Education Letter to the Editor


March 10, 2004 10 min read
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Expand That List of ‘Nattering’ Radicals

To the Editor:

In his letter to the editor (“Equity and Tracking,” Letters, Feb. 18, 2004), Randal Jones of Houston accuses Carol Corbett Burris, in her Commentary “When Excellence and Equity Thrive” (Jan. 28, 2004), of “cherry-picking the research to support the same old radical egalitarian approach that the education establishment has been nattering about for years.”

It’s unclear from his letter whether Mr. Jones has in mind the radicals at the College Board, the National Governors Association, or perhaps the Carnegie Council for Adolescent Development—all of whom have called for detracking. Just a few months ago, those radicals at the National Research Council joined in, calling for the elimination of tracking. (“Report Examines Motivation Among Students,” Dec. 10, 2003.)

Perhaps Mr. Jones is referring to Horace Mann, who back in 1848 nattered about education becoming the “great equalizer,” or maybe he was thinking of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, nattering about how doubtful it is “that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education” and about how such an opportunity “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Personally, my guess is that Mr. Jones is recalling that crazy nattering about “liberty and justice for all” that he may have recited while he was in school.

In any case, Mr. Jones saw to it that Education Week readers were made aware of a couple of studies supporting his conclusion that tracking is a sound policy. Considering his avowed opposition to “cherry-picking,” it strikes me as odd that he failed to mention any of the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of peer-reviewed studies reaching an opposite conclusion.

Kevin Welner
School of Education
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colo.

In the End, Teaching Is Essentially an Art Form

To the Editor:

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is doing her duty as dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education to try to make teaching into a strong profession (“Toward a Strong Profession,” Commentary, Feb. 25, 2004). The trouble with her four- part prescription, however, is that it is based on tendency research. Teachers can ignore all her criteria and still be extraordinarily successful in the classroom. That’s because there is something unique about their personality and style that allows them to violate any number of principles, rules, or guidelines and still shine. The converse is true as well.

Teachers who make lasting impressions on their students are not easily categorized. In fact, the most memorable teachers are often those who departed from the conventional mold that characterized their colleagues. In the end, teaching is essentially an art form. Ms. Lagemann acknowledges this truism in part, but then gives short shrift to it in her proposal.

Like others before, Ms. Lagemann can try to enumerate and quantify what transpires between teachers and students in the classroom, but she, too, will do little to create the strong profession she seeks. The preface to I Remember My Teacher by David Shribman (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001) explains why: “To teachers, unforgettable and unappreciated alike, the men and women who taught us how to think, to create, to dream—and, as this book shows, to remember.”

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

No ‘Once and for All’ Answer on Vouchers

To the Editor:

In your article “Researchers See Opportunity in D.C. Vouchers” (Feb. 4, 2004), Nina S. Rees, a deputy undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education, opined that a District of Columbia school voucher study could “once and for all answer the key question of whether the act of choosing to send your child to a private school is one that leads to higher student achievement.”

Ms. Rees does have a master’s degree in international transactions, but she seems to have absolutely no understanding of the nature of social science research. It’s not surprising, given that her work history consists of 10 or so years as a Republican political operative.

I do hope that there is some learned soul in the Department of Education, a career employee perhaps, who can explain to Ms. Rees that any single study in social science can never answer any question “once and for all.”

Of course, I’m sure she already knows what her answer is.

David Marshak
School of Education
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

Another History Plan for Georgians to Ponder

To the Editor:

In response to “Ga. History Plan Stirs Civil War Fuss,” (Feb. 18, 2004.):

The district in which my daughter attends school has made U.S. history into a mandatory 1½-year class. One year is spent studying U.S. history up to the end of World War II. The following half-year, students learn the history of the United States since 1945. This seems like a great solution.

There may be elements of history that can be dropped to make space for more in-depth study of some aspects of U.S. history, and maybe the Civil War is painful to some who live in Georgia. But surely this doesn’t justify shutting one’s eyes to this seminal moment in the American psyche.

Bob Follansbee
Brookline, Mass.

Readers Needed to Know More on Study’s Funders

To the Editor:

In response to “Accountability Systems ‘Mediocre,’ Study Finds,” (Feb. 18, 2004.):

Why would you publish such an article with no explanation that the two sponsoring foundations—the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation—are far right-wing? Honesty is a virtue.

Malcolm Evans
St. Paul, Minn.

On Field Placement: Telling the Good News

To the Editor:

Connie Goddard gives us some good news and some bad news about the clinical preparation of teachers in our schools (“The Field-Placement Dilemma,” Commentary, Feb. 18, 2004). The good news is that more candidates are being prepared today in teacher education programs. The bad news is that school districts are feeling stressed in meeting the demand for clinical placements for practica, internships, and student teaching.

