Education Letter to the Editor


July 14, 2004 26 min read
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Educator-Pay Trends: ‘Telling, Disappointing’

To the Editor:

I read with interest your reporting on educator-salary trends (“Schools Chiefs Lead the Way in Pay Trends,” June 23, 2004). It is telling—and disappointing—to learn that in Educational Research Service’s latest national survey of salaries and wages in public schools, superintendent pay grew by 12 percent in real dollars over the last decade, while teacher pay fell by almost 2 percent.

The problem is clear: The teaching profession is undervalued, figuratively and literally. In my home state of Georgia, average teacher salaries hover right around the national average, at about $44,000. That’s far too low to attract the top-flight corps of educators we need to give our children the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

But as the Teaching Commission, the catalyst organization founded early last year by retired IBM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Louis V. Gerstner Jr., understands, there’s a related scandal that’s just as relevant to the future of the profession as how much teachers earn—and that’s how teachers earn their pay. Do they get paid simply for showing up, or do they get more money and other career rewards for serving in high-need subject areas and in low-income schools? And, most important of all, do they earn special bonuses for actually improving student achievement?

Today, across the country, the answer is almost always no. New money for teachers is almost always poured into old, cracked glasses—those antiquated, lock-step pay schemes that were designed more than a generation ago. Innovative ideas to recruit, retain, and reward great teachers are consigned to small experiments on the fringes.

We at the Teaching Commission believe that unless that changes and changes now, the achievement gap afflicting our public schools, which is aided and abetted by a teacher-quality gap, will only grow. And the 2 million new teachers we need over the next decade will not be as bright and determined as we need them to be.

We need more than an infusion of resources. We need an infusion of new ideas, and we need it now.

Roy Barnes
Former Governor of Georgia
The Teaching Commission
New York, N.Y.

The Media Discover the No Child Left Behind Act

To the Editor:

There is a simple reason why the No Child Left Behind Act is getting so much attention in local newspapers (“School Law’s Story: Read All About It,” June 23, 2004). It’s a bad law designed to make all schools, including many award-winning schools, look like failures. It punishes diversity, forces schools to contract with profit-making companies for tutoring, and requires districts to send home letters calling professional teachers unqualified.

This summer, thousands of schools will be labeled as failing, and millions of parents will react in anger and dismay at the threat to their neighborhood elementary and high schools. It is a time bomb ready to explode just as both political parties hold their national conventions.

Kenneth S. Goodman
Tucson, Ariz.

To the Editor:

Your front-page article “School Law’s Story: Read All About It” (June 23, 2004) performs a vital service by revealing how the media inadvertently or deliberately form public opinion about the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. The essence of the exposé is contained in the comments made by Justin Torres, the research director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington.

Mr. Torres cites a series on the No Child Left Behind Act by Ohio’s Dayton Daily News as an example of all that is wrong with media coverage of the law. By asserting that the articles “exhibit all the standard symptoms of self- righteous hyperbole that characterize much of NCLB reporting,” he throws down the gauntlet. He goes on to list the counts in his indictment: The articles “‘present a smattering of episodes as a nationwide trend’; ‘stack the deck with experts’ to bash testing; and ‘demolish distinctions, reduce complexities, and conflate facts.’”

The gravamen of his argument warrants equal time for rebuttal. What Mr. Torres conveniently fails to mention are the techniques used by enemies of public education to advance their agenda. These take many forms, but they all are designed to disguise ideology as science.

One of the most common devices is to equate group averages with the performance of all individuals within the group. There will always be some cases of disadvantaged students or inner-city schools that manage to achieve success despite overwhelming odds. These few examples are used to “prove” that demography is not destiny. But averages, by definition, include relatively higher and relatively lower performance of some in the group being studied. Nevertheless, Mr. Torres and his ilk want to convince the public that economic reforms take a back seat to moral and cultural self-help as a way to raise student achievement.

