A clean slate; State lab
One of the most dramatic features of Kentucky's 1990 education-reform law was its call for the abolition of the existing state education department at the end of this June, and the firing of all its employees.
The idea was that a new state education commissioner would be able to reconstitute the department from a clean slate, with the authority to rehire employees according to their ability, rather than personnel rules or political connections.
Until recently, many people assumed that situation would continue after the changeover, with the commissioner having a free hand to hire, fire, and set the pay of employees.
State officials have since concluded, however, that the law provides the commissioner with only one-time authority, and that employees will once again be protected by the state's "merit"--civil-service--system e project administrator, to ensure the validity and reliability of the findings. Schools will be randomly visited during the assessment.
Based on samples that represent more than one-fourth of the world's 13-year-old population and building on tested procedures, iaep II will generate a status report rich in information on a range of educational activities and outcomes.
In l987, iaep I, funded by the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation, demonstrated that some of the content and procedures developed for the National Assessment of Educational Progress could be used to improve the efficiency of an international comparative study. With hundreds of mathematics- and science-test questions and a large investment in the methodology of assessment, naep was an appealing model for application in this wider sphere.
Data from iaep I, reported in 1989 in A World of Differences, suggest a number of benefits from this kind of study:
To those setting standards for student achievement, it is instructive to observe what 13-year-olds in various countries can achieve. Those with the responsibility for setting achievement goals in the United States, for example, should know that in the Canadian province of Quebec and in Korea, more than 70 percent of 13-year-olds have success solving two-step mathematics problems, compared with 40 percent of our students.
To those recommending school policies and practices, it is helpful to identify factors that correlate positively with school success or failure. In 10 of the 12 populations compared, for instance, 13-year-olds who did more mathematics homework achieved higher math scores on the iaep test.
To those concerned with long-range planning, either on a state or national level, it is informative to learn how successfully human resources are being developed in other countries. A case in point: Nearly 82 percent of Korean 13-year-olds agreed with the statement, "Much of what you learn in science classes is useful." Only 30 percent of American students had that opinion. Why?
To business and labor leaders girding for the coming expansion of global economic competition, it is essential to keep abreast of our partners' and competitors' projected workforce characteristics. Five out of every 100 Korean 13-year-olds are able to "understand and apply more advanced mathematical concepts," while only 1 out of every 100 of their U.S. counterparts can perform at this level.
To political and community leaders, competitive information can inspire support for upgrading learning conditions and justifies, for parents and students alike, the concentrated efforts needed to improve performance. Such a spur was the knowledge, in the last test, that in both mathematics and science, U.S. 13-year-olds performed at or near the bottom, compared with 13-year-olds of 11 other population groups from six countries.
These examples suggest how comparative findings can be worthwhile--if the data are valid and reliable and the results can be produced quickly and efficiently.
Thanks to naep's tested procedures, along with a fair amount of discipline, iaep I yielded a thought-provoking report in less than Continued on Page XX
Archie E. Lapointe is executive director of the Center for the Assessment of Educational Progress at the Educational Testing Service, Princeton, N.J.
By Archie E. Lapointe
Why Gauge Students on a Global Scale?
Continued from Page XX
three years, compared with previous experiences requiring six or more years. That test also indicated that while many of naep's data-analysis techniques and reporting procedures "travel well," the journey for test content, even in mathematics and science, requires extraordinary care.
Comparative statistics, whether economic, medical, or educational, always face legitimate challenges:
Are the samples truly comparable? They must be independently and rigorously drawn. Each report must clearly identify the ranges of sampling error that influence the reliability of reported statistics, as well as the percentage and the characteristics of each country's student population that is represented.
Do school programs (opportunities to learn) differ? A difficult question to address accurately, but school curricula and teacher practice reflect a country's educational priorities and must be described to account for variance in performance.
Does the United States share a common definition of what excellence in math or science represents? Do we want to excel in what others define as science (that is, an accumulation of facts) or in what our experts might define as a "way of thinking"?
