The ‘Impossible’ Roles Of Urban Schools Chiefs
To the Editor:
In response to your article “Urban Schools Chiefs Complain of Demands in ‘Impossible’ Roles” (Aug. 6, 2003):
Thanks to our elected officials (who know very little about teaching children), many of the demands placed on students, teachers, and school leaders are unrealistic, and in some cases, outrageous. If school leaders are given greater freedom at the expense of teachers’ contractual rights, why would anyone choose to become a teacher for the meager pay offered?
To the Editor:
Since my child, a high school junior, has attended public school in Prince George’s County, Md., I have seen four superintendents come and go. A fifth one took office in June. None of these people lacked vision, and pieces of each one’s vision are still in place. I used to think their lack of success was a function of a lack of funding, but now I think the public school bureaucracy has a life of its own and will plod along no matter who is superintendent.
Prince George’s County, Md.
To the Editor:
I recently resigned as a high school principal after 10 years of struggling with two superintendents who started off with good intentions but soon became overwhelmed by the politics of dealing with a school board that controlled their job security.
In my opinion, one of the greatest obstacles to lasting or even ongoing school improvement is the fact that our schools are often overseen by a group of individuals who have no education background and who many times are only participating to advance the cause of their and their friends’ children, or even worse, because they have power. During the last two elections for the board of education in my former district, all candidates ran unopposed. The ironic side to these uncontested candidacies is that the trustees could often be heard rationalizing decisions because they have to answer to the voters.
Apparently, unless a superintendent has strong leadership qualities and is willing to train a board on what its role is and is not, the district will be subject to the whims of the political interests of its board members. In the absence of strong leadership, a school board will take over more and more of the administrators’ responsibilities—for example, instituting policies on class size and the hiring of teachers.
I’ve studied a great deal about school and corporate leadership and am always amused at how little most educational systems talk about developing strong missions, agreeing on common values, setting data- driven goals, and building cultures where success is celebrated and the leaders “catch people doing things right.” I doubt that this kind of leadership can flourish as long as politics continues to influence the way schools do business.
Learning Social Lessons From Northern Ireland
To the Editor:
Thanks for publishing your excellent article on the movement toward school integration in Northern Ireland (“And the Walls Come Tumbling Down,” Aug. 6, 2003), which may help alleviate the damage done by United Kingdom policy on religion and education since the 19th century.
It is ironic that while 82 percent of those polled in Northern Ireland favor school integration, promoters of school voucher plans in the United States would have our country move in the direction of fragmenting our school population by religion, class, ethnicity, ideology, academic-ability level, and degree of handicap. Happily, when Americans have a chance to vote on voucher or similar plans, they reject them handily. It’s too bad that voters in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida were never given that opportunity.
Americans for Religious Liberty
Summer School for The’Best and Brightest’
To the Editor:
Nuggets of truth—worthy of comment—are buried in your article “Some Students Get a Leg Up in Summer School,” (Aug. 6, 2003).
One involves experimenting with the way mathematics is taught in our schools. The other focuses on allocation of scarce resources so that students are not left behind. As one who taught algebra for 20 years in public and private Los Angeles schools, I begin with math curriculum.
You describe Michigan’s Bloomfield Hills High School as being in “an affluent suburb 25 miles northeast of Detroit.” You report that its summer attendance rose several years ago when some of the district’s high schools “switched from a traditional math curriculum to a more controversial, integrated approach” and “parents sought the summer school classes because they were taught using traditional methods.”
Experimentation with integrated, discovery, “fuzzy” math has swept the country during the past two decades. Why are so many failed experiments repeated in schools across America? Why can’t lessons learned in some school districts be shared with others?
In California, it was savvy parents who rose up and fought off the fuzzy-math movement. Parents in Bloomfield Hills found escape by enrolling their children in summer math courses of the traditionally effective variety. But too many students endured experimental, integrated-content math classes, thanks to clueless educrats.
Budget constraints are forcing districts to cut programs as they allocate shrinking resources. You report that for many, efforts focus on “retaining summer programs for struggling students in grades targeted for state-mandated testing.” What you do not report is the pervading view that enrichment programs are expendable, and that the best and brightest students will get along fine without them.
That view is embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act; all efforts and resources are devoted to struggling students. The legislation offers no recognition for the pursuit of excellence, only for the failure to show adequate yearly progress. Some schools face penalties because their excellence precludes improvement. Now summer schools, starved of money, provide only remedial classes. That bodes ill for public education.
Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Board of Education Member
More on Literacy Reform In Secondary Schools
To the Editor:
Nancy Ames’ recent letter effectively and enthusiastically called on educators to reform the adolescent-literacy aspect of middle school education (“Time to Strengthen Adolescent Literacy,” Letters, Aug. 6, 2003). However, all the reform planning and efforts will have to begin from the premise that middle and high schools, the “second” schools that students attend, have very different student bodies, goals, curricula, and parent-support groups when compared to skill-based elementary schools.
If we are to succeed in these reform efforts, we should consider the following principles:
- The language. Let’s use the term “academic literacy,” since all literacies are tools directed toward academic learning. The term “literacy” denotes reading and writing. Academic literacy extends that into visual cognition, thinking, and most significantly, memory.
- The link of academic literacy to learning. There is no single set of academic-literacy skills that applies to all disciplines in a departmentalized or knowledge-based school. Reading mathematics is not like reading imaginative fiction. Writing for a physics course is distinct from the writing required in history. Memory in a Spanish course is different from memory in a health class. The nature of the content determines the type and uses of the academic-literacy skills. There is no single behavior called “reading” or “writing.”
- What are the goals? Simple. First, better grades in courses, as devised and evaluated by teachers. Second, passing state-required examinations in reading, writing, and mathematics that control movement between grades and graduation. Finally, scoring higher on external examinations linked to higher education (SAT I and ACT), military training, and employment. Academic- literacy experiences over a seven- or eight-year period can be coordinated with the needs of external testing.
- The teachers. Teachers in middle and high school do not teach reading and writing. They consistently use it for success with their courses and students who command their loyalty. Know this about them.
- Elementary schools. Expect little from them. The skills they teach are not automatically usable in the departmentalized school. Middle and high schools use a different set of academic literacies for different goals. There is not an elementary school in the country that has a curriculum for memory.
Ask them for only one thing: the use of more expository materials when they teach reading and writing. Ask for nothing else.
- The computer. Some believe that computers provide motivation for learning. They may. But if a student does not bring powerful, independent academic-literacy skills to the computer, the voyage to print, visual, and audio Web sites will only produce paper which must then be read like a book. The computer is often used independently. Students with weak skills die lonely deaths at distant, incomprehensible Web sites.
- Mathematics. Reading specialists and other literacy support staff should make one commitment for the next school year: to spend the entire year with the mathematics faculty, learning how their discipline uses three languages (numbers, symbols, and words). Academic literacy in mathematics is unique, and problem-solving curricula are doomed without it.
- Educational ideologies. Middle and high schools are full of other improvement ideologies. Some are friends. Constructivism, cooperative learning, learning/teaching styles, and authoritarian instruction are either friendly or can use academic literacy. The multiple-intelligences movement has no loyalty to literacy.
- Role for the federal government. Focus research and experimentation on grades 5-10. Forget, for a decade, about young children. Don’t fret about the choice. Everyone else loves young children.
We should, in fact, take all or almost all the No Child Left Behind Act money away from the younger grades and move the resources to grades 5-10. Students do not drop out of high school because they cannot read. They leave when they fail so many courses that they cannot see the graduation end line.
Nancy Ames’ call to action will work if we consider these fundamental differences between elementary and knowledge-based schools.
Ramapo Indian Hills School District
Franklin Lakes, N.J.
Middle East Centers: Bias Is Still a Problem
To the Editor:
Your recent article about the controversy concerning anti- American and anti-Israel bias in Title VI-funded programs for K-12 teachers fails to fully illuminate the role of the American Jewish Congress in bringing this issue to the fore (“Middle East Centers Accused of Bias in Teaching,” Aug. 6, 2003).
On March 10, 2003, the American Jewish Congress petitioned the U.S. Department of Education to amend its regulations concerning the selection criteria used to evaluate grantees for Title VI funds. The proposed amendments would require the department to consider the extent to which the content and materials of the courses taught are unbiased and reflect the full range of political and scholarly views on the subjects discussed. In support of its petition, the American Jewish Congress submitted multiple examples of an overall anti- American and anti-Israel bias in materials used in courses funded by Title VI.
Evidence of biased teaching at a July workshop at Georgetown University’s MidEast Center attended by one of our staff members confirms the need for the amendment we seek, and a recent meeting with members of Congress and White House staff revealed that they share our concern.
Unlike U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., the American Jewish Congress believes bias need not be “rampant” in taxpayer-funded teacher programs before remedial action is warranted. In any event, we have already adduced ample evidence to justify our call for regulations assuring that the content of Title VI programs presents the full range of views on the Middle East.
American Jewish Congress
New York, N.Y.
A No Vote on ‘Scholarship Funds’ for D.C. Students
To the Editor:
As a lifelong Washington-area resident, I am writing to express my indignation over the proposed D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003, which the U.S. House Government Reform Committee recently approved (“Emotions Run High in D.C. School Voucher Hearing,” July 9, 2003).
This legislation, which would offer parents up to $7,500 in “scholarship funds"—an apparent euphemism for “vouchers"—for children to attend a private elementary or high school in Washington, D.C., would not be an effective solution to the myriad problems the District of Columbia’s public school system faces.
According to its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., the legislation would “provide families and children in underperforming schools in the District of Columbia with enhanced educational choices.” I disagree. It would provide some families and children with enhanced choices. In fact, the bill would affect only 2,000 of the 68,000 students enrolled in public schools in Washington, yet it is being portrayed by its supporters as a panacea for all the city’s educational problems.
The idea of educational vouchers represents an insidious scheme—advocated mainly by ideologues who believe the principles of free-market economics can solve virtually any social problem—to dramatically reduce the influence of public schools and ultimately diminish the size and power of one aspect of government.
Unfortunately, many currently support these efforts based largely on the assumption that private schools are inherently better than public schools, and that a child will automatically be better educated if he or she enrolls in the former and not the latter.
As both a professional and a doctoral candidate in educational policy and research, I can point to no definitive or reliable evidence demonstrating that private schools are more effective at educating children, much less why they may be more effective.
In my experience, those who suggest private schools are more effective than public schools often fail to consider several important factors, any one of which can exaggerate effects on student learning. They don’t consider, for example, selection bias. Parents who devote time, effort, and financial resources to enrolling their child in a private school are more inclined to be active participants in their child’s education and tend to be of higher socioeconomic status. These two factors, parent involvement and socioeconomic status, are highly correlated with student achievement.
Private schools also may deny, expel, or otherwise remove students for a variety of reasons, and can do so without consequence. Public schools are designed to educate all students in a given community and do not have such powers. Thus, they are forced to accommodate those unmotivated, low-performing children, often with emotional and behavioral problems, that private schools routinely turn away.
Even if we could prove private schools were more effective, shouldn’t we investigate why this is so, rather than simply attempt to shift students and resources out of public schools and into private ones?
If the ultimate goal is to raise achievement and improve the education of all of the students in the nation’s capital, and not simply a small fraction of them, policymakers should consider more time- tested efforts, ones that employ a long-term strategy and benefit all students by reforming the system as a whole.
Fort Belvoir, Va.
Exchanges on SOL Tests Lack Any Real Meaning
To the Editor:
I am writing in response to the recent series of exchanges in your letters section over Virginia’s Standards of Learning testing. The letters follow an unfortunate pattern of citing statistics supporting their respective causes, with neither side engaged in clarifying the myriad issues surrounding Virginia’s SOLs.
A letter from Kirk T. Schroder, the former president of the Virginia state board of education, reveals how meaningless all of these exchanges are (“Virginians Debate Standards, Exam,” Letters, June 11, 2003).
In his defense of the SOL tests, Mr. Schroder writes: “On the SAT I, since Virginia’s SOL program began in 1995, our students’ verbal scores are up 6 points and math scores are up 12 points, for a combined gain of 18 points.”
A gain of 18 points? What an astonishing leap, and sadly from a former state board of education president. Following such a rationale, I would award a student in my class a final grade of 90 had he or she made a 30 on each of three previous tests. Perhaps an average increase of 9, but a gain of 18?—never.
The SOLS are one of those programs that politicians, wanting to do something in response to the citizenry’s concerns about education, institute and then forget. Standards of Learning are cheaper than small classes, teacher training, adequate classrooms, and so on. They lull us into a sense of accomplishment as scores go up, forgetting that higher scores always result when we teach the test. Unfortunately, when we teach the test, we rob those students most in need of scarce resources.
On a brighter note, perhaps Mr. Schroder’s flawed reasoning will undermine those individuals touting the Standards of Learning as a cure-all for what ails Virginia’s schools, for it points out the weaknesses of those administering the tests and reminds us that, as the old adage says, “statistics are like skimpy swimsuits—what they reveal is interesting, but what they conceal is crucial.”
I am sure of one thing: Until we arrive at a better method of teaching, my students’ immediate response upon being asked what one-fourth of 60 is will be to reach for a calculator.
Walter S. McMann
Teacher Pay: Should It Be Used To ‘Leverage’ Reform?
To the Editor:
Allan Odden and Marc J. Wallace Jr. offer what they call a “simple” proposition: Use student achievement as a major determinant of teacher compensation (“Leveraging Teacher Pay,” Commentary, Aug. 6, 2003). “Simplistic” might be a better descriptor. Maybe they have a follow-up article that puts guts into the system they hint at using to implement some admirable goals, so that people like me, a 40-year teaching veteran, can judge its fairness, validity, and practicality. While they are at it, they might also suggest the source of the funding for the pay increases some teachers would receive. Otherwise, the reader is left to wonder if the increases would come from decreases in other teachers’ pay.
My solution is different and not simple: Find the money to raise all teachers’ pay significantly, so that the profession gains more respect, prestige, and attractiveness and is recognized for its contribution to society.
We also need to implement a system that weeds out teachers who don’t meet certain simple criteria even after a reasonable probationary time during which they’ve received mentoring. Most districts and states have policies that provide for such action, and most teachers will enthusiastically support such a policy, with reasonable safeguards, just as employees at a company concerned about competitive advantage would support termination of ineffective colleagues.
A third component would be to earmark part of the significant increase in pay for teacher-run collaborative evaluating/planning time, say, five days after students have left for vacation and three days prior to the district-directed start to a school year. A major focus would be on making each other more effective teachers.
The final component is to eliminate all undergraduate teacher-certification programs (except for providing school-based experiences for students interested in teaching careers), while developing ways to attract more of the best and brightest into master’s-in-teaching programs that are exciting, rigorous, and in synch with state promises that allow for loan forgiveness and/or scholarship help for those who actually go ahead and teach for at least five quality years.
We don’t need a few very proficient, effective teachers on a staff. Every student deserves a top-notch teacher. Every teacher will be more likely to become top- notch through encouragement, instead of “leveraging” and threats or pressure. Ineffective teachers are usually a heartbeat away from seeking a new career anyway; they just need some thanks and some counseling out of the profession.
To the Editor:
Allan Odden’s and Marc J. Wallace Jr.'s Commentary about teacher-pay incentives made me think of Kelly, a young social studies teacher at my school, who moved in with two married teacher colleagues because she couldn’t pay off her student loans and make ends meet. She isn’t focused on learning new skills and raising test scores; she wonders if she can pay the dentist and be a teacher at the same time.
The pay-for-performance idea may appeal to the investing public, Wall Street globalization gurus, and education establishment vendors, but it doesn’t click with teachers. They are wrestling with little Janie Spitfire’s reading problem. They don’t even think in terms of “leverage,” “productivity,” and “skill-based pay structures.” They’re not primarily motivated by money. Any behavior-modification system based solely on compensation will fail.
Even worse, it creates new problems. Who can judge teachers objectively? Each has idiosyncrasies. Each struggles with different sets of students in unique classrooms full of emerging personalities. This kind of pay system intentionally draws stark distinctions between teachers, calling one good and another bad, rewarding one and humiliating another. It will most likely destroy the already fragile camaraderie and cooperation on which successful organizations depend.
Such a discriminatory pay system must also deal effectively with the true grit of school politics, good ol’ boy promotions, and blatant favoritism that flow from subjective, judgmental evaluations.
On the one hand, the pay-for-performance system risks setting up an obstacle course making it nearly impossible to earn a raise. On the other hand, given district finances, it may fail to reward good teachers to the degree they believe they deserve.
The biggest problem with Mr. Odden’s and Mr. Wallace’s creation, however, is that it fails to instruct teachers on how to improve their work. Giving a bonus to the cute teacher down the hall does nothing to showcase her skills or to inform and instruct the remaining, unrewarded teachers who become the district’s designated deadheads.
What is great teaching? What are the essential skills of great teachers? Who gets to define them? Once we know what they are, why are they not required for all teachers? Can the one-teacher-at-a-time pay system seduce all teachers into pursuing essential skills for great teaching? If not, should a district waste time on a plan that works for only a handful of teachers?
We can agree that teachers must be paid more. But the pay-for-performance analysis is fundamentally flawed. It assumes money will motivate. It’s voluntary. It doesn’t define great teaching. It doesn’t identify the specific skills that all teachers need. It doesn’t provide support for all teachers to acquire skills. And it cannot guarantee that the existing pool of salary money will expand to pay all of the “performing” teachers.
For all the flaws that Mr. Odden and Mr. Wallace see in a single salary schedule, it’s the way that almost all teachers are paid for good reasons: It’s objective. It’s predictable. It allows teachers to compare one district with another and seek positions with some certainty that the rules won’t be changed.
Salary money is limited. Without a stable salary system, young teachers are not going to bet their substantial college investment and future earnings on vague promises to pay and the wild uncertainties of a pay-for-performance teaching career. It could drive good teachers out of poor districts.
Every district may have one hotshot teacher ready to jump on the pay-me-more bandwagon, but experienced teachers, tempered by the fires of educational controversy, are justifiably skeptical.
Mattoon High School
The Business of Leading: Do Principals Need Licenses, Leeway, or New Schools?
To the Editor:
Lowering the standards for the principalship or executive-level school administrative positions is not the cure for education’s leadership problems (“A License to Lead?,” Commentary, July 9, 2003). Frederick M. Hess’ argument seems more like a slick way to get school districts to open their doors to unemployed M.B.A.s searching for positions in today’s down market than the expression of a sincere concern for the needs of public schools.
Since the turn of the last century, school leaders have learned well from business practices, and they continue to do so. But with stories of corporate scandal surfacing every day, perhaps it is business leaders who could learn from career school administrators who have weathered financial storms and kept districts afloat, while reaching high standards and sending students on to college and careers.
A three-year minimum requirement of experience in a public school setting is small in comparison to the length of a career in the public sector. This is hardly an obstacle to entry into a field that offers rewards of a wholly different nature than merely the financial.
I am confounded by what ideological slant Mr. Hess is speaking about when it comes to the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards. The standards are not “value laden” in any negative sense. Each of the listed ISLLC standards is furthered by broad topics a school leader should be versed in, ranging from systems theory to marketing, psychology to human-resource management. What the ISLLC standards may need is a slight trimming down and a greater focus on ensuring social justice in school districts. But they do offer criteria by which to assess the performance of school leaders and they are leading the profession in the right direction.
Department of Educational Administration
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pa.
To the Editor:
Of course superintendents have stressful, high-turnover positions. The ill- conceived nature of school districts places the superintendent in a “Mission Impossible” situation: “Mr. Phelps, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to develop uniform policies for a very diverse electorate, staff, and student population.”
The exclusive franchise of each district to deliver free public schooling within its borders is what unnecessarily creates this impossible job. It is just one of many reasons that the exclusive-franchise method of providing public schooling in our country’s approximately 15,000 school districts is a very bad idea. And it’s the reason we continue to be “a nation at risk.”
The first paragraph of Frederick M. Hess’ discussion of educator licensing contains a sentence that says much about why we unnecessarily pay huge salaries to talented administrator/educators to attempt a job that should not exist. “The challenges,” Mr. Hess writes, “are largely the consequence of our antiquated and bureaucratic approach” to educating children.
The district office is another part of the system that dissipates immense talent in a vain attempt to develop a largely uniform service that is at least acceptable. We would get much more from that talent by letting principals manage schools of choice.
School principals are perfectly capable of managing their own schools. They don’t need or want district administrators to make decisions for them. School choice is enough to maintain accountability, and it would free principals to develop unique approaches to match the talents and interests of specific children, probably based on the strengths of staff members. The exclusive franchise is the core problem.
Competing franchises-perhaps with superintendent chief executive officers- could each focus on specific segments of the student population. That would eliminate a lot of the complaints, conflicts, lawsuits, and ineffectiveness that result from the current arrangement.
College of Business
University of Texas, San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas
Quality in the Classroom: On Challenging the ‘No Child’ Act’s Teaching Provisions
To the Editor:
Yes, we need qualified teachers. But what that phrase means needs to be articulated by the profession. Can the National Education Association lead the way? Or is it wedded to the notion that the only thing to do is hunker down and fight (“NEA Takes Stand Against Bush Education Law,” July 7, 2003)? We should take on policy that is drawn by legislative aides from our best colleges with no concept of our profession. We should embrace the notion of highly qualified teachers—it is what most of us are and all of us want the world to know we are. But what “highly qualified” means should reflect our views as educators.
Let us be the profession we profess to be and look to the NEA to lobby for something bigger than jobs, health insurance, or pay hikes. Let us urge all the professional organizations to whom we pay our dues to unite in calling upon policymakers to recognize that they are squandering billions of dollars by not placing the profession itself at the center of their plans and requirements for obtaining highly qualified teachers.
To the Editor:
How can anyone possibly oppose the goal of having “quality teachers” demonstrate their mastery of the subjects they are trying to teach? Wouldn’t anything less tend to deprive students of a sound learning experience?
Teachers’ colleges will have to be brought aboard, some of them kicking and screaming, because the quality of the education they offer is very much involved. That quality should be judged strictly on a college’s record of producing graduates who are demonstrably able to achieve satisfactory student progress upon employment in a public school. These data should be collected and publicized.
Consultant and Educator
To the Editor:
Over the past year, my community college has participated in a program helping paraprofessionals within our five-county service area of southeastern Tennessee prepare to take the new assessment tool developed by the Educational Testing Service. In fact, the testing company was still designing the test as we were arranging “prep” courses. To delay would have meant that these teachers’ aides would not have had the opportunity to review the reading, writing, and math skills covered under the No Child Left Behind Act assessment tool.
We taught more than two dozen three- to six-hour seminars on reading, writing, and mathematics, and we faced a great number of angry, frustrated paraprofessionals, many of whom were older women (from 40 to 60 years of age) who had devoted many years of service to their school systems. Although they felt angered by the new law, they were caring and determined and quite patient with those of us attempting to help them prepare for this new testing system.
We had good feedback with these sessions, and the students performed well overall. Not only were the paraprofessionals conscientious in their efforts to review and/or learn major concepts in very little time, but they also displayed good humor in coping with this new form of bureaucratic red tape.
What was especially frustrating to them, however, was the idea of the government’s mandating a test that in probably 80 percent of the cases was totally unconnected to their area of teaching. Aides in the grammar school division rarely teach major essay-development concepts or beginning algebraic concepts; they more often work on the basics of word and number recognition and on more basic concepts overall. They were amazed, as were those of us instructing them, at the illogical assessment tool designed for their level of expertise.
Changes need to be made. And more input should be sought from teachers whose paraprofessionals are being tested.
Another amazing aspect of the law is its blanket set of requirements for teachers. My husband just completed his second master’s-degree program. His first master’s is in economics; his second in education, a degree he decided to pursue in order to teach within the Chattanooga school system. Even with this new degree (and two master’s degrees overall), the No Child Left Behind Act will dictate that he cannot teach the math classes he has been teaching at the middle school level.
Members of Congress and the president himself need to review this legislation, which though possibly designed for a good reason has not been carefully considered and will place schools as well as individuals in untenable situations.
Jean M. Crockett
Cleveland State Community College