Education Letter to the Editor


September 25, 2002 15 min read
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Don’t Blame the Arts For Low SAT Scores

To the Editor:

The article “Officials Tie Entrance-Score Dips to Curriculum,” (Sept. 4, 2002) reports that College Board officials believe “too many high schools are putting emphasis on the arts, theater, and ‘multimedia’ study, including television, at the expense of composition and grammar.”

Blaming studies of the arts for low SAT verbal scores is easy and unwarranted. As an institution of authority, the College Board seems to be endorsing cutbacks in studies of the arts. Instead, the board ought to assert that the arts are significant forms of human achievement, as worthy (and needful) of study in all four years of high school as the sciences and the humanities.

In the Netherlands, high school students are tested for knowledge and subtle perception of the visual arts, dance, music, drama, and multimedia, as well as their ability to apply insights from the humanities in interpreting art. Students are also engaged with issues surrounding popular culture. Those tests are required, not just available for Advanced Placement students.

Naiveté about and outright ignorance of the arts are widely tolerated as perfectly normal outcomes of American education. Twenty-six states do not require any study of the arts in high school. On average, half of our students take no art in high school, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that few have access to coherent, sustained, and well-informed instruction in grades K-8. The irony is that students who do study the arts for three to four years in high school also score higher on the SAT.

Laura H. Chapman
Consultant on Arts Education
Cincinnati, Ohio

To the Editor:

Your article “Officials Tie Entrance-Score Dips to Curriculum” quotes Wayne Camara of the College Board as saying that drops in SAT scores may be in part due to shifting emphasis away from composition and grammar. This interpretation may be true, but I would like to take exception to the inference drawn in the article that this decline may be because “too many high schools are putting emphasis on the arts, theater, and ‘multimedia’ study.”

In the first place, I am unaware of any trend toward high schools’ placing more emphasis on arts instruction than they did in previous years. If anything, anecdotal evidence suggests that pressure from reliance on narrow test scores is pushing schools in the opposite direction. And in the second place, I can testify on the basis of statistics from the College Board itself that study in at least one art—music—is correlated with higher scores on both the math and verbal portions of the SAT test. According to the scores for 2001, music students scored 57 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math portions of the test than did their counterparts who did not take arts coursework.

In view of this, I think that most observers would reject any implication that study in the arts, particularly in the rigorous discipline of music, could have a negative effect on students’ test scores.

John J. Mahlmann
Reston, Va.

Safety and ‘Needs’ Are Not at Odds

To the Editor:

I read with interest Maurice J. Elias’ Commentary “Education’s 9/11 Report Card,” (Sept. 4, 2002).

While I agree with a number of the principles suggested by Mr. Elias, I was shocked by his assertion that an emphasis on security procedures after the Columbine High School and Sept. 11, 2001, tragedies is somehow an inappropriate school response. He implies that rather than including a focus on security, schools should instead “focus on character building, mission clarifying, and soul renewing within our schools.”

As a school safety professional for many years, I continue to be amazed at how many people frame safe-schools issues as a debate between having either more prevention-and-climate strategies or more security measures. I am also perplexed by psychologists who apparently forget Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a basic principle taught in most undergraduate schools that identifies an individual’s immediate safety and security as the most basic human need that must be met before any higher needs can be achieved.

Following the recent series of high-profile school shootings and the terrorist attacks last September, far too many school administrators have been playing catch-up for decades of neglect in the most basic of professional school security and crisis-preparedness measures. Yet, we continue to see theoretical and rhetorical commentary by some who question the need for security and emergency procedures.

Perhaps the author is in fact correct: Little changes where it matters. This will certainly be the case if those in higher education and public-policy positions do not learn that balanced, professional security and crisis-preparedness measures must first be in place to create a secure environment for educators to effectively deliver other needed strategies focused on school climate, character building, and meaningful classroom instruction.

At a time when some of us are looking ahead to preventing schools themselves from being the next terrorist target, I can only hope and pray that those who have yet to learn that do so very quickly.

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

We’re Serious About Sports, Not Grades

To the Editor:

“Double Vision,” (Commentary, Sept. 11, 2002) offered a witty contrast between what we are serious about and what we are not.

It is easy to dismiss comparison between academics and athletics as spoilsport sour grapes, but, as Will Fitzhugh makes clear, we are serious about sports.

While we routinely assign high school writing teachers 100 students or more, we would never expect a single, unassisted soccer coach to teach 100 players enough soccer so that they had a chance at winning games. If we did, we would be accused of being unserious about sports. And that would be hypocritical.

