Education Letter to the Editor


June 19, 2002 28 min read
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To the Editor:

Horace’s Impact: Negative, Overall

Peter H. Gibbon begins his laudatory piece on Horace Mann (“A Hero of Education,” Commentary, May 29, 2002—Web rights restricted by publisher) with the statue of his hero paid for by the teachers and schoolchildren of Massachusetts. They could have spent their pennies in better ways. This letter is more in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, who described his reaction, when asked to contribute to the same statue, this way: “I declined, and said that I thought a man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a statue of him forwith.”

Many aspects of Horace Mann’s life were heroically altruistic, but his overall effect on American education was negative. He was pivotal in creating what the education historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban call “the grammar of schooling.” In brief, the elements of this grammar are: grouping students by age in self-contained classrooms with a single teacher, dividing knowledge into “subjects,” the use of textbooks to teach these subjects, the almost exclusive reliance on paper-and-pencil tests to measure knowledge, and regular report cards to disseminate these measurements.

Mann set in motion forces that would lead to increasing bureaucratization and social control. In confronting an anarchic stew of various kinds of school organizations and disorganizations, he began a tendency towards homogeneity and standardization that would develop as a force in its own right, far beyond his intentions or even perhaps his imagination.

It is not so much that Mann is the author of all our woe, but that he was instrumental in creating a system that cannot learn from its mistakes and that, for all its talk of democracy, perpetuates the savage inequalities of society. He envisioned education not as culture-creating but only as culture-transmitting, as when he wrote: “It is well, when the wise and the learned discover new truths; but how much better to diffuse the truths already discovered, amongst the multitude! ... Diffusion, then, rather than discovery, is the duty of our government.”

It is really Ralph Waldo Emerson who envisioned a liberating and democratic version of American education, articulated most powerfully in his American Scholar address of 1837, at which Mann was present but obviously not in agreement. As opposed to the existing system created by Mann and other 19th-century schoolmen, Emerson’s vision is what we would now term more constructivist, more student-centered, more meta-cognitive, and more holistic, focusing not on developing the intellect solely, but on integrating knowledge with the body and the feelings.

What we do not need in this current school crisis are more statues of heroes. As Emerson said in this speech: “The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation,—the act of thought,—is transferred to the record. The poet chanting, was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled, the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly, the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant.”

Martin Bickman
Professor of English
President’s Teaching Scholar
University of Colorado
Boulder, Colo.

Charter Schools Get Too Much Coverage

To the Editor:

Charter schools represent a very small piece of education, yet Education Week constantly gives charter schools too much press (“Changed by Charters,” three part series, March 27, April 24, and May 22, 2002.) What I have hoped for—as do many educators here—is a greater emphasis on best practice in public schools, which would be useful to public school administrators in providing information and ideas on such subjects as:

  • Closing the gap—who is really doing it and how?
  • Technology—the many companies that have produced computer software that provides high school credit via state performance standards.
  • Disciplinary schools—are any of them truly providing a quality education?
  • School districts with comparatively small central offices that could be models for all districts.

Yes, providing such information means looking into the operations of all 50 states to find the best practices. But that effort would be worth it to your readers and would probably double the number of subscribers.

Pete Kreis
Retired Educator
Tallahassee, Fla.

White Hat Ventures Stirs ‘Moral Outrage’

To the Editor:

Moral outrage, a term used by Thomas Sergiovanni to describe the duty of a school leader to express that which should no longer be tolerated, is a good way to describe my reaction to your article “Millionaire Industrialist Touts ‘White Hat’ Firm to Build Charter Model” (May 22, 2002). My moral outrage is directed not merely at the notion that the corporate world is “working on a success recipe” for our failing school reform efforts. It isn’t even aimed at the fact that the paradigm covering the purpose of school seems to be one of economic interest and consumer good, as opposed to positive social reform for all.

Strangely perhaps, after more than 30 years as an educator, my moral outrage isn’t even formed by the picture of young students sitting in cubicles with high-tech computer screens, or by the Life Skills Centers that are said to be “designed to be replicated economically in any community,” yet occupy the fourth floor of an office building and lack such diversions as a senior prom or sports.

No, my outrage is fueled by the unfortunate—no, reprehensible—message that a company calling itself White Hat Ventures gives us. The subtle “message of the medium” suggests that something “white” is offering a solution, something white has the cure, something white gives hope and redemption. If all that were true, then anything not white would offer less, right? And the tragic myth of some hierarchical design of mankind continues.

