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Retention Debate Needs Guidance, Not Generalizations

To the Editor:

I certainly hope that Sandra Feldman has a long and distinguished tenure as president of the American Federation of Teachers. I also hope that future commentaries on critical issues which affect public education offer more well-advised guidance and fewer ill-advised generalizations than her latest, "Two Wrong Solutions," which appeared as a paid advertisement in the Oct. 8, 1997, issue of Education Week.

Retention in grade is, as Ms. Feldman states, a "mechanical response to an educational problem." It also, in most cases, does not work. In the vast majority of cases, retained students are given the same program they received the year before. They repeat the same curriculum, use the same materials, and participate in the same activities in which they were unable to experience success the previous year. Furthermore, this is a generic response to a population of students with unique problems, abilities, and developmental needs.

There also is an existing body of research which indicates that students who have been retained are more at risk for future academic difficulty and much more likely to drop out of high school. They are also more likely to engage in social behaviors which place them even more at risk of failure. Traditionally, the most common alternative has been social promotion, with little or no formal plan for ameliorating the causes for the child's lack of success in school.

Ms. Feldman serves no useful purpose by finger pointing and stating that school administrators "may hesitate to fail students because they don't want the school to look bad or they fear pressure from parents. ... " Her recommendations are, she says, "obvious": Establish "standards and assessments"; use "proven techniques"; improve "teacher preparation"; and make "high quality early-childhood education available."

This type of generalized jargon offers nothing more than rhetoric with no substantive help for schools to face this very real problem. I would love to know, for instance, those "proven techniques [which] get students [in danger of retention] quickly back on track." And, of course, establishing standards is the remedy du jour for all that ails us in public education.

At my school, we have begun a program to respond to students who are academically at risk. It involves:

  • Early identification of at-risk students and intervention by the beginning of the second quarter;
  • A comprehensive summer school program with a 10-to-1 student-teacher ratio and a full-time instructional assistant;
  • Diagnostic and prescriptive evaluations for each summer participant;
  • Assignment of a tutor for a full year of follow-up support; and
  • Mandatory and ongoing parent education.

While not perfect, we believe this is a more sophisticated response to a very real educational dilemma.

It is our hope that educational leaders, especially leaders of organizations with a million members, will continue to learn together, work together, and share successes which offer real solutions to real problems.

Ted Haynie
St. Leonard Elementary School
St. Leonard, Md.

Good Behavior Should Back Up 'Good Talk'

To the Editor:

I found Joan Goodman's recent Commentary on moral education disappointing ("Talk of the Good Is Good Talk," Sept. 24, 1997). Rather than offering useful insights, Ms. Goodman seemed to say that we should return to the "do as I say, but not what I do" approach to moral education. She argues that it is "essential that we use moral language in our daily dealings with children." Surprisingly, especially since she is an educator, Ms. Goodman does not pay much attention to the most powerful teaching strategy of all, which is not language, but modeling or teaching by example.

Her claim that "educators who increase their use of moral language are likely to be more vigilant in monitoring their own morality [and] inspire the respect of students" is unsubstantiated, and there is no indication that she is aware of the complexities of acting morally in schools or anywhere else in society. Is it moral that so many people are homeless and hungry while others ensconce themselves in fine houses and throw away more food than would be needed to provide solid nutrition to another human being? Is it moral to castigate AIDS victims or promote homophobia? Is it moral to use sex and violence to sell material goods? How can "good talk" be more convincing than the realities of racism and poverty?

I grew up in the 1950s, before deconstruction and rampant relativism, and I had heavy doses of moral education via "good talk." We still prayed in school and had released time for religious instruction on Wednesday afternoons. More noteworthy, I suppose, is that all of us attended some form of religious-education class. In our community, it was always open season for children who misbehaved; they were righteously scolded by every available adult in the community. We learned the rules and were taught to espouse the values that gave rise to them. We were deluged with moral language, whether we were cleaning our rooms or learning good table manners, sitting in classrooms or churches, attending religious services or the Saturday-afternoon matinee at the local theater (where the movie was stopped in order for the responsible adults in the theater to lecture us on proper behavior).

There was a right and a wrong way to do almost everything back then. It was tough going, but the payoff, we were told, was that by being good, we would be rewarded with good. Guilt, shame, and Hell (of course, we still had Hell back then) were the mainstays of moral education. Everyone was watching; everyone was judgmental. Folks just seemed to believe that this was the only way to maintain a civilized society.