Bruce E. Buxton
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

Ignoring Facts About N.Y. Tests

To the Editor:

James A. Kadamus of the New York Department of Education assures us in his letter (“Wrong on N.Y. Tests,” Sept. 4, 2002) that the state’s tests “are calibrated using an item-response- theory model in which questions are evaluated for fairness, fit to the state learning standards and ability to measure the content taught to students in New York schools.” They are not norm-referenced, he says, and are designed so all students can pass them.

In fact, though, item-response-theory subjectively weights each test item for ostensible difficulty and eliminates some questions on that basis.

Moreover, the state’s manipulation of cut scores is well-documented. In an effort to avoid massive dropouts and politically embarrassing failures, cut scores for the 2001 regents’ tests were lowered to the point that students needed to answer correctly only 33 of 85 questions (39 percent) to pass the living-environment (biology) exam. The other high-stakes regents’ exams were graded similarly. In June of this year, shortly after it was discovered that the department had been sanitizing the literature passages of the 11th grade language arts exam, the new chemistry and physics exams were administered. Failure rates were two to three times higher than previous editions. In order to save face and demonstrate that New York’s testing reform was sufficiently rigorous, thousands of students across the state were made to pay a bitter price.

There are numerous additional examples of scoring irregularities over the past four years that support Walt Haney’s original contention about the hidden characteristics of the state’s testing system (“Ensuring Failure,” Commentary, July 10, 2002).

Studies commissioned by the New York state education department have clearly demonstrated the short- and long- term damage to students, families, and schools of its testing program since 1999, including:

  • A decline in passing rates of the new regents’ exams;

  • A widening performance gap between large urban centers and other public schools;

  • An increase of 21.6 percent in the number of IEP (individualized education plan) diplomas, those for students designated as having special needs;

  • An increase in students’ being moved into General Educational Development programs to hide the dropout rate;

  • An exodus of 4th and 8th grade teachers;

  • An increase in the dropout rate in New York City, as the regents’ exams are phased in as a graduation requirement; and

  • A 12 percent increase last year alone in the dropout rate of English- language learners.

Mr. Kadamus is correct that claims about New York state’s testing should be based on facts. That would include the facts that he chooses to ignore.

William Cala
Superintendent of Schools
Fairport Central School District
Fairport, N.Y.

Zelman Will End The Voucher Wars

To the Editor:

Despite the claim by Tyll van Geel and William Lowe Boyd (“Vouchers and the Entanglement of Church and State,” Sept. 4, 2002) that the Zelman v. Simmons- Harris case will likely “increase conflict over entanglement of church and state,” the U.S. Supreme Court has wisely concluded that money returned to private citizens to use as they deem fit for tuition is no more an entanglement of church and state than the federal loans and grants for college tuition, some of which go to private and religious schools. Again, contrary to the authors, the Zelman decision has won the war for vouchers. A “GI Bill” for elementary and secondary schools is long overdue.

James Drexler
St. Louis, Mo.

Confusing Choice, Vouchers in Polls

To the Editor:

Your reporting on the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll was a bit out of focus (“Polls Find Growing Support for Publicly Funded Vouchers,” Sept. 4, 2002). The question showing approval of vouchers so conflated and confused public school choice with vouchers that the result is meaningless.

More importantly, your article did not mention the PDK/Gallup finding that, by 69 percent to 29 percent, respondents preferred “improving and strengthening existing public schools” to “providing vouchers.” That is virtually the same average percentage by which voters in statewide referendums rejected vouchers or their analogues in 25 elections between 1967 and 2000.

You also neglect to mention that the PDK/Gallup poll found that respondents gave an A or B rating to the public school their oldest child attends, while only 24 percent of the same respondents gave that rating to public schools nationwide. This suggests that a great many people have been misled by the unceasing anti-public-school propaganda of the religious right and ultraconservative media.

With regard to school vouchers, politicians would do well to pay more attention to what voters have actually done on election day than to fuzzy or misleading polls.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Washington, D.C.

Markets Without Equal Choices

To the Editor:

Gisèle Huff (“The Market Model Offers Incentives,” Letters, Sept. 11, 2002) praises the market model in education in response to the criticism of that model leveled earlier by Heidi Steffens and Peter W. Cookson Jr. (“Limitations of the Market Model,” Commentary, Aug. 7, 2002).

Ms. Huff embraces the “incentives” that come with competition and the market’s “mechanism of choice.” She ignores, however, the Enron effects of competition, and the destructive tendency of competition to create losers while promoting one or two exceptionally excellent winners. And she ignores the fact that, in the market model, choice is weighted: More votes go to the consumer who has more dollars, and almost no votes go to consumers who have few dollars.

The strength of public education is that there is a goal, in theory, and an attempt, in practice, to promote educational opportunities for all, regardless of their economic status or the ZIP code where they were born. What is frustrating the fulfillment of that ideal isn’t the failure of specific schools in the system, but the dug-in and determined refusal by the wealthy who flee from poor school districts to pay income taxes that can provide equal educational opportunities for students who have no votes in the market model.

The “investing class” prefers the market model that gives them all of the choices. And wealth allows them to dictate choices for everyone else. Corporate America can’t deprive working people of good wages and benefits and then complain that the schools that run on property taxes in the neighborhoods of the “working poor” are failing. The market model is not designed to provide equal opportunity or equal choice.

Bill Harshbarger
Arcola. Ill.

Education Research

To the Editor:

Howard Gardner’s illumination of several currently invisible dimensions of education research (“The Quality and Qualities of Educational Research,” Commentary, Sept. 4, 2002) sends me right to the similarly provocative questions around the effectiveness of technology in all of this.

With virtually every school wired, with billions of dollars of hardware, software, and program content in play, and with “successful teaching and learning with technology” as a stated priority in many schools, we still have only piecemeal evidence that these tools work to enhance teaching and learning. Absent stronger proof that the use of technology can transform learning, not just automate it, large numbers of teachers remain unwilling to integrate the tools and content into the curriculum.

And why wouldn’t they? Teachers will remain leery until they can see results that are real and convincing. Parents will keep snapping back to the demand for “basics” until there is proof that education technology is actually helping boost achievement and expanding their children’s learning experience.

Getting on with that research, however, is only half the problem. Mr. Gardner is right: Education is a field in which research and practice are about as far away from one another as they can possibly get. Informal research, inspired and initiated by teachers to evaluate the learning and teaching power of technology in their own classrooms, lacks the scientific underpinnings that would lend it broad authority in our current climate. Formal research on education technology has the scientific heft to give it credibility, but most often has no effect on what goes on with real teachers and real students in real classrooms.

To get this done takes more than money; it takes leadership, shared commitment to a coordinated research agenda, and a collaborative methodology by which successful approaches will get to classroom practice before the next millennium. Not just for technology, of course, but for several key areas of inquiry.

For each area to be formally investigated, we need to determine a handful of big questions—not just the narrow query that might serve as justification for a specific project’s grant funding, but the big, important questions. In the neighborhood of education technology, for example, the list might begin with: Does technology help anybody learn anything more deeply or more effectively?

When we’re confident we have the right questions, let’s post them out there like a comprehensive family tree, determine who’s already doing what, where the holes are, what needs to be done, and how we can get active classrooms into the picture sooner rather than later. Plugging along in our field’s traditional, segmented, and sluggish modus operandi just doesn’t cut it.

Let’s get moving. It’s possible, and it’s time.

Peggy O’Brien
Executive Director
Cable in the Classroom

AP Courses

To the Editor:

In response to Jay Mathews’ Commentary on college-level programs for high school students (“Advanced Placement,” Aug. 7, 2002), I just want to clarify some information that I believe might alter his conclusion.

As the coordinator of the Fieldston School’s Advanced Placement exams, I was pleased to see that the number of AP exams administered in May 2002 was almost 70 percent lower than the year before we eliminated the courses, with the vast majority of tests being in mathematics and English literature. While some colleges may still demand them, Fieldston’s experience, judging both from what we were told during our decision to separate from the program and from the reality of our first year’s results in admissions, has been that there was little demand that our students have AP courses.

It is true that some of the larger universities whose decisions are based on more objective numerical judgments factor in AP classes with greater weight than other courses. Our response to them has been to ask that they weight our advanced courses in a similar way to AP. Because of the reputation of the school, this effort has been largely successful.

Courses that are rigorous and build on the same, or stronger, more relevant skills as the AP are what matter; challenging students with critical thinking helps them become better, more capable learners. The notion that the College Board determines what is the best curriculum is intellectually troublesome. At least the SAT II exams cover such a wide range of each subject that almost any reasonable course can prepare students well without having to be specifically designed. Advanced Placement curricula, in many areas, leave little or no room for divergence, and the exam tests skills and content that may not be the most relevant for students.

This issue is, of course, debatable, but our experience at Fieldston is that curricula designed by the school’s own faculty have better addressed both content and pedagogy, in a context that fits the local environment. The curricular changes for Fieldston have been much more than semantic ones, as Mr. Mathews states in his essay.

I realize that all schools are not fortunate enough to have this ability, and having predesigned curricula may be useful for those schools. The quest to provide more students of color more opportunities to excel is critical to the future of this country, and there is real value to the AP program to the degree in which it helps to achieve this goal. But in the long run, it is much more important to realize that attracting, training, and retaining stronger teachers will be a better solution. Perhaps the College Board might think about putting its resources into teachers instead of into tests.

Joseph W. Algrant
Upper School Director
Hawken School
Gates Mill, Ohio

The writer was formerly the director of studies and an assistant principal at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx in New York City.


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