In a wonderful essay published in this periodical last year, Julian Weissglass argued that one reason racism persists is “the tenacity of belief systems that advocate superiority and inferiority based on race” (“Racism and the Achievement Gap,” Commentary, Aug. 8, 2001.) Educators need to construct “healing communities,” Mr. Weissglass wrote, in which “people can learn to listen and give attention while others heal.”

The owner of White Hat Ventures may believe that the white hat symbolizes “his commitment to lifting the downtrodden,” but to me it strengthens the ill-gotten belief systems we as educators ought to be healing.

I doubt that the corporate world ever will be able to fit the kind of “re-culturing” we need for closing the achievement gap into its agenda.

Phil Hunsberger
Executive Director
Metro East Consortium for Child Advocacy
Belleville, Ill.

AP Students Analyze Poor NAEP Results

To the Editor:

As a high school social studies chairman, I found the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results to be interesting, but not surprising (“U.S. History Again Stumps Senior Class,” May 15, 2002.) Still, there seems to be no satisfactory explanation for why students are performing at the worst levels of all in American history. I was heartened to see that the nature of the NAEP assessment has been improved to include questions involving synthesis and application. However, since I have not seen the full exam, it is difficult to comment on its validity and reasonableness.

Nonetheless, one can hypothesize. I did an experiment with my Advanced Placement U.S. history students. I asked them to read the article and consider the reasons for the poor performance. The answer they first came up with was that the test should be given at the end of the junior year, when most American high schools require the course. Students said that many of the reasons posed in the article “rang true,” but they went on to offer their own insights as to why history achievement continues to be so “abysmal.”

Some felt that students recognize there is no history SAT I (or a state exam in history in my state), and therefore know that doing well in history is not required to graduate from high school or get into a good college. Others mentioned that many students might not see history as being very important. Many don’t see “a real-life application,” they said, and schools “don’t show us the importance of history for the future.” A sad commentary, considering the need for understanding the world today.

A few students said the subject wasn’t taught in as interesting a manner as, say, science, where there are “more hands-on activities,” like labs. Others said history courses are “too tightly packed with too much material,” and not enough time is devoted to depth of coverage. One student had a brilliant insight: “History isn’t seen as cumulative like math or foreign language,” so teachers don’t regularly connect to previous learning. This means, the student said, that “there is no motivation to remember it.”

My students could readily see that the problem went beyond the old “football-coach teaching” issue. The answer is to produce a more well-designed history curriculum. By that, I mean a standards-led curriculum driven by essential understandings; a performance- based curriculum that engages students in meaningful tasks; and a locally developed curriculum that is collaboratively created by teachers who meet regularly to plan best practice and align instruction to assessment.

Regardless of the level of preservice training, this is a professional- development experience all teachers need. It happens to be what we are trying to do in my district to improve both student performance and interest in history.

Mac Campbell
History Department
Farmington High School
Farmington, Conn.

Electives Stressed Over Core Subjects

To the Editor:

I am an avid reader of Education Week. The newspaper has well-written, timely articles that address issues affecting all schools. The front-page of the May 15, 2002, issue, however, struck me as exceptionally relevant and ironic. Next to a story about “abysmal” U.S. history results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (“U.S. History Again Stumps Senior Class”) is a picture from a feature story about high school students in Kansas who produce a television news program (“Behind the Scenes,” On Assignment, May 15, 2002.)

So, next to an article about how terrible high school students achieve in a core subject is a picture of a high school student with a video camera in a day-care class. I can only assume that this is during the regular school day. I can’t help but wonder about the relationship between the two articles.

Joseph R. Guiendon
Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
Fort Rucker, Ala.
Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.

Poor Justifications For Use of Testing

To the Editor:

The project described in your article “Students to Investigate Causes for Achievement Gaps” (May 29, 2002) seems a novel investigative path that just may yield new viewpoints. But the implications of research findings from over two decades should not be suspended while waiting for the students’ perspectives to be registered.

Few people are capable of justifying the use of standardized tests with answers any better than these:

  • “The tests are ‘objective.’”
  • “Well, they’re better than nothing.”

The machines used to score standardized tests were designed to search for an “object.” The object is the visible lead marking left after “filling in the bubble” with a No. 2 pencil. Thus, these tests have been deceitfully marketed as “objective” tests. The availability of a measurement tool does not make it an accurate tool for gauging what it’s purported to assess. A sphygmomanometer can be substituted for a cardiac monitor, but doing so would not elevate that instrument to the status of the best tool or the correct tool, particularly if it leads to disastrous results.

