A Federal Law’s ‘Punitive Essence’
To the Editor:
Donald B. Gratz (“Leaving No Child Behind,” Commentary, June 11, 2002) adeptly cuts through the lofty rhetoric of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 and zeroes in on its punitive essence. In so doing, he reveals the law’s real intent without actually uttering the words.
The words he avoids are these: The No Child Left Behind Act was never designed to help disadvantaged students. It was written to dismantle public schools. Why else would the law require that all students everywhere—including students with limited English and students with disabilities—be proficient in reading and math by 2014?
It makes no difference that no state or country in history has ever been able to achieve 100 percent proficiency in these areas, as called for by the No Child Left Behind legislation. It also counts for naught that schools are being financially shortchanged as they struggle to meet the Sisyphean task that lies ahead.
It’s further interesting to note that private and parochial schools are exempt from the provisions of the federal law, even when public funds are involved. If they weren’t, they would do only slightly better in reaching this unrealistic goal than their public school counterparts, which must enroll all who show up at their doors.
It’s time to call the No Child Left Behind Act what it is: a fraud perpetrated on the public in the name of accountability by those who want to privatize education.
Los Angeles, Calif.
The Fiscal Incentive For Cyber Schooling
To the Editor:
Regarding your front-page story headlined “Florida Raises Cyber School’s Fiscal Status: Virtual Learning Gets Boost From New State Policy” (June 11, 2003): Let me see if I have this correct.
(1.) We are referring to businesses designed to make a profit.
(2.) These businesses will not receive this new, line-item funding from the state unless students pass the cyber school courses.
If those assumptions are correct, then how many cyber school students do we think will actually fail to pass the courses offered by these schools? What am I missing here?
Church and State, Here and in Iraq
To the Editor:
What irony! President Bush said in April that what he would like to see in Iraq “is a government where church and state are separated.” Yet in the United States, Mr. Bush is doing all he can to undermine church-state separation: pushing for compulsory public support for faith-based schools and charities and seeking to promote fundamentalist values. Now, as your article “Religious Study Confronts U.S. in Iraq” (June 11, 2003) points out, his administration has paid for the printing of religious textbooks in Afghanistan.
As you report, Herman Schwartz won a major federal appeals court ruling against U.S. provision of tax aid to oversees religious schools in 1991 (Lamont v. Woods). However, while your story mentioned the American Civil Liberties Union as a sponsor of the litigation, the suit was a collaborative effort of the ACLU and Americans for Religious Liberty. The ACLU provided the attorneys, while ARL provided the plaintiffs.
America is properly helping to rebuild Iraq, but in doing so it should respect the U.S. constitutional mandate to keep religion and government separate, especially as the first President Bush accepted the 1991 appellate court ruling in Lamont.
Albert J. Menendez
Americans for Religious Liberty
Response to Letter On Virginia Tests
To the Editor:
Please allow me to respond to assertions and personal attacks in Kirk T. Schroder’s letter (“Virginians Debate Standards, Exam,” Letters, June 11, 2003) responding to my earlier letter about Virginia’s Standards of Learning program (“Virginia Test Gives No Aid to At-Risk,” Letters, May 21, 2003).
Mr. Schroder is absolutely correct that I have ties to public education, something I’ve never tried to hide but am quite proud of. I taught students with moderate and severe cognitive disabilities in several school divisions in Virginia from 1978 to 1989 and was recognized by the Virginia Department of Education as the 1986 Virginia Teacher of the Year.
In 1988, I left teaching to stay home to raise my own children. I now work part time as an educational consultant in the areas of severe disabilities, alternative and augmentative communication, and challenging behavior. I am also a volunteer advocate for children with disabilities, having served as the president of the Virginia Chapter of TASH, an organization championing equal opportunity for children and adults with severe disabilities, and the president of The Arc of Virginia.
And Mr. Schroder is also correct that I am a Bedford County and Bedford city school board member, a position I assumed just before the current Standards of Learning program’s advent. I became a school board member to become more involved in the education of the children in my community. And I will not ignore problems that have become increasingly evident in the years since the SOLs. I’m not sure why my education expertise should disqualify me from trying to have flaws in the SOL (or any other education program) addressed.
I have five children who are currently completing 8th, 7th, 5th, 4th, and 2nd grades. I have watched what has happened in their classrooms over the years as we chase after pass rates. Because my children’s educational quality is at stake, I feel a deep sense of urgency over this issue and can relate to other parents who feel the same way. That is why I have organized parents around Virginia who have serious concerns about the negative effects of our high-stakes testing program on kids and education, almost all of which the state, like Mr. Schroder, continues to dismiss.
If the SOLs are, as Kirk Schroder and other supporters claim, working to raise the achievement of all students (especially the at-risk kids), then most other measures besides SOL-test pass rates should show the same kinds of “impressive” gains, but they do not. While Mr. Schroder cites several numbers, he very carefully avoids the statistics I laid out.
The data, “when looked at fairly and without ideological bias,” show that the achievement effects of the SOLs are questionable at best. The SOL-test pass rates and percentage of schools labeled fully accredited based on those pass rates are rising on a steady and unpalatable diet of narrowed curriculum, teaching to the tests, intensive practice testing, and “adjustments” to pass rates and some cut scores designed to improve the bottom line.
Perhaps Mr. Schroder believes that students are learning more and performing better academically, but his belief is not supported by all the facts.
His effort to distort what is happening to our kids and our schools should be recognized for what it is. As a parent, I urge policymakers, the media, and other parents to carefully examine the information they are given about the effects of high-stakes testing. Our children’s future is at stake.
Small Schools and Attendance Zones
To the Editor:
A key point was missing in your article “Small-Schools Backers Wary of Oakland Shifts” (June 4, 2003): Will smaller Oakland schools have attendance areas? This is a huge issue. Without at least public school choice, smaller schools have some significant disadvantages.
Small schools are ill- suited to meeting the broad range of educational challenges that will exist in any attendance zone. The elimination of attendance areas will allow some specialization by educators, and allow the matching of children’s learning styles and subject interests to specialized offerings that are necessary to improve the productivity of educators and maximize achievement gains.
College of Business
University of Texas, San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas
Competition and Catholic Schools
To the Editor:
In his recent letter, Ronald T. Bowes, the assistant superintendent for public policy and development for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, claims that, in his words, “our side supports competition, accountability, and choice, which we know will save the taxpayer money and produce better schools” (“More on the Value of Catholic Schools,” Letters, June 4, 2003).
First, this is stated in an adversarial tone that is more about gloating than a sincere call for change. Private and Catholic schools attempt to educate only a small portion (10 percent to 13 percent) of school-age children. One of the reasons for this is that only parents who can afford the tuition can send their kids to these schools, and in some schools, only if their children can pass the entrance exam. Having restrictions on attendance is not competing.
In addition, these schools are not fully self- funded. They get money from taxpayers for buses and drivers, some books, nurses, and other special services (reading specialists) supplied by intermediate units. This is not competition. These should be the first items cut from state education budgets. Most of these students would not come streaming into the public system as a result; however, those that did might be welcomed for what they can add to the classroom and average test scores.
Surely, the public system is not perfect. It could use some more of the discipline that is evident in the private system, a benefit that is more a function of parents and home environment than educational institution. Catholic schools have to stop pretending that they do the same thing as public schools do, cheaper and better.
A Medicaid Review Of Special Ed. Files?
To the Editor:
In reference to your article “Disabled by Paperwork?” (May 28, 2003): There is too much paperwork in medicine as well as education. Mental- health-treatment professionals, for instance, have enormous obligations to document and meet with patients under Medicaid provisions. Yet there are no movements to “do away with” such documentation.
I would suggest taking a random sampling of special education student files to actually see the amount of paperwork. My experience is that there is very little, and that most of the work is straight off a computer or consists of moribund phrases such as: “Will process feelings with teacher on a regular basis” and “Will refrain from angry outbursts 90 percent of time.”
Teachers need to be better-trained, more accountable, and able to diagnose and formulate learning programs that are specific to the individual child. The students lose when they waste time doing things that have no payout at the end. Teachers who continue writing silly and pat statements are not good teachers in the first place.
Want to end the shoddy outcomes in special education? Have an agency like that which administers the Medicaid program come in once a year and go through every file with a fine-tooth comb. If a district is underserving students, it should receive a consequence. That is what is done in hospitals and treatment centers. It ought to be done in schools as well.
Districts don’t want to do difficult tasks, they don’t want to change, and they don’t want accountability. We shouldn’t just look at scores; we should look at the manner in which students have received their instruction. And we should never take away the rights of the handicapped. That is simply a betrayal and a thrust backward 50 years or more.
