptional Children believes that special-education-preparation programs must be accountable for assuring that their graduates have mastered the knowledge and skills needed to effectively teach the students in their care. To this end, the CEC actively participates with NCATE and its partners in developing and implementing performance-based accreditation procedures. TEAC uses an approach in which each program repeatedly reinvents it own standards. There is no systematic role for professionally recognized knowledge and skills standards. As such, the CEC cannot support the TEAC audit process.

Indeed, the CEC views the TEAC audit process with grave concern, as it will most likely result in a diminution of quality in programs that prepare special education teachers.

Richard Mainzer
Assistant Executive Director
Professional Standards and Practice
Council for Exceptional Children
Arlington, Va.

A View of Standards From the Chinese

To the Editor:

Robert B. Reich knows better than most when he questions standards that may well be preparing our children for nonstandardized jobs (“Standards for What?,” June 20, 2001).

China knows better than most when it comes to standardization and how well it works or doesn’t.

I have just returned from China, where I was invited to speak about my work in preparing children to succeed in school—and beyond. When I asked my Chinese colleagues what they wanted me to discuss, they did not mention tests or accountability or standards. Invariably, what they wanted to hear about was creativity and how to encourage it in their children and themselves.

Tests are the measuring sticks in China, determining children’s futures. When students don’t score high enough, they don’t get into better schools. But the Chinese envy us because we provide many possibilities for our children.

What we may be giving up with the rush to tests (no matter how often we protest that there must be other measures) is what the rest of the world wishes they could have for their children: creativity and not just cramming.

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

More on Elitism and Advanced Placement

To the Editor:

I debated for some time whether or not to send my original letter to the editor (“AP Coursework: A Credential, Not a Measure,” Letters, May 16, 2001), because the argument I raise creates an easy target for the elitist label. In the end, I decided that people would read it for their own ends no matter what. The argument is still a valid one despite Mike Riley’s charges of elitism in his letter to the editor of June 6, 2001 (“Does ‘Elitism’ Affect Views in AP Debate?”).

My point is one that applies only to the college-admissions process, and not to earning college credit through AP courses or the learning that takes place in AP courses. The more students registered in AP courses that college-admissions officers see, the less likely it is that a particular application will be enhanced by that. In other words, it will become more of a credential and less of a distinguishing mark that tells the college-admissions officer this is an outstanding applicant. It doesn’t matter whether that student comes from a public school in Washington or an independent school in New Jersey. Both theoretical students, public or private, privileged or not, will be less served by the AP designation in that world than they are today. It has nothing to do with privilege, although Mr. Riley would likely disagree.

Mr. Riley’s charge of elitism, on the other hand, is a bit more bothersome. Apparently, I am one of those who “have a vested interest in protecting elitism in American education"; the other elitists and I are “hearing the pounding footfalls of the masses chasing higher and higher levels of achievement” and don’t like the noise. Powerful rhetoric. If only I thought that were true. Many of us in independent education favor a much stronger public school system, despite what Mr. Riley might think. Strong public schools do not hurt strong independent schools, and vice versa.

As long as reform in public education is limited to creating more and more tests for students to take in order for politicians to feel that they are doing something to improve an educational system that they label as not “world class,” then I think independent education has little to fear.

Perhaps the most bizarre charge Mr. Riley hinted at was that somehow public schools had been prevented from participating in the AP program. As he stated, “If kids can get the same curriculum in public schools, if poor kids can access what has been traditionally the province of the rich, then elite schools and programs lose their luster.” The AP curriculum has been available to all comers since its inception, and to the best of my knowledge, public schools have participated since its inception. The International Baccalaureate program has always been available to public school students as well.

I first encountered the IB program in Grand Rapids, Mich., over 20 years ago. The public school district there, an excellent one, had created a wonderful program for its students. Apparently they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to offer it. And, as Mr. Riley knows, it is not curriculum that creates powerful educational opportunity for students; it is great teachers working in environments conducive to learning. To say that elite schools have held some sort of upper hand (whatever that means) by controlling who has access to curriculum is disingenuous at best.

As for my own school, the facts as stated by Mr. Riley are essentially correct. What he left out is that over 45 percent of our students receive financial aid, we offer fewer APs than many local school districts, we have no IB program at all, and most of our students come out of public school, not private, backgrounds. Peddie is hardly a bastion of privilege. But it is a bastion of significant learning where teachers work hard for and with their students. Isn’t that what it is really all about?

