Letters To the Editor

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To the Editor:

You did very well to compress a complicated story about the Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching, or FIRST, office into a few columns ("Small Program for School Innovation Faces Scrutiny,'' Feb. 3, 1993), but I should like to correct two impressions that brevity may have left with your readers.

First, I would not have mentioned the national subject-matter standards projects in the same breath as "slush funds'' when describing the Fund for Innovation in Education. I saw, and promoted, these projects as vital, indispensable to systemic reform in schools--provided, of course, that they adhere to the criteria for inclusiveness set by the U.S. Education Department.

Second, I did not "clash'' with the FIRST office staff, as Diane Ravitch is quoted as saying, nor did I ever have any difficulties working with civil servants. To be exact, I had problems with three people (one of whom held a political appointment), whose stances repeatedly delayed or blocked the work of the rest of us (19 in all) as we attempted to carry out the legislated mandate of the æéòóô programs. I would deeply regret it if my colleagues gained the impression that I was blaming them for shortcomings of mine or of the program.

Paul Gagnon
Office of Educational Research and
U.S. Education Department
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

I want to bring to your attention a matter regarding the Catalog Connection cards enclosed with the Jan. 27, 1993, issue. Readers are asked to indicate their "primary connection to education'' by checking one of three boxes: "PreK-8,'' "9-12,'' and "PreK-12 level.''

As one who is heavily involved with the middle grades, especially grades 6-8, I would like to see that level uniquely identified.

As you well know, there is a burgeoning middle school movement, both conceptually and concretely (research data show that the majority of middle-grades students are in buildings configured for grades 6-8; although K-8 has the largest proportion of middle-grades schools, that configuration contains fewer than 10 percent of middle-grades students).

The interest in responding in developmentally appropriate ways to young adolescents who are neither elementary nor secondary, is further reflected in the increasing efforts among the states to establish middle-grades endorsements or unique and distinctive certificates, as well as in a recent attention to improving the preparation of middle-grades teachers, less than one in five of whom have any special preparation for that level.

Education Week has published numerous articles on these issues, including several on the Center for Early Adolescence study, "Windows of Opportunity: Improving Middle Grades Teacher Preparation.''

One of our recommendations was that our terminology must catch up to the reality of change that is occurring in schools, in certification patterns, and in teacher-preparation programs. For the 10,000 members of the National Middle Schools Association and the thousands of others whose "primary connection to education'' is the middle grades, descriptions limited to "elementary'' and "secondary,'' or lists that invisibly subsume the middle under elementary or secondary, leave a great deal to be desired.

The listing on the Catalog Connection card is a small thing, I know, but all those small things in the many publications that cross our desks add up to an environment and a social norm in which elementary and secondary still rule even as the middle is growing dramatically.

Any chance of acknowledging those in the middle in this small way?

Peter C. Scales
Manchester, Mo.

The writer is the director of national initiatives for the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

To The Editor:

It is good to see Chester E. Finn Jr. ("What If Those Math Standards Are Wrong?'' Commentary, Jan. 20, 1993) hold up practical experience as a touchstone for educational reform. His quotation from Professor Siegfried Engelmann sets a standard for dialogue.

However, the remainder of Mr. Finn's article does not abide by this standard. Those of us who work in the nation's classrooms know that the vast majority of mathematics taught has involved an overemphasis on rote computation. It is this basket that has held our nation's fragile eggs for so many years.

The complaint that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Standards are not field-based is unjustified. The N.C.T.M. has collected the most successful practices of each of us, from classrooms across the nation, and showed how the best can become the standard. People who are in bureaucratic or academic positions cannot see this clearly.

The contribution of the N.C.T.M. Standards has been to replace an emphasis on computation with an emphasis on understanding, not to create a new imbalance to rectify an older one. It is easy for a teacher to justify time spent on computational skills. It is much more difficult to explain to a nonteaching observer how to get children to think mathematically. The Standards have given us not just a new vision, but also a tool to communicate that vision, to show nonprofessionals that we value the twin processes of thinking and doing.

Mr. Finn complains that the Standards talk about the input of effort, but not about the "boosting of outcomes.'' This puts the cart before the horse. How can we clearly discuss the "boosting of outcomes'' until we achieve consensus as to what outcomes are valued?

Mr. Finn has an answer to that, an answer that those of us in the field fear more than any other: We value those outcomes which are easiest to assess. For a politician or a bureaucrat, this is a good answer. For an educator, it begs the question. If we don't yet know how to measure something, we must learn. The goal will not vanish because it cannot be described by number. We must learn to judge student thinking, so that we can address the true standard of excellence: continued intellectual activity and productivity throughout an individual's life.

If we value only what is measurable, instead of learning to measure what is valuable, we will never reach this goal.

Mark Saul
Department of Mathematics
Bronxville School
Bronxville, N.Y.

The writer received the National Science Foundation Presidential Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics in 1984.

To the Editor:

How ironic to witness Checker Finn, a leading proponent of a national test, a national exam system, or both, warning us that national math standards could be a "pig in a poke.'' While he offers a peculiar selection of anecdotes and ideological opinions to complain that the N.C.T.M. standards may lead U.S. teachers down the wrong path, his fundamental point--what if standards are wrong?--is worth considering. This is particularly so if standards become the basis of a national examination in any subject.

As Mr. Finn points out, content standards beget performance standards, and together they beget exams. National tests or assessments certainly would insure that the standards could not be ignored, particularly if used for all the high-stakes purposes he has recommended. Based on his own advice to refrain from "radical yet unproven'' solutions, Mr. Finn should be even more wary of a national examination system than of the standards themselves.

Even if it were possible to construct a system of distinct and diverse assessments, all calibrated to a single set of standards and thus to one another, it would not entirely escape this danger: The quality of the system would still depend on the quality of the underlying standards. However, research continues to raise doubts as to the feasibility of such calibrating. Until proven otherwise, we can only conclude that either there would be no national "system'' in any meaningful sense, or functionally there would be one exam per subject.

The only alternative to this "no win'' dilemma is what FairTest and many other education and civil-rights organizations have called for: federal support for states and districts to develop new forms of assessment as part of comprehensive school reform, in which process they could use standards developed by national organizations.

The development of locally based assessments would allow states and districts to determine which standards were appropriate, modify them as needed, and ignore those deemed insufficient. The diversity of locally developed assessments could guarantee that even if fundamental flaws exist in some assessments or the standards on which they are based, others may not suffer from those problems.

We hope, therefore, that Mr. Finn takes his argument to the next logical stage and swiftly issues a public statement repudiating his support for a national examination or exam system.

Monty Neill
Associate Director
National Center for Fair & Open
Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.

Vol. 12, Issue 21

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