Perhaps my parents told me more lies than most parents tell their children; perhaps not. In any case, they told lies in the name of moral education. That's where the problems begin. Rule No. 1 was, "Tell the truth: that is, don't lie." Tree-chopping George Washington, old Honest Abe, and my parents, of course, were the exemplars of this virtue. By the time I was 13 and had collected myriad examples of "lies told to me on purpose" by my own parents, teachers, and other moral educators in my community, my faith in this "good talk" had dissipated. Eventually, I began to understand that moral talk was a public relations ploy. Although no one talked about it, I learned that too often success in our society came from learning to use moral language to one's own advantage, as a shield to cover up one's own moral lapses. I didn't learn this from all the "good talk" that I had heard over the years; I learned it through observation and experience.

So here is the essential question: Do I, myself, act morally in the world or not? The answer is obvious. No matter how many words I write, however, you will not be able to answer the question with confidence unless you can also interact with me or observe my behavior in various contexts. I certainly accept as valid Ms. Goodman's statement that "parents and teachers support moral education in schools." In fact, I believe that children hear more moral talk in schools these days than they get from any other source.

Marjorie B. Perloff
Flourtown, Pa.

'Math Rebellion' Essay Amuses, Disappoints, Tires

To the Editor:

I was amused by Tom Loveless' work of fiction, "The Second Great Math Rebellion" (Commentary, Oct. 15, 1997). Perhaps one of the television networks will buy the rights to this Commentary, and we can all be further entertained by a longer version of it in the visual medium. I am sure an actor could somewhere be found who would be willing to passionately espouse the views Mr. Loveless attributes to "the progressive math educator." Perhaps we could also find someone to play Mr. Loveless' idea of the typical math educator, a sort of narrow-minded stick-in the-mud. Lord knows we have plenty of real people to choose from for the role of "think-tank dullard."

Here in the real world, there is no educator I have met in nearly a decade of work on math and science education who would maintain any of the views Mr. Loveless attributes to "the progressive math educator." If there were such a living, breathing individual, Mr. Loveless would no doubt have introduced him or her to us, and attacked their real views. But there is no actual educator cited anywhere in Mr. Loveless' Commentary: It is not possible to quote a he or she who does not exist.

Mr. Loveless does not get right the "progressive" view on teaching. Constructivism is not a view about reality but rather a view about how one comes to know reality. He does not get right the "progressive" view on basic skills. No one "progressive" would think of maintaining that "basic facts will seep into students--by playing games, working with manipulatives, and by using calculators." The position on textbooks that Mr. Loveless attributes to "the progressive math educator" is just plain silly.

If the first great fiction of this Commentary is that it attacks nobody real, then the second great fiction is that it attacks with an army that does not exist. Mr. Loveless tries to place his own poorly reasoned objections into the mouths of "disillusioned parents and teachers across the country." But across which country does one find such illogical, mean-spirited adults? My own observation, from discussions with real parents and teachers here in this country, is that there is much in the educational change taking place that is immediately agreeable to us all. That is why it is "taking place." Where there is disagreement it is very healthy, and centered on how exactly we change education from what has been mostly presentation to what is at least equal parts presentation and communication. Getting this change right requires the work of good-thinking parents, educators, and, yes, even young people. In the real America, fortunately, we have an abundance of all three.

I am not so sure, on the other hand, that getting things right in education requires much more yammering from politicians and policy wonks like Mr. Loveless. A fiction may be necessary when you don't have the facts on your side. But the current change in math education is based on facts we all know well, from experience, from years of well-documented research, and from common sense. We all know--it only stands to reason--that people learn math best when they discuss it and work out its logic, and not when they simply have it presented to them. We all know this and yet, in many schools, we still find mere presentation. We still have, in many schools, a failure to communicate. And so we also have change.

"The Second Great Math Rebellion" is second-rate fiction. Against this fiction I place real revolutions in the education of our young people, as many revolutions as there are communities with schools, all wanting and needing our help. Shall we, with Mr. Loveless, continue to amuse ourselves? Or shall we change our world?

Scott P. Roberts
The Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Is this "deja vu all over again"? I read Tom Loveless' Commentary and discovered the same misinformation and fabricated assertions about new approaches to mathematics education that seem to proliferate whenever change threatens the status quo. Somehow, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is portrayed as a monolithic group of social engineers instead of a professional organization comprising knowledgeable classroom teachers who are dedicated to improving mathematics education for all students.

Why are teachers incorporating different viewpoints toward how children learn into their instructional practices? Because many of us have experienced firsthand what Mr. Loveless chooses to ignore, the fact that the old ways of teaching mathematics have failed a large majority of our student population.