D. John Watson
Assistant Head of School
The Peddie School
Hightstown, N.J.

World History: Issues Other Than the “Downfall of Western Culture”

To the Editor:

Gilbert T. Sewall’s diatribe against “world history” (“The Classroom Conquest of World History,” Commentary, June 13, 2001) accurately identifies the enemy, but completely misses the point of why we should be dismayed.

Rather than the Advanced Placement examination’s choice of content, it is the tendency of the AP program to beatify certain subject matter at the expense of others in all disciplines that is to be decried.

Mr. Sewall’s sullen review of the AP world-history curriculum and examination sounds too much like any other right-wing screed against what is perceived as a slavish political correctness that underplays the idea of a glorious and triumphant Western heritage. Since Mr. Sewall is identified as a “former Advanced Placement history teacher,” one senses mainly a reactionary concern on his part that one gospel, the “master narrative” with which he is most familiar, is being challenged by another he just doesn’t care for.

Much broader issues are at stake. The Advanced Placement program has become a de facto (and in many communities de jure) seal of quality. In the sciences and mathematics as well as the humanities, “the AP” is regarded as the final arbiter of what ought to be taught to secondary students. If the AP program does not sanctify a topic or a methodology, it is unworthy of being taught, at least to the “best and the brightest” for whom the AP label on a transcript is a highly desirable badge of honor. (This badge is of course sold through schools for the price of enrollment in an AP course that prepares students for a test for which they literally pay cash.) For colleges, the AP label is shorthand that excuses them from looking more deeply at the kind of learning experiences a student has actually had or at the kind of person he or she is.

The tragedy of the AP world-history curriculum—which is not, as Mr. Sewall describes it, strictly speaking a “course"—is that within it, truly creative teaching is made less possible. As is usual in the Advanced Placement approach, depth is sacrificed to breadth, even if there have been some chronological constraints imposed. A teacher wishing to have students, say, explore the origins and development of democratic institutions from ancient times to the present—an inquiry that could profitably occupy quite some time and expose students to a wide variety of materials and cultures, including Mr. Sewall’s beloved classical Greece and Rome—could do so only at the peril of straying from the path ordained and packaged by the savants of Advanced Placement.

At its heart, the love of many American educators for the AP program is little different from American lawmakers’ fascination with standardized testing: Both are easy retreats from the much more demanding responsibility of helping communities, schools, and teachers develop the tools to establish and meet high standards based on the ways that children learn and gain meaningful understanding. Sadly, the AP world-history curriculum is just another step in that retreat.

Peter Gow
Academic Dean
Beaver Country Day School
Chestnut Hill, Mass.

To the Editor:

I would encourage anyone interested in Advanced Placement world history to go to the College Board Web site and look at what it really says about the course, instead of taking it second-hand from Gilbert T. Sewall. I think people will find it challenging, refreshing, and balanced.

Note that Mr. Sewall mentions that U.S. history still gets most of the curriculum emphasis. This is true. In the state of Texas, students study the United States in 5th, 8th, and 11th grades (and 7th, if you count a full year of Texas history, and again in 12th, if you count U.S. government). I don’t think one year of a global perspective will cause the downfall of Western culture.

George Rislov
Dallas, Texas

To the Editor:

Gilbert T. Sewall both distorts and exaggerates the impact of what he calls the “new” world history. There is no new world history. It is good, old-fashioned history, in that it continues a constant reinterpretation of perspective to reflect new, hard data.

Furthermore, most American students study U.S. history and civics over and over from elementary school on. They are virtually required to take a full year in the junior year, which means that the United States consumes upward of 75 percent or more of a student’s elementary and high school exposure to history. A year or two of exposure to the rest of the world will do them good.

Jack Betterly
Troy, N.Y.

Bell Curve Redux: Straw Men and Metaphorical Battle Zones

To the Editor:

Douglas B. Reeves’ impassioned defense of academic standards and testing suffers from a severe case of straw-man-itis and other forms of weird logic (“If You Hate Standards, Learn To Love The Bell Curve,” June 6, 2001).

His argument boils down to this: One is either for rigorous standards and testing or one is an ignorant fool who prefers that schoolchildren be allowed to master basket- weaving instead of math, science, and history.

First, Mr. Reeves certainly has no monopoly on what constitutes hard facts and social-scientific evidence. Indeed, the recent cases of parental and teacher backlash against the accountability-testing movement have come on the heels of nearly two decades of scholarly research about the effects of high-stakes testing on teaching and learning.

The clear thrust of this evidence has hardly been supportive of policymakers’ testing and accountability juggernaut. The paucity of evidence that the educational benefits of accountability testing outweigh its social and economic costs has led many careful observers to suggest that the movement has been fueled more by political ambition and the profit motive than it has been driven by a sincere claim to improve schools.