If we believe that eliminating paperwork will result in better teaching, we are probably being hoodwinked.
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Gardner’s Theory: Fad or ‘Dream’?
To the Editor:
It is amazing that in this age of testing and accountability in schools, we see such wide-scale embracing of an unproven fad, the multiple-intelligences theory advanced by Howard Gardner and others, and we ask for literally no evidence of educational effects (“Staying Power,” June 4, 2003).
John F. Feldhusen
To the Editor:
If what Howard Gardner says is only partially true, today’s attempt at accountability in education (only teach reading, writing, and arithmetic) is forcing the field to educationally starve a child in the name of education. Not feeding—or even acknowledging—the other intelligences is the same as teaching a child to see, hear, and smell, yet rejecting that child’s ability to touch and taste. This teaches the child that those two senses are invalid. Just ignore them.
Emanuel V. Goss
To the Editor:
While most savvy educators understand Howard Gardner’s theories, it is virtually impossible to implement them in a large public school system, such as that already established in the United States. The cost would be prohibitive, as we apparently believe funds for the military and other endeavors are far more important than really educating our nation’s young people.
In implementing a standards-based reform system, we are viewing all students as the same and “uniform.” This is another Band-Aid approach that over time will not work. It reminds me of the factory system at the turn of the 20th century, when all employees’ work was judged the same and to a particular standard that all had to aspire to. And isn’t this the same system our schools were based on in the early 20th century? Guess what? It’s back again.
Howard Gardner’s theories are a dream we will never realize in this country, at least, not until we radically rearrange our priorities and honestly put education where it belongs—first.
New York, N.Y.
Let Voucher Schools Raise Local Levies
To the Editor:
In your article “Cleveland Voucher Aid No Panacea for Hard-Pressed Catholic Schools” (June 18, 2003), one of the quotes from St. Vitus School Principal Jeanette R. Polomsky reflects, for me, the confusion created by the state legislature’s method of funding schools. She says that a student sitting at a public school desk is worth $5,000, but is worth only $2,500 as a voucher recipient in her school. Rather than get bogged down in details, the following is a simple explanation of how part of the funding mechanism works in Ohio.
The Ohio legislature would like everyone to believe it sends public schools approximately $5,000 per student, but the fact is it does not. After multiplying the number of students by approximately $5,000, the amount of money raised by $23 million of taxes in a school district is subtracted from the total. The result for each district varies widely, because the money that can be raised in district A may be much more than the amount raised in district B. There are many districts that receive less than the $2,500 per student that a voucher student receives.
Some would argue that this is acceptable, because in total, the student is provided with approximately $5,000 in combined state and local funding. Since private voucher schools and charter schools cannot raise local tax revenue, they should receive the entire amount from the state. I think we ought to fund these schools in the same manner as public schools, and let them place local tax measures on the ballot. The legislature then will find out just how popular these educational options are with the citizens of Ohio.
Maria Stein, Ohio
Detroit ‘Meditation’ Draws Support
To the Editor:
In response to your Take Note column headlined “Chilling Out” (June 18, 2003): I was very happy to see both the news that a school has had the good fortune to adopt the practice of Transcendental Meditation, and that it is experiencing the marvelous benefits gained through use of this simple mental technique. It would be good to hear the results of other schools as well.
To the Editor:
Great column on Transcendental Meditation in a Detroit charter school. Wow, I wish we had that in our school, as students and teachers and parents are so stressed!
To the Editor:
I congratulate you on publishing a column on the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse in Detroit. The results the school seems to be having from Transcendental Meditation in easing an ever-challenging problem certainly warrants consideration. Thank you for being open-minded enough to see the value in a strategy that is outside the paradigm.
Questions on Texas’ ‘10 Percent Solution’
To the Editor:
What an astounding revelation. Texas has bent so far to create its “10 percent solution” to the question of affirmative action in college admissions that it now teeters over the edge of logic (“Texas Leaders See Flaws in Admissions Plan,” June 18, 2003).
The state created its college- admissions plan in 1996, under then-Gov. George W. Bush, to serve as an alternative to affirmative action. You report that the state’s policy “guarantees entry into any of its public universities for students finishing in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes.”
What is astounding is that class-ranking policy apparently has no connection to college-preparatory coursework. A student who chooses a “minimum graduation” curriculum and earns all A grades will outrank a student choosing the most rigorous “distinguished achievement” curriculum and earning some B grades. Now, seven years after the 10 percent solution began, Texas legislators are urging that students take at least the midlevel curriculum—"recommended high school program"—to qualify for university admission under the 10 percent rule.
Your article raised questions: How many of these top 10 percent students are succeeding in college? How has the number of remedial college courses been affected? How does their graduation rate compare to that of others admitted? Why is Texas’ top public university admitting students who have not taken a college-preparatory curriculum? If that is being done for the sake of racial diversity, what subliminal message does such a policy convey?
As a lifelong educator, I am deeply troubled by many elements of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. The Texas plan, which ignores the level of coursework and looks only at a numerical grade point average, typifies my concern. Are we lowering the standards for all children to ensure that none is left behind? All efforts and resources are being directed at children who struggle with minimal competency; the pursuit of excellence is nowhere on the radar screen. What does that portend for the future of public education in America?
Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Board of Education Member
On Rebuilding Iraq, A British Objection
To the Editor:
I found your article this spring about education in the Middle East and the implications of U.S.-based private firms and nonprofit organizations “rebuilding” the Iraqi education system appalling (“U.S.-Led Effort Girds to Reinvent Iraqi Schools,” April 23, 2003).
The Iraqi education system, which was one of the finest in the Middle East, was—like those of most of the countries in that region—based on the British model.
Numerous international tests have shown the British General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE, model to be much superior to the U.S. education system. Take a look at the rankings of Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland on the internationally recognized Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, scale compared with that of the United States.
So Creative Associates International Inc. is now in the process of dismantling a superior British system and replacing it with a second-rate U.S. system—well done!
Of perhaps of more significance is the fact that countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and others use the British system as a national standard. All the Arabic course material and textbooks are geared to the GCSE system.
The replacement is not only going to be a second-rate system, it’s going to be an expensive second-rate system.
When we look at the experience of British Examination Boards like Edexcel and Cambridge Board, which have operated worldwide for decades in over 55 countries, the experience of Creative Associates for the job it has been commissioned to do is trivial.
Phonics, Vouchers, And Black Progress
To the Editor:
This letter is in response to, and support of, the findings on minority voucher students’ progress reported by the Harvard University researchers Paul E. Peterson and William G. Howell (“Researcher Insists N.Y.C. Vouchers Benefit Black Students,” June 18, 2003).
The reason black students benefit from moving to non-public schools is largely that the reading programs of the latter are more heavily phonics-based. You published a letter of mine in February 1998 on the research showing that African-Americans suffer more damage from whole-language instruction than do other ethnic groups and, therefore, benefit more from a switch to phonics. If we connect the dots, the picture is clear. That connection is provided by the Miller Word Identification Assessment, a new test that quantifies the damage from whole-word teaching.
Besides the new research, the late Albert Shanker, in a New York Times column of Aug. 20, 1995, reported a “Baltimore Success Story” in which the Barclay Elementary School switched its curriculum to that of the Calvert School, with a phonics-based reading program. In four years, Barclay’s inner-city test scores rose by 30 to 50 percentile points, and its referrals for special education went down by a factor of four. Similar data exist for the schools described online at www.noexcuses.org/pdf/noexcus e s.pdf (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader), at which reading programs emphasize phonics early and African- Americans are high achievers.
The Miller Word Identification Assessment was devised by Edward Miller, a retired North Carolina school administrator who has tested over 1,000 students in North Carolina and Florida. I have tested 200 students on Long Island, N.Y., and the data are very consistent that black kids suffer twice as severely as whites from nonphonics teaching of reading.
Discovering the cause leads to remedies. Readers should see, at www.TLC.LI, the article “Black Under- Achievement: The Reading Connection.”
Charles M. Richardson
The Literacy Council
South Setauket, N.Y.
Resource Allocation That Ignores Quality
To the Editor:
The “Millennium School,” a team-teaching organizational structure presented in a recent Commentary by Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles (“The ‘Trilemma’ Dysfunction,” May 14, 2003), is a rediscovery of a model in use in the 1950s at Franklin School in Lexington, Mass., according to Barbara Nelson Pavan (“Teaching’s ‘Trilemma,’” Letters, June 11, 2003).
Ms. Pavan laments that “our educational memory is so short.” But it is not “educational memory” that is to blame for abandonment of good ideas. The culprit that “forgot” the Franklin School model and has forgotten hundreds of good ideas since is a resource-allocation process on which quality—quality of ideas, schools, teachers, principals—does not register. Funds flow according to predetermined formulas that take no account of differences in effectiveness.
If, serendipitously, a public school should create a uniquely effective organizational model and/or instructional approach, the resources available would not change. In a few years, the idea or model would be abandoned. The immediate cause could be a new superintendent with a different agenda, key teachers who move or retire, a contract dispute that disrupts implementation, and on and on. But the root cause would be this: The flow of resources does not change. The idea does not get traction. In time, it’s forgotten.
I have read many good ideas in Education Week over the last 20 years. I venture that few of those ideas have survived beyond the attention of the originating teachers, schools, or districts. Our resource- allocation formulas cannot detect them. State and federal directives, district enrollments, seniority, course credits—these determine resource allocation. Ideas generated by schools and teachers make no impression, no matter how sound and well-executed. The best idea receives the same funds as the worst.
Is there a way to move beyond resource-allocation formulas that leave us on an idea treadmill? Incrementally shifting control of some funds, over many years, from the allocation formulas to individual parents would create openings for good ideas to surface, get funding, and have an impact.
Who can doubt that parents, given a few years to become accustomed to choosing their children’s schools, would not surpass the allocation formulas in nurturance of quality and innovation?
Here’s a thought experiment: It is 2030. Parents now have a large role in the resource-allocation process. What would have become of the Millennium model and/or other organizational structures in which teachers are key decisionmakers about curriculum and staffing? With parents holding schools directly accountable, what fate befell today’s test-driven micromanagement of classrooms? What of the endless wars between progressives and traditionalists in so many curricular domains? What about the distinctiveness of schools?
Would there be more variety, or would schools tend toward sameness in curricular offerings and structure? Would the size of schools change? With parents in charge of the resources for their own children, would there be more innovation or less than today?
Our resource-allocation process is indifferent to quality. It imposes staggering costs in terms of lost opportunities for knowledge. We need to change it, incrementally.
Retired Public School Teacher
Political Charges?: The Imbroglio Over A Pilot Teacher- Certification Test
To the Editor:
Recent allegations that David G. Imig, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, may have undermined, or “sabotaged,” a teacher-certification pilot test under development by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence are not true (“Congress to Probe Teacher Ed. Group and Its President,” June 18, 2003).
As many as 3,000 individuals possessed or saw copies of this pilot test earlier this year. The pilot test was in its “tryout” phase and was not to be used again by the test provider. There was no legal disclaimer or any other warning on the copy of the test that did not make it public. In fact, the test was one of four that were developed.
It is true that in March, Mr. Imig received a copy of one of the pilot tests as he prepared for a panel discussion on the issue of teacher certification; and he shared it with professional colleagues who were engaged in the dialogue about teacher education. But in no way was it his intention to “sabotage” the test.
It is interesting that now, three months later, it has been alleged that these actions—the open debate of a widely circulated pilot test—amount to “sabotage” or “theft.” It is even more interesting that the group launching these attacks has failed to explain how Mr. Imig’s actions sabotaged the test. Perhaps these allegations are politically motivated.
For those of us who have had the honor of working with David Imig, we acknowledge that he is a man of great integrity—perhaps that is why this incident is being blown out of proportion. Mr. Imig has devoted the past 40 years of his life to teacher education, and has made many improvements to this system. He remains a leader in the field of teacher education, and he will continue to do so.
Ana Maria Schuhmann
Board of Directors
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
To the Editor:
The article “Congress to Probe Teacher Ed. Group and Its President” provokes several reactions. David G. Imig, on whom the article focuses, has served as the chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education for approximately 25 years. During his tenure at AACTE, Mr. Imig has served his association with wisdom, foresight, courage, and integrity. Although the immediate challenge for AACTE is the preparation of teachers, Mr. Imig’s actions have always been driven by his commitment to the welfare of K-12 students.
At AACTE annual meetings and frequently at meetings of the board of directors, David Imig has presented “environmental scans,” a review of federal and state initiatives and professional activities around the country that relate to the work of teacher- educators. AACTE committees, member institutions, and professional organizations have used the “scan” as a basis for creating policies and planning program revisions. Providing this type of leadership is an expectation for the chief executive officer of a major education association.