They also like to point to the success of some schools serving poor students, such as the KIPP charter schools, as evidence that determined leadership can trump social class. The KIPP program deserves praise for its accomplishments, but it is highly unlikely that its approach is replicable on a wide-scale basis. That’s because KIPP is composed of a self-selected group of students, whose parents are deeply involved in their education.

It’s time that the public learns the truth about how the media mold their attitudes and opinions on educational issues.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

For Gifted ‘Victims,’ Charters to the Rescue

To the Editor:

The United Negro College Fund’s motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” has sent a powerful message for several decades about underserved children of color shamefully excluded from the educational opportunities available to other children in our society.

Now, with Margaret DeLacy’s Commentary in your June 23, 2004, issue (“The ‘No Child’ Law’s Biggest Victims? An Answer That May Surprise”), that motto also resonates as it applies to the brightest among our children.

Ms. DeLacy paints a grim picture: “Gifted students are truly our forgotten children. Neglected in our schools and ignored by our policymakers, they spend their days dozing through classes in which they aren’t learning.”

A society that does not nurture and encourage children with the greatest potential, that consistently reaches down to the lowest common denominator in educating its young, that cultivates the mediocrity so alarmingly described more than 20 years ago in A Nation at Risk is a society that cannot long survive.

Rather than engage in endless debates about tracking and elitism, why not make available to every child the kind of education that best suits his or her learning style? Not possible, you say. Certainly not within the rigid, entrenched, anachronistic educational delivery system we currently have in place.

But think outside the box for a moment. Look at the amazing results some public charter schools like the KIPP schools have achieved with children whose socioeconomic status has long relegated them to the ranks of the “unteachable.” Imagine schools funded by the public, but run by teachers and administrators with the power to create a learning community focused on children’s individual needs and chosen by parents who understand those needs best.

Unlike traditional schools, public charter schools can accommodate every learning style and can allow every child to reach her or his potential. Rather than stifle this crucial experiment in education for the 21st century by reregulating it, as its opponents are relentlessly trying to do, we should be looking to the day when every school in this country is a charter school.

Gisèle Huff
San Francisco, Calif.

Testing Juggernaut Puts Small Schools at Risk

To the Editor:

Well-designed and -run small schools offer a high-quality educational experience for many children (“High Schools Nationwide Paring Down,” June 16, 2004). But with the onslaught of the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing regimen, coupled with state- and district-mandated exams, small schools could become little more than small test- prep centers.

Even the strongest small schools are at risk from the testing juggernaught. At legislative hearings in New York, students and faculty members eloquently explained how focusing on the state Regents exams forces their schools to change both what and how they teach. As a result, institutions that graduate low-income students at very high rates, send most of them on to college, and find that most succeed may be forced to change what works or to close their doors.

Promoters of small schools frequently explain that their goal is not “smallness for smallness’ sake.” Instead, they are pursuing smallness to promote richer learning outcomes. This goal cannot be met if narrow tests are the sole arbiters of educational quality. Accountability must be transformed to become a tool for promoting high-quality schools of all forms, not just standardized classrooms driven in lock step by one-size-fits-all tests.

Monty Neill
Executive Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing
Cambridge, Mass.

Family Corrects Record On Accused Va. Teacher

To the Editor:

The following is a statement from the family of Roanoke, Va., public school teacher Ronald Mayfield Jr., in response to an article in Education Week:

An article in your March 31, 2004, issue—(“Suicide Spurs Va. District to Revise Misconduct Probes”)— included the following statement and comment by Paul D. Britt Jr., the executive for human resources of the Roanoke City Public Schools:

“Mr. Britt could not confirm that the student had falsely accused Mr. Mayfield, but said, ‘That’s a good question.’”

Three separate investigations of the alleged incident yielded the following results:

  • By the school system: Inconclusive, no disciplinary action warranted.
  • By Child Protective Services: Unfounded.
  • By the Roanoke City Police Department: No prosecution.

Ron Mayfield’s family takes exception to Mr. Britt’s comment, in view of the fact that all of the above information was released to the public on March 2, 2004, at a press conference held by Frank Rogers, who conducted an investigation of the incident on behalf of the family. This accomplished the first and foremost goal of our family: to clear Ron Mayfield’s name.

