Education Letter to the Editor


August 08, 2001 25 min read
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Accreditation and Special Education

To the Editor:

If the audit were the only component of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council’s system of accreditation, there could be some merit in the Council for Exceptional Children’s anxieties that TEAC might weaken standards for special education teachers (“TEAC Audit Process of ‘Grave Concern,’” July 11, 2001).

TEAC, however, requires much more than the audit, which is merely a device to verify the evidence that a program meets TEAC’s standards of program quality (not, by the way, some idiosyncratic local standard, as the CEC claims). Moreover, TEAC requires that the program meet the state’s standards for the special education teaching license. TEAC also solves the “cash cow” problem in teacher education by requiring solid evidence that the institution is genuinely committed to the program.

So, there really shouldn’t be much concern that standards for our field would slip in a system that requires that there be convincing evidence that the program’s graduates are competent, caring, and qualified.

The CEC and others wrongly assert that TEAC has no standards, or has only whatever standards a particular program has in place at the time. What they really mean is that TEAC does not use their particular standards. It is fair enough and natural for them to be concerned about that, but it may be premature of them to conclude that there is only one way, their way, to assure program quality.

TEAC would willingly rely on any standards, including the Council for Exceptional Children’s, provided there is evidence to support the claims made for the standard. We look forward to productive discussions with any group that has convincing evidence to support the standards they have developed. In the meantime, we will continue to rely on evidence we do have that a program has met TEAC’s three quality principles and standards of commitment to quality.

Frank B. Murray
Teacher Education Accreditation Council
Washington, D.C.

French Preschool: A Hidden Cost?

To the Editor:

The article “Looking to France” (“Looking To France,” July 11, 2001) described in glowing terms the French system of universal preschool. However, it provided few hard facts that would allow the reader to judge the value of such a system. I was left with many questions: Is the system compulsory? What is the resulting tax burden? And most importantly, what does the research show about results?

As described, the French preschool, with 26 children to a class and an emphasis on getting the correct answer, does not sound like a system in which most 3-year-olds would thrive. A preschool with the purpose of “socializing children to French culture,” and which laughs at the concept of individualizing, sounds like one designed more to turn out Socialist Man than a child who is ready to read and is a creative and independent thinker.

The French social-welfare system described in the article, of which universal preschool is one part, carries a price tag: freedom. Recently, a French friend of mine who belongs to a minority religion and who now lives in the United States told me that he likes many things about France. But there, he added, members of his religion, as well as other minority religions, are discriminated against and now face a new law that greatly restricts the practice of over 150 specified minority religions. My friend told me that he likes the United States better. He said that here he can feel freedom in the air.

I urge you to follow up with an article about the French preschool system that provides research results and addresses costs along with touted benefits.

Alexandra Hopkins
Curriculum Writer
North Hollywood, Calif.

Do Statistics Support Cities’ Math Gains?

To the Editor:

Regarding the article “Study: NSF Initiative Reaps Payoff In Cities” (July 11, 2001): Would that Education Week had included some of the statistics that the article referred to. In New York City, improvements in math-test scores are at best marginal and more likely negative. In Philadelphia, supposed improvements in math scores are so strongly correlated with scores in English that it is difficult to attribute them to changes in math teaching.

Jonathan Goodman
New York, N.Y.

Help on Using Data To Improve Schools

To the Editor:

Marilyn Crawford and Eleanor Dougherty are absolutely right when they recommend using research and data (or, what they call “artifacts”) to improve high schools (“Updraft/Downdraft,” Commentary, June 6, 2001). Using data to make decisions about school improvement is vital. In fact, data analysis can help inform the high school about which artifacts to examine.

But selecting which data are most valuable, learning to disaggregate data, and understanding the implications of the data can be challenging, often requiring training and resources that many high school leaders are not able to access.