At the very same time that demand is growing and the value of strong clinical preparation is being documented in the research, schools, at least in Ms. Goddard’s area, are having a difficult time meeting the demand. Perhaps it is because many are still thinking about teacher preparation in out-of-date ways.

Connie Goddard suggests that schools and universities need to connect better in order to resolve the dilemma. I couldn’t agree more. The good news is that is happening through professional-development school partnerships around the country. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education has provided leadership in bringing together schools and universities to address these important needs.

The NCATE Professional-Development School Standards Project engaged school faculty members, district leaders, and university faculty members and deans in developing and field-testing standards and assessments for professional-development school partnerships. Literally hundreds of schoolpeople were directly involved in this work.

The process for developing the standards and assessments mirrored the partnerships for which they were being generated. The standards and assessments were field- tested over three years by 20 professional-development school partnerships around the country. Both the standards and assessments reflect this engagement. These standards reflect new ways of thinking about where knowledge resides about teaching, how teachers learn, and who should be responsible for teacher preparation and development.

Ms. Goddard further points out in her Commentary the need for school districts to begin to think differently about their involvement in such partnerships. Instead of viewing district involvement as “an obligation,” they need to see their own self-interest in participating as full partners. I couldn’t agree more with that, as well. Not only are interns and candidates potential new hires, but they also are resources to the schools in which they serve during their candidacy.

Ms. Goddard suggests some important ways in which partnerships can create opportunities for both schools and universities to have their needs met. Here again, there is some good news to report. NCATE has been working with three urban districts for the last year. In each locale, district leaders, university leaders, and union leaders have been engaged in an effort to design a model for bringing PDS partnerships to scale in that district.

This means addressing the important union issues Ms. Goddard alludes to, bringing consortia of universities together to work with the school district, also identified by Ms. Goddard as a need; and figuring out how the partners can support a network of professional-development schools that is designed to address the universities’ needs and the districts’ needs for quality teachers, teacher retention (especially in hard-to-staff schools), and above all, student achievement.

There are folks out there working on solutions to this dilemma. Professional-development school partnerships create the common ground to support their work. NCATE will be issuing a report on this work this spring.

Marsha Levine
Senior Consultant
National Council for Accreditation of
Teacher Education (NCATE)
Washington, D.C.

The Diversity of Small Schools: And Why Researchers Are ‘Always The Last to Know’

To the Editor:

The national confusion about the purposes of education has made efforts to improve our schools less than coherent. What is the purpose of a high school education? Is it for citizenship? Is it for vocation? For skills? For intellect? For character? For everything? What’s the focus?

Politicians respond with bland, evangelical generalities. “Save all the children.” “No child left behind.” Administrations change; the bromides remain the same.

But the general, unfocused conversation at the national-policy level is not simply due to confusion about ends. Even when there is general agreement about a desired result, policymakers seem unable to think through a problem by understanding how schools actually work. It is as if they had no experience in schools, or were untrained in the fundamental strategies of observation and analysis.

Now the importance of small schools has become more than a blip on the national radar screen. The “researchers” have discovered what observant practitioners have always known: Smalls schools are, by almost any measure, a more efficient way of educating most students.

But the “researchers” continue to be fuzzy-minded when they try to understand why this is or how it works. A recent summary of the research commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that small schools are safer and more productive than large schools, and no more expensive to run. But this same research suggested that small schools don’t offer the diversity of large schools.

The opposite is more likely to be true, and this is hidden from researchers for three reasons: They are likely to have been educated in large schools themselves, thanks to the consolidation of school districts after World War II. They have no experience of small schools.

They are used to thinking of education in terms of programs rather than in terms of community. That is, they are used to thinking about how to measure and count things, and about how to engineer solutions to schooling problems by designing programs, rather than by managing communities.

Finally, they are made intellectually flabby by a training that emphasizes statistical manipulation over imaginative speculation grounded in close observation amid lived experience. It is unsurprising that the researchers are always the last to know.

If you define diversity by a statistical body count of races, nationalities, sexes, and generations, you have played up to the researchers and the folks who enjoy sentimental posters of children in folk costumes holding hands against an oily sunset. If, on the other hand, you want something more, you will be interested in conversations and intimacy. You will identify diversity in a school only when you can identify a culture that promotes a respectful, imaginative, and generous exchange of views.

Is it likely that managers in a large school will be able to create such a culture, even if they understand its importance? Who has not had the experience of walking through a large cafeteria in a high school or college where each table seems to belong to a clique or type? Are those the jocks all bunched up at one table?

In the carefully managed small school, a culture that values conversations, honest and direct communications, trust and shared purposes will promote the only kind of diversity that gets us somewhere: a diversity that values difference instead of fearing it.

Bruce E. Buxton
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.


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