Education Letter to the Editor

What—Or Whatever—Works

August 29, 2006 3 min read
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To the Editor:

The two camps Michael J. Petrilli portrays in his July 26, 2006, Commentary “What Works vs. Whatever Works” are actually two wings of the same camp—a camp that ignores the ways the federal No Child Left Behind Act encourages the reduction of public education to test preparation. When the law comes up for congressional renewal next year, much more than slight differences of opinion among its supporters will be subject to debate.

Across the nation, state education leaders, district officials, teachers, parents, students, and active citizens are growing ever more angry at the damage done to local school quality by the law’s arbitrary mandates. The fundamental changes they seek go far beyond the details and nuances on which Mr. Petrilli focuses.

As the reauthorization of this renamed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act approaches, such voices will increasingly be heard. Already, 87 national education, civil rights, and religious groups have signed a “joint organizational statement” calling for major changes in the No Child Left Behind law. The new approach should be one in which the federal government supports the capacity of schools to serve all children well, rather than focusing, as NCLB does, on testing and punishing.

Monty Neill

Executive Director

National Center for Fair & Open Testing


Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

It is amazing how we continue to build educational camps, like the “what works” and “whatever works” groups described by Michael J. Petrilli, instead of building bridges. I hope I live to see the day when policymakers, professors, organization leaders, administrators, and teachers will advocate for balance when it comes to what is best for kids and learning.

Proven remedies (“what works”) and site-specific flexibility (“whatever works”) are equally important, and we all must emphasize the need for balance between both sides, just as in the “phonics vs. whole language” debate. Isn’t it time that we take the best from both to create bridges that will last for generations and benefit kids and teachers?

Connie R. Hebert

Einnoc Educational Enterprises

West Springfield, Mass.

To the Editor:

Michael J. Petrilli’s Commentary summarizes some important controversies introduced by the No Child Left Behind Act. What is missing from his discussion, however, is attention to some monumental issues. Consider the following:

• The major goal and accountability measure for determining “adequate yearly progress” and whether the federal law is a solution or a failed experiment is the closing of achievement gaps among identified subgroups. There is no scientific evidence, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education, demonstrating that an emphasis on standards and testing will lead to such gaps-closing.

• The challenges school systems face to close achievement gaps among subgroups have been blurred by a failure of both the policy and the education community to distinguish the differences between “what works” when the goal is to improve achievement and “what works” when the goal is to close achievement gaps. The complexity of the latter goal requires explicit attention to the nature of the differences in achievement among groups, which can be broadly defined as differences in experiences.

Educators and leaders across the country show little or no awareness of this critical distinction in their decisionmaking, leading to the search for a laundry list of strategies, the spending of millions on new materials, and the creation of entertaining staff-development sessions.

• The policy further illustrates a serious failure to distinguish the dynamics that have an impact on individual and group differences by including special education as a subgroup of students.

• Available data reveal that only 32 percent of teachers believe themselves to have the knowledge and skills needed to teach diverse populations of students. This reality is ignored in the law’s definition of “highly qualified teacher.”

The No Child Left Behind Act will succeed only if key requirements necessary to develop the abilities of members of subgroups are centrally placed in the policy exchange. Policy framing these requirements will provide more explicit direction for people trying to bring about change.

Belinda Williams

Cognitive Psychologist and Consultant

Miquon, Pa.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as What—Or Whatever—Works


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