The good news is that the U.S. Department of Education’s Northeast Regional Education Laboratory at Brown University has launched a multiyear project to help high school leaders learn to disaggregate and use data to implement specific recommendations from the report “Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution” (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996). The use of data in the lab’s process helps determine which school improvement strategies to pursue.

Just as important though, the data are used to measure progress toward goals. A good look at school artifacts can be helpful in suggesting where a high school leadership team might look deeper for improvement opportunities.

Once improvement strategies are identified, though, only a few key measures of student work (still disaggregated) need to be identified and tracked, thus allowing the high school leadership team to focus more of their energy on implementing their strategies.

Anne W. Miller
Director, School Leadership Services
National Association of Secondary School Principals
Reston, Va.

Science Experiment’s Errors Are Corrected

To the Editor:

In your informative and important article on Waldorf schools ( “The Spirit of Waldorf Education,” On Assignment, June 20, 2001), there was an error in the third-hand description of a science experiment.

On Page 44, a teacher is described as demonstrating how sulfuric acid is “water friendly.” Supposedly, this teacher poured sulfuric acid into a beaker of water, creating an explosion that resulted in the disappearance of water and the creation of a “chunk of steaming carbon.”

Anyone familiar with concentrated sulfuric acid knows that dilution by water must be done (as described) by carefully adding the acid to water. The reverse procedure does indeed result in explosive generation of heat. Already, therefore, the demonstration was inaccurately described. But the creation of carbon is totally erroneous. Neither water nor sulfuric acid contains the element of carbon.

What was being described, probably, was the addition of sulfuric acid to dissolved sugar. One would want full credibility in every factual statement supporting or denigrating this controversial system of education.

Edward O. Shakespeare
Philadelphia, Pa.

Puzzled by Critical’Bell Curve’ Letters

To the Editor:

Bravo to Douglas B. Reeves for his bold and timely remarks about standards and testing (“If You Hate Standards, Learn To Love The Bell Curve,” June 6, 2001). To read the letters criticizing his essay (“Standards vs. Bell Curve,” June 20, 2001; “Bell Curve Redux: Straw Men and Metaphorical Battle Zones,” July 11, 2001), you’d never guess that Mr. Reeves’ piece is in fact a forceful and nuanced statement about the essential necessity of state and standardized testing, their imperfections notwithstanding.

I’m puzzled by some of the letter writers’ belief that state assessments cannot advance standards. The ball is in their court to do two things: provide compelling examples of how standards have increased learning in the absence of tests, and explain away the abundant evidence that state assessments are, even for some of their more ham-handed features, causing teachers to focus their instruction on essential but previously ignored skills and proficiencies, while making coherence possible.

Michael Fullan calls assessment—including state assessments—the “coherence maker.” And by the way, neither Bob Marzano (cited in one letter) nor Grant Wiggins is dismissive of state assessments—even of norm-referenced assessments.

To those who wrote these letters: Don’t stop criticizing the tests and their sometimes excessive and inappropriate uses; better assessment is worth fighting for. Mr. Reeves, who knows the intricacies of these tests as well as anyone, is fighting this fight (I invite you to look at his work).

But let us not scrap state tests until we have a better, proven alternative for monitoring and ensuring that increased numbers of students are learning to write, read, and do math without them.

Mike Schmoker
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Standardized Tests, Standard Responses

To the Editor:

Dare I laugh or cry at the absurdities of “cheating” on statewide tests? (“Dozens of Mich. Schools Under Suspicion for Cheating,” June 20, 2001). Dozens of New York City schools were accused in 1999, and now 70 Michigan elementary and middle schools are charged with test-result “irregularities.” Michigan lawmakers and Gov. John Engler are fired up over the uproar. Educators are angered by the way state officials reacted. Little is heard from the students.

The real issue is the evidence of alleged cheating—the so-called “irregularities.” They are wonderful. Social studies teachers at a given school brainstormed likely topics for testing, like NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Following the state’s own guidelines, they taught students specific definitions that included key phrases like “prevent the spread of Communism” or “alliance of countries.” They coached kids to include those phrases if writing about NATO.