Standardized tests are no less disastrous to education than inappropriate medical tools are to medicine.

Would anyone propose that to evaluate a physician’s “medical effectiveness,” we should compute health and survival rates of patients’ treated last year and then compare them with a new group beginning treatment this year? Wouldn’t an intelligent person examine the same group of patients, who have been treated for a full year, for improvements? Claims are made annually that schools are being tested to measure “academic improvement.” Yet, during a given year, we test that year’s 8th grade students. Then, instead of testing them again at the end of the academic year to measure cognitive growth, we test a completely new group of 8th grade students for the next year.

Each group of students should be measured against its own previous performance. No two groups of students should ever be judged against an entirely different cluster under the outrageous pretense of measuring their “academic growth.” To further complicate matters, both groups are actually being matched with those students who were part of an initial national (“norming”) test-taking pool.

Moreover, we report these norm-referenced tests not by percent correct, but in percentile scores. By doing so, a student who may give 87 percent correct responses can still fall into the 14th percentile. Test results are consistently skewed to the advantage of certain students, who just happen to be the same students who typically also enjoy socioeconomic advantages. This fact has been well documented as a dominant factor in test scores.

When new low-income housing developments open, it is quite common to predict a decline in test scores for local schools. But if the new neighborhood markets high-priced homes instead, the consistent expectations are that test scores will be favorably impacted. Why do we refer to these as tests of “merit,” when the parents’ income level is unambiguously a dominant factor?

Kenneth A. Wesson
San Jose/Evergreen Community College District
Office of the Chancellor
San Jose, Calif.

N.C. Integration Story Saw Tree, Not Forest

To the Editor:

Being that it is relatively easy to lose perspective when dealing with touchy issues, your May 22, 2002, article on socioeconomic-diversity efforts in Wake County, N.C., saw a tree but missed the forest (“Broad Effort to Mix Students By Wealth Under Fire in N.C.”)

I am deeply disappointed that Education Week would take such a narrow, limited view of an issue that is extremely deep and broad. Your article focused on approximately 150 students who took issue with this coming year’s assignment plan, out of the 101,000 students districtwide. The assignment plan would have required about 5,200 students to switch schools in the fall of 2002, based on their families’ incomes. That is certainly part of the story. The rest of the story involves a 20-year commitment to academic success affecting 101,000 students. Here is the rest of the story.

Wake County is a diverse, growing community with a large urban area where students are achieving at all-time-high levels. This year, 90 percent of our students will perform at or above grade level. Achieving socioeconomic and academic diversity within each of our 122 schools is one strategy we believe contributes to academic success for all. We utilize our facilities fully. Twenty years ago, we were closing downtown schools regularly due to underenrollment. Now, our downtown schools are thriving. We recently opened a new high school downtown and will open a new middle school next year. And we have a huge, successful system of choice. About 20,000 students choose to attend either a magnet or a year-round school.

Keeping all schools healthy for all students is not an easy process. Check with other school systems our size. While we certainly have our share of controversy, focusing on the controversy and ignoring positive outcomes for students seems a rather narrow approach for a national newspaper of your stature.

Walter C. Sherlin
Associate Superintendent
Wake County Public School System
Raleigh, N.C.

Students Don’t Grow Detached, Schools Do

To the Editor:

Laurence Steinberg’s recent reporting of his research on middle school students for the Brookings Institution is quite informative (“Detachment Starts in Middle School, Study Finds,” May 29, 2002.) The research, based on data collected from 12,000 students in grades 7-12 in the middle to late 1990s appears to accurately reflect the attitudes of middle school students.

However, with all due respect to the researchers and Mr. Steinberg, much time and money could have been saved by walking into any middle school and asking the same questions of one class and one teacher.

Mr. Steinberg reports on the disassociation felt by middle school students. The same disassociation was felt by 9th graders 10 years ago. To any person directly involved with students, the reason is blatantly obvious.

We have taken 11-year-olds from self-contained, small classes in neighborhood schools and deposited them into large (sometimes over 1,000 students) “institutions.” They leave their elementary school classes of 25 students and one or two core teachers for middle schools where they have six or seven teachers who are responsible for 100 to 170 students.

Moreover, students do not “disengage” from school, as Mr. Steinberg states, schools “disengage” from students. In the interest of money, we warehouse students in impersonal institutions while they are still children and do studies to analyze their behavior changes.