What happened with regard to the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence test currently under development is not clear from your article and from other reports in the press. However, if David Imig requested materials representative of what will appear on ABCTE tests, and was not told that the materials were secure, sharing the examples with other education leaders and the institutions he represents would be consistent with the advocacy role described above.
A single, on-demand test is not as good as more- comprehensive measures; consider that selective institutions of higher education that require SAT scores also require high school grade point averages. If the American Board test is as ideologically slanted as one would expect, Mr. Imig’s efforts to inform and stimulate action from the AACTE member institutions is consistent with expectations the members have for the association’s CEO.
U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is quoted as referring to the monopoly that the education establishment has on the certification of teachers. I wonder whether he also feels that respective establishments exercise the same monopoly on prospective physicians, attorneys, pharmacists, and engineers.
Finally, you report that “critics have described [education schools] as cash cows” that do little for their students. Teacher-educators describe themselves as cash cows, meaning that universities have encouraged education schools to accept as many students as they could and then to divert tuition revenues to other programs. Studies of higher education finance have consistently shown that the per-credit-hour support for education schools has been at or near the bottom of university divisions. Even so, education school programs have continued to improve and so has the competency level of their graduates.
Under David Imig, AACTE has provided technical assistance and continuing professional-development activities that have facilitated such improvement.
The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence is engaged in an ideological venture that many educators believe will reduce quality control over beginning teachers and reduce the quality of education for K-12 students. Mr. Imig is a strong advocate for higher quality control. I wonder whether the ABCTE and others in its camp are trying to discredit David Imig because he is a formidable foe of their misguided efforts.
Dale P. Scannell
The writer is a professor emeritus of education at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
An Orwellian View: Misconceptions on the Harsh Impact Of Standards and Tests
To the Editor:
In her powerful and elegantly written Commentary “The Orwell Connection” (June 18, 2003), Jane Ehrenfeld makes three points: High-stakes tests narrow what is taught, pervert how it is taught, and terrorize children. As a former Boston educator who happens to have attended an English boarding school, I see these issues somewhat differently.
On the first point, Ms. Ehrenfeld bemoans the fact that teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” which keeps them from making their own curriculum decisions and teaching what they feel their students need to know. She says that state tests limit teachers to the skills and knowledge that are tested, leaving no time for other important material.
She is absolutely right that tests narrow the curriculum and limit teachers’ freedom. For too long, American teachers were given an overwhelming amount of curriculum to cover and, paradoxically, a great deal of freedom to decide what they taught. This resulted in an unhealthy curriculum anarchy, in which many students graduated with huge gaps in their knowledge and skills and many teachers operated in isolation from their colleagues. We needed to cut down the amount of curriculum for each grade, and we needed a coherent, thoughtful K-12 curriculum plan.
The romantic notion that teachers should be allowed to decide what they teach (not to be confused with how they teach it) has been one of the major targets of the standards movement. Not everyone is happy with the curriculum decisions that were made, but choices had to be made. Among the wisest choices in Massachusetts was to place major emphasis on writing, higher-order thinking, science, and social studies.
On the second point, Ms. Ehrenfeld feels that high-stakes tests will inevitably contaminate the “how to” of teaching. She says that test prep permeates schools for months at a time, and that teachers are prevented from teaching in innovative and creative ways, and students spend hours drilling facts, answering multiple-choice questions, and reading short, decontextualized passages.
This does not need to happen! There’s a fundamental misconception at work here—that we have to teach badly to raise test scores. The research is clear that what produces well-educated graduates and high scores is good teaching. This means challenging subject matter, engaging, hands-on classroom activities, lots of writing, reading whole books, and energized teachers who know their subject and make it exciting and relevant. It certainly does not mean junky test prep. What many thoughtful educators like Ms. Ehrenfeld have great difficulty accepting is that in a world where the what of curriculum is mandatory, the how to can be creative and wonderfully diverse.
On the third point, Ms. Ehrenfeld describes how one of her former students, terrified about the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, test banged her head on a desk all morning. Why did this happen? Because, says Ms. Ehrenfeld, the life chances and future happiness of Massachusetts children—and the fate of their schools—rest on students’ performance on a single test.