When students followed their teachers’ instructions, like good little test-takers, graders flagged the phrases that occurred frequently, and alleged cheating. In other words, students who responded to standardized-test questions with standardized responses were cheating. And teachers who prepared them were at fault.

Welcome to the brave new world of education as test preparation. Scripted instruction is a tool being promoted by President Bush. But if teachers follow “scripts,” then surely students will learn common phrases or key points. When they use that information on state tests, they will be charged with cheating. Is that reasonable?

Detroit, with 44 schools under the gun, is still investigating its irregularities. But a preliminary analysis in your article is worth noting. “Our curriculum experts believe many of these problems are explainable by many of the patterned-response strategies in materials provided by the state,” said a district spokesman. Too much time spent with test-prep materials, perhaps?

With everyone’s “ratings” dependent on test results, the absurd seems sensible. Patterned-response strategies, memorized phrases and key points, and scripted learning are all designed to provide students with standardized responses to standardized tests. If students spout the proper power points at the proper place, they should not be penalized. Nor should their teachers.

As for excessive testing as education, there is the culprit.

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

Less Radical Options For Special Educators

To the Editor:

In his well-written essay, Jay McIntire did his research and used all the right phrases and descriptions concerning children with disabilities, but surely he jests when he suggests that districts negotiate separate contracts with special education teachers (“Market Forces and Special Education,” June 13, 2001).

In these times of decreased quality of collegial relationships and rising dissension among departments or even schools, implementation of his ideas by states or districts would cause a tremendous backlash of resentment and possibly produce an exodus of “regular education” teachers.

Yes, there are serious shortages of teachers for exceptional children in some states, and many of these teachers are moving into regular education positions because of burnout, but separate contractual negotiations will result in shortages in other areas and further the fragmentation of faculties. Mr. McIntire’s ideas remind me of the “back room” school board sessions where someone suggests that the district pay non- core-subject teachers less than the basic “big four” teachers because those subjects are of less importance. Such suggestions rarely come to fruition because the logical majority on these boards know that implementation of this type of salary schedule would destroy the district.

I am a high school principal certified in special education, but I could never support such a radical solution to the shortage problem. Providing special education teachers more assistance with the overwhelming paperwork, and with workable solutions to the isolation that many of them feel, could alleviate much of the burnout problem encountered by special educators.

Administrators who are ignorant of the problems inherent in special education and who fail to adequately support those teachers contribute to the frustrations and eventual exodus of these dedicated educators. I certainly second Mr. McIntire’s concerns about the decreasing numbers of quality special education teachers, but I hope we can find other, less radical solutions.

Ken Marang
Bayfield, Colo.

On Teacher Exodus In Washington State

To the Editor:

It’s interesting that the article “Wash. State Pension Plan Blamed for Educator Exodus,” (June 13, 2001) focuses primarily on administrators. What about those of us who have chosen to dedicate our professional lives to staying in the classroom? Where are our incentives? Same retirement program, lower salary, more pressure from administration and state to “get those scores up!”

In the district where I teach, many good, young teachers are going to states like California, Nevada, and others that pay a lot more in salary, and even give signing bonuses and housing allowances. Many others are leaving teaching altogether because they can’t make a living salary.

Even some “rust belt” states have far better retirement programs than Washington, as well as encouraging programs for helping teachers get advanced degrees. I’m afraid that with Washington state’s “reactive” government and poor educational leadership, it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. My experience suggests that the state won’t do anything of substance until after the fact, and most of the exodus.

Dave Christie
Seattle, Wash.

Help for Schools Isn’t So Academic

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “Out-of-School Influences on Learning Debated,” (June 13, 2001): How reassuring for the crumbling public school system that so-called “academics” (many of whom contributed to its problems) are able to spend their time engaging in this sterile intellectual hand-wringing.