As long as education exists to process students at the most economical level, we will have children adopting the behavior of young adults—educationally and socially—far before their time. While research and common sense indicate that students are more successful in a smaller, more individual environment, we continue to build small cities and then hope to form “personal” relationships with children and their families.

Mr. Steinberg and the researchers were clear and correct in their assertion of a problem. He states that he is “not sure what we can do about these problems.” Well, Mr. Steinberg, ask any student, teacher, or school administrator. Only one will be necessary. We need to go back to Abraham Maslow and create environments where students feel that they belong and are secure. And where people know who they are and truly care about them. Cost-efficient factories make great cars.

Margaret DeRoo
Atlanta, Ga.

Public Agenda Survey: No Pro-Testing Bias

To the Editor:

Public Agenda welcomes interpretation of our results, and we are encouraged when advocates take a hard look at our work and use it in the public debate on issues. However, I must take exception to Eric Schaps’ assertion that our Reality Check research has a pro-testing bias (“High-Stakes Surveys,” Commentary, June 5, 2002.) Our results state specifically that “none of the groups surveyed is oblivious to the downsides, nor do they reject all of the arguments the critics of testing make.”

To quote directly from Reality Check results: “Eighty-four percent of teachers say ‘far too much emphasis’ is placed on test scores today, and sizable percentages of parents (60 percent), employers (52 percent), and professors (57 percent) agree.”

Also: “Large majorities of parents (66 percent), teachers (79 percent), employers (64 percent), and professors (79 percent) also say ‘teachers will end up teaching to the test instead of making sure real learning takes place.’” We also found that “very large majorities of parents (75 percent), teachers (89 percent), employers, (81 percent), and professors (83 percent) say it would be ‘wrong to use the results of just one test to decide whether a student gets promoted or graduates.’”

However, Reality Check has consistently found strong agreement on the useful role standards and testing can play, and a broad consensus on how they should be used. Among those who know that their districts are raising standards, only 2 percent of parents and 1 percent of teachers say local schools should discontinue their current efforts and go back to the way things were.

In looking carefully at views on standards and testing—and exploring reactions to both pros and cons—we are working toward building the body of data about the broader effects of high-stakes testing that Mr. Schaps states we so desperately need.

Deborah Wadsworth
Public Agenda

Jerome Uher
Senior Outreach Coordinator
Public Agenda
New York, N.Y.

Illinois Teams Aid Assessment Learning

To the Editor:

The article “Up Close and Personal” (On Assignment, May 22, 2002), does a wonderful job of reporting on the importance of addressing student involvement in assessment and its effect on student learning. This important work, which is occurring in Lincoln, Neb., is also happening all over Illinois. Illinois has supported assessment literacy for teachers and administrators through the process of learning teams.

For the last few years, Illinois has supported a major professional-development project to increase teachers’ assessment literacy. Throughout the state, hundreds of learning teams have been using the book Student-Involved Classroom Assessment, by Richard J. Stiggins, the founder of the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Ore. The study groups also have been provided with state-funded coaches and resources.

As a principal of an elementary school in Urbana, Ill., with four such learning teams, I can testify that this work has made a huge difference in our teachers’ teaching and our students’ learning. Working on projects and units together, these professional-learning teams have totally revamped their approaches to teaching. Through their discussions and collegial work, teachers are making classroom assessments work best for student learning.

As an administrator, I too have been involved in an assessment learning team. Through a state-supported effort, districts have created administrative learning teams. Using the same approach and resources as the teacher teams, these administrative teams have developed district policies and practices, which provide direction and understanding about assessment for learning. The learning-team approach has strengthened our administrators’ understanding and knowledge base so we can improve and support the work of classroom assessments.

If we really want to make a difference in student learning, we must use best practices for adult learning and professional development.

Becky McCabe
Leal School
Urbana, Ill.

Reading Recovery Has Wide Impact

To the Editor:

The phrase “no child left behind” looks fine on paper. In reality, leaving thousands of children behind is what is most likely to happen if there is not continued support for Reading Recovery in our schools (“Researchers Urge Officials to Reject Reading Recovery,” June 5, 2002.)

Statements in your recent front-page article lead people to believe that Reading Recovery teachers spend their entire day instructing in a one-to-one setting. In fact, the approaches used in Reading Recovery often successfully carry over into the reading instruction of small groups and even whole classrooms of children with whom our Reading Recovery-trained teachers are working.

The extensive and ongoing professional development required by Reading Recovery has enabled our Reading Recovery teachers to become the literacy leaders of our schools. The impact these highly trained teachers have on all of our children, teachers, and parents is immeasurable and goes well beyond the Reading Recovery children they directly serve.

My experience has been that the only failure Reading Recovery children encounter is when they are in regular classrooms where Reading Recovery strategies are not supported and practiced (a reason that professional development in a literacy framework similar to Reading Recovery is provided for all of our primary teachers).

Reading Recovery as a “safety net” for our most at-risk children plus a proven literacy framework in the classroom is our district’s formula for leaving no child behind, and it is one that we hope to continue to implement.

Finally, a report that puts forth the idea that even if Reading Recovery delivered gains in student achievement, it’s not cost-effective, makes me wonder who determines the value of a child’s becoming a lifelong reader?

David Speeg
Administrative Assistant, Curriculum
Fairborn City Schools
Fairborn, Ohio

Firm Says Its Sales Were Understated

To the Editor:

In your June 5, 2002, article “Home School Enrollment Surge Fuels ‘Cottage’ Industry,” I am quoted as saying that our company has 100,000 home-schooled pupils using our books. In actuality, we have more than 250,000 home schoolers using our books.

Your readers who go to www.abeka.org can view specific information about our company, including the number of home schoolers we serve. We actually print the following statement on the cover of our home school catalog: “A Beka Books used by over 250,000 home schoolers.”

Eric Fears
Sales Manager
A Beka Books Inc.
Pensacola, Fla.

The SAT Under Fire: In Pursuit of the Perfect Achievement Test

To the Editor:

Peter Sacks’ Commentary, “On Changing the SAT” (June 5, 2002) rightly points out that the College Board’s proposed modifications to the SAT I do not address the underlying problems with that test. I would extend his analysis in two ways.

First, making the SAT I more similar to, or replacing it with, the SAT II (the achievement tests) is problematic for pedagogical reasons. Subject-matter exams, whether administered by states or by the College Board, tend to create a standardized, test-based high school curriculum that displaces other kinds of instruction. Teachers feel compelled to cover vast amounts of content, often superficially, rather than let students discover ideas. That is precisely what the National Research Council recently concluded about Advanced Placement courses (“Scholars Critique Advanced Classes in Math, Science,” Feb. 20, 2002.) Requiring more college-bound students to take a content-based exam would create pressure for more courses to become exercises in test preparation. As if that weren’t disturbing enough, the College Board and Educational Testing Service would become even more instrumental than they already are in determining the curriculum of high schools around the nation.

Second, while I share Mr. Sacks’ view that a standardized-admission-test score adds little of value to information about students’ “actual performance in school,” I do not think that this performance needs to be, or ought to be, expressed in grades. Research has repeatedly shown that traditional grading has a detrimental effect on quality of learning, interest in learning, and preference for challenging tasks. In one study, for example, students told they would be graded on how well they learned a social studies lesson had more trouble understanding the main point of the text than did students who were told that no grades would be involved. Even on a measure of rote recall, the graded group remembered fewer facts a week later.

If it is worrisome that SAT coaching sessions can take time away from meaningful pursuits, it is surely worse that causing students to become obsessed with grades could undermine the value of virtually everything they do in high school. Indeed, it can create intellectual dispositions (“Do we have to know this?”) that persist in and beyond college. And the only thing more destructive than grades is class rank, which adds the arsenic of competition to the strychnine of extrinsic motivators.

Last year’s suggestion by President Richard C. Atkinson that the University of California system abandon the SAT was indeed “eye-opening,” as Mr. Sacks puts it. But let’s not forget Mr. Atkinson’s long-term recommendation, which was not merely a shift to achievement tests or grades, but a “move away from admission processes that use quantitative formulas” in favor of “evaluative procedures that look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic way.”

Alfie Kohn
Belmont, Mass.

To the Editor:

As an assessment professional who once worked with the College Board on what Peter Sacks calls an achievement test, I was slightly bemused to hear—once again—the clarion call for change.

The SAT is not a test. It hasn’t been a test in years. It is, rather, a horribly gerrymandered cluster of angry political constituencies similar in structure and function to the former Czech Republic. As policy, it falls somewhere between the United Nations Charter and the League of Nations. As practice, it has the tone and moral force of the Geneva Conventions. In day- to-day application, it is one step removed from the latest Arab-Israeli peace accord.

Along about the time that it begins to resemble the original Allied configuration of Yugoslavia, it will be replaced—if only because its market niche is perceived as an economic gold mine. The ink on the new instrument will not be dry before the jackals begin to circle. We must have our endless pursuit of a perfect test—even though I have seen experienced interpreters work wonders with very imperfect tests.

It’s much as we once talked of the Russians in the Cold War: If there was no SAT, we’d have to invent it. Let’s hope we can create a hodgepodge of special-interest agendas that even Serbia would be proud of.

Paul A. Donais
Glastonbury, Conn.

Blue Ribbon Schools: Don’t Tinker With What Works

To the Editor:

It was Ronald Reagan who famously said of an opposing candidate, “There he goes again.” We could say the same today for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige as he fiddles with the Blue Ribbon Schools awards program (“Ed. Dept. Weighs Changing Blue Ribbon Program,” May 22, 2002.) But in this case, I would suggest another plain slogan: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

When it comes to improving education for the nation’s children, tinkering with the Blue Ribbon Schools program will have about as much impact as fixing the roof of a New York City school would have on rebuilding all the schools needing repairs nationwide.

Why change this well- received awards program favored by many principals precisely because it requires them to look at a host of issues in their schools, rather than simply at test scores? Although one of the current criteria for Blue Ribbon schools is achievement on tests, there are myriad other criteria, including, for example, community involvement. If Secretary Paige turns this award into just another program that looks at test scores, he will undermine what is great about it.

The secretary’s time might be better spent getting the Department of Education moving on such issues as the release of requests for proposals, or RFPs, for the many programs approved and provided funding by Congress in the recently enacted “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Doing this might allow districts time to apply for the grants and then have a chance of being notified of an award before the coming school year.

Among the RFPs that have not been released in a timely manner are those for character education, a favorite of the president’s; the Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program; and Advanced Placement. The delay may result in awards’ being made too late for districts to plan properly and for schools to hire teachers and develop these programs for the fall. Children may lose out on countless educational opportunities, including the chance to take those more rigorous and challenging courses everyone agrees would benefit them all.

The continuing focus only on testing, and the attempts to tie every program to this focus, hurts as many students as it helps. We have to change the emphasis from punitive measures tied to scores to determining how we can do the things we know will improve failing schools.

During the recent National School Boards Association convention in New Orleans, an article in the local newspaper described what happened when the state of Louisiana told the New Orleans school district it would have to close nine schools because of low performance. The district responded that if those schools were closed, there wouldn’t be enough classroom space in the city’s other, already overcrowded schools to absorb the displaced students. Ways had to be found to improve the poorly performing schools.

The district brought in curriculum specialists for each school, upgraded resources available to teachers, reduced some class sizes, and made other enhancements, at a total cost of millions of dollars. Lo and behold, student test scores began to improve—not only for low-scoring students, but for all students.

No educator would be surprised by this story. If we put in the necessary resources, retrain teachers, develop challenging curricula, raise expectations—voilà— positive change occurs. These are the kinds of things I hope our secretary of education and our president will begin to focus on.

As Nebraska Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen said recently: “Knowing the final score doesn’t tell you anything about how the game was played; it just tells you whether you won or lost.” For children who learn in different ways and mature at different times, it is often “how the game is played” that matters most in learning. We need to know not just that a student failed a test, but why. Assessment must be used to find ways to improve teaching effectiveness and learning.

Giving a Blue Ribbon Schools award for improving only low-level test scores will do nothing for those schools where children are still failing. But giving a Blue Ribbon for developing a comprehensive blueprint for learning, as we do now, may help by setting an example for other schools.

Will the new Blue Ribbon Schools award be given only to schools that raise test scores for failing minority students? What will the school get for its ability to raise the scores of minority gifted-and-talented students? Will a school like the Mott School in New York City, which is a gifted-and-talented school made up of only minority students, be eligible for the award? Will we worry only about raising test scores to minimum standards, or will we also focus on high-level learning in all schools? Will we challenge all children to reach their full potential or accept that some will only get a basic score on a statewide test and say we’ve succeeded if they do?

The focus nationally should be on moving every student up the ladder: To raise the floor and the ceiling at the same time and to understand that if we only look at closing the education gap by moving poorly performing students to a minimum standard and not encouraging and challenging every student to continue to move forward at his or her own pace while we are doing this, we will be hurting as many students as we help. The slogan “leave no child behind” really has to apply to all children.

Peter D. Rosenstein
Executive Director
National Association for Gifted Children
Washington, D.C.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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