As framed by Mr. Reeves, the argument for accountability testing in schools is an either-or proposition. It’s about rigorous standards as opposed to no standards at all. It’s about lifting achievement for all schoolchildren as opposed to making excuses and apologies for a failing system. It’s about accepting the truth—as revealed in test scores—or choosing instead to shoot the messenger and ignore the cold, hard facts.

Such is the silly logic that the testing and accountability movement hangs to, supported by an increasingly thin margin of popular consent. It’s absurd to suggest that those who dare question the assumptions behind the movement don’t believe in rigorous standards or that poor children can learn.

Mr. Reeves assumes that academic excellence is achievable only via centrally administered educational bureaucracies holding children and schools accountable for performance on large-scale tests. But many educators who question the educational benefits of high-stakes testing have developed assessments that are set to rigorous standards and stripped of the dehumanizing artifices of massive testing enterprises. Such assessments permit students to write, speak, make models, and do demonstrations on substantive, real-world projects, engaging children in learning math, science, and history with an intellectual intensity rarely achieved when taking and preparing for state- administered exams.

Mr. Reeves asserts that if we do away with those mom-and- apple-pie homilies he calls “rigorous standards,” then we’d better be prepared for a return to the big, bad “bell curve.” Again, this is nonsense. An assessment certainly does not have to be a so-called standards-based exam like the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or the Standards of Learning or the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills to be based on standards, as opposed to a norm-referenced test in which individuals are ranked according to test scores.

Moreover, if Mr. Reeves is so opposed to the bell curve, then he ought to be up in arms that the very same notion is used to rank-order schools based on standardized-test scores. In fact, the real and only purpose of large- scale standardized exams is exactly that: to rate schools and stamp the proverbial scarlet A upon those which fail to meet often-arbitrary cutoff scores.

Is it really the case that the emerging rebellion over testing in schools can be dismissed as the work of Luddites who would chose ignorance over the truth? I doubt that even Mr. Reeves really believes his own argument when it is stripped bare.

The parents, educators, and scholars who question the path that the accountability movement has taken are simply asking for some common sense. In contrast to all admonitions from testing experts, policymakers’ misuse of testing technology has run rampant, such as using test scores as a gatekeeper to promotion and graduation.

Rather than choosing to ignore the facts, as Mr. Reeves contends, critics of test-based accountability are trying to convince policymakers to consider all the facts about individual and school performance—and not overrely on the uncertain and small slice of reality as revealed by test scores. Is a test score an indicator of some aspect of school performance? Surely. But it’s just that: an indicator. It’s high time for a little humility about what problems testing technology alone can solve.

Peter Sacks
Boise, Idaho
The writer is the author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do To Change It (Perseus, 2000).

To the Editor:

Douglas B. Reeves’ claim that state standards for elementary school students’ reading performance are “objective” is clearly in error. These standards typically are highly general in nature, and thus are open to teachers’ subjective judgments as to what they precisely mean in terms of individual students’ performance.

Seldom in a reading-standards document is any specific guidance given teachers as to how to determine what exact, persistent, or comprehensive student behavior is necessary to successfully meet each of the document’s goals. Therefore, the fault of present-day reading standards is not, as Mr. Reeves claims, that they are “narrow in scope,” or do not express behavior that involves “deep thinking and analysis” and “understanding.” Rather, their essential flaw is that their intended meanings cannot be deciphered by teachers.

Therefore, it is also hard to believe Mr. Reeves’ statement that, in the absence of today’s reading standards, “every school in the nation would be left with the absurdity of students who cannot read ... at levels appropriate to their grade levels [although] feeling full of false self-esteem.” In point of fact, as reading standards are now composed, they are so vague an entity that teachers are forced to take an indifferent attitude toward them.

Mr. Reeves maintains that “the alternative to standards is [reading teachers’ grading of students on] the bell curve.” In truth, standardized reading tests are constructed so that students’ scores on them fall into a bell-shaped curve of distribution. Their main goal, thus, is a “comparison of one student to the other” (a practice Mr. Reeves denounces).

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

Douglas B. Reeves offers educators a limited and limiting view of alternatives. He repeatedly uses the phrase “the alternative,” suggesting that there is only one alternative to standards, the bell curve. This creates a dichotomy in the minds of readers and encourages people to “take sides,” rather than explore the vast array of other possibilities.