And how strange it is that nobody asks the obvious question: If public schools make so little (or almost no) difference, why should we have them? Why not just give the billions of dollars spent on public schools directly to poor families so they can attain the middle-class status members of the academy claim are a prerequisite for success in school?

I believe that much of this “debate” accomplishes two unethical and insidious purposes. First, adults (especially the 85 percent to 90 percent of white, middle-class adults who teach in high-poverty, high-minority schools) need not acknowledge any responsibility for educating poor and minority children. The nation’s teacher education programs, likewise, are able to absolve themselves of any accountability for the poor quality of instruction by their graduates.

Meanwhile, the efforts of those few hundred schools around the country that do an outstanding job of teaching poor children can be blithely ignored as anomalies in the paradigm. What we have learned from those schools is that when poor children receive high-quality instruction, they can achieve at levels middle-class schools routinely take for granted. This requires, of course, that the adults in the system work hard and give a damn.

But now, the academics (and of course the unions) say they don’t have to. It is not surprising that the beneficiaries of the current public school system all the way down the line are not going to go down without a fight. These people have built entire careers (and some, fortunes) off the misery of poor children and families.

Maybe taxpayer dollars might not be available if the circle weren’t quite so closed. Perhaps, broadening the playing field would give such people less opportunity to “study” why poor, alienated, discriminated-against, and marginalized folk are not able to learn the middle-class curriculum from the same people who have no intention of teaching it to them.

Jennifer A. Bell
Sacramento, Calif.

When Most Fail, Is Test To Blame?

To the editor:

I was disturbed by the article “More Than Half of California 9th Graders Flunk Exit Exam,” (June 20, 2001) because it told me that more than half of the state’s 400,000 9th graders failed a state exam. Even more upsetting, however, was finding that administrators clearly put the blame on teachers and students for these poor results.

Who is it to say that it wasn’t a poorly written test? If such a large portion of the student body is failing, isn’t it probable that the failure lies within the test itself? Give these kids some credit. It is evident that testing children is not always an accurate indicator of intelligence, much less of readiness to proceed in education. It isn’t fair to these students to keep them behind just because they did not pass a particular test.

The only thing these exams will do is discourage the students who do not test well and increase the number of dropouts. Isn’t that a wonderful idea?

Melissa Mehl
Blossvale, N.Y.

Corning: Be Grateful For Company’s Help

To the Editor:

I applaud Corning Inc.'s commitment to the city of Corning, N.Y. (“Corning, N.Y., Debates Company’s School Plan,” June 20, 2001). In struggling cities across the nation, vision, insight, and especially monetary support would be welcomed from area businesses. People need to shed the “we always did it this way” mentality of yesteryear and be open to change and progress.

Corning Inc. is offering its vision to the residents of the community and should be thanked for its concern. If the residents of the city of Corning don’t want the company in their community, they should send it to Pittsburgh. I’ll be the first to welcome the company with open arms.

Joanne Britt
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Good Writing and Critical Thinking

To the Editor:

We need many more articles like “Well-Crafted Assignments Key to Good Writing, Researchers Find,” (July 11, 2001).

Teachers don’t seem to be trained and interested in how to get their kids to think critically, which, after all, is a skill developed along with good student writing. We need to place more of an emphasis on providing creative writing “environments” (not merely “assignments”) for our students.

Susan K. Ehr
Cape Coral High School
Cape Coral, Fla.

Why Take Pride in The Rush to Rigor

To the Editor:

Since A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983, “rigor” has been the watchword for improving learning. It was and is the key to launching standards and tests. Here is a sample taken from a successful request for supporting a new charter school:

“Rigorous technology-supported courses.”

“Rigorous academic and character development.”

“A rigorous academic curriculum.”

“Rigorous learning expeditions.”

“Rigorous curriculum standards.”

My dictionary says that the meaning of “rigorous” is “harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment” or the “quality of being unyielding or inflexible.” The book for synonyms goes further: “austere, harsh, rough, tough, unyielding, unrelenting, implacable, pitiless, hard-hearted, tyrannical.”

