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Teacher Quality, Quantity: Explaining ED Proposals

To the Editor:

In his Commentary of Oct. 29, 1997, ("The Real Teacher Crisis"), Chester E. Finn Jr. argues that the teaching crisis in America has "nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with quality." Unfortunately, he misrepresents the Clinton administration's proposal to improve teacher recruitment, preparation, and retention.

Schools will need to hire more than 2 million teachers in the next decade. In the past, when faced with such increased demand, our nation has responded by lowering standards for the teaching force. This is no longer acceptable. The question now is, what can we do to meet the need for greater numbers of teachers while increasing, rather than lowering, standards of quality?

At the federal level, we can help meet both demands by encouraging Americans of all ages to enter the profession and by working to improve the preparation of prospective teachers. The administration proposes two programs in the reauthorization of Title V of the Higher Education Act that address teacher recruitment, preparation, and support.

Our Lighthouse Partnerships program would identify best practices in teacher education and help ensure that they are widely adopted. We agree with Mr. Finn that, in far too many cases, colleges of education do not prepare teachers well for the challenges of today's classrooms. We also agree that simply dribbling money out to numerous institutions of higher education will not effect the real change needed in teacher preparation. That is why we propose funding partnerships among lead institutions, elementary and secondary school districts (particularly those in high-poverty urban and rural areas), and other teacher preparation sites.

The lead institutions would be identified through a rigorous peer-review process and would serve as models of teacher preparation--both because their programs are of the highest quality and because they have gone through the difficult process of redesigning and strengthening their programs and have experience to share with partner institutions. Program funds would allow the partnerships to refine, evaluate, and aggressively disseminate best practices in teacher education; strengthen connections to school districts; and provide technical assistance and funding to partner institutions at various stages in their restructuring efforts.

We recognize that teachers must know their content area well. Our proposal insists that lead institutions demonstrate effective collaboration between their colleges of education and departments of the arts and sciences so that teachers are prepared to teach content effectively.

But content knowledge alone is not sufficient. Most of us have had college professors who are brilliant in their subject areas but simply are not good teachers. That is why the lead institutions in our proposed program must also have strong clinical programs that acquaint prospective teachers with the realities of the classroom. The institutions must ensure meaningful connections to elementary and secondary schools and involve teachers in the design and implementation of teacher preparation programs.

Because schools in high-poverty areas have the greatest shortages of qualified teachers--and students in these areas need the most qualified teachers--we must also recruit more people to teach in these underserved urban and rural areas, and prepare them well. The other piece of our Title V proposal addresses this. Our Recruiting New Teachers for Underserved Areas program would seek to increase the numbers of qualified teachers in underserved areas and to increase the pool of minority teachers by funding partnerships between teacher education programs and high-poverty school districts. The partners would design programs to recruit and prepare teachers that meet the specific needs of the districts and would provide both scholarships and support services to participants who agree to teach for at least three years in these underserved areas.

Our proposal would effectively address the dual challenges of quantity and quality. By identifying and disseminating best practices in teacher education, and by recruiting teachers and preparing them well for high-poverty classrooms, the two programs will help ensure that teachers have the knowledge, skills, and support they need to teach all students to high standards.

David A. Longanecker
Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, D.C.

Defending Sir Walter Scott And Other Required Reading

To the Editor:

Lewis Cobbs' intelligent and enlightening analysