Education Letter to the Editor


July 10, 2002 34 min read
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Dismissing Data on Single-Sex Schools?

To the Editor:

You report that according to a six-year Australian study of 270,000 students, both girls and boys in single-sex educational settings scored “on average, 15 to 22 percentile points higher than peers in coeducational settings” (“Evidence on Single-Sex Schooling Is Mixed,” Research, June 12, 2001). In the article, you quote Ken J. Rowe of the Australian Council for Educational Research, who says that these findings “pale into insignificance” in comparison with the gains made when students have “skilled” teachers.

Single-sex classrooms can be established literally overnight, at virtually no cost: Simply assign all the boys to go to chemistry class at one time of day, and schedule the girls at a different time. You don’t need new schools, new facilities, or more staff.

No comparably simple mechanism exists to replace “unskilled” teachers with “skilled” teachers. For that matter, there is no easy way to reliably distinguish a skilled from an unskilled teacher. Nor is there universal agreement about how to transform an unskilled teacher into a skilled teacher. We can be sure, however, that all the proposed fixes—whether they involve retraining unskilled teachers, recruiting skilled teachers, or both—will be expensive.

The Australian school population bears many similarities to our own. Both countries have a dominant English-speaking culture with diverse immigrant populations. Both countries have cities with large numbers of lower-income students from homes where English is not the primary language. If a simple, unambiguous, and easily implemented intervention can improve student performance by 15 percent to 22 percent, how is that “insignificant”? Shouldn’t we consider giving it a try?

Leonard Sax
Poolesville, Md.

Points on Charters Were ‘Off the Mark’

To the Editor:

In a response to our recent essay (“What’s Public About Charter Schools?,” Commentary, May 15, 2002), Michael R. Williamson charged that our work reflects “flawed research, faulty data, and amazing bias” (“Michigan Charters,” Letters, June 5, 2002). While space constraints prevent us from responding to each of his points, we feel compelled to address a few that are particularly off the mark, given a comprehensive review of available data.

First, Mr. Williamson responded to our finding of lagging student-achievement gains in Michigan charter schools by citing another evaluation report that found that charter schools outpaced comparable schools on the state’s “adequate yearly progress” measure. However, that study failed to find a positive charter school effect on other achievement indicators, was restricted to Detroit-area charter schools, and included fewer years of data than our study did. At the same time, two other studies (which, like ours, included all Michigan charter schools) found a negative achievement impact associated with charters. Given a choice between a single positive finding based on a smaller sample and several negative findings based on larger samples, it seems reasonable to give more weight to the latter.

Second, Mr. Williamson correctly noted that our findings are at odds with a federally sponsored study that found that Michigan charter schools enroll a higher proportion of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches than the state average for all traditional public schools. Our findings, however, were based on the more relevant comparison of each charter school with neighboring traditional public schools. This analysis shows that while many charters are located in urban areas, they tend to enroll lower concentrations of low-income and at-risk students than do neighboring public schools.

Third, Mr. Williamson faulted us for stating that few Michigan charter schools enroll more costly high school students. However, his claim that 95 percent of the charter schools cater to middle or high school students appears to be based on the grades for which charter schools are authorized to take students. Data from the Michigan Department of Education indicate that only 15 percent of charter school students are actually enrolled in upper-secondary grades.

Finally, Mr. Williamson’s charge of “amazing bias” seems difficult to sustain in light of the fact that our studies of charter schools in some other states have been rather positive. Moreover, these studies, which are posted on the Web at http://www.wmich.edu/evalctr, all have extensive technical reports that explain methods, data sources, and limitations. This makes it possible for others to verify and replicate our findings.

Our Commentary pointed out that the weaknesses in Michigan’s charter school reform are not inevitable, and that there is no reason to think that the charter school concept is fatally flawed. Our evaluations are intended for use by the state agencies that sponsor them as instruments for improvement. This is evident in the detailed reports and constructive feedback we provide to individual schools and to the state agencies. Improvement, however, cannot come without a clear-eyed appraisal of strengths and weaknesses.

It is certainly appropriate that policy and program evaluators are themselves evaluated by others. In this spirit, we appreciate Mr. Williamson’s comments on our work. However, his critique misses the mark in many important respects.

Gary Miron
Christopher Nelson
Kalamazoo, Mich.

Seeing ‘Prejudice’ in Evolution Reporting

To the Editor:

The article on the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 and its report that calls for teaching scientific arguments for and against evolution manages to confuse the issue (“And Congress Said, Let There Be Other Views. Or Did It?,” June 12, 2002). No one is saying that the report language accompanying the federal education act requires teaching intelligent design. But both the chair and vice chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee have made it clear that the report language is intended to interpret the act as states apply it. That is what report language does for all laws, a fact Education Week omits.

Most importantly, the article may leave some with the impression that critics of Darwin’s theory want intelligent design taught in its place. That is not so. We all want Darwin’s theory taught, and also the scientific arguments against it. That is the nub. You do not even need to advocate the positive alternative theory of intelligent design to show what is wrong with the scientific case for Darwinism.

However, what I most object to in the article is the subtle prejudice. For example, you report that two “scientists” argued in Ohio recently against teaching the pros and cons on Darwin, while two “Discovery Institute officials” argued in favor. In fact, both proponents are themselves scientists: Jonathan Wells, whose doctorate in biology is from the University of California, Berkeley, and Steven C. Meyer, whose philosophy of science doctorate is from Cambridge University.

Education Week has yet to cover this subject fairly.

Bruce Chapman
Discovery Institute
Seattle, Wash.

In Grading Essays, Old Ways Are Best

To the Editor:

I don’t agree with the idea of computerized scoring of student essays (“States Testing Computer-Scored Essays,” May 29, 2002). When these essays are part of a high-stakes test, two or more real, live people should review each one. Your article notes that one software engine “typically matches [human] experts more often than two [human] experts can match each other.” This is a scary notion.

If the opinions of two scorers don’t match, then an essay should be sent for a third review. By simply accepting that the computer validates one person’s review, we may be leaving out the other half of the picture. Perhaps a child doesn’t use a rich vocabulary, but does effectively describe and demonstrate an understanding of the concept or material at hand. This child would be overlooked by a computer program, but a person might understand his strengths and thus allocate appropriate points.

Computer-scored essays can conceivably be used as a supplementary tool to help teachers review numerous writing exercises. With technology’s assistance, the teacher might even be able to assign more such exercises. But this doesn’t mean that all written material should be left to computers to assess. The teacher’s insight is invaluable and forms the basis for providing help in improving writing.

Keri Murphy
Syosset, N.Y.

Fact vs. Anecdote On Certification

To the Editor:

It always amazes me when anecdotal evidence (“I knew someone who ...”) is still used to prop up a favorite belief. In her recent letter to the editor (“Is Any Certification Worth Continuing?,” June 5, 2002), Louisa C. Spencer gives two examples of people she knows for whom certification was/is really unnecessary. I know a person who won $30,000 on slot machines in Vegas, but my friend’s success isn’t exactly a good predictor of my success or the success of millions of others.

More relevant to this issue, I could give many personal examples of people who “knew their stuff” but were failures as teachers. “Knowing the content” is simply not enough to ensure quality teaching, nor is it enough to cite a personal example or two to systematically ensure the quality of thousands of teachers.

Certification and advanced certification, such as that offered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, is the exact opposite of what Ms. Spencer calls “just a monopolistic practice in restraint of truly effective public education.” Certification is a system designed to make public education more effective—and a way to instill public confidence that a teacher is qualified. Advanced certification, such as from the national board, defines and refines the teaching process and establishes standards for the highest quality teaching.

If Ms. Spencer’s two teachers are and were as good as she believes, they would be able to obtain certification, and the process of national board certification would help them become even better. What parents wouldn’t want a national-board-certified teacher teaching their children?

Mary White
Tahelquah, Okla.

Charter Schools Give Teachers More Clout

To the Editor:

Your article on teachers unions’ efforts to expand their role through legislation gives me pause (“Teachers Take Bids for Power to Legislatures,” June 12, 2002). My law practice is almost entirely devoted to issues involving charter schools. There is no more certain way for teachers to achieve the level of involvement they apparently are seeking through legislation than by starting their own charter schools or supporting others that do so.

Charter schools are proven examples of giving teachers more authority and broader roles in delivering education. And the students and teachers are big winners in such efforts. If teachers’ unions want more influence in the classroom, then supporting charter schools should be first on their agenda.

John Cairns
Minneapolis, Minn.

Horace Mann: ‘More, Please’

To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing Peter H. Gibbon’s Commentary (“A Hero of Education,” May 29, 2002, Web rights restricted by publisher). Knowing Horace Mann is understanding why the American public school is the envy of the rest of the world, and how it has become the most stabilizing force in the world’s most complex society.

More on Horace Mann, please, his struggles, annual reports, accomplishments ...

Patrick Hoban
Executive Director
Washington State School
Retirees Association
Lacey, Wash.

The writer is a past president of the Horace Mann League, whose headquarters are in Omaha, Neb.

Public vs. Private: Clarifying a Report

To the Editor:

Your account of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Private Schools: A Brief Portrait,” in “The Condition of Education 2002" report (“NCES Study Finds Greater Success in College by Private School Grads,” June 12, 2002) distorts findings of the report and misquotes my comments about it.

The report itself cautions readers about making the kind of gross generalizations contained in your account, saying: “Although this analysis compares averages for the private and public sectors ... no inferences can be drawn from these data about causality. Any number of variables distinct from school sector and type may contribute to inputs and outcomes.”

In other words, as I emphasized in my comments to your reporter, students do well in schools—both public and private—that have small class sizes, qualified teachers, high standards, and access to instructional materials. Yes, it is true that schools are better able to serve disadvantaged students when those students are a small percentage of the schools’ total enrollment, but to extend that to the assertion that “students do better in private schools than in public schools ... " is a complete misinterpretation of my comments and of the report itself.

In October 1994, Money magazine found that “about 10 percent of all public schools—about 2,000 schools nationwide—are as outstanding academically as the nation’s 1,500 most prestigious and selective private schools.” What I actually said was that a fair comparison of public and private schools would compare similarly situated schools.

Michael Pons
Policy Analyst
National Education Association
Washington, D.C.

Teachers Must Fight Negative Poll Image

To the Editor:

Your recent Close Up from the Public Education Network-Education Week Poll (“Boards, Parents Seen as Powerful,” June 5, 2002) should be a wake-up call to all teachers. Essentially, these poll results from registered voters suggest that teachers and students are not responsible for the quality of their schools, nor do they have the power to change that quality.

I work with beginning teachers and am disheartened by these findings. I constantly tell new teachers that they have power to change the lives of children. Maybe I should simply change my mantra and tell them they are entering a profession in which they will be afforded no respect, no responsibility, and no power.

But wait, we then move to the third paragraph of your report and see that teachers are to blame for the failure of schools. Maybe, instead, I should explain to my new teachers that they have power and responsibility in the failure of schools, but not in their improvement.

But I won’t tell teachers they have only the power to be negative, because this would be a lie. We teachers do have power, along with responsibility, but many aren’t willing to recognize and use it. As we move into an era in which noneducators are increasingly running the schools, we must stand up and say no. We must not be bullied into believing we lack the power to make a difference.

Teachers, fight back. Share this poll and others like it with school board members, principals, and parents. Begin discussions about these numbers and explain the negative impact they have on education. Hold public forums to debate the issues. Do whatever you need to do, but start talking. If you don’t, then we really will have no power, and those few who make the decisions will continue to leave classroom educators out of the conversation.

Julie Horwitz
Director of Field Experience
Western New Mexico University
Gallup Graduate Studies Center
Gallup, N.M.

Curricular Freedom Can Serve Us All

To the Editor:

In his recent essay, Patrick F. Bassett describes the school-related plot of Dr. Seuss’ last book, Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, and then makes a politically palatable plea: that we give high-performing public schools the same incentive of curricular freedom we currently give private schools (“Testing, Accountability, and Independence,” Commentary, June 19, 2002).

But the title of Dr. Seuss’ posthumously published book, with its fictional “Diffendoofer” school, brings to mind the kind of freedom that allows us not only to “do curriculum differently,” but also to “do assessment differently.” Why must schools’ chances at curricular freedom be tied to the states’ definitions of what constitutes “high performance”?

Let’s have the courage to let local communities not only set curricular standards, but also set performance standards for their public schools. And let’s encourage local communities to adopt performance-standards systems similar to the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. Communities should focus on the educational distance each child travels from September to June, rather than focusing on the educational location of all children in June.

To give curricular freedom only to schools that meet current state definitions of “high performing” will help only those communities that need help least.

Until state legislators read and understand Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, we need to fight for curricular freedom for all communities.

Wenda Sheard
Land O’Lakes, Wis.

The writer is a lawyer who is currently completing her dissertation in political science.

What Means More In Teaching History?

To the Editor:

I was struck by what Jonathan Zimmerman said in his Commentary “Don’t Know Much About History. Why Not?,” (June 19, 2002). I have been a high school history teacher for the past 30 years, and I am concerned by the lack of background knowledge that students coming from the middle and elementary schools seem to have about history today. This puts a heavy burden on high school teachers. We have to take these students from zero knowledge to a workable use of history.

Mr. Zimmerman says the problem may stem from teachers’ lack of knowledge about history. He uses his own early efforts to teach the subject as an example. His first impulse, to write facts, names, and dates on the blackboard, demonstrated this lack of knowledge, he says. A better way of presenting the information would have been by asking questions, not presenting “answers.” Asking questions about the present, so that students can see the connection between today and the past, is a better way to get students to retain what is taught in class, he says.

Mr. Zimmerman apparently feels that over the years he has learned more about history and, thus, now could be a better history teacher. I see the change as not so much as an increase in knowledge of the subject, but in how it is effectively taught. The factual information remains the same; the improvement is in the teaching method. Asking questions gets students to think, not just copy what the teacher has written on the board.

What Mr. Zimmerman has shown is that ideas such as U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s call to increase the number of classes teachers-in-training take in subject matter and reduce the number in teaching methods will not produce better-trained teachers. Subject matter is important, but teaching methods and preparation cannot be de- emphasized.

A vast knowledge of history’s subject matter does not mean that a teacher can convey that knowledge to students. Just ask anyone who has taken an upper-level history course from a learned professor who knows nothing about the art of teaching.

Robert C. Massey
U.S. and World History Teacher
Mountain Ridge High School
Deer Valley Unified School District
Phoenix, Ariz.

In Defense of the SAT: Don’t Shoot the Messenger, Strengthen the Curriculum

To the Editor:

Peter Sacks’ “contrarian” view of the SAT (“On Changing the SAT,” Commentary, June 5, 2002) is loaded with many of the spurious charges that have been leveled against the test since I joined the College Board staff in 1955. Four examples:

  • “The unabashed winners of our national swoon over testing are those motivated by profit.” Fact: The College Board and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT for the board, are both nonprofit enterprises.
  • “Rather than a measure of innate aptitude, an SAT I score mirrors one’s place in the social and economic hierarchy.” Facts: The SAT was never intended to and does not measure the intelligence one was born with; it measures the verbal and mathematical academic abilities one needs to do college- level work. Many socially and economically disadvantaged students earn better grades in school and higher scores on the SAT than a lot of their advantaged peers. But there continues to be a difference between the average SAT scores of minority and majority students. It is diminishing slowly, but still mirrors the educational deficit this country has to make up. It is that deficit, not the SAT, that is to blame for that difference. The critics and the press keep shooting the messenger.
  • “College-entrance exams [are] devices that sort viciously by class and race.” Fact: The SAT and its offshoot the PSAT were “devices” that benevolently fueled the opening up of access to higher education that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. For every minority student claimed to have been discriminated against by the SAT, there were others who were discovered through it to possess the ability to do college-level work. In shooting the messenger, the critics and the press have chosen to and continue to emphasize the former.
  • “The overpowering evidence that actual performance in school, such as rank in class, as indicated by grades, is almost always the best predictor of success in college.” Note first the “almost.” Note also that the difference in the power of prediction is “almost always” small and that the two used in combination (grades and SAT scores) are more than “almost always” a better predictor than either measure used alone.

Enough said! Given these misrepresentations or biases, how much credence should be given to rest of what the author has to say?

George H. Hanford
President Emeritus
The College Board
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

Hope springs eternal. Every time I think we are making a modicum of progress in improving educational standards, another article appears condemning needed changes in the status quo—in this case, the SAT. Exactly why the author of your Commentary, Peter Sacks, is termed a “contrarian” in the essay’s second headline is a puzzle, since objections to standardized testing are the norm rather than the exception in most educational publications today, as evidenced by two similar critiques in this same issue of Education Week.

Mr. Sacks’ first major point is that revising the SAT I to be more like the SAT II is ill-conceived because there is no real difference between the two: Scores on both have very high correlations.

To state the obvious, the fact that two tests correlate does not mean there are no significant differences in the content of the two. There are, in fact, major differences: The SAT I measures a variety of verbal and mathematical skills; the SAT II consists of separate tests, each measuring student performance in specific academic subjects—algebra, trigonometry, chemistry, physics, and U.S. history, for example. Classifying both of these as standardized tests is misleading and ignores the very real differences between the two.

Most objective observers—outside the mainstream of education—would think it eminently sensible to test students in subjects they study (the SAT II), rather than a mixture of generalized and often unrelated skills (the SAT I). In fact, the obvious reason that President Richard C. Atkinson of the University of California favors the SAT II is its direct relationship to the academic curricula students complete, or should be completing, in high school. And there are additional benefits.

First, the change would send a clear signal to high schools that students must enroll in, rather than avoid, challenging academic subjects in order to gain entrance into the better colleges and universities. As recently documented in your excellent article “Research Underscores Need for Tough Courses,” (May 22, 2002), students of all cultures and ability who complete a more rigorous curriculum enjoy distinct advantages and benefits over their counterparts who lack this preparation. The article points out that “students who took advanced math and science courses were 17 times more likely to attend a four-year rather than a two-year college,” and that “African-American students were particularly likely to increase their chances for admission to a four-year institution by taking a more rigorous course sequence.”

Second, instead of studying word analogies and other gimmicky exercises required on the SAT I, teachers could engage students in the higher- reasoning and problem-solving skills that are integral to the academic disciplines. What is absolutely astonishing to me is the resistance one finds in education to such logic. The prevailing view is that academic standards and core curricula emphasize memorization and facts and ignore the real needs of children. With this type of thinking, is it any wonder that when someone like E.D. Hirsch Jr. recommends a core curriculum for all students, he is vilified and ostracized by the educational establishment?

I certainly agree with Mr. Sacks on one point: A partial change in the SAT I, such as adding a writing sample, will not significantly change the test. Where I disagree most emphatically is his view that the SAT II is just another standardized test that will not benefit students. Here he is dead wrong. Using the SAT II as the standard for college admissions has the potential of significantly improving the high school curriculum and increasing educational opportunities for all students.

Joseph M. Appel
Educational Consultant
Clinton, N.J.

Special Education: Understanding the Costs, Reforming the System

To the Editor:

Jay P. Greene’s “The Myth of the Special Education Burden,” (Commentary, June 12, 2002) attempts to debunk a myth, but fails to address the burden. His entire treatise is an elaborate statistical analysis of special education populations, which, he concludes, have essentially remained static over the 25-odd years of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. He chastises districts for failing to educate the same distribution of needy students today with more funding available. But it’s not about the population; it’s about the uncontrollable, escalating costs of providing the mandated services for these students. His own conclusions make that obvious.

If Mr. Greene had analyzed the special education budget as carefully as he analyzed the special education population, he would see that there is no myth at all here. There is a clear, black-and- white financial burden of an unfunded mandate and all the havoc that wreaks with public funds. For example, Mr. Greene would see that the local school district bears the burden of substantial noneducational costs for special-needs students in out-of-district residential schools.

Indeed, in 1994, the Massachusetts state auditor proclaimed that only 30 percent of costs associated with special education residential placements were education-related, urging the legislature to reimburse districts a full 70 percent. Legislators balked, cried poverty, and pointed to the letter of the law that did not require any specific reimbursement percentage on their part and continued their gratuitous 50-50 reimbursement formula. Hence, many education dollars are, by law, going for noneducation expenses.

If Mr. Greene analyzed the budget figures instead of the population figures, he would also see that local districts can bear staggering legal costs as parents exercise their right to sue the district on behalf of their special-needs children. In some cases, parents lured by the prospect of free tuition and lawyers on retainer for private schools abuse a system with few checks and balances for safeguarding public funds. Again, the local district is forced by law to expend education dollars for decidedly noneducation expenses.

Educators are not engaged in a shell game of manipulating numbers, as Mr. Greene’s Commentary wryly suggests. They do, however, find themselves with dwindling options for meeting the needs of all their clients, including the ones not protected by law. Unless the loopholes of the law are closed by legislators willing to put money where their mouths are, and create proper controls and oversight on spending, abuse of the system will continue, public education dollars will go for noneducation expenses, and Commentaries like Mr. Greene’s will serve to deflect attention from this real burden.

Jade Walsh
Jackson Hole, Wyo.

The writer formerly served as a member of a local school committee in the state of Massachusetts.

To the Editor:

“The Myth of the Special Education Burden” puts forth its own myth: that school districts “profit” by overidentifying students with disabilities. To dismiss a 3.5 percent increase in the number of students with disabilities by simply saying the students have learning disabilities and do not require expensive services is also a great myth.

Currently, in Missouri, funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is approximately 10 percent federal funds, 20 percent state funds, and 70 percent local funds. While there is some relationship between the number of students identified and federal and state funds, local funds remain the same regardless of the number of students identified. School districts operate in a limited-resource model. Money spent in one area decreases the amount available to fund other areas. Thus, using the per-pupil-spending figure provided by the author—$7,086 for each student identified as a student with a disability—the local special education costs increase by approximately $4,900. Where is the profit?

A brief review of the “23rd Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” provides the most recent snapshot on special education trends. Between the 1990-91 and 1999-2000 school years, the number of students with disabilities between the ages of 6 and 21 has increased by 1,321,956. Of that number, 727,949 were classified as learning- disabled. Thus, there were nearly 600,000 more students with disabilities in categories other than learning-disabled.

There are numerous other myths and very few facts in this Commentary. The report to Congress provides factual information that addresses issues like poverty, the medically fragile and low- birthweight babies, and the shortage of qualified special education service providers.

The IDEA has provided great benefits to students with disabilities. However, failure to acknowledge and address the burden of special education may place many of those benefits in jeopardy in the future without common-sense reform of the IDEA. It is interesting to note that in completing compliance reviews on the implementation of the IDEA, not one state was found to be in compliance. A law that is so complicated that not one state can comply is clearly burdensome. More monitoring and more advocacy will not fix this problem. More money will not fix this problem without reform.

The burden of special education is no myth. The current reauthorization of the IDEA provides an opportunity for common-sense reform. Congress needs to focus on keeping teachers in classrooms working directly with students, and decreasing the time spent in meetings and generating documents for compliance. Congress needs to focus on the education of students with disabilities and remove the burdens that are driving many special education teachers from the field.

Congress must focus on the education of all children. It is no myth that now is the time for common-sense reform of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

David Willard
Educational Consultant
Thomeczek Law Firm LLC
Manchester, Mo.

Reading Recovery: Bad Rap for a Program That ‘Outshines All Others’

To the Editor:

The recent slam on Reading Recovery by a few well- meaning individuals who seldom see the inside of a classroom is interesting but doesn’t match with reality (“Researchers Urge Officials to Reject Reading Recovery,” June 5, 2002). Teachers on the front lines know Reading Recovery works to bring at-risk 1st graders up to grade-level reading in 20 weeks or less. Yes, the program is intensive and doesn’t work for everybody—only about 80 percent of those students who get the full 20 weeks are reading at grade level at the end. But I know of no other program that shows similar success rates, anywhere.

Perhaps that’s why Reading Recovery is in the eye of the storm. Those who want to tear down public schools have called for accountability and results and claim public education offers neither. By trying to discredit Reading Recovery, however, they are picking on the wrong program. This one works and works well. That’s why more schools are using it every day.

Rick Simonson
Lansing, Mich.

To the Editor:

I am dismayed and frustrated after reading the recent attack on Reading Recovery by university professors. After teaching struggling readers to read in nine school districts and training teachers in 37 states in quality literacy instruction, I am astounded (but not surprised) to see this type of ignorance in the field. Why is it that just when we, educators, finally reach the top of the mountain, someone comes along and tells us to come back down because we aren’t really there yet?

Decades of research, training, experience, observations, teaching, “live” lessons, literacy conferences, data collection, parent surveys, global collaboration, and theoretical practices have culminated in this world-renowned intervention program. It is the closest we have ever come to “leaving no child behind.” If the program is implemented and supported as designed, it works.

Sure, the program has problems, but these are mainly related to quality assurance and consistency. Corporations and factories struggle with these issues all the time, but unlike building an engine, we are dealing with human minds. Training teachers around the globe to be experts in reading instruction and to consistently implement the research- based methods behind the program are difficult challenges, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. There are Reading Recovery teachers who are inconsistent in using all required methods and materials and who are unable to work with children five days per week. So problems with phonemic awareness, writing, or spelling do occur for some children. This is the fault of inconsistency in supporting and maintaining the program, not the quality of the program itself.

There are many who claim that Reading Recovery is not cost- effective because it is designed for one-on-one instruction. Are we, as a nation, willing to turn our backs on something that can save children from a lifetime of illiteracy and frustration because we are unwilling to make it available for every child who needs it?

Connie R. Hebert
National Literacy Consultant
West Springfield, Mass.

To the Editor:

Because Reading Recovery is used as the first safety net for the lowest-performing 1st graders, it does not skip the children who ultimately will need long-term special education services. If a school does not have full implementation of Reading Recovery and serves only the bottom 5 percent of 1st graders, the program receives a bad rap as one that does not work. When a school serves the bottom 20 percent of students, however, the success rate for Reading Recovery outshines all other programs.

Success for All and other intervention programs have tried to copy the techniques used by trained Reading Recovery teachers to enhance their programs. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in my professional opinion we shouldn’t settle for copycats when we can have the real thing.

Having had training in Reading Recovery, I can say that it is the best professional development available. I am certified in special education and bilingual education, and I hold a principal’s certificate, but the training I hold most dear is my Reading Recovery training. It has helped me the most in my career and in my ability to help those children with the greatest needs.

