Letters to the Editor
There has been a veritable blizzard of reports and commentators assessing the effects of education reform during the five years since the release of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's report, A Nation at Risk.
Reaching very different conclusions about the report's impact, the recent analyses have confused both the general public and education policymakers.
Much of this confusion stems from the different standards employed by various analysts to judge the effectiveness of reforms inspired by the report. Critics' use of different data bases--a few innovative school districts, a few states, the entire nation--has also resulted in conflicting conclusions.
The most appropriate standards would be the specific recommendations included in A Nation at Risk. If progress were assessed on these terms, the reform effort would receive relatively high marks.
Alternative standards would be the individual philosophies of such major public figures as U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, or the advocates of a second wave of reform to follow A Nation at Risk, commonly described as "restructuring'' or "teacher professionalism.'' By these standards, the reforms would fall far short of the stated objectives.
Still another standard would be a poll of teachers, to see if things had changed for the better in their classrooms. A recent survey conducted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching suggests that teachers are "dispirited'' and "less empowered.'' But it also indicates that the commission's recommendations have been widely implemented at the school level. (See Education Week, May 25, 1988.)
A Nation at Risk offered a set of limited recommendations that essentially intensified the existing strategy and structure for schooling: It called for increased graduation standards, more homework, longer school days and school year, increased qualifications for beginning teachers, and an ethos of higher academic expectations for all students.
As one California legislator remarked, "I'll be happy if the little buggers work harder.''
In addition, A Nation at Risk advocated stronger university-admission requirements, upgraded textbooks, higher teacher salaries, and agreement on the content of a core curriculum.
Several studies demonstrate that some of the key recommendations, such as higher graduation standards, have been implemented without a great deal of local resistance. But the studies also indicate that such reforms as longer school years and career ladders have not been widely implemented or have been defeated politically.
We are unsure about the content of new academic courses and the degree to which inappropriate basic-skills tests may "drive'' the curriculum. But states like California and Connecticut are revamping their state tests to include a more complex, problem-solving orientation.
Many educators would contend that it is fair to judge their five-year progress only by what they were asked to do by state and local policymakers, and this was essentially the agenda in A Nation at Risk.
But Secretary Bennett has been critical of reform progress--citing, for example, the resistance of teachers' unions and the lack of programs to enhance student choice.
Others have been critical because schools have not been drastically "restructured'' or more interdisciplinary courses added.
These may be good ideas, but they were not highlighted in A Nation at Risk. Moreover, that report did not stress the need to significantly increase the power of teachers relative to administrators or school boards.
Though we do need to move beyond the limited objectives of A Nation at Risk, so far there has been no broad-based second wave of reform.
Consequently, we should not expect to see much happening in our studies of effects at the school level of such concepts as devolution of control to school sites, peer evaluation of teachers, or an end to the six-period day in high school.
Michael W. Kirst
Professor of Education
I must respond to your uncritical report on Lee S. Shulman's work in teacher assessment ("Capturing Teaching's Essence: Stanford Team Tests New Methods,'' June 8, 1988).
Aside from the fact that assessing the teaching act is only replowing ground that has been unproductive heretofore in identifying "effective'' teachers, Mr. Shulman and his staff are looking for the answer to an old question in the wrong place.
Common sense and practice in other professions that are not part of a monopoly occupation tell us that, to determine the effectiveness of a professional, one starts with the purpose for which the professional is trained.
The purpose of schooling is students' learning: An effective teacher produces learning.
Anyone who has had even a moderate amount of experience will recognize the fact that teachers who produce high-quality learning differ from one another as greatly as the students with whom they interact.
The only characteristic effective teachers share is that they stimulate learning for the students assigned to their care.
A test for teacher effectiveness must involve a realistic school setting--including students of all abilities, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes.
How could this be done? A teacher examinee should be asked to take a set of given learner outcomes, organize them into a teaching unit, and teach it in a realistic timeframe so that all students will demonstrate mastery by the end of the episode.
It is true that, to accomplish such a task, the teacher candidate must have knowledge and practice in teaching procedures such as mastery learning, cooperative learning, curriculum and instructional alignment, and many assessment strategies.
However, knowledge about procedures and the ability to adapt them to the situation are two different things. Assessing only the former is meaningless.
If a salesman did everything "right'' in selling but nobody bought, no one would say he was "effective.''
There are at least two reasons why many educators favor Mr. Shulman's approach. First, the almost criminal practice of applying group data to individuals is widely practiced in education. The use of standardized norm-referenced tests to identify individuals for special programs, for example, has always been thought appropriate.
Second, educators are paranoid about facing up to accountability. This can be seen in their unwillingness to describe specifically what they expect students to know and do as a result of teaching.
This attitude results partly from the common use of inappropriate standardized tests to measure learning. The lack of curriculum alignment and movable norms causes many educators to be cynical.
Because of the monopoly status of public education, we should require a successful internship for all teachers before licensure is granted.
An engineer or lawyer who is not effective will find it more difficult to win clients. A teacher who receives tenure and learns to do the little "dance'' that group data say effective teachers do, however, can be supported in public education until retirement--and produce little learning, if Mr. Shulman's findings are used to assess teachers.
Richard L. King
Coordinator, Curriculum Services
Missouri Department of Elementary
and Secondary Education
Jefferson City, Mo.
In my Commentary, "Learning from New Research About Women'' (May 25, 1988), I regret the editorial cut resulting in the omission of my reference to the book Women's Ways of Knowing (Basic Books, 1986).
Written by Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarule, the work reports on a study of 135 women and describes five different perspectives on knowing revealed in this research.
Readers will find this a useful and important reference.
Harvard Graduate School of Education