Education Opinion


August 11, 2004 11 min read
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‘What Works’ Site Opens Dialogue on Research

To the Editor:

The initial release of reviews from the U.S. Department of Education’s Web-based What Works Clearinghouse (“‘What Works’ Research Site Unveiled,” July 14, 2004) should make educators more critical consumers of educational interventions and experimental research. As a field, we should cultivate critical skills in relation to all types of educational research. Educators need to make decisions in many areas, such as emerging technologies, for which well-defined interventions and controlled studies are not yet available.

The Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology, or CARET, a project of the International Society for Technology in Education and Educational Support Systems, created with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, uses a critical rubric in which experimental or quasi-experimental studies constitute one of several different approaches to research. The What Works Clearinghouse and federal funding priorities will promote an eventual increase in the number of published experimental studies, but for the time being, educational decisionmakers have to work with a low percentage (12 percent of the CARET reading list) of experimental studies of any quality and a very low percentage of true randomized trials.

Program evaluations, observational studies of various types, and even synthesis articles can provide valuable information on costs, levels of effort, and other implementation issues that need to figure into any decision to invest in an educational program.

Talbot Bielefeldt
Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology (CARET)
International Society for Technology in Education
Eugene, Ore.

To the Editor:

The long-awaited results of the What Works Clearinghouse review of middle-grades mathematics curricula are in, and only one curriculum met the “gold standard” of research set by the clearinghouse’s reviewers. The fact that only one curriculum passed muster should prompt two courses of action: greater support for more rigorous research and a refining of the review process itself.

Federal and state policymakers must provide additional resources so that other promising programs can be tested using rigorous research and evaluation methods. This is especially true at the middle level, where funds for research, program development, and program implementation have all been limited. In the meantime, the What Works Clearinghouse needs to be able to identify middle-grades programs that show promise, even if they have not yet been fully tested. That way, educators will have some guidance today, while the research evidence accumulates for tomorrow.

It’s great to emulate the good research practices that are enjoyed by the field of medicine, but the fact is that education and medicine are not the same. A great many factors would need to be controlled in order to make definitive attributions about an education program’s effectiveness in a way that parallels medical research, factors including the school environment, teacher quality, program implementation, student-background variables, prior achievement, and the degree of family support. Often, there are too few “cases” to control for all these variables simultaneously, given that large-scale field trials involving many schools and classrooms are both impractical and extremely expensive.

If educators are to have real choices now, not five or 10 years from now, we must broaden the criteria for selecting promising programs. Otherwise, educators will have very few options from which to choose as they struggle to find real answers to tough problems. Even the medical profession learns from epidemiological (correlational) studies and small-scale field trials, changing course as knowledge about a particular intervention increases or technology advances.

The ultimate success of the What Works Clearinghouse may very well depend on how effectively it can tailor its evidence standards to the subject and grade level of each review. In the case of middle-level mathematics, there are a great many promising curricula. These deserve to be identified, along with a description and analysis of the best evidence currently available.

Nancy Ames
Public Engagement and Policy Committee
National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform
Vice President
Education Development Center
Newton, Mass.

Is No One Listening to ‘No Child’ Law Critics?

To the Editor:

I am in the interesting position of working part time in an educational research and evaluation company while also pursuing a master’s degree in literacy. As a teacher, I find myself in complete agreement with Sherman Minter’s Commentary on the No Child Left Behind Act (“Down the Rabbit Hole,” July 28, 2004): It is a misguided, albeit well-intentioned, piece of legislation that has created a huge burden for our neediest schools. The law looks and sounds great to those who have no knowledge of what it really means to educate children.

But from the other side of my experience, the evaluations standpoint, I know that the data being generated by the No Child Left Behind law can be a useful tool to inform instruction and help improve practices.

Mr. Minter makes a strong case for the types of tests that should be used to measure progress, relying on the axiom that children enter school with a wide range of background knowledge and progress at different rates.

In fact, all four of Mr. Minter’s suggestions on making this law work for teachers, schools, and students are valid and are based on what educators across the nation already know about children and learning. So the only question I have is this: Why isn’t the federal government listening?

Donna Gilbert
Albany, N.Y.

Jefferson Essay Prompts Response, Correction

To the Editor:

Tom Shuford’s thoughtful Commentary on whether Thomas Jefferson can speak to us today (“Jefferson on Education,” July 14, 2004) merits a response.

It has been 200 years since Jefferson spoke about the needs for educating America’s future. Our future has changed; our population has changed; our commitment to education has changed, at least in intent if not in practice.

At the time of the making of this country, diversity was not an issue to be discussed. Jefferson, an educated man, kept slaves and felt that perhaps the elite should be educated at the expense of the rest. Well, “the rest” has become the core of our society today, and we can ill afford to discard them.

Neither can school attendance be voluntary today, as Jefferson might have wished. We must educate all of our children, albeit perhaps at different levels. And we must be the guardians of liberty for the sake of democracy and our future. Thus all children must learn history, geography, and literature, as our third president would have had it. But no child should be “selected out” after a few years of education. We already make too many assumptions about children.