I will illustrate not with abstract claims, but with a true story of my own 26 years of experience as a high school mathematics teacher. My story does not differ from that of many of my colleagues.

A quarter of a century ago, when I began teaching, I remember my earnest hopes and fears. Would all of my students master the skills necessary to progress to the next course? Today, learning basic skills is still a high priority. But what I did not know then was that all students do not learn these skills in the same way.

Recently, a remarkable change occurred which invigorated my teaching career. The change began six years ago as a result of a decision made by our mathematics department faculty. At that time, most of our students avoided taking more than the minimum two-year graduation requirement in mathematics. Only 25 students, out of the 1990 senior class of 350, were enrolled in a pre-calculus class. All of us in the mathematics department were determined to turn this situation around. If we didn't, students would continue to lack college-preparatory qualifications and handicap themselves in the job market.

We began to work on improving our mathematics program. We looked at the standards developed by our national professional organization, the NCTM, and by the California Mathematics Framework. We decided to work toward improving achievement by asking our students to do more mathematics, not less. We introduced them to mathematics programs that featured basic skills, but also included all branches of mathematics (statistics, probability, geometry, algebra, and trigonometry).

Everyone in the department pitched in, and our administration supported us wholeheartedly. We used Saturdays and summertime to attend training programs so we could learn to incorporate a variety of teaching strategies into our lessons for our students.

Our reward came after only a few years, when we began to record the improvements in student performance. Last year, the demand for advanced mathematics classes increased. We are now offering our seniors a calculus course, two pre-calculus courses, and two college-preparatory integrated mathematics courses. Well over 125 students taking four years of mathematics is significantly better than 25.

In order for all students to perform and use skills, the underlying concepts must be understood. A strong, convincing body of research, which is the foundation of reform in mathematics education, strongly supports this view. For example, take the classic Pythagorean Rule--a2 + b2 = c2. When I was 14, I had to memorize that rule in high school. So did all of my teaching colleagues. We then waded through dozens of practice problems, and we solved them correctly. Our classmates often did not. Pythagoras bored them.

Memorization and practice does little to enhance understanding of the formula or how it is used in the real world. Today, students in our programs learn this key geometric formula in a much more engaging manner. Using a variety of hands-on materials, they are able to visualize this important rule. Then they practice using this formula in real-world applications. For example, students calculate inaccessible distances with this formula in the same manner as a surveyor. They are learning their basics, they are learning to think and reason. And they are taking more math.

The citizens in our communities understand that our society has new problems to solve, problems that don't have easy answers, and certainly problems that don't show up in columns on a drill sheet. In my leadership role for the professional organization in my state, I have many opportunities to meet parents and students, teachers and administrators, in school districts large and small. I am fortunate to be able to visit many classrooms and discuss concerns about ways to improve student performance. I talk with individuals, and I receive letters expressing overwhelming support for the changes in mathematics education--changes that Mr. Loveless equates to the downfall of civilization.

Margaret DeArmond
California Mathematics Council
Bakersfield, Calif.

To the Editor:

I am tired. Tom Loveless' Commentary strikes me as a continuing stanza in the litany of reluctance to change.

I have spent 21 years leading classrooms of students through activities that support the basic algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus skills that make up a high school math curriculum. Most recently, I spent four weeks and untold additional hours evaluating instructional materials authored against ideas created from the 1989 California Mathematics Framework. Many of the ideas in that document represent the goals and ideas of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (1989) that Mr. Loveless challenges.

After helping write documents recommending instructional materials--not once, but twice--my advice to the state and educational bureaucracy of California has been overruled by a solo voice that sits in a politically appointed seat as a member of the California board of education. I am very tired.

PBS recently presented a television series on scientists who have helped define the universe as we presently understand it. Galileo, for one, was placed under house arrest for his radical ideas. Much like Galileo, I feel trapped by visitors and observers of classrooms. Holding texts filled with basic facts, the interlopers make so much noise that my students cannot listen to lessons. Many of my students' languages are not found in the texts. With the rising use of technology and expected 21st-century workplace skills, the basic fact of long division is being overrun by the spreadsheet. But while students in the suburbs are building Web sites, my students in the city need access and training with the same tools to maintain equity. Mathematics can be an equalizer between the haves and the have-nots.

