Education Opinion


November 14, 2001 16 min read
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Assessment Panel: Checking the Facts

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “State Tests Don’t Support Good Instruction, Panel Says,” (Oct. 31, 2001):

You incorrectly state that the Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment, chaired by W. James Popham, “includes the leaders of the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Education Association, and the National Middle Schools Association.”

The national associations convened the commission, but it requested and was granted complete independence from the associations. In fact, the commissioners went so far as to refuse even an honorarium for their work as a way to demonstrate their independence.

You also quote Margaret Goertz, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. She is well-versed on the subject of state assessment and is a first-class researcher in her own right. But the use of her quotes, interspersed with direct quotes out of the commission’s report—to say nothing of the reprint of her picture—will probably suggest to the casual reader that she was a member of the commission. She wasn’t.

Finally, you say that the panel will issue report cards on each state that grade how well its testing plans mesh with its framework. That’s not true either. The commission is out of business.

The grading of how well states satisfy the commission’s requirements will be done by the five education associations.

Joe Schneider
Arlington, Va.

The writer is the deputy executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Praise for ‘Eloquent Argument’ On Tests

To the Editor:

Jane Ehrenfeld’s “The Trouble With Testing,” (Commentary, Oct. 24, 2001) presents an eloquent argument against the mania of testing that is causing havoc in our classrooms straight across the nation. The best teachers—unwilling to spend their years, as Ms. Ehrenfeld writes, “mindlessly instructing children on how to fill in circles with a No. 2 pencil"—will leave these classrooms soonest; and the flight of such teachers has, in fact, already begun in countless districts.

There is a pathological madness in the punitive motif that drives this strange obsession with repetitive empirical assessments. Perhaps we ought to pray that someone in the White House has the sanity and literacy skills to pay attention when a brilliant young teacher like Ms. Ehrenfeld speaks from the heart as she has done so powerfully.

Jonathan Kozol
Byfield, Mass.

To the Editor:

“The Trouble With Testing” by Jane Ehrenfeld, a young public school teacher, is a powerful and thoughtful essay. The CEOs and politicians, including President Bush, who are seeking more testing need to read this document. In 60 years of education activities as a teacher, principal, superintendent, adviser to the president and governors, and member of the Harvard University education faculty, I have never seen such a well-argued statement. When President Bush’s minions are sorting out teachers to name the Teacher of the Year in 2002, Jane Ehrenfeld would be by far the best choice.

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

Good Alternatives To ‘Pledge’ Abound

To the Editor:

I don’t object to a patriotic moment at the start of a school day or week, but I think we can do better than our pledge to the republic (“Patriotism and Prayer: Constitutional Questions Are Muted,” Oct. 10, 2001).

First, a “pledge of allegiance” is too vague. It reminds me of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s. It brings images of members of the House Un-American Activities Committee interrupting witnesses and accusing them of not being “a loyal American” if they disagreed with HUAC.

I would rather a pledge be more specific, such as a pledge to support the Bill of Rights. The 4-H Club pledge includes, “I pledge my head to clearer thinking ... and my hands to larger service,” and that’s fine. But a pledge to “loyalty” or to “allegiance” has a whiff of coerciveness about it.

I would prefer better content in a patriotic moment. Children could recite and discuss the Bill of Rights, one at a time, or listen to quotations from presidents, or from writers about America. One could spend six months listening to stirring quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville. High school U.S. history students could help assemble the daily quotes for a school year.

Or we could start off each day with a song: “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Oklahoma!,” “Maryland My Maryland,” or “On the Banks of the Wabash.” We have national songs, state songs, city songs, place songs—enough for an entire semester.

I prefer these choices because they have specific and stirring content, which represents the richness of our country. That’s better than requiring a daily pledge to “the republic.”

Barak Rosenshine
Urbana, Ill.

Scholars Need Help In Taking Criticism

To the Editor:

My Commentary (“Give Same-Sex Schooling a Chance,” Sept. 26, 2001) points to serious flaws in a study of California’s experiment with single-sex schools, “Is Single-Gender Schooling Viable in the Pubic Sector? Lessons from California’s Pilot Program.”

The researchers, funded by the Ford Foundation, claim that their study is “the most comprehensive study of single-sex public schooling in the United States to date.” Yet, we never learn whether single-sex schools strengthened children academically. Instead, the authors condemn the program because they believe it reinforces traditional gender roles. My essay questions this unusual approach.

In their reply (“Single-Sex Schooling,” Letters, Oct. 17, 2001), the three researchers, Amanda Datnow, Lea Hubbard, and Elisabeth Woody, do not explain or justify their emphasis on gender politics. Instead, they attack me personally for what they call my “conservative agenda.” They seem to take it for granted that conservatives are cranks that are not to be taken seriously. They describe my “supposed critique” as “a failed attempt to elevate [my] status to that of respected academic.”