This is simply not true. In elementary and middle school, the MCAS is a big deal, but it doesn’t decide promotion to the next grade (the highest stake for these children). High school students must pass the 10th grade test to earn a diploma, but they can take the test multiple times and get tremendous amounts of support to meet the challenge. The MCAS is not competitive, norm-referenced, or graded on a curve. Virtually every student who is taught an aligned curriculum and works hard can pass.
It is heart- rending to hear about a student being so terrified of the MCAS or any other test. To put a stop to this, educators and families need to rise to the challenge of really preparing students for these very doable tests and building up their confidence. If we take this approach, rather than fighting an endless rearguard action against the tests, the number of students banging their heads on desks will approach zero—and the number of students earning a truly meaningful high school diploma will go through the roof.
The writer was a teacher, curriculum director, and principal in the Boston public schools for 32 years. This year, he has worked mentoring new urban principals in New York, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay area.
Rating Teachers Online: Glitches in a Web Site for ‘Student Angst’
To the Editor:
It was only a matter of time before Education Week picked up on the phenomenon known as www.ratemyteacher.com. To their credit, essayists Bruce S. Cooper and Kathleen P. King (“Students Grading Us?,”Commentary, June 11, 2003) accurately depict the reality that responses can be “informative” and “devastating” at the same time.
My name first appeared on the site during a five-week absence following a debilitating accident at work, and the initial ratings were, as Mr. Cooper and Ms. King so aptly put it, devastating. Unfortunately, comments such as “sadist” and “bipolar” were posted, but there was nothing specific to which I could respond. Nor was it encouraging as I sat there with three broken limbs. Upon my return to work, I discussed the matter with all my classes and asked for more- specific feedback, either through the site or through anonymous communication. In the weeks that followed, I received almost none.
Yet, without being able to pinpoint the cause, my ratings rebounded and increased sharply.
The concerns over validity and equity that the Commentary’s authors raise cannot be overstated. There is no safeguard to preserve any semblance of “fairness” on the site, nor can we be sure that the voices we hear are those of our students. Prospective employers, board of education members, and parents can access the site just as easily as students can.
Mr. Cooper and Ms. King raise this same issue, and then answer it by noting a “small safeguard,” wherein a “student proctor” can remove “bad language or accusations.” The result is a partially sanitized bulletin board that is an exercise in First Amendment liberty. It is not, in any sense, particularly helpful for teachers sincerely interested in responding to student concerns.
And Mr. Cooper and Ms. King are on the money when they assert that “it runs the danger of hurting teachers and teaching.” I disagree, however, that it “holds the promise of enhancing education through public exposure of strengths and weaknesses.” Though www.ratemyteacher.com bills itself as a kind of Consumer Reports for education, it operates with an irresponsibility that would cost an educator his or her job.
Make no mistake: This site is for students, not teachers. As it asserts itself, “Our goal is to make this Web site a valuable resource by helping students get through their middle, junior, and high [school] careers with minimum pain.”
There are those in our information age who will view the site as something more than a venue for student angst, and they will miss the point. Dialogue, not teacher-bashing, will improve student-teacher rapport and ultimately improve education. Two-way communication is essential to our profession. This site does not support educators with a sincere desire to hear and respond to their students, regardless of the concern, nor is it designed to do so.
In response, my school district has blocked the site from school machines, and has chosen not to participate in any official capacity in its undertakings.
We would be wise to listen to our students, but to consider the source with utmost care.
Weston High School
To the Editor:
In response to Bruce S. Cooper and Kathleen P. King’s Commentary: For the most part, those teachers with unskilled, undisciplined, and unmotivated students will be rated lower. It is not a good idea, and is unfair.
To the Editor:
The Commentary by Bruce S. Cooper and Kathleen P. King on the Web site www.ratemyteacher.com pointed out a number of problems with this enterprise (its ratings are not based on a random sample of students, for one), but was weak on solutions.
I agree with the authors that the site was inevitable and won’t go away. But it seems to me that the best way to counter it is for schools to run their own in-house system of student feedback to teachers, and make it legitimate.
Colleges have long had ways for students to give feedback on their professors, and that feedback is incorporated into the professors’ evaluations. Schools should do the same. Schools could ensure that the student feedback is representative and responsible, and that student opinions play an appropriate, and not disproportionate, role in teacher evaluation.
History & Social Sciences Department
Newton North High School