Education Letter to the Editor


December 11, 2002 22 min read
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Bush Math Plan: Three Viewpoints

To the Editor:

It is disappointing to see—again—the mindless repetition, “In mathematics, some want to emphasize basic skills, such as memorizing multiplication tables and mastering basic computational skills, while others advocate instruction that builds students’ understanding of mathematical concepts before working on basic skills” (“Bush to Push for Math and Science Upgrade,” Nov. 20, 2002).

One would expect that after so many years of covering the “math wars,” you would realize that this is a false dichotomy promulgated by people who do not believe that all children—and minority children in particular—can handle a normal program of mathematics.

Both sides want children to understand and know mathematics. The difference is that the reformists believe this can be done without children mastering the fundamental arithmetic and algebra behind it, while the traditionalists realize that this is akin to expecting children to play Mozart without knowing the scales, or perform in a play without reading the script.

Ze’ev Wurman
Palo Alto, Calif.

To the Editor:

Your article on what could be an important step in math and science education grossly misrepresents the mathematics instruction advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

While it is true that the NCTM strongly advocates building students’ understanding of mathematical concepts, critics charge that the council advocates individual student discovery at the expense of learning “basic” skills. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For the record, the NCTM strongly supports students’ mastery of basic math facts and skills. However, basic skills must develop along with an understanding of mathematical concepts and may very well involve multiple ways to solve a problem. Merely adding up numbers or learning multiplication tables is not sufficient for today’s students and will leave them poorly prepared for math in the world outside their classrooms.

Today, students are entering a world that demands understanding of data analysis, and probability and odds, to make sense of environmental problems, stock and money markets, governmental budgets, election laws, voting procedures, and even the math found in the daily news.

The NCTM’s “Principles and Standards for School Mathematics” provides a vision of instruction that can enable all students to learn math with understanding, so that they will be able to solve the problems and meet the challenges of the future.

Math is a living art, and as the world continues to change, so must the way we teach math to our children.

Johnny Lott
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
Reston, Va.

To the Editor:

The article “Bush to Push for Math and Science Upgrade” suggests just one more reason why we will never make progress under the Bush mathematics agenda.

Giving federal grants to Douglas Carnine, R. James Milgram, and Tom Loveless in an effort to find consensus on the type and amount of math coursework that prospective teachers (and those pursuing professional development) need is tantamount to letting the foxes guard the henhouse. No alternative methods to direct instruction will get a fair hearing.

As a result, the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 will become the “No Chance to Learn Better” Act in perpetuity.

Jack Price
Newport Beach, Calif.

Audit of Charters Was ‘Misguided’

To the Editor:

Your story on charter school oversight (“New Scrutiny for Sponsors of Charters,” Nov. 20, 2002) was on target when it quoted five major educational entities that dismiss a report by the California state auditor as “unfair and misguided.” The recent statewide audit of charter schools and their oversight agencies shows how little some state agencies know about charter schools and the role they play in improving public education.

It is important to note that all four of California’s largest school districts—Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, Fresno Unified, and Oakland Unified—as well as the California Department of Education vehemently disagreed with the findings of the state auditor and the methodology used. In fact, half of this 224-page report consists solely of rebuttals from these districts and the department.

All five agencies criticized the state auditor for failing to properly understand charter school law, failing to comprehend a district’s role in overseeing these independent schools, and completely misunderstanding charter school finance. Because public policy may be affected by the report, it is important that policymakers analyze both the claims and the rebuttals. The credibility of charter schools and their sponsoring districts is at stake.

One of the report’s more egregious claims was against West Oakland Community School, a charter school in Oakland, Calif. According to the audit, the school’s expenditures exceeded revenues by over $200,000.

Yet, the school made it clear in correspondence that the audit was flawed; it had not looked at every government and philanthropic funding source. After the report’s publication, the state auditor acknowledged this error, indicating that it was not meant to be a critique of the individual school, but of its oversight: "[H]ad the Oakland Unified School District contacted West Oakland, it could have been informed that West Oakland’s beginning-of-year net assets were sufficient to cover the operating losses being reported as of February 2002, and, thus, that there was no cause for concern.”

The fact is that these schools are serving their student populations well, and are being good stewards of taxpayer money. The West Oakland charter, for one, is a high-quality school serving low-income and minority student populations. Over 75 percent of its students fall below the poverty index. Yet, they score well on California’s statewide STAR tests and have made positive achievement gains every year since the school’s opening.

Many educators and district officials are working diligently to support parental choice, authentic accountability, and innovative programs. A state audit that analyzes rules-based compliance from a flawed perspective, rather than performance-based outcomes from an educator’s perspective, does a disservice to taxpayers as well as to those who benefit from these programs.

Marta Reyes
California Network of
Educational Charters
San Carlos, Calif.

Lower Grades Need ‘Reinvention,’ Too

To the Editor:

Tony Wagner’s Commentary (“Secondary School Change,” Nov. 27, 2002) is right on the money—for secondary schools. However, he makes a weak case for why his three R’s of “reinvention"—rigor, relevance, and relationships—are not really applicable to the world of elementary school education.

Mr. Wagner’s thesis that elementary schools don’t need reinventing because they are already practicing his three R’s flies in the face of the evidence.I have visited over 200 schools within the past 10 years and have seen nothing about the way elementary schools are structured to give me reason for hope.An argument can and is being made that a truly relevant student-centered model of education should be offered as early in a child’s life as possible to lay a sound foundation for lifelong learning.This is simply not happening in elementary schools today.

The disenchantment with school at the secondary level— reflected in the test scores that Mr. Wagner talks about—can be attributed to students’ being old enough to understand that schools today have little relevance to the real world.The education experience of our elementary school children is not that much different. But younger children, being more trusting and malleable and less prone to rebellion, just happen to “fit in” better.

Surely Mr. Wagner does not want to credit the education establishment for that.

Prakash Nair
Forest Hills, N.Y.

What Is the Cost of Cutting Class Size?

To the Editor:

Headlines such as the one for your Nov. 11, 2002, front-page article on school-related ballot measures (“Schools to See Big Windfalls From State Ballot Measures: Billions in New Spending for California, Florida”) proclaim that high costs will accompany the move toward appropriately sized classes in states with recently mandated class- size changes. Space for the classes may require outlays. Personnel are education’s largest continuing costs, so personnel allocations should be central in class-size discussions.

More than 20 years in class-size research have shown me that when class-size reduction is done following the research, positive student benefits often accrue with few or no new costs. This is neither magic nor “smoke and mirrors.”

Before huge spending or break-the- budget schemes are accepted as the only alternatives, planners might study places that have achieved class sizes of from 15 to 18 students at minimal added costs. What are the trade-offs? What are the options? When long- standing, replicable, experimental research results point out what should be done, the leadership challenge is to determine how to get the job done responsibly, effectively, and efficiently.

Options for achieving class-size reduction, obtaining small-class outcomes, and containing costs have been discussed in numerous articles about class-size reduction. Moreover, results can be observed in specific schools and districts.

Before dutifully marching to the gloom-and-doom dirge, educators and policy persons might visit sites, explore alternatives, review the research, and study various class-size-implementation options. Small classes are not just adding personnel and doing business as usual.

C.M. Achilles
Geneva, N.Y.

The writer is a professor at Seton Hall University, in South Orange, N.J., and a principal investigator in Project STAR, which examined class-size reduction in Tennessee.

Anti-Bilingual Vote Is Seen as ‘Racist’

To the Editor:

Thank you for your excellent coverage of Question 2 in Massachusetts (“Colorado Extends Bilingual Education, But Massachusetts Voters Reject It,” Nov. 13, 2002). Unfortunately, Question 2 (one-year English immersion) passed, and this will cause many problems for children and teachers in the state.

Teachers are now open to lawsuits (without insurance protection) and the possibility of job loss, simply for teaching in a child’s native language to help that student understand a curriculum topic. Children eligible to get into a bilingual program will have to wait 30 days for waivers, regardless of their individual needs.

Ninety-two percent of Hispanic voters voted against Question 2. Communities, teachers, and parents that once had the right to choose the teaching method they felt was best for their children, whether that was two- way bilingual, transitional bilingual, or immersion, have now lost that right.

A failed teaching methodology (a one-year immersion program) is now a reality in Massachusetts. What is the real reason for Question 2’s passage? Some mistakenly believe (without having adequate information) that one year of English immersion can work. But for others, this represents a sugar-coated form of racism: People can say to themselves, that the program is good for them; we know what is best for them.

Why is the United States one of the few places in the world that have areas where bilingual education is banned?

We still need people’s help in fighting Question 2 in Massachusetts, as it goes to the legislature and local communities for implementation.

Neil Brick
Easthampton, Mass.

Drop in SAT Scores: Cause, Correlation

To the Editor:

Many readers have responded to your Sept. 4, 2002, report that the 2001-02 average scores on the verbal SAT have declined 2 points from the past year (“Officials Tie Entrance-Score Dips to Curriculum”). The main point of contention has been an apparent remark by a College Board official that seemed to blame the decline on students’ taking theater and the arts instead of focusing on composition and grammar. Such a claim comes into direct conflict with another one touted by arts advocates— that the more arts courses taken, the higher the SAT scores.

The point is simple, and any first-year statistics student learns it in week one. You can’t conclude anything about causality from correlational evidence. Doing so can lead to diametrically opposite conclusions, thus demonstrating the absurdity of both claim and counterclaim.

Ellen Winner
Professor of Psychology
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Lois Hetland
Research Associate
Project Zero
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Mass.

No ‘Approved List’ Of Reform Models

To the Editor:

Your Nov. 27, 2002, article “Report Urges Use of Medical-Style Research in Education” contains incorrect information about the reference attributed to Robert Slavin regarding the use of “proven programs” in the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program. There is no “approved list” of models or programs. In fact, many schools awarded CSR funds have home- grown, idiosyncratic models or strategies supporting their instructional programs.

The National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, in partnership with the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, maintains a Catalog of School Reform Models as a resource for schools preparing requests for CSR funding. And it is true that some states require that schools select a model from this catalog. But there is no such federal requirement and no “approved list” at the federal level.

The Catalog of School Reform Models can be reached through the NCCSR’s Web site at www.goodschools.gwu.edu.

Arthur Gosling
Washington, D.C.

Reading Improves Students’ Spelling

To the Editor:

In your article on a to-be-published study (“Studies Back Lessons in Writing, Spelling,” Nov. 20, 2002), Steve Graham is quoted as saying that diverting attention to spelling while writing “disrupts the planning process.” His cure is to spend more time on direct spelling instruction.

There is another possibility: Advise writers to delay focusing on correct spelling until their ideas are firmly in place, while, at the same time, building up spelling competence through massive reading.

A number of studies show that good writers delay editing concerns until the final draft, and “premature editing” has been shown to be a predictor of the frequency of writing blocks. Mike Rose found this was the case for writers in English, and Sy-ying Lee of National Taipei University has shown that premature concern with form and editing relates to writing blocks for writers in Chinese, as well as for writers in English as a foreign language.

There is also very good evidence that direct instruction in spelling has limited effects. It begins with J.M. Rice’s study “The Futility of the Spelling Grind,” published in 1897, that showed no relationship between the amount of time devoted to spelling and spelling achievement, when measured on tests involving words in sentences and compositions. And it includes Oliver Cornman’s study, published in 1902, showing that dropping formal spelling instruction had no effect on spelling accuracy, whether measured in isolation or in compositions.

In a 1991 paper, Howard White and I reanalyzed the Rice and Cornman data using modern statistics and confirmed their results.

In 1977, Donald Hamill, Stephen Larsen, and Gaye McNutt reported that children who had spelling instruction spelled better than uninstructed students in grades 3 and 4 did, but the differences disappeared by grades 4 and 5. This suggests that spelling instruction, when it works, only succeeds in helping children learn to spell words that they would have learned to spell on their own anyway.

Additional evidence comes from Sandra Wilde’s work: Ms. Wilde estimated that each spelling word learned through direct instruction takes about 20 minutes of instructional time. Given the huge number of words, this result strongly suggests that instruction cannot do the job.