While the complete context of Mr. Britt’s response is unclear from the article, and the actual facts of the allegation will never be known, our family has worked very diligently, with the assistance of the Virginia Education Association and Frank Rogers, to effectively conclude the investigations and make the outcomes known to the public.

There is no question that Ron Mayfield’s name has been completely cleared, and Mr. Britt’s comment was inexcusable since it came after the release of the information mentioned above. It demonstrates once again that the Roanoke public schools’ administration completely mishandled this incident, and at the time of Ron Mayfield’s death had little, if any, regard for the feelings and well- being of the teachers employed by the school system. Those very simple words negated our efforts.

Our second goal is a future holding a feeling of support between the teachers and the administration, rather than one of fear and alienation. Only time will tell if the policy changes implemented as a result of Ron Mayfield’s suicide will accomplish this objective.

While the comments of John Mitchell, the deputy director for educational issues of the American Federation of Teachers, were most appreciated, it is imperative that the support and assistance of the Virginia Education Association not go unrecognized. Ed Boggs, the former director of the VEA’s division of legal services, was instrumental in providing direction for our family, and he continued to provide his assistance into his retirement. Anita Price, the president of the Roanoke Education Association, has also been a supportive figure. As events move forward, she will be a key liaison to facilitate that dialogue between teachers and the administration.

It is our hope that this role will be of less importance as time moves forward, but after reading Mr. Britt’s comment in your article, we can see that much more work needs to be done.

Robert E. Mayfield, M.D.
Richmond, Va.

Software Is Available for Arabic-Language Study

To the Editor:

I was so pleased to read an article about Arabic-language offerings in schools (“Arabic Offerings Rare in Schools,” May 26, 2004). Unfortunately, as you note, the numbers are going the wrong way. We need more students learning this and other lesser-taught languages that represent major portions of the world.

I would like to let you and your readers know about an offer for U.S. schools to receive school-site licenses for elementary Arabic-language software.

Through the Friendship Through Education Consortium, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, Fairfield Language Technologies is helping U.S. students who are involved in collaborative work with students in Arabic- speaking countries by supplying them with free copies of the Rosetta Stone Language Learning Software Libraries in Arabic.

Through this collaboration, U.S. students who participate in the Friendship Through Education initiative will have free access to the Rosetta Stone Arabic Language Software, a language-learning tool with a retail value of about $3,000 per school-site license.

Since October 2001, the consortium has provided opportunities for online and off-line interactions among young people around the world through classroom- based interactions.The purpose is to build a culture of peace and understanding in which the dignity and rights of all human beings are respected.

Although the initial focus of this commitment is an effort to expand links between U.S. schools and those in Islamic countries, the Friendship Through Education organizations offer programs and projects that reach out to students in more than 100 countries worldwide.

More information on the software can be found at http://friendshipthrougheducation.org, or by contacting Friendship@us.iearn.org

Diane Midness
Program Coordinator
Professional Development Workshops
New York, N.Y.

Vouchers Sometimes Can Promote Integration

To the Editor:

Jade Walsh of Jackson Hole, Wyo., states in a letter published in your June 16, 2004, edition (“‘Voucher Nirvana’ and the New Segregation”) that the mission of the Alliance for School Choice “if carried to fulfillment ... would create highly segregated school populations.”

This is dead wrong.

In Milwaukee, which boasts the nation’s oldest and largest parental-school- choice voucher program, only the voucher-accepting schools are integrated. Milwaukee’s public schools serve defined residential areas, which, in Milwaukee, are highly segregated. Thus, the public schools serving these areas are similarly segregated. But the voucher-accepting private schools, on average, are one-third minority and two-thirds white. The obvious explanation is that only by using the voucher can low-income minority children afford to attend formerly all-white private schools outside their neighborhoods.

The real spirit of Brown v. Board of Education is alive and well; not in America’s segregated urban public schools, but in its too-few integrated voucher-accepting private schools.

