Letters to the Editor

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Bilingual Math Test Is Not 'Beyond NAEP'

To the Editor:

Your report about the development of national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics ("House Blocks, While Panel Settles On, New Tests," Sept. 24, 1997) has provided a good, general commentary on the National Test Panel's action.

On one point the article is incorrect. Because of the sensitivity of this point, I am providing a correction on behalf of the panel.

The article reported, "The national panel also endorsed going beyond NAEP and making a bilingual English-Spanish math test available for students who need it. ... "

The panel's decision on testing mathematics in both English and Spanish does not go beyond the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The 1996 NAEP mathematics assessment included this accommodation for certain students whose primary language is Spanish. I understand that the National Assessment Governing Board plans to continue this practice with the next NAEP assessment, scheduled for the year 2000.

The parameters established by the U.S. Department of Education for the National Test Panel's development of test specification included the provision that the tests would be in accordance with the National Assessment Governing Board's decision that there be a test in both English and Spanish of 8th grade mathematics. The panel's test specifications are in accord with that parameter.

On this point the panel did not "go beyond NAEP." Its conclusions are entirely consistent with NAEP mathematics testing.

Wilmer S. Cody
National Test Panel
Washington, D.C.

Contentious Reading Debate Needs a Dose of Balance

To the Editor:

In a recent letter to the editor, Kenneth S. Goodman renewed his attack on Douglas Carnine, Reid Lyon, and their associates with respect to their position favoring research-based reading instruction rather than whole language, which is Mr. Goodman's preference for stimulating beginning literacy ("Capturing 'America Reads' for a Larger Agenda?" Letters, Sept. 24, 1997). My own view is that both ideas are right, as far as they go, and both sides are wrong in that neither goes far enough.

There is ample evidence from well-controlled studies to support explicit, systematic instruction to develop phonemic awareness and then word-recognition skills in children, including phonics approaches to reading. There is also ample evidence to support early literacy instruction that immerses children in literature, includes daily writing, and is rich in language. Contrary to Mr. Goodman's assertions in his letter (ones consistent with his long-held perspective), skills instruction does not exclude literature immersion, writing, or extensive language experiences.

As someone who has spent the past eight years immersed in classrooms distinguished by their literacy achievement, I can assert confidently that excellent literacy teachers can and do balance skills, literature, writing, and language experiences. Such excellence in teaching requires high energy as well as in-depth knowledge of reading and writing processes and sensitive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of individual students in the class.

Several months ago, I finished penning a book on such balanced teaching. As I did, I realized that most of the work summarized in it was being ignored by both the Carnine-Lyon and Goodman teams and by policymakers everywhere, up to and including President Clinton.

It is not being ignored by educators, however. I write this letter while traveling to California to address yet another district-sponsored meeting concerned with promoting balance in literacy instruction. What has been interesting to me is that such educator groups seem to have few problems with understanding or embracing the "balance" perspective. This contrasts with policymakers, who seem to understand early reading instruction in the partisan terms of the skills-vs.-whole-language debate. I am hoping the day is not far off when policymakers will get close enough to classrooms to appreciate the much more complex "balance" position, which is much more than a bipartisan compromise.

Policymakers are not going to get any help from the partisans who have dominated the hearing rooms and pages of Education Week to date, however. In my many roles, including as editor of one of the most prestigious educational research journals, I often must provide feedback to both the skills advocates and the whole-language proponents, usually about write-ups of their research. Both sides are very willing to claim much more than their designs, analyses, and outcomes permit. With respect to balance, I offer a much more modest set of conclusions.

There is enough scientific evidence to make credible the position that systematic skills instruction empowers holistic reading and writing competencies, with skills improving additionally as a function of reading real texts, writing stories and responses to events, and engaging in a variety of language experiences. Skills instruction alone is not sufficient for holistic literacy competencies to develop, nor are holistic opportunities sufficient for complete skills development.