A focus on spelling rules is equally hopeless. W. Cook, back in 1912, tested high school and college students who had just completed a semester of intensive study of spelling rules. There was no difference in spelling accuracy among those who said they knew the rules and used them, those who said they knew the rules and did not use them, and those who said they did not know the rules. He also found that even though the students had just studied the rules, many could not recall them. When asked to state the rules, they typically gave versions much simpler than the complex rules they had been taught.

The most likely candidate for building spelling competence is reading. This conjecture is supported by studies showing that each time readers read a passage containing words they cannot spell, they make a small amount of progress in acquiring the correct spelling, as well as by studies showing that spelling gets worse when we read misspelled words. Also, some studies show positive correlations between spelling competence and the amount of reading done.

I am fully aware that many people who are well-read are not perfect spellers. My claim is that reading will make one a very good, but not a perfect speller; well-read writers usually have problems with a tiny percentage of the words they write.

I think that the solution to this problem is to let spelling develop naturally through massive reading in the early years, and provide older writers with some guidance in the use of spell-checkers and spelling dictionaries, as well as advising them to delay spelling concerns until the final draft.

Good evidence that this is a reasonable solution is the fact that so many of us know when we are about to make a spelling mistake, and we can usually recognize the correct spelling of a word when presented with alternatives on a spell-checker. I think that this feel for correctness comes from extensive reading. It is pointless to urge children to look up words before they have developed this “spelling sense.”

Stephen Krashen
Emeritus Professor
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Term Papers: A Sad Decline; Some Possible Solutions

To the Editor:

The study commissioned by The Concord Review on the decline of high school history research papers is sad news for students and another bad sign of the replacement of functions crucial for higher-order thinking by test-prep materials (“Relegating Student Research to the Past,” Nov. 20, 2002)

Research and paper-writing skills are absolutely crucial prerequisites for a good college experience. When I taught freshmen at the University of Illinois, many talented students lacked these skills and suffered badly because of it. We found, in studying 5,000 students in the Indiana Youth Opportunity Project, that schools were focusing too much on courses and not enough on making certain that students obtained key general learning and expression skills. In terms of the schools’ function in preparing citizens, obviously the ability to move beyond the textbook to learn how to find and synthesize information on one’s own is absolutely crucial.

This study is another warning that we need to broaden the narrow discussion we have been engaged in about achievement and the sad reductionism that has come from reducing it to test scores.

Gary Orfield
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

As a 25- year veteran of high school social studies, I’ve seen the factors that conspired to “kill” the term paper. But I refused to give up the fight and cede my classroom to bulleted lists flying into PowerPoint reports.

Students need more writing, not less. I found that document-based questions provided rigorous and relevant writing in a manageable format that was easily integrated into a variety of classroom settings. Frequent writing to document prompts allowed me to imbed assessments into instruction, and help students measure their progress compared to a scoring rubric.

A well-constructed, document-based question offers students a wealth of engaging historical material and leads them to the construction of a well-crafted essay based on their analysis of the source material. Each features a selection of primary and secondary documents, artifacts, images, tables, graphs, and maps focused on an essential question of enduring relevance.

Give students the chance to do the work of historians by evaluating the impact of industrialization based on selections from historic census data, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, the 1908 Sears Catalogue, Lewis Hine photographs, and interviews from the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project. They’ll never be able to plagiarize an essay from the Internet to this specific set of documents.

Document-based instruction gives students the opportunity to move beyond the passive absorption of facts and enter knowledgeably into a managed archive where they can bring sound historic perspective and analysis to bear on the challenges of the past and opportunities for the future. They might even want to read the rest of Sister Carrie.

Peter Pappas
Rochester, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I am pleased to report that there is at least one niche in modern public secondary education where the research paper is alive and well. As the parent of a student enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, I have watched my daughter face the challenge of one of its requirements for an IB diploma: writing the extended essay. Required to be between 3,500 and 5,000 words in length, the extended essay must focus on a topic of contemporary interest and must, for the most part, be based on primary research. (See “International Education,” Commentary, Nov. 27, 2002.)

A faculty adviser is assigned to each IB student for the sole purpose of guiding him or her through this research project. Since the essay is not part of any for-credit class requirement, since each faculty advisory only accepts a limited number of assigned students, and since the essay is sent to Geneva, Switzerland, for review and assessment, no classroom teacher is burdened with the prospect of guiding, receiving, and grading perhaps as many as 150 research papers each semester.

This is yet another example of the advantages of the International Baccalaureate program’s in-depth, customized approach to student learning. And it stands in stark contrast to the Advanced Placement program’s broader (and shallower) approach.

Richard Willis
Tallahassee, Fla.

Home Schooling: Achievement as the Constant, Time as the Variable

To the Editor:

It was with great interest and some surprise that I read Jean C. Halle’s Commentary on home schooling (“Home Schooling: Why We Should Care,” Nov. 13, 2002). As a home school graduate who is now a doctoral candidate in education, I am always interested in the perception of home schooling in the press.

Home schooling is a delicate issue for public educators and, in my view, has typically been handled in the same way that other challenges to the hegemony of public education have been handled—with disdain, mistrust, and suspicion. Home education presents a conundrum: It appears to have more success than its public counterpart, without draining assets from public school efforts. This makes it difficult to level criticism at the movement and equally difficult to embrace it, since the results are achieved in most situations without the highly prized teaching credentials presumed to nurture academic success in public education contexts.

Is there a message for public education from the home schooling movement? Ms. Halle urges that educators accept home schooling as a powerful alternative on the continuum of educational opportunity. But this seems to stop short of the real message, since with or without that acceptance, the home school movement is and will continue to be “an important part of the continuum of educational alternatives, a powerful tool in the American arsenal for developing young minds.”

I would like to suggest that home schooling presents an important message about instructional methods. Ms. Halle begins to make this point when she writes that “the home school movement is gaining momentum because of increased community support, program flexibility, and challenging, accessible curricula.” I would extend the point by noting that home schooling creates a more favorable context for the use of instructional methods that have a rich, researched history for increasing student achievement.

In the early and mid-1980s, Herbert J. Walberg identified a list of instructional methods associated with strong positive effects on learning. Among the methods associated with the largest effects are methods particularly difficult to use in the traditional public education available to most of the nation’s students, but much more possible to use in a home school setting. Such methods include: reinforcement, acceleration, reading training, cues and feedback, science mastery learning, cooperative learning, reading experiments, personalized instruction, adaptive instruction, and tutoring. (Notice that many of these methods are time-intensive and highly responsive to individual needs.)

Let me be quick to note, as Mr. Walberg was, that of all the factors that influence achievement, none was sufficient alone to explain increased achievement. And many factors other than the instructional methods that home schoolers use contribute to their successes. But I would suggest that the flexibility afforded by home schooling results in the use of more powerful instructional methods.

This should be no surprise to public educators. We would all love to see what our students’ test scores or other more important measures of achievement would be if we applied our knowledge of methods to classes of, say, one to three students, as is the case with many home schools. It is certainly not that public educators don’t know about or want to use these powerful instructional methods. But knowledge about them is insufficient to overcome the contextual constraints present in the classrooms of most public educators. The very structures of schooling often prohibit the use of methods that contribute most to achievement.

So what is the message for public education in the continuing success of the home school movement? Having taught in a public elementary school for six years, I know that public educators don’t look to home schooling as a provider of lessons for them. But if an educational alternative proves to be successful, can we afford to simply acknowledge its good points passively? Wouldn’t it be better to try to understand how an effective educational option might improve our own practices, whether the alternative is home schooling or something else? The obvious answer is that we should.

Does this mean that we should quit our jobs and send America’s children home to their parents? Of course not. But perhaps the exigencies of public education that prevent it from being described as “flexible” should be the focus of our efforts to improve it. Until we address the structures of schooling that prevent us from addressing the personal needs of learners in the ways we already know are most effective, we will continue to push a system already performing at capacity with few appreciable results—a plight noted by Robert Branson in his Upper Limit Hypothesis.

Until public education views achievement as the constant and time as the variable, we will continue to wrestle with the issue that home schooling has already solved: how to personalize instruction. Can this be achieved by public education? Only if we understand how the current structures of schooling limit our use of powerful instructional methods, and recognize fully that real change will have to address these structures.

John Keller
Bloomington, Ind.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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