Education Letter to the Editor


November 28, 2001 9 min read
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L.A. Bonuses Ignore the Teacher’s Merit

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “Smaller-Than-Expected Bonuses Anger Some L.A. Teachers” (Nov. 7, 2001): Gov. Gray Davis of California, responding to a public outcry for improved student test scores, crafted a bill designed to give teachers greater incentives and, thus, attract new teaching candidates to the profession. The ultimate purpose was to increase test scores. When the bill became law, the governor said, “Now it can truly be said that California values teachers, and it can truly be said that if you want to teach, teach in California.”

He also said that the bill’s provisions afforded “the best bonuses in America for teachers whose students show extraordinary improvement.” Let us examine how well these best intentions panned out.

The law in question requires that teachers’ award money be sent to local school districts. The district is then to enter into negotiations with the teachers’ union to determine the fairest way to allocate the money to individual teachers at each school site. If the union refuses to negotiate for any reason, the money is to be allocated according to a pay schedule based primarily on seniority. Our union chose not to negotiate.

My question is this: Why did the state decide to give more money to teachers with seniority if the union did not negotiate? There is no correlation between seniority and test results. The 2nd grade teachers at our school, for instance, demonstrated the greatest overall test-score improvements. Yet we were the least experienced group of teachers. So I, a second-year teacher whose students showed the highest gains, received the least amount of money allocated by my school. How can the governor maintain that I am receiving the “best” teaching bonus in America? Almost every one of my coworkers received more money than I did, regardless of their students’ scores.

This leads me to my next question: If the state is not going to make a distinction based on merit, why make any distinction at all between teachers at our school? Why not allocate the money equally to all of the teachers? After all, it was a collective effort that elevated our school’s scores to the point at which we became eligible for the award.

In my quest to better understand why the initiative was written the way it was, I was advised to contact several state senators’ offices and the state department of education. Ultimately, I received no reasonable answer. There was, apparently, no accountability.

True, the incentive proved effective in increasing test scores. But my co- workers and I now openly question the credibility of our state government. Is this the kind of outcome the governor had in mind when he created this legislation? I wonder how many potential teachers would view this fiasco as a reason to teach in California?

Scott Haddad
Los Angeles, Calif.

Change the System: Good Is Not Enough

To the Editor:

Your front-page article on whole-school reform (“Whole-School Projects Show Mixed Results,” Nov. 7, 2001) highlights yet again this “on the ground” truth: Process as well as program, context as well as content, skill as well as commitment all must come together if students and schools are to roll up significant and continuing achievement gains.

These facets of the whole must be joined, coordinated, adjusted, and rejoined, time and time again. This is partly because situations change and partly because complex systems get out of balance, even when things are going well. Sustaining gains in achievement against meaningful standards is as great a challenge as pushing some preliminary gains in the first place.

Gerald W. Bracey, David Berliner, and others may tell us that the schools are doing about as well now as ever. But in this article, the various sides of the debate on whole-school vs. direct program bear witness to the fact that for large numbers of students, that is not good enough. Both public and private efforts are attacking this persistence of substandard performance. Yet they are finding that neither single arrows nor full fusillades adequately do the trick.

The districts with which we work quickly find that process (such as coaching) is not merely for launching a program, but must be a continuing part of it; that context affects delivery, and some of the specifics, of content; that skill can be blunted by beliefs and attitudes that distort even finely crafted programs; and that without skill in delivery and understanding for flexibility, commitment becomes hollow. Neither programs nor processes are teacher- and administrator-proof, any more than they are student-proof. All the actors have to be active in a well-crafted collaborative exchange.

Your article does not highlight the essential roles of continuing professional development (including, but not be limited to, the recurring training mentioned) and of wide-ranging feedback on performance. While fidelity to a “model” may allow an activity to attach to itself a program label, it does not guarantee unbroken success.

The challenges of student and teacher mobility, poverty, negative belief systems, and insufficient or misaligned funding will not soon disappear in urban systems. But the nation is fortunate to have many able people willing to engage the challenges within and outside school systems. Out of respect for their commitment and their students, neither reformers nor school systems should limit potential with unproductive simplicity in programs or unsustainable complexity in the process of implementation.

Yes, the work of school change is difficult. But armed with an irrefutable belief in the capacity of all students to learn with deep understanding the most demanding course content, we can make sustained improvements in achievement happen.