There also is enough evidence that balanced instruction often characterizes excellent literacy teaching to take seriously the possibility that balance really is better than extreme skills instruction or whole language.

It is high time that policymakers from California to Washington invest the effort required to understand this position that makes so much sense to educators. Given the importance of primary literacy achievement in determining long-term educational achievement, it is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the country is at stake.

Michael Pressley
Professor and Director
Alliance for Catholic Education
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Ind.

On Free Market Choices: Supply, Demand, Assessment

To the Editor:

In Susan Jacobson's "School Choice: It's Still a Seller's Market" (Commentary, Oct. 1, 1997), she states, "If every child were to take advantage of choice, then every seat in every school would be filled voluntarily, which would mean every one of them would need to be worth choosing." Ms. Jacobson's logic is terribly flawed: That's not the way a free market responds to consumers.

Given free choice, rational parents and students will seek out schools that are succeeding in providing quality education. As demand increases, those schools will respond by adding more seats. Schools that are not able to deliver an education--and there is plenty of evidence they exist--will wither and die as "consumers" of education avoid them.

What freedom of choice and competition do is create an incentive for suppliers to provide what consumers want. Too bad Ms. Jacobson overlooked that basic principle upon which our society operates. My guess is that her real issue is not liking what students and parents would do, given the freedom to do it. Simply put, they would quit going to bad schools.

Jim Klauder
Davis, Calif.

To the Editor:

It appears that Susan Jacobson lacks a certain degree of clear understanding about the development, function, and use of testing when she relates test scores to "miles per gallon of gas." It is this kind of limited knowledge of something as important as educational assessment (and the related function of evaluation) that will make it exceedingly difficult to provide parents with sufficient knowledge to compare schools.

In fact, for such comparisons to have the validity to drive education in a positive direction, parents will need a good deal more educating, especially on testing, than Ms. Jacobson suggests. This need is even more appalling considering that teachers and school administrators do not generally have enough knowledge about testing to adequately evaluate the proper development, operation, and use of educational assessment.

Educational achievement is the ultimate "outcome" of public or private education. To understand educational achievement--however one defines that term--we must assure that students are properly assessed. If we dismiss assessment or testing as irrelevant, then we have lost one of the main windows on how the system is functioning.

Michael Wilson
Plainfield, N.J.

One Teacher's Exasperation Is Another's Apathy

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to Charles M. Breinin's Commentary, "A Quick Teacher Survey: Do You Touch Eternity?" (Sept. 17, 1997). As a full-time, one-building mentor to new teachers, I'm glad for all of us that Mr. Breinin is retired. New teachers are easily influenced and easily discouraged, and I would fear how his insights might affect a captive audience in a teachers' lunchroom.

I feel badly for Mr. Breinin that he seems to have left teaching with feelings of guilt and lack of appreciation. I wonder, however, what he would suggest teachers do if they accept his appraisal. Because no one of us can reach every child (a statement with which I agree), does that mean we should try to reach none? Is there a bell curve that would tell us when to give up--when a kind word, or a touch on the shoulder, or an extra phone call home is useless?

Because one student remains apathetic despite all attempts to teach, motivate, inspire, or just wake her up, should we all resort to seatwork and daily dittos? Is the hour spent tutoring after school wasted because not every student takes advantage of it? Should we refuse to drive any students to help out with Special Olympics on a Saturday because one will forget to set his alarm clock? Has Mr. Breinin never met a student, years later, and gotten a dazzling smile and an "I remember you" greeting from a thriving young adult?

In my more than 20 years in classrooms, I've failed sometimes, and some of my students have failed themselves. Three of my former students have been murdered, there have been some untimely pregnancies, and some of my former 8th graders haven't made it through high school. I mourn for each of these young people. Yet every day I come to school remembering the former 7th grader, now adult, Charlotte, in her bright yellow dress grinning at me on the street, and the unhappy 8th grader, Allen, as a senior beaming at his high school graduation. Every day I look for another child whose life--yes, whose eternity--I might touch.