What effects do cultural differences have on student learning? Nonschool factors, often described as motivation, or the "desire to learn," are increasingly recognized as key elements in the equation.
Education policymakers as well as teachers from around the world are searching for tools to help them identify and set reasonable standards. They are seeking with even greater interest to identify the factors that seem to improve the learning environment. Information from a variety of foreign countries, some with environments that closely parallel our own (Canada) and some that differ greatly (China) can yield clues of what is possible, and of strategies that may be helpful.
Inevitably, these data will cause us to reflect upon a range of generally accepted assumptions about the preparation of teachers, the type of learning materials available, the student-teacher ratio, the length of school days and the school year, as well as many societies' values and attitudes about the importance and role of education.
But this kind of information can only be as helpful as its quality will allow. How can we assure that it will be as valid and reliable as possible? How can we be confident that its dis8semination will be as accurate and as responsible as we can make it?
In the planning for iaep II, and as the project has been implemented with the guidance of the National Academy of Sciences' board on international comparative studies in education, the multinational project team has addressed these questions systematically and conscientiously. The great motivator has been the self-interest of each participating country. The expenditure of this much energy, effort, and money would be pointless if the yield were unreliable data.
The results of iaep II will be as good as current technology allows. Like all survey research, the findings will have limitations. Nonetheless, with reasonable interpretation, they will constitute useful tools for the many professionals charged with the responsibility for finding ways to improve learning.
In the short term, the reports from the test will provide insights into possible achievement targets and how we might improve academic achievement in the United States. They will be useful in spurring greater efforts to support our schools.
In the long run, the assessment techniques polished through projects like iaep will be repeatedly refined, to the benefit of educators in all nations.
They, in turn, will advance from asking "why on earth" about the testing process itself to understanding "how on earth" each distinctive society prepares its children for their successful contribution to a shared future. That is, educators will learn from each other.
That's the bottom line.
Teaching Students About War
In the days since we went to war in the Persian Gulf, the media--especially television--have featured the reactions of American students and their schools. Many broadcasts emphasize classrooms where teachers invite students to describe their feelings--their fears, confusions, and worries--about war.
Counselors, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and television personalities celebrate these classroom activities. These putative experts subscribe to a model of education as group therapy, the basic goal of which is the disclosure and sharing of feelings for the sake of "coping."
Some schools now offer psychological counseling to students and teach students that expressions of opinion about the war are acceptable and will be tolerated, as one superintendent says, "as long as they respect all points of view."
Television cameras visit other classrooms where regular lessons and studies have been suspended. Students watch television coverage of the war in the Middle East. "The students," commentators say, "can watch history in the making."
These are predictable but dismaying trends. It is certainly true that children should be spared inordinate fear by loving instruction from their parents and teachers. It is similarly true that teachers and parents should seek to know what their charges worry about.
Educationally, these are imperatives because inordinate fear causes unnecessary suffering and obstructs reliable knowledge of reality. And worry and concern are natural springs of the yearning to know and understand--they provide reasons to study and motives to think.
Preoccupation with feelings alone will bring students no closer to possession of the traditions of civility to which they are rightful heirs. Immersion in sentiment will not engage them in the long, literary history of reflection on the human condition; it will only isolate them in the narrow confines of their own transient psychological states.
As Robert Coles puts the point, "It has been possible in the past for children in the United States to get through wars without the massive intervention of school psychologists and television personalities, and I rather suspect it will be possible in the future if we only give children a chance."
To give students a chance is to take them beyond and behind the unfiltered information of the media to the study of history, literature, geography, cartography, civics, vocabulary, spelling, and the fine arts appropriate to their age. And as they mature, into reflection on moral ideals such as justice, courage, and restraint, and political and military categories, including planning, strategy, and tactics. Such studies give students a chance to form considered opinions about war and peace and do not convey to them the false message that only this war, only their own immediate present, makes any difference.