Such dichotomies are common in education, creating metaphorical battle zones in which each side takes a stand and defends its position, lobbing a barrage of arguments at the opponents. So much energy is wasted on this battle that it does not occur to people to explore other possibilities that may well change the entire problem.

The logic of the author’s arguments is based on a number of presuppositions, the validity of which must be examined. Those presuppositions—the “conventional wisdom” of education—have been the foundation of educators’ thinking for so long that they have become habitual, and thus, transparent to the thinker. Here are three from the author’s arguments:

  • Standards influence a teacher’s expectations.
  • Students must be taught in groups and move from grade to grade.
  • Students must be compared with one another.

It is important to recognize that these statements are not facts. They are beliefs. Each of them has been called into question by both research and experience. One need only look at some alternate beliefs to recognize the limitations they impose on one’s thinking.

Standards are minimums. Expectations can range from below minimum to well above minimum. The imposition of external standards does not ensure that a teacher’s expectations about a given student will change. Why do students from lower socioeconomic groups thrive in one teacher’s classroom and perform “according to expectation” in another? The answer resides in the beliefs those teachers hold about their students. You do not change beliefs by imposing standards.

Research has shown that children process information in different ways and mature at different rates. Consistent with those findings, ungraded schools in which students move at their own pace have proven very successful. That such schools have not become more common is testimony to the power of the third presupposition cited above, that students must be compared with one another.

Why must students be compared with one another? Why is it any more acceptable to “compare students to an objective standard” than to compare them to one another? The author points out that in comparing students against one another, “proficient students have been labeled as failures because they failed to achieve scores higher than their more proficient colleagues.” Does not the same thing happen in the minds of educators and others when some students fail to meet the standards for a specific subject or grade?

Of course, student learning should be assessed. Of course, schools should be held accountable for student development. But what research can be cited to suggest that all students can or should be responsible for a given body of knowledge at the same time? Or that they can be expected to convey their knowledge in the same way with equal facility?

Unfortunately, education’s fixation on groups makes it difficult, if not impossible, for people to focus on individuals. The thought of assessing a student’s progress against a collection of goals and expectations created for that student and consistent with that student’s strengths is literally “unthinkable” because of the limitations set by prior beliefs. These include beliefs about the nature of knowledge (objective and external to the learner), the meaning of learning (acquiring that objective knowledge), and the role of the teacher (to transmit that knowledge.)

Alternate beliefs, supported by a significant amount of research, shift the focus from the transmission of knowledge to the needs of the learner. These beliefs permit a much wider range of behaviors on the part of the teacher and students.

I would suggest that, before condemning themselves to a choice between standards or the bell curve, it is critical for educators to step back and re-examine conventional wisdom and the beliefs that both enable and limit their thinking.

Judith Lloyd Yero
Educational Consultant
Hamilton, Mont.

To the Editor:

As a teacher for some 40 years at almost every grade level, and as a member of the advisory committee to my city’s school board, I take exception to several of Douglas B. Reeves’ assumptions.

He thinks that if standards and state tests were eliminated tomorrow, all our students would feel either falsely satisfied or inadequate because they scored a percentage point above or below another child. But before these high-stakes tests were initiated, there were plenty of both weak and strong students who had a very good sense of where they really stood. Students are not stupid. And there are certainly students now who feel crushed because they failed the final standardized test but did well all year in their schoolwork, or who feel cheated because they spent too much time on test preparation.

Education Week published a really valuable and balanced approach to the situation in the issue prior to the one in which Mr. Reeves’ essay appeared. Larry Cuban’s Commentary “How Systemic Reform Harms Urban Schools” (May 30, 2001) avoids the shrill either-or analyses that make up Mr. Reeves’ piece. It should be read by all and reprinted widely.

Leonard E. Opdycke
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I am glad that Douglas B. Reeves, in his Commentary, decried the negative impact of setting students against one another by using methods such as grading on a curve. But I am confused by his claim that the only alternative to bell-curve methods is to impose uniform standards on schools and inflict standardized tests on all students.

These are not either-or alternatives. Some teachers, in fact, both teach to narrowly defined tests and grade on a curve, resulting in the worst of both worlds.

On the other hand, teachers can use cooperative-learning techniques that encourage students to help one another learn and to master meaningful real-world standards. Teachers whose creativity is not being shackled by state requirements also can work with students to democratically decide upon themes for class and small-group exploration, thus motivating students to learn facts, concepts, and skills.

I used such methods with great success when I taught world history in Oakland, Calif., at the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy in the 1990s. Would I still be able to teach that way today, given the pressures on teachers to teach to the tests?

Sam Diener
Graduate Student
Lesley University
Arlington, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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