Try again, Mr. Breinin. Be a volunteer. Find an "incorrigible" child and show him there's an adult who cares. Share your "effort, intelligence, insight, or humanity" once more. You never know what you may still achieve.

Lois Osmer
Hunt Valley, Md.

Alternative Certification Can Produce Good Teachers

To the Editor:

Your Sept. 10, 1997, issue contained an article titled "Study Finds Alternative Teachers Less Qualified, But Meeting Needs." As a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Alternative Educator Preparation Certification and Licensure Programs, as the chair of that organization's 1998 conference, and as the coordinator of alternative routes to teacher certification programs in Kentucky, I take offense at the tone and content of that article.

You quote a study by Jianpeng Shen, an assistant professor at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo, which states in part: "Men and women who enter teaching through other than traditional teacher education programs are less academically qualified and less likely to consider teaching their lifelong occupation than those who obtained their credentials through customary paths." The article further quotes Mr. Shen as stating that "alternative certification ultimately downgrades the quality of teaching."

Based on my experiences with alternative routes to teacher certification in Kentucky, I find these conclusions badly flawed. While I cannot speak to every program in the country, I can with certainty about programs in my own state. Under the auspices of Kentucky's Education Professional Standards Board, there is statutory language that governs the establishment and implementation of programs designed to train teachers through alternative routes. A portion of that language requires that candidates seeking to enter a program possess the following:

  • A 2.5 college grade point average on a 4.0 scale;
  • 30 semester hours of a secondary or middle-grades teaching major with a 2.5 GPA or five years' experience in a subject field approved by the standards board; and
  • A passing score on the National Teachers Examination in general knowledge, communications skills, and a specialty-area test.

In addition to the prerequisites, candidates must pass a rigorous screening process that includes interviews with practicing educators (secondary and postsecondary), retired educators, and community leaders. Successful candidates then enter phase one of the program, which includes an orientation to the profession and the program, as well as an eight-week, full-time seminar and practicum.

Phase two of our program includes 18 weeks of formal instruction, informal observations and critiques of candidates based on Kentucky's New Teacher Standards, one half-time classroom assignment, and a formal evaluation of the candidate that is used to modify his or her professional-development plan.

Phase three includes an additional 18 weeks of formal instruction, after which candidates are given full-time classroom assignments with assistance from a mentor teacher. Phase four includes supplementary training based on individual student needs, technology in instruction, and portfolio scoring.

Each candidate must have, by law, a professional-support team composed of a principal, an experienced teacher, a college-level faculty member, and an instructional supervisor. Each member of this team must have successfully completed the state's formal training for classroom observers and tests required for participation in the Kentucky Teacher Internship Program.

Your article quoted Willis D. Hawley, the dean of the college of education at the University of Maryland College Park, as saying that "very few alternatively certified teachers get hired when there are well-qualified certified teachers." In Kentucky, districts participating in a collaborative effort with a college of education to sponsor an alternative-certification program must guarantee graduates a teaching position upon successful completion of requirements. Many principals and experienced faculty members have informed us that teachers trained through the alternative-certification program are superior to traditionally trained teachers entering the classroom straight out of college. Principals have also said they would hire as many alternatively trained teachers as they can get.

Because Jianpeng Shen's report did not distinguish among the wide-ranging methods of alternative certification, his study and your article painted an unfair and prejudicial picture of all programs. In Kentucky, we are proud of our alternative routes to teacher certification programs and especially proud of our graduates. Not only are they filling a void in the teaching profession, they are well-qualified, dedicated, professional teachers who we believe equal the best traditionally trained teachers across the country.

Kathryn K. Wallace
Director Division of Minority Educator Recruitment and Retention
Kentucky Department of Education
Frankfort, Ky.

Vol. 17, Issue 07

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