Ms. Datnow, Ms. Hubbard, and Ms. Woody are oblivious to the reality that half of America, including many students sitting in their classrooms, are reasonable people who often find themselves on the conservative side of an issue. If they themselves want to be taken seriously as academics, they will have to learn to deal with criticism fairly and not resort to abusing the critic. Their response embodies just the kind of narrow-minded intolerance that undermines what should have been a valuable study of same-sex schools. The Ford Foundation may be able to afford this kind of research. American schoolchildren cannot.

Christina Hoff Sommers
Resident Scholar
American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

‘Teach a Little History’ With the Democracy

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch belittles anyone who thinks “that we must try to understand why others in the world hate America” and suggests “that we reject this blame-the-victim approach.” This rhetorical trick, which equates seeking an explanation for violence with making excuses for it, has no merit. (“Now Is the Time to Teach Democracy,” Commentary, Oct. 17, 2001).

If we seek an explanation for the crescendo of anti-American sentiment rising in many Islamic countries, we might discover, in addition to xenophobic delusions, credible reasons why a person might hate American foreign policy. These include the United States military’s shooting a passenger jet out of the sky, incinerating buildings full of people, and carpet bombing nations with which we were not at war. Not to mention the CIA’s habitually wrecking democratically elected governments and popular political movements on three continents over the last 50 years.

In addition to teaching students “the virtues and blessings of our democratic system of government,” Ms. Ravitch, let’s teach a little history.

Steven S. Lapham
Gaithersburg, Md.

Quaker Schools Offer Young ‘Another Way’

To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing an article that included mention of Quaker schooling (“At a Quaker School, Mixed Feelings on War,” Oct. 17, 2001). In this time when the Religious Society of Friends witnesses to that spirit of love which takes away the occasion of war, students need to debate how to come out of this darkness and tragedy. They will be our national leaders all too soon.

The fact that many of the students in the article from Philadelphia’s Germantown Friends School are not Quaker and do not reflect Quaker views doesn’t mean they haven’t subtly absorbed the path toward lasting peace through peace education the school offers daily. Whether they choose to act on it is their decision, but they understand another way. How many public high school students can say that?

As a retired public school educator of young children and a Quaker, I felt my witness to peace education in the regular public school classroom was an important element in helping children solve problems without violence. Our “peace testimony” is a living, continuing reality that helps families as well as children in a classroom see that conflict can be resolved peacefully.

I helped write a kindergarten curriculum called “Peacekeeping Skills for Little Kids” in the late 1980s that is used by many schools across this country. I thought after the Columbine tragedy that it was sad more school systems hadn’t used that curriculum, starting with 4-year-olds, and carrying it on through high school.

My sons attended a Quaker high school and had the opportunity to participate in Quaker problem-solving daily—something most high schools today do not include.

Since Quaker schooling predates public education in this country, we’ve been at it a long time. Our numbers are small, our belief in a democratic system is strong, but our commitment to “peace” as a way of life is the glue that binds our reality in daily living to our faith and to the world at large.

Nancy K. Webster
Miami, Fla.

Responses to a Call For Hard Questions

To the Editor:

Shortly before the United States began its bombing raids on Afghanistan, I published an essay urging schools to conduct debates about the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes (“Talking About Terrorism,” Commentary, Oct. 3, 2001). Rather than simply consoling children with easy answers, I argued, teachers should challenge them with difficult questions: Who are the terrorists? Why did they attack America? Should we retaliate? Against whom?

In response to the Commentary, I received about 50 e-mail messages. With only a few exceptions, the messages fell into two stark categories. On the left, readers congratulated me for interrupting America’s steady march toward war. “Bravo!” a typical message extolled. “Only schools can prevent us from spawning another generation of imperialist adventurers.”

On the right, meanwhile, readers questioned my loyalty, my decency, my sanity—even my right to live. “Why should we question the students?” asked one angry correspondent. “Either you’re with America, or you’re not.” Another reader said my essay sounded like a “Taliban propaganda sheet,” while a third suggested that I emigrate to Afghanistan.

In other words, both sets of respondents assumed that I opposed American retaliation against the terrorists and the countries that harbor them.

Here’s the punchline: They’re wrong. I’m a diehard Democrat, but I’ve supported most of what the White House has done— internationally and domestically—since Sept. 11.

Why, then, would I demand more debate in the public schools? Quite simply, I believe that schools should encourage each individual to form his or her own opinion. By contrast, my readers—on the left no less than the right—think schools should prescribe a single opinion: their own.

To be sure, the right-wing correspondents were more explicit about this attitude: You’re either with America, or you’re not. On the left, meanwhile, readers endorsed—however superficially—the concept of discussion and debate.

By presuming that debate would lead children to oppose military intervention, though, my left-wing readers showed their true colors. A “discussion” that spawns a single conclusion isn’t a discussion at all; it’s propaganda. And just like the right, the left wants to use the schools to foist its propaganda upon American children.

I’d like to believe that my e-mail messages did not represent the broader American public, which still wants students to make up their own minds. If I’m correct, it’s time we stood up to be heard. Otherwise, our children will simply learn to echo the loudest voice in the room.

Jonathan Zimmerman
School of Education
New York University
New York, N.Y.

