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October 10, 2001 7 min read
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Truth-in-Testing, for a Slight Fee

To the Editor:

Some of the ideas put forward by John Katzman and Steven Hodas (“A Proctor for the Testers?,” Commentary, Sept. 12, 2001) would be intriguing if it were not so obvious why they would like to see state test items made public every year: They operate a business which sells test-preparation services to states and individuals.

It’s gutsy, to say the least, that the authors propose a “truth in testing” program in which they would be the clear beneficiaries. Imagine the test- question content they would now gain, and at no cost to their company! Yet, you can bet they would not be giving those questions away to students and teachers without charging a fee.

The proposal raises bigger questions the authors conveniently ignore. For instance, are states, and therefore, ultimately, taxpayers willing to foot the expense of having new test items developed each and every year so they can be made public for the sake of accountability?

Mr. Katzman and Mr. Hodas imply that oversight is needed because item development needs to be fair to test-takers of all backgrounds. Every state we’re aware of has extensive involvement in determining fairness, and many have a rigorous review process for preventing bias in test-item development. No state, state testing department, or publisher would benefit from disadvantaging a class of students with these tests.

David W. Smith
CEO and President
NCS Pearson
Eden Prairie, Minn.

A Student’s View of Small Classes

To the Editor:

Reading your recent articles on creating smaller high schools (“Chicago Grants to Help Break Up Large Schools";“Smaller Schools in Shared Space Seen as Recipe for Success,” Sept. 12, 2001), I thought about how nice it would be to have smaller classes, to have a smaller student-to-teacher ratio. As a high school freshman just getting the feel of high school life, I do believe this issue is of great importance. Many of my classes are large, but I also have one that is made up of only 13 students.

A class is like a jigsaw puzzle. The bigger and fewer the pieces, the easier it is to put together. But if there are a bunch of tiny pieces, the puzzle gets more complex and more difficult to solve. This is just like school. When a class is smaller, the students learn more quickly because they have more time to understand what the teacher is teaching.

Having smaller student-teacher ratios would make the world of school seem a lot less complex. When I am trying to figure out the lessons in a large class, and do not understand a few pieces, I fill the hole by inserting a cork of my own ideas that fills the gap. Sometimes this makes it harder to understand. With a smaller class, I can ask questions to fill in the holes to connect the pieces. In a larger class, it is not easy to ask questions because we don’t have time; there are too many people.

My class of 13 students, on the other hand, is ahead of where we are supposed to be because we can have more of a one-to-one ratio. Because we are ahead, we have time for enriching activities that stimulate our minds and get broader into the information.

I believe that if every school had small classes like this one, we would have a better educational program for students of all abilities.

Cassidy Pangell
Littleton, Colo.

It’s Time to Teach Basic Skills of Hope

To the Editor:

As an educator, I identify with teachers trying to respond to the terror of Sept. 11 (“Attacks Alter Instructional Landscape,” Sept. 26, 2001). Our fear has grown and our sense of certainty has been altered. As adults, we know some questions have no answers.

But to children of all ages, we adults are the ones who are supposed to be able to protect and provide for them. Like so many others in serving professions, teachers have struggled to do the right thing.

Those of us who have spent time with children in a classroom, or sitting on the floor listening to their questions, have a huge responsibility right now, and it holds some danger.

The danger is in forgetting to listen to the questions, not watching children’s eyes, failing to be fully present with them, not teaching about the value of diversity, and omitting lessons on how to solve everyday problems as peacefully as we can.

Ever since Sept. 11, teachers have held the hope of humanity in their laps and in their gazes.

The sense of energy and intensity that emanates from an entire classroom of children is probably unknown to those who have not had the joy of beholding it. Even individual children are full of a million thoughts—imagine them together in one classroom. This is a time to teach perhaps the most basic skills of all: how to live together, to appreciate life, and to become better human beings.

The late anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said, “Teachers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This implies a huge responsibility that is, at the same time, one small thing we can do for the future.

Susan R. Andersen
Des Moines, Iowa

Praising Educators’ Response to Crisis

To the Editor:

School administrators, teachers, and support personnel should be commended for their balanced responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America (“As Crisis Unfolds, Educators Balance Intricate Demands,” Sept. 19, 2001.)

Many educators strengthened mental-health support for students and staff, heightened awareness of security issues, and displayed good common sense in supporting, but not alarming, students, staff members, and the broader school community. A number of administrators took proactive steps to prevent the harassment of students based on their ethnicity and religion, reinforced good access-control procedures, communicated effectively with their public safety officials, and revisited security and crisis plans to make sure that all necessary elements were intact.

We commend those school leaders who had well-thought-out guidelines for responding to a crisis. They demonstrated that while we cannot prevent every crisis, we can be prepared to effectively manage crises when they occur.

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

Character Education: Without Apology...and With Religion?

To the Editor:

It is without apology that our students are recognized for deeds of service and kindness (“What’s Right and Wrong in Character Education Today,” Commentary, Sept. 12, 2001). Our schools do have those “multicolored posters and banners” promoting character and compliance that your essayists disparage. And we do take time to define and discuss the core values our community favors, what we call “the 5 Ps": Positive, Prompt, Productive, Polite, Proud.

Our school’s consistent message is that academic excellence, hard work, fairness, and service can lead to students’ enjoying productive lives.

Despite the criticism of Eric Schaps, Esther F. Schaeffer, and Sanford N. McDonnell of such “programs,” we see students living and reaping the benefits of this character development every day.

Josh J. Middleton
Superintendent
Valier Public Schools
Valier, Mont.

To the Editor:

“What’s Right and Wrong in Character Education Today” was well-written and clearly explained the moral vacuum in character education today.

But as I considered the essay’s thesis, I realized that the answer to the dilemma has slipped through our fingers. “Deep and enduring effects” on character have historically been wrought by allowing religious education in the public classroom. This has helped put social behavior into a larger perspective, providing reasons for why certain behaviors are noble and others reprehensible.

The study and influence of the major world religions have given context to particular subjects or circumstances, and often helped build bonds of commonality between curriculum, instructor, and student. As the Commentary’s authors rightly note, students must feel “connected to a school and the people in it,” if their learning is to be enhanced. I simply believe that we have jettisoned one of the means by which this connectedness is achieved: religion.

Values flow from the religious perspective through which we view the world. This is obvious to most people. We should concentrate on what all administrators and teachers have in common: a desire to see their students, in the Commentary authors’ words, “better understand and commit to the values that are core to our society ... helping them develop the skills for putting those values into action in life’s complex situations.”

In seeking an answer to the character education question, educators, administrators, and ultimately students have nothing to fear from an open and objective consideration of religion.

Jack Ferrante
Principal
Santa Clara Christian School
Santa Clara, Calif.


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