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May 05, 2004 5 min read
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Science Specialists Lift Mass. K-5 Pupils’ Scores

To the Editor:

In response to your article “Schools Enlist Specialists to Teach Science Lessons,” (April 7, 2004), which focuses on two Florida districts:

The Pittsfield, Mass., school district has been successfully employing science specialists as resource teachers in its elementary schools for the past five years. The teachers’ contract stipulates that a certified instructor cover the prep period for all classroom teachers. Instead of making this time into a glorified recess, the district decided to hire science specialists to teach a hands-on curriculum to the K-5 classes. The program started in 1998 and continues today.

The program is activities-based, using Science and Technology for Children modules. A flexible technology component is present, allowing for the creation of PowerPoint presentations by 3rd graders on the water cycle, and by 5th graders as an adjunct to their science fair projects. Budget cuts have reduced the number of specialists, who are now required to cover two schools. But happily, recent construction to the elementary schools has allowed for the creation of dedicated science rooms to house materials and promote long-term experiments.

Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test scores in 5th grade science last year were above state averages for the majority of the district. There is talk now of adding a math specialist. If there is one hallmark of the program, it is that the students regard science as a subject they can do and that they love.

Karen Worth, a senior scientist at the Education Development Center’s center for science education, in Newton, Mass., expresses ambivalence about the strategy. You quote her as saying, “My pessimistic sense is that more is falling off the back burner.” Whatever fell off her back burner is not the grist of elementary education here beyond the pale of Newton.

Steve Capeless
Science Specialist
Pittsfield Public Schools
Pittsfield, Mass.

No Common Meaning For ‘Common Sense’

To the Editor:

In his Commentary “Status Quo vs. Common Sense” (April 14, 2004), Frederick M. Hess expressed a meaning of common sense that struck me as foreign. He seems to have no faith in, or regard for, public school educators. I can only suspect that his own very brief public school teaching career must have been harrowing and/or unrewarding.

It’s likely that the American Enterprise Institute, where Mr. Hess is a fellow, realizes that the cost of reforming the segment of the nation’s public schools that performs the worst is prohibitive. So why not build a case for privatizing the process? That prescription might be accompanied by a view that the people and systems involved aren’t up to the task. But it’s hard to make a good apple pie without a complete inventory of ingredients and tools.

It is heartening that Mr. Hess seems to recognize that nonschool changes are vital, and argues for schools’ missions to be pared to those crucial for educating young minds. Yet, he doesn’t seem to see the link between those two concepts, nor how the former necessitates dealing differently with the latter. He probably would agree that while schools train young minds, there are plenty of other powerful influences, too, ones that schools are forced to cope with.

School systems should seek talented and entrepreneurial teachers, Mr. Hess says. Then he suggests that they teach to the text like automatons and leave their remuneration in the hands of test-score statisticians. What entrepreneurial teacher would not teach to the tests, given that scenario? But would that same teacher still be willing to collaborate with colleagues if his or her marketability were on the line?

Of course, we might also ask, what talented person would decide to teach in the first place, if he or she had read all of Mr. Hess’ work? He is not known for his advocacy of teachers’ experimenting to find effective ways to get into kids’ heads, nor has he been a staunch proponent of raising all teachers’ pay. And what he seems to miss most is the fact that the very sort of smart, educated, motivated people he regards so highly also need encouragement, and not necessarily only of the monetary kind.

My brand of common sense says that Mr. Hess needs to request a sabbatical, and that he should spend it teaching in one of the country’s underfunded, decrepit public schools. Maybe then he’d change his tune and begin to lead campaigns to rebuild the infrastructure of such schools (which would, in and of itself, attract experienced, skilled teachers) and guarantee more and better educational opportunities for the kids he had taught. Who knows? Maybe he would become a national financial adviser for education and preach that the investment is worth the price.

Mike MacLeod
Shoreline, Wash.

Building Schools While Also Conserving History

To the Editor:

Your otherwise informative article on Los Angeles public school construction (“Scarcity of Property Is Growing Obstacle to Building Schools,” March 24, 2004) fell victim to quite a bit of misinformation and misunderstanding regarding Los Angeles’ historic Ambassador Hotel, site of the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

While the Los Angeles Unified School District staff has inflated the cost of preserving the historic existing structure, nowhere does the district calculate the cost as high as the $400 million total cited in the article. In fact, the cost per square foot—the best way to compare “apples to apples"—of reusing the existing Ambassador structure is actually less than the cost of demolition and all-new construction.

The Los Angeles school district’s purported total cost differential is directly related to the fact that the reuse plan creates almost 25 percent more space for the school—nearly 160,000 square feet. This additional space could allow for more desperately needed seating for students, or for staff members to be relocated there from other sites, where the LAUSD now leases expensive real estate.

The Los Angeles Conservancy also has identified more than $54 million in savings by eliminating expensive and unnecessary underground parking and other amenities that could be better used for educational and recreational purposes.

If educators and the public understand that they can have a new, world-class school, while also preserving history for students and the community, and can do so without an insurmountable cost difference, they will agree that the maximum reuse plan is the best approach.

Linda Dishman
Executive Director
Los Angeles Conservancy
Los Angeles, Calif.

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