Dan Gaby
Executive Director
Excellent Education for Everyone
Newark, N.J.

Adequacy Lawsuits

To the Editor:

Alfred A. Lindseth’s pointed attack on adequacy litigation (“Adequacy Lawsuits: The Wrong Answer for Our Kids,” Commentary, June 9, 2004) paints a distorted picture of this important area of education law and fails to note a number of key points:

  • Adequacy litigation is necessary. Mr. Lindseth fails to note the reason why such lawsuits are needed in the first place. While state constitutions place the responsibility for educating children squarely on state government, most state legislatures make education funding decisions by first deciding how much they are willing to spend on education and then allocating that limited pot of money to schools. State lawmakers rarely consider what it actually costs to provide students with a quality education. The concept of “educational adequacy” applies common sense and seeks to reverse this process by first determining the educational needs of students and schools and then matching sufficient state and local funding with those needs.
  • Current state finance systems deny many students equal educational opportunity. The process of holding an annual political auction to decide education funding has denied tens of thousands of students equal educational opportunity while leading to wide gaps in education resources between wealthy and poor school districts. Rural districts, in particular, have high rates of poverty and low property values that create significant barriers to a quality education. Because of a lack of resources, rural schools are often unable to recruit and retain qualified teachers, offer students a rich curriculum, maintain decent and safe buildings, and provide students with access to up-to- date technology that wealthy communities take for granted.
  • Adequacy litigation is about children, not adults. The author incorrectly suggests that teacher organizations and adults who would benefit from court rulings are behind most adequacy cases. In fact, in virtually all of these cases, children and their parents have played a central role in the litigation. Indeed, it has been compelling testimony offered by parents and students about the denial of educational opportunity that has often convinced courts to strike down state funding systems as unconstitutional.
  • Local control of schools need not be eroded. The mantra of local control brings to mind similar arguments made 50 years ago during the Brown v. Board of Education era as some tried to slow integration of our schools. While local control is important, there is no reason it cannot be maintained under an “adequately” funded system. Where courts have ruled for plaintiffs, they generally leave decisions about state and local control to the legislature.
  • Standards have been raised because of adequacy litigation. Adequacy litigation has raised standards, not lowered them. Higher standards have been articulated in decisions from states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina, and New York, where courts have breathed life into the education clauses of their state constitutions and articulated a vision for education—a vision that state legislatures have been unwilling to formulate.
  • Adequacy litigation strengthens our democratic institutions. Every schoolchild knows the importance of having our three branches of government to prevent abuses or concentrations of power. Under this system, courts play the important role of ensuring that the legislature operates consistent with the constitution and the law. Even the governor of a state is not above the law. When a court declares a state education funding system unconstitutional, the court is simply playing its intended role of ensuring that lawmakers and governors fulfill their constitutional responsibilities. Instead of blaming courts for fulfilling their natural and constitutional duty, we should be asking harder questions of state lawmakers who, for various reasons, have chosen to operate outside the law by denying school children their constitutional right to a quality education.
  • Resources make a difference. The jury is in on the debate about whether money matters in the process of education—it does. Smaller classes, preschool, quality teachers, tutoring, and after-school programs have all been shown to make a difference in the quality of a child’s education. To be sure, schools must strive to manage existing resources more efficiently and effectively. And states should establish standards and accountability mechanisms that ensure the wise use and sound fiscal management of public dollars for education. But arguments about efficiency and accountability should not divert our attention from defining an “adequate” education for our children and funding it.

Greg Malhoit
Rural Education Finance Center
Raleigh, N.C.

Teacher Quality

To the Editor:

James B. Hunt Jr. writes that a system which does not reward high performance is unlikely to inspire it (“A Quid Pro Quo for Teacher Quality,” Commentary, June 16, 2004). He suggests, in part, a pay-for-performance system of compensation for teachers based on student achievement.