Presidents, governors, legislators, CEOs and other self- appointed saviors of our public schools take pride as they rush to rigor. By manufacturing test failures, they hold in awe ill-supported teachers and their needy students. In fact, they go back to the wisdom of Lewis Carroll:

Speak roughly to your little boy
And beat him when he sneezes.
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

Choice, Power, and ‘A New Chapter’

To the Editor:

In his July 11, 2001, letter to the editor (“‘Why Vouchers?’ Let Us Count the Nays”), Edd Doerr foresees ominous consequences if parents are allowed to choose their children’s schools, including nonpublic schools: lower teacher salaries, “religious and ideological tests” for teachers, children in selective and “pervasively sectarian schools,” enormous fiscal and social costs.

In truth, giving parents the right to decide the educational fates of their children does entail risks. No one knows how wisely or foolishly parents will exercise that right, although indications from where limited choices exist suggest they would do reasonably well.

But to put the matter in perspective, historian Eugen Weber has said, “History is about power, who has it, who uses it, who loses it.”

In that light, what has been the history of American education? For 150 years, the levers of power have been in the hands of ever more remote political bodies: local boards, state legislatures, state education departments, Congress.

Parents, who know their children like no one else—know when they are learning, when they are happy, and, just as important, when they are not—are virtually powerless. School board elections often have single-digit levels of voter participation. And with good reason. It makes so little difference to the individual parent who gets elected.

Meanwhile, the real power is exercised by organized special interests, which dominate the politics of education.

How have the three political levels and the organized interests used their power? Do they deserve to keep that power? Would not a transfer of decisionmaking power all the way down to the individual parent produce a happier result?

America is ready for a new chapter in the history of its system of education, a chapter about the loss of power by the political bodies and organized special interests, and a gain in power for individuals and parents.

Will our lawmakers write this new chapter? Will we educators support them? History awaits the answer.

Tom Shuford
Retired New York Public School Teacher
Ventura, Calif.

Standards for What?

To the Editor:

Although I agree with Robert B. Reich that many standardized tests do not assess the critical knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in today’s complex and fast-paced world (“Standards for What?,” Commentary, June 20, 2001), I disagree with his contention that the standardized-test craze is causing schools to morph into “test-taking factories.” A critical analysis of American K-12 schools reveals that the relationship between school practices and the interests of businesses in producing good workers has a long and unfortunate history. Indeed, one may argue that this relationship is at the very root of many of the contemporary problems in schools.

As a parent and a professional educator, I am not interested in schools’ serving only to ensure that students gain the knowledge and skill necessary to earn a good living. Mr. Reich’s thesis that the tests we currently use are out of touch with the demands of the modern economy may be correct, but replacing the inappropriate measures with better ones begs the question of whether we should design schools to serve the needs and interests of big business at all.

Free public education in our nation and throughout the world should be emancipatory. It should make people more free and should encourage them to love learning and to learn, not just to do well on some test, but to develop themselves to their fullest intellectual ability. The current test craze is doing just the opposite. I see many students, including my own son, leave home with a love of learning and an intellectual curiosity and return from school concerned if something will be “on the test.” Replacing a bad measure with a good one will do nothing to stop this terrible trend.

Sam Minner
Greentop, Mo.

To the Editor:

Robert B. Reich’s Commentary is right on the mark. With 28 years in the Philadelphia public school system, I live what he describes. Fortunately, I am involved with a small magnet school, and we have freedom to experiment.

Mr. Reich states correctly, in my opinion, that the real skills are thinking critically, challenging assumptions, and solving problems. These skills will not be developed in the near future, however, because most teachers and college professors have no idea how to do it. No one can even agree on the definition of critical thinking. Ask someone to give you an example of an erroneous assumption, and he will look at you as if you are crazy.

In our school, we believe in critical and creative thinking. We use the theories of Edward de Bono (creative) and Richard Paul (critical) as our guides.