Eric J. Cooper
Executive Director
National Urban Alliance
Washington, D.C.

‘Real World’ Math, Or Back to Basics?

To the Editor:

The issues around testing and assessment have been many and continue to take up more than their fair share of print. Your article “NAEP Board Considers Changes in Math Tests” (Oct. 3, 2001) caught my attention. Whenever I see the word “change” positioned around something that has worked for years, I ask my self the question, “What are they messing with now?”

If I understood the article correctly, there is talk about reducing the number of math questions relating to “numbers and operations” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress mathematics test. You did a good job of presenting the opposing views on this change, and I have to say I align myself with the views expressed by the Brookings Institution, not those of the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. And that bothers me.

I’m confused. The NCTM president represents 100,000 math teachers, but appears to oppose holding students accountable for what his constituents teach. It seems to me that he advocates testing students on skills and information that a huge percentage of mathematics teachers believe are not in the best interests of sound educational practice.

He also wants to allow students to use calculators on more questions on the test. Calculators, he says, “should be included in some way because they reflect what’s happening in the schools and what’s happening in the real world.”

Honestly, modeling one’s educational practice on today’s schools and the “real world” doesn’t seem to be the best pattern to follow. For my money, I would bet on teachers’ knowing best and model the future of education on its past. Basics are better.

Stephen E. Taylor
Christian Heritage School
Trumbull, Conn.

On Voucher Support in Opinion Polling

To the Editor:

Mary Bills, the former president of the board of the Milwaukee public schools, provides inaccurate information in her recent letter (“Reader Sees Irony in Ohio Voucher Case,” Letters, Nov. 7, 2001).

She says that “independent polls show that the public does not support vouchers,” and that “the majority of ‘vouchered’ schools separate children by religion and race.” It takes very few words to misinform, many more to correct errors.

There have been at least 10 taxpayer-financed evaluations of the nation’s two oldest voucher programs (in Cleveland and Milwaukee). Not a shred of evidence exists anywhere to support Ms. Bills’ outrageous claim of racial and religious segregation.

Likewise, there are many national independent polls conducted this year and in 2000 that disprove her contention about public opinion. These show that the strongest support for school choice comes from low-income parents, especially African-Americans and Hispanics.

The latest survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which conducts research on issues of special concern to black Americans and other minority groups, shows that a majority (57 percent) of African-Americans support school vouchers. The most supportive among this group are those under age 35 (75 percent approval) and those from households with children (74 percent). (See “2000 National Opinion Poll” at www.jointcenter.org /2000_election/2000_NOP.pdf. Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

A July 2001 poll of Hispanic adults, conducted for the Latino Coalition & Hispanic Business Roundtable, found that 73 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the government should provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to help low-income families send their children to a better public, private, or church-run school” (www.thelatinocoalition.com).

There is also support among the general public, as shown in polls around the 2000 elections. In the September 2000 Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard “2000 Election Values Survey,” respondents were asked: “Do you favor or oppose providing parents with tax money in the form of school vouchers to help pay for their children to attend private or religious schools?” They responded yes by 49 percent to 47 percent.

In the August-September 2000 Pew Research Center/Princeton Survey Research Associates poll, respondents were asked: “I’d like your opinion on some programs and proposals being discussed in this country today. Please tell me if you strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose, [f]ederal funding for vouchers to help low- and middle-income parents send their children to private and parochial school?” They responded in support, 53 percent to 44 percent.

In an August 2000 NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, respondents were asked: “Let me read you two positions on school vouchers. Between these positions, which do you tend to side with more? Position A: Government should give parents more educational choices by providing taxpayer-funded vouchers to help pay for private or religious schools. Position B: Government funding should be limited to public schools.” By 56 percent to 38 percent, respondents favored Position A.

Public-opinion surveys often report different answers to seemingly similar questions. This reflects such factors as: how a question is asked, including specific words; the tone in which the question is asked; the overall context of the survey; and the sequence of questions.

Thus, the Gallup Poll News Service reports: “Americans’ responses to school voucher programs vary significantly depending on the way in which the programs are described within survey wording” (www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr010115.asp).

Mary Bills’ letter, in summary, is unsubstantiated. It is troubling, yet not altogether uncommon, to observe such disingenuousness among those in a position to know that they are not being truthful.

George A. Mitchell
Consulting Research Associate
Institute for the Transformation of Learning
Marquette University
The Mitchell Co.
Milwaukee, Wis.

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


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