I do agree, however, with Mr. Loveless' categories of grievances. First, teaching. Divorce, gay and sexual awareness, transcontinental and transoceanic family visitations, cellular everything, pagers, graphic and scientific calculators, VCRs, video games, and computers are a few of the changes that have directly affected how and what I teach. Where is your slide rule, Mr. Loveless? How well do you remember the basic logarithmic facts that built the slide rule? Do you know how to program your computer, your VCR, or your microwave? Are these skills I should be teaching? Or are parents learning these skills from the child?

Next, the downgrading of basic skills. What are the basic skills? I have just reviewed with my students the basic trigonometric identities and half-angle formulas that all calculus teachers expect. Will all of them take calculus? So what are the basic facts? Jobs ignore the skills of the employee and place bar codes or icons where the price used to be. How often do you balance a checkbook? Do you use accounting software and pay by computer or debit card? When was the last time you calculated a 15 percent tip or the percent markdown before you filled the cart at the local superstore? What is the APR on your present 401(k) or 403(b) or your IRA? Is your retirement plan in place to maintain your cost of living with an expected inflation rate of 1.5 percent or 2 percent?

Finally, the textbook issue. Explain to me how, as proposed in Mr. Loveless' essay, a U.S. senator is more qualified to identify algebra than any other person. Because a U.S. senator cannot find an algebra expression in a text, I should worry? Does he know how to balance a budget?

I am tired of hearing politicians and policymakers, who do not participate in the dialogue of teaching students, drop down from the ivory or Gothic-pillared tower and tell me who or what or how to teach. I am tired of waiting and listening to others tell me what to do. Leave me be.

I am too tired from the work I do every day to give any more argument or time to the politicians and professors of public policy. I need to save my energy for those who need and appreciate it: my students and others who teach.

Paul Juarez
Encinal High School
Alameda, Calif.

To the Editor:

If I could only read one education periodical, yours would be the one. So I was especially disappointed to read the recent Commentary piece on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. It is not just a question of disagreeing with Tom Loveless' position, which I do. Rather, it is very surprising to find Education Week publishing a Commentary with so little information in it. And of the information that there is, most is quite misleading, while other "facts" are plain wrong. In short, I don't think this piece is up to your usual standards.

Opinion is cheap. I can find lots of opinions on any street corner. Well-informed opinion is harder to come by, and Commentaries that educate others are especially valuable. I didn't find this piece educational, well-informed, or persuasive.

Coming from an associate professor at Harvard, I was especially surprised to find that the Commentary made no reference to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or, indeed, to any statistics or research whatsoever. The positions of the NCTM were often alluded to, but never quoted or cited (probably because the author was happier to set up a straw man than to deal with facts). If it was pure opinion you were looking for, you got it. And you demonstrated that professors can be just as opinionated as anyone.

Let me cite just a few factual issues treated very poorly in the Commentary:

"Basic skills are now de-emphasized," the author writes, implying throughout that the NCTM doesn't approve of basic skills. Wrong. The NCTM standards state that students "should develop reasonable proficiency with basic facts and algorithms." Actually, American students do well enough at adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. A bigger concern in U.S. mathematics education has always been, and still is, that students' knowledge of "basic skills" is inert; they do not apply computation skills to solving real problems with enough understanding or skill. That is why the NCTM emphasizes problem-solving as the linchpin of mathematics education. Is this issue addressed anywhere in his piece? No. Is the author concerned about students' capability to solve real problems? Not that we can tell from what he wrote.

The author writes: "The third complaint has to do with the dramatic transformation of math textbooks. Progressive educators have never really liked textbooks. ..." It is implied throughout his piece that the NCTM doesn't like textbooks and that the NCTM is somehow responsible for a particular textbook he doesn't like. Wrong. Two current members of the NCTM board of directors have each, separately, devoted more than five years of their careers to writing textbook series, and the NCTM recently wrote, "A good mathematics textbook is almost always an essential element in implementing [a coherent, coordinated] curriculum." So much for the NCTM's supposed distaste for textbooks. What is more, the NCTM neither publishes nor endorses textbooks, even those that NCTM members happen to help write. And, what about the recent TIMSS findings (reported in Education Week and almost everywhere else) that American textbooks lack coherence and focus (a claim easily traced back many years, way before the NCTM standards existed)? The author has no comment, leaving readers with the false implication that typical mathematics textbooks do a good job.

The NCTM has more than 100,000 members. The NCTM's standards were approved by dozens of other organizations, as well as by the council itself. You do a disservice to responsible people and organizations when you publish thoughtless, inaccurate Commentaries like this one.

Andrew A. Zucker
Arlington, Va.

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