E-Learning Is More Than Simply an Aid

To the Editor:

Part of the headline for the essay this fall by Peter W. Cookson Jr. (“The Online Professional Seminar?,” Commentary, Sept. 19, 2001) said this: “E-Learning May Aid Professional Development, But There’s No Virtual Miracle in Sight.” Such a statement diminishes the value of e-learning in professional development. While I agree that e-learning does not constitute a “miracle,” it does far more than simply “aid.”

E-learning introduces new learning opportunities and face-to-face encounters. It is far more than text on a screen—it is an interactive, engaging, and flexible experience. Here are some examples from well-designed e-learning experiences:

  • Users can select the sequence of the material, based on their own preferences, through use of self-assessments. This creates a “customized learning experience” not available in group sessions.
  • Users can work with the materials at a time and place convenient to them.
  • Users can repeat sections they wish to review.
  • Users can learn basic information on a new topic, so that time spent with others begins at a higher level of competence.

Those of us working with online learning experiences do not expect that they will replace all face-to-face sessions, but rather will add a new element to the mix of educational materials available.

There are those who would prefer going online to traveling to a group, and there are those who would prefer the group. In either case, we propose that the learner have the choice of media and method of delivery.

Betty Wilson
Vice President
InspirAction Inc.
Peapack, N.J.

Nurturing Leaders: ‘Accentuate the Positive’ and Update Programs

To the Editor:

Gordon A. Donaldson Jr.'s essay on the response to our looming crisis in school leadership was thoughtful, depressing, and somewhat incomplete (“The Lose-Lose Leadership Hunt,” Commentary, Oct. 3, 2001).

In addition to being an assistant superintendent, I serve as the director of the Long Island Leadership Academy, where I’ve had the privilege of working with 30 of the most promising aspiring school leaders from 13 different districts on Long Island. After reading Mr. Donaldson’s Commentary, I e-mailed it to our 30 fellows and asked them to write a short response. Here are a few:

“This Commentary saddens me because it reinforces all the negativity I am already feeling about ‘making the leap.’ Aren’t there any articles that point out the positives?”

“Why do I want to do this job anyway? I have been asking myself this question.”

“I know fellow teachers who are certified to be administrators and, when I ask them why they don’t step up to the plate, they respond, ‘It’s not worth it. The standards, testing, and public criticism of administrators and education is too much to handle.’”

“The essay discouraged me. I’m working so hard to balance my career, my family, and my coursework. I guess I will be one of those capable teachers who will assert leadership from the security of my classroom.”

“When I was applying for an elementary school teaching position on Long Island, there were 400 applicants for the job. That didn’t stop me. This Commentary won’t stop me either.”

Yes, Mr. Donaldson is right when he describes hostile conditions within the workplace. But we need to be careful not to paint the whole canvas with such broad strokes. There are many districts and schools where the relationships among the public, the school board, district administrators, principals, teachers, and students are positive, cooperative, collegial, and supportive. As the song says, we have to “accentuate the positive.”

From the reactions of our fellows, describing the plight of school leaders as a “lose-lose proposition” is too discouraging and may turn off good people. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to say that “all politics are local.” The working conditions for school administrators are always local as well.

Superintendents have found that on Long Island, representing a diverse range of communities, the pool of candidates is a mile wide and, unfortunately, an inch deep. Right now, one of the state universities has 600 potential administrators enrolled in its certificate program. Mr. Donaldson is right when he says that “most states have vastly more educators holding administrative certificates than they have serving in or applying for administrator positions.”

Superintendents describe this phenomenon as “a shallow pool of candidates.” The vast majority of graduate courses in these programs are taught by adjunct professors. Many have been out of the public schools for years, during which time the nature of public education has changed vastly. Our fellows tell me that many of their courses are less than adequate, lacking contemporary context in content and process. They also complain about their internships. While their student-teaching experiences were rich, nurturing, and enlightening, they say, they are given short shrift in administrative internships.

They find little or no coordination between the university and local schools, complain about being given busywork or trivial tasks to do, and say they are not being exposed to the essentials of what it takes to be a successful administrator. I conclude from this that many who come out of such programs with an administrative certificate have not been prepared. So they have neither the self-confidence to compete as a candidate, nor the skills to succeed on the job.

What we need are the following:

  • University professors who specialize in preparing a new generation of school leaders and who have not only the academic credentials, but also the practical know-how based on successfully working within a contemporary school setting.
  • Support systems that would include a commited, savvy, and experienced school leader who could coach, nurture, and provide perspective to these future leaders throughout their coursework, internships, and the first year or two of their administrative careers. There also needs to be coordination among universities, school districts, and leadership academies, so that there is a “value added” component to the experience. Most important, aspiring leaders need to be continually mentored on a one-on-one basis by respected, experienced, local administrators.
  • Program components that are “outside the box.” We have found, for example, that having candidates participate in the school accreditation process can be an enormously growth-enhancing experience.

I tell fellows that despite the wide pool of candidates they will be competing with, they will be successful candidates for the jobs they seek; they are simply better-prepared. Providing the appropriate nurturing and support can only be a win-win situation.

Laurence Aronstein
Copiague Public Schools
Copiague, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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