The charge that Reading Recovery does not address phonemic awareness is false. When a child is able to listen to a sentence and use letter-to-sound analysis to decode it into writing, this proves much more helpful than having the child perform tasks that are artificial, such as “Say ‘cat,’ now take off the ‘t’ and put in a ‘p.’” When, in real life, do children have to do such things? Reading Recovery makes the connection between reading and writing easy for children to understand.

Let’s not throw away a diamond for some cheap cubic zirconia.

Cynthia Brennan
Coordinator, Special Programs
Conroe, Texas

To the Editor:

The letter attacking Reading Recovery that was recently distributed by researchers funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and others makes a number of unfounded accusations. Its assertion that Reading Recovery is not effective flies in the face of nearly 20 years of evidence and is based on flawed interpretations of data.

Year after year, reports from the National Data Evaluation Center show compelling evidence of effectiveness. Students who complete the program successfully are extremely unlikely to be retained in grade because of reading difficulties or to be placed in special education because of reading or writing problems. Their classroom teachers report substantial gains in reading. These assessments of student progress don’t come from Reading Recovery; they are made by school officials.

The critique also alleges that the Reading Recovery methodology does not follow an “intent to treat” approach. This is a medical methodology used in randomized trials where research subjects are randomly assigned to one of several treatments. Reading Recovery is not a medical study; this methodology simply does not apply. Its underlying intent, however, is to account for every study subject. The accusation is that Reading Recovery does not report on every student. But the only students who are excluded from National Data Evaluation Center reports are those for whom outcome status is missing; these represent 90 out of 150,000 children. Anybody who accuses Reading Recovery of not accounting for every child either does not understand statistics or has a purely political agenda.

What Reading Recovery’s critics fail to understand is that the program is not an esoteric medical experiment, but a reading intervention that works successfully on a very large scale. The NICHD’s own research does not pass the test of scalability because, by its own admission, the phonics-only programs its researchers favor are not implemented as well as they should be on a national basis. As a result, NICHD researchers do not collect data on how the interventions they favor actually work in the field.

For parents of failing 1st graders, evidence of practical success is probably a more attractive choice than experimental data collected by medical researchers in a handful of laboratory schools.

Francisco X. Gómez-Bellengé
National Data Evaluation Center
Columbus, Ohio

Diversity Is Limited in Specialized Schools

To the Editor:

I commend the New York City board of education and the City University of New York for recognizing that high-ability students need more schools that will challenge them and provide them with an environment that encourages their continued achievement (“N.Y.C. to Add 3 Schools With Entrance Exams,” News in Brief, May 22, 2002).

What concerns me, however, is that these schools will use the same entrance-exam results as the science schools. Looking at the racial makeup of Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Brooklyn Technical High School, it is clear that this test systematically excludes black and Latino students. Black and Latino students make up less than 7 percent of the enrollment of Stuyvesant High School, less than 20 percent of Bronx High School of Science, and only one-third of the population of Brooklyn Technical High School. The creation of these new specialized high schools cannot be used to distract us from the very serious questions we need to ask about the Specialized High School Exam.

How is it that a test could create schools in which the enrollment is so different from the general population of New York City?

How do we explain that students from private, parochial, and only three public school districts account for more than half the students admitted to Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, according to a 1997 report from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN? And why haven’t the city’s Math Science Institute programs yielded any notable results in getting more black and Latino students admitted to these schools? (In fact, it appears that the black and Latino population has decreased since the creation of the MSI.)

Have any studies been done to assess whether or not these exams are accurate and represent the only way to determine which students will be successful in these new schools?

We have found that hundreds of black and Latino students, most whom did not qualify for Stuyvesant High School or the Bronx High School of Science, excelled in the extremely competitive environment of private college- prep schools in New York and throughout the Northeast.

Lynne Harwell Algrant
Executive Director
The Albert G. Oliver Program
New York, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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