Perhaps, after providing a strong, standardized curriculum and a high intensity of teaching effort to all students through the early secondary level, we could then offer students the opportunity to take different tracks toward their futures. But no track should eliminate children, and none should be outside their reach. And all tracks should continue with mathematics, literature, and science.

Any “selection” made in school should view merit as including both promise as well as outcomes. If we truly believe in all children, we need to do more to bring out the promise of so many who have endured so much and come to school with two strikes against them. We must educate children early with several languages, and educate teachers to teach children well.

We need vision and commitment, both of which we seem to have lost. Take the best of Jefferson, mold it in with our concept of democracy, freedom, and literacy, train teachers more professionally, pay them more to get the brightest into the field, and then be ready to see how well we can educate all the American children. It is possible, but only if the commitment is really there at the national, state, and local levels.

Susan Uchitelle
St. Louis, Mo.

To the Editor:

In my recent Commentary “Jefferson on Education” (July 14, 2004), a quotation from Thomas Jefferson expressing his disapproval of compulsory schooling was said to be taken (as were my essay’s other quotes) from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. That particular quotation, however, was not from this source. It comes, rather, from an attachment to a Sept. 9, 1817, letter Jefferson wrote to Joseph C. Cabell. The attachment is called “An Act for Establishing Elementary Schools.” I regret not giving the quotation proper attribution.

Tom Shuford
Lenoir, N.C.

Small Schools

To the Editor:

Your article on Chicago’s small-schools initiative (“Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools,” July 14, 2004) provides objective reporting on Renaissance 2010, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to close the city’s underperforming schools and replace them with 100 or more small schools, many of them to be run as charter schools or by private operators. But you fail to point out a major fallacy in the plan: the supposition that a school’s size, enrollment, and teachers are key variables in determining its students’ educational success.

Sadly, many of the schools that would be closed or reorganized under Mayor Daley’s plan are the same schools he “reorganized,” “reconstituted,” and “intervened” in seven to 10 years ago. At that time, teachers and some principals were made to reapply for their jobs or were fired outright. The district followed this purge by bringing outside experts to the schools to show those who had survived the errors of their ways. Among these experts were nationally known figures, including Northwestern University’s Fred Hess and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Michael Klonsky and their variations on the “small-schools project"; the University of Chicago’s Tony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research; and DePaul University’s Barbara Sizemore and her “School Achievement Structure” program.

Almost a decade—and tens of millions of dollars in consultant fees—later, the same schools remain the poorest performers in the Chicago school system, and most of the same consultants remain on the district’s payroll.

As you correctly report, a similar “reconstitution” effort in San Francisco almost 20 years ago failed to show any meaningful improvement over time, in spite of reducing the schools’ size, changing the teachers, and increasing funding. The problem that these would-be change agents fail to address is that teachers and small schools are not the key variables in the education equation. Anyone with some knowledge of the current conditions in inner-city schools can tell you that poverty, the absence of concerned parents and guardians, peer pressure (especially from gangs), and lack of interest in learning by the individual students themselves are the key reasons why these students fail to achieve; not “bad teachers,” and not “big schools.”

For example, in Illinois, the top five high schools known for academic excellence are also among those with the largest enrollments. The five lowest-performing high schools are among those with the least number of students.

One of the major problems with the research used to justify these “interventions” is that the experts analyzing the data are often the same people who benefit from being hired to fix the problems the data reveal.

In the end, control of the money and patronage is what these interventions into the education of inner-city schools are all about. Private operators and charter schools take the money away from the oversight of local school councils and other public watchdogs, as well as eliminate union-scale wages and benefits, and put the money in the hands of politicians and politically connected businesses to mete out as they please.

There are no definitive data showing that inner-city charter schools, in the absence of sharing the public schools’ burdens of having to meet all of the state’s mandates and serve all of a challenging array of student groups, outperform the public schools in terms of student achievement.

Until politicians are forced to deal with the socioeconomic problems at the root of poor school performance, more union teachers will be fired and more public money will be wasted on patronage projects that have proven to be both costly and ineffective in the real world.

Tom Sharp
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

“Small is beautiful"—but only if it’s part of a new policy framework for public education that recognizes (among other things): (1) a goal of much higher learning levels; (2) that the student, not the teacher or the bureaucracy, is the producer of learning; (3) the need for home-school-community partnership; (4) the reality that many students need support, not just “teaching"; and (5) that the school is the key unit for change and teamwork.

Most school systems and communities have not adopted such a policy framework, so their small-schools fads are too often just bureaucratic shell games that result in confusion and failure—or are taken over by privatization interests. Why are educators fighting over details, instead of leading us to replace our present obsolete system with a new one that can work?

David S. Seeley
City University of New York
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I would like to see data that find a positive correlation between the restructuring of large schools into smaller ones and academic achievement. I also would like to see data that reveal a correlation between privatizing small schools and academic achievement. Finally, I would like to see data showing a positive correlation between these two trends and improved academic achievement in low-performing schools.

Without such data, what reason is there for this initiative? Is Chicago giving in to another educational fad and to special-interest groups?

Barbara Puleo
New York, N.Y.


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