Because they are worried and fearful--and because war is so horrible--students should be learning to ask why Winston Churchill insisted, "War is horrible, but slavery is worse." Why Robert E. Lee reflected, ''It is good that war is so horrible, lest we should love it too much.'' They should be learning to ask why, in its enduring cadences, Ecclesiastes says:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die.
a time to kill, and a time to heal.
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Students and their teachers should be achieving the humility that comes with learning how hard it is to tell, sometimes, which time it is.
They should be learning to see into and feel sympathy with the sorrow in the eyes of the women in Anna Lee Merritt's painting, War. And to contrast the blithe innocence of the children in Lilly Martin Spencer's painting, The War Spirit at Home: Celebrating the Victory at Vicksburg, with the dread of war etched in the grave faces of their mother and her housemaid. They should be learning to enter the feelings of others in the spirit of the Golden Rule.
Where students are old enough, they should be wondering why, in 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "During recent months I have come to see more and more the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations." Why did he say that he had previously felt that "war, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system," and then add that he had come to the conclusion that it was no longer possible for war to serve even "as a negative good"?
Why, by contrast, did Frederick Douglass publish in his Rochester, N.Y., newspaper his own exhortation, "Men of Color, To Arms!" with the insistence, "Words are now useful only as they stimulate to blows. The office of speech now is only to hint out when, where, and how to strike to the best advantage. ... 'Better even die free, than to live slaves.' ... I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave"? Why did Douglass insist that "dreaming of peace" was infatuation and blindness and that the failure of some black men to answer the call proved only that "there are weak and cowardly men in all nations"?
Students should be learning to see something of the "peace ... everywhere beginning to take shape" that Antoine de Saint-Exupery saw as he flew to Arras in 1942; "a nameless peace that stands for the end of everything." They should learn why a man of such sensibilities would say, "The peace that is on its way ... spreads apace like gray leprosy."
They should be asking why some ancient civilizations taught the young that it is a sweet and seemly thing to die for one's country. And why thousands of years later Joseph Conrad would lament the fate of people who "go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, of terror."
They should be learning that they are made of the same flesh and blood as Anne Frank, who, despite her heartache and fear, hiding from Nazis, could write in 1943 that she and her family must not succumb to self-pity. And months later, in the year of her death, "I know that first and foremost I shall require courage and cheerfulness. ... I am often downcast, but never in despair. ... Why can't people live peacefully together?" We should be teaching them of the anguish we feel for the death of the young because, unlike Willa Cather's Archbishop Latour, they do not die "of having lived."
If students, and their minds and hearts, are taken this seriously by their teachers and their parents, they will learn that they are not alone. Their heritage is replete with human beings who have given their best to make sense of the ordeals of judgment and action imposed by circumstance on all conscientious people.
They will learn that history in the making is not so much what they see on television as what they make of themselves. History is being made in their classrooms today--by whether they are learning reading, writing, mathematics, and so on, or instead being indulged in persistent ignorance fueled by glorification of passion, emotion, and sentiment. They need to know that if they become a generation of Americans ill-educated in their own time, they threaten the world with a bleaker future than does the horror of any current war.
Likewise, if students are exposed to the history of voices that disagree about war--or specific wars--yet remain civil, patient, and willing to listen, they will learn to tell which points of view deserve respect. They will learn that the views of those who take sadistic pleasure in the waging of war and the infliction of suffering deserve no respect. Those who wantonly and remorselessly slaughter the innocent deserve no respect. Those who would condemn as evil everyone who disagrees with them deserve no respect. And those who are indifferent to the sacrifices of their own women and men at arms deserve no respect.
All this, students whose habits of mind and heart are improved by real educational opportunity that springs from the tragedy of war, have a chance to learn. Nothing less--however well-intentioned--is good enough.
Edwin J. Delattre is the Olin Scholar in Applied Ethics at the Boston University school of education.
By Edwin J. Delattre
Vol. 10, Issue 21