Fine, but from a teacher’s perspective, who gets to teach the best students? Those students who can read and write at grade level and think logically have an advantage over those who cannot. Teaching students—no matter how excellently—for one semester or even a year is not going to reduce that gap. Teachers with the best students will have the best performance and receive the highest pay. Teacher pay, to some extent, will be determined by “who you know.”

Mr. Hunt goes on to say that those who teach in shortage specialties like math and science should be paid more. I disagree. I have seen adults who cannot write a business letter or comprehend an editorial in The New York Times. Is Mr. Hunt saying English teachers are not as important? In the last presidential election, only 52 percent of the electorate bothered to vote. Is Mr. Hunt saying social studies teachers are not on a par with math and science teachers? Sixty-one percent of our nation’s population is overweight. Is Mr. Hunt saying physical education teachers are less needed than math and science teachers?

The truth is that all teaching specialties are equally important. This is the reason for egalitarian pay scales. If Mr. Hunt really wants to inspire teachers, he should suggest that we take the money set aside for merit pay and use it to reduce class sizes. Now that is inspirational.

If he wants to motivate teachers more, he should find a way to make sure principals provide a supportive environment, which would include camaraderie. And if he really wants to make teachers happy, he’d recommend that we provide them with academic freedom and the ability to enhance their mandated curricula as they see fit.

Mr. Hunt and others may find this hard to believe, but inspiration in teaching is not always about money.

Walter Weis
Forest Hills, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina should stick to being a governor. He should get nothing for his performance-based suggestion about teacher quality.

I know he doesn’t like to hear it, but teaching will not get better when more rewards are in the offing. Even if someone offered me millions of dollars, I don’t think I could compose like Beethoven or hit a baseball like Barry Bonds. Teaching is an art, and we will get better quality by increasing the number of people who choose to make it their livelihood.

Perhaps a performance-based pay system could prompt better performance from people who have to build rock piles for a living. But to get better teachers, we’ll need to make the profession more attractive. Society will have to affirm, in many ways beyond the financial, that teaching is something special.

Elliot Kotler
Ossining, N.Y.

The Author Changes a Phrase

To the Editor:

In reviewing my back-page Commentary of June 16, 2004 (“A Quid Pro Quo for Teacher Quality”), I find that I failed to make a distinction that I should have made. I said that higher education leaders have allowed our colleges of education to become “sleepy backwaters” on university campuses. I should have said on “some university campuses.”

Here in North Carolina, we have many colleges of education that are very good and at the forefront of improving teacher education. There are other very good ones across the country. But too many have been neglected and have not received the support and resources that they deserve. They should have the kind of support that medicine, engineering, and business schools get.

I urge all higher education leaders across our land to give the strongest possible support to improve colleges of education, so that every child in America will have caring, competent, and qualified teachers in every course that they take.

James B. Hunt Jr.
Hunt Institute for
Educational Leadership and Policy
Chapel Hill, N.C.

Teach For America

To the Editor:

Your reporting of recent research on the merits of Teach for America (“Study Finds Benefits in Teach for America,” June 16, 2004) misses a very big point: the failed teaching policies that plague our nation’s urban schools.

The small-scale study, conducted by Mathematica, revealed that students of Teach For America teachers matched students of a comparison group of novice and veteran colleagues from the same schools in reading and did slightly better in math. With this headline, a number of education-watchers have jumped on the report’s conclusions that “the success of TFA teachers is not dependent on their having extensive exposure to teacher practice or training,” and spread the myth that teachers do not need to be prepared to teach.

First, let’s look closely at the data. The students of both TFA and control- group teachers scored very poorly on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. The achievement scores in reading for the students of both TFA teachers and the control group were essentially the same, while TFA teachers had one-year math gains from the 14th to the 17th percentile. These very low scores for both groups of teachers left the students far below grade level and way behind their peers nationally, as well as far below expectations for improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act. Most striking was that there was no difference between the TFA and non-TFA teachers in the high rate at which students were retained or referred to attend summer school.

Second, despite the rhetoric that Teach For America represents a shortcut alternative to traditional teacher education and certification programs, the facts of this study actually revealed that the TFA teachers had more background in teacher education than the novices in the control group. Most TFA teachers had earned a regular or initial teacher certification by the end of the study year, and more TFA teachers were actually certified than among the novice control teachers (51 percent vs. 38 percent). The control group was filled with emergency, temporary, and alternatively licensed teachers. If Teach For America is producing slightly higher student-achievement gains, perhaps it is because its teachers are more likely to be prepared to teach than the woefully underprepared control group of teachers.

Some TFA advocates will point to the fact that the students in these extraordinarily challenging, hard-to-staff schools are better served by a TFA graduate from a highly competitive college, with a high SAT score and demonstrated leadership potential. But the bottom line is that most of the TFA teachers are gone well before they learn to be truly effective, leaving their former students facing a revolving door of underprepared teachers who cannot help them reach high academic standards.

In a previous study of Teach For America in Houston, none of the members of the initial TFA cohort returned to their teaching assignments after two years, and the attrition rate of the second cohort, while slightly lower, was over 84 percent.

I am not an apologist for the fact that still today many traditional teacher education programs are not preparing teachers effectively for our urban schools. These programs need to be improved or closed down. However, to improve teacher education will require a range of new policies targeting school- university partnerships, and a new focus on funding teacher education for clinical practice, “overstaffing” urban (and rural) professional-development schools in ways similarly found in teaching hospitals that serve patients and prepare new doctors and nurses, providing highly accomplished teachers (for example, those nationally certified) time to teach and to be teacher- educators, and offering significant incentives and supports for a wide range of recruits to enter into our most challenging schools and stay there long enough to make a difference for the children that need to be served.

We know what works. Sadly, studies like the one released by Mathematica obscure the failed teaching policies in our nation, and our unwillingness to invest in the kind of teacher preparation (and other critical teaching policies) needed for our urban schools. We must avoid misdiagnosing the problems and misreading the data. Instead, we must begin spreading the technical know-how and building the political will necessary to ensure that all students, no matter where they live or who their parents are, have the knowledgeable, skilled, and supported teachers they need.

Barnett Berry
Southeast Center for Teaching Quality
Chapel Hill, N.C.

To the Editor:

In many ways, both your front-page story and the executive summary of the Mathematica study of Teacher For America are overlooking the true challenges faced by our hardest-to-staff schools.

While the TFA teachers in the study did produce greater gains than those of comparable novice teachers, the gains merely brought these struggling students from the 14th to the 17th percentile nationally. This cannot be construed as success by any measure.

What I found most disconcerting in the report itself was the following quote:

“The consistent pattern of positive or zero impacts on test scores ... suggests that there is little risk that hiring TFA teachers will reduce achievement.”

Is providing students with teachers who have little risk of harming student achievement truly our goal?

The real focus of discussion around this study should be on the incredibly poor qualifications of the teachers currently in our hardest-to-staff schools. In this study, only 54.5 percent of all teachers and only 33 percent of novice teachers in the control group had degrees in education. These schools are filled with teachers on emergency and provisional certificates and are plagued with high rates of teacher turnover.

It is my contention that we should work as a nation to design programs that recruit some of our best teachers to our neediest schools for the long term.

We should also work to create teacher-preparation programs that produce teachers who are specifically trained to work with children of poverty and who are committed to the profession for longer than the two-year Teach For America commitment.

While the intentions of Teach For America to provide our neediest schools with highly qualified teachers are worthy of admiration, this report does not prove that this goal has been met. And to believe otherwise is to continue to shortchange children of poverty.

William Ferriter
Teacher Leaders’ Network
Raleigh, N.C.

To the Editor:

Presidents of top-ranked universities could help the matter enormously by (1) articulating frequently the importance of teaching, (2) providing first-rate teacher-preparation programs at their schools, and (3) working together to plan an overhaul of the public school system that will, among other needed reforms, reward outstanding teachers and provide quality control—similar to what exists in medicine and law—for entrance into the profession.

Joseph M. Appel
Clinton, N.J.

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Letters


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