Unfortunately, though, critical thinking seems to be on the back burner these days. Mr. Reich is an example of a successful person with common sense. The educational elite usually does not listen to that type of individual. But I do.

Charles Paslay
Wilmington, Del.

To the Editor:

The real goal of standardized testing, which cannot improve schools, is to demonstrate enough imagined trouble in the system to get the public to throw up its collective hands and let the greedy nabobs of negativism privatize schools. The goal is to stop paying from $4,000 to $6,000 per year, per student.

In all of the voucher drives, the amount of the voucher usually is only about $1,000 to $3,000. The so-called “schools” that would accept this are given a pass on meeting standards, and are not required to test anyone or report anything. With no reports about their performance, they can’t be challenged. The supporters of vouchers love their almighty dollars, not children, and not their community or country.

If anyone is really interested in gauging the health of American schools, he should first note that we have the leading economy in the world and are the sole military superpower. We are No. 1, and there isn’t a No. 2. The tests mean nothing. Since 1950, the number of high school graduates has gone from 47 percent to 93 percent.

Can the system be improved? Of course, but beware that standardized tests used as whips by politicians do not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Joe Reilly
Tampa Bay, Fla.

What Teacher’s Want

To the Editor:

Jillian N. Lederhouse is absolutely correct in her essay on incentives for good teaching (“‘Show Me the Power’,” Commentary, June 13, 2001). We are being teased and goaded into believing that there is something drastically wrong with public education (all of a sudden), and that somehow bad teachers who have slipped through the screening are the reason for the system’s “failure.”

Yet nowhere is there a conclusive and universally accepted definition of or set of criteria for determining, on a national level, what constitutes “failure” or “success.” Where’s the rubric? Where are the benchmarks? Where is the test? It’s as if we have a mound of clay in the middle of the floor, everyone has a ball bat and is pounding away at it, but after 20 years of beating, it still doesn’t look like much. We have just made a bigger mess.

We need another “groundbreaking” report, or else someone has to finally say, “Look, the emperor has no clothes.” The system still works. Kids are going to college. We’re corralling the highest number of Nobel Prizes in mathematics and science in the world. The dropout rate is declining. How did that happen? Enough already!

Rich Wykoff
Clinton County, Pa.

To the Editor:

Jillian N. Lederhouse poses some interesting thoughts about the relationship of autonomy to good teaching. But creativity can coexist with the teaching of basic skills.

As a 3rd grade teacher in a high- performing district and the co-author of a book on critical-thinking-skills lessons in language arts, I believe kids can learn basic and necessary skills and also be creative and have fun in school. Our 3rd graders still perform their yearly musical, have puppet shows, and create imaginative stories. We have hands-on activities in science, social studies, reading, and even math. And teachers still have the power to make informed decisions about the curriculum.

Teaching is both an art and a science. For the teacher, the art is in the creation of lessons filled with those needed and mandated skills that then can be applied creatively within a particular learning context. For the student, the art is in being able to practice those needed and mandated skills in a creative response. I still teach main idea, details, and even phonetic rules, but I do it creatively, with the goal being to produce in the student a basic need to learn.

I don’t think our testing needs to be evaluated, but I do think we need to evaluate education at the university level—the professors who are training the teachers to go out and teach. Two of the student-teachers I’ve had recently were only minimally conversant with current teaching methods and practices. If university professors would actually go back and learn more about how to teach, how to develop lessons requiring students to think and learn, then maybe new teachers wouldn’t be so frustrated when they begin their careers and might actually stay in the profession.

University research is invaluable, but unfortunately it doesn’t give our future teachers the training they need to approach teaching as both an art and a science.

Gina Blaisdell
St. Charles, Ill.

To the Editor:

None of these top-down “reforms” amounts to much more than a new elite demanding dominion and looking opportunistically for the next desperate school district that will give them lots of money to do their work, which usually focuses on breaking up teachers’ unions and claiming credit for higher test scores.

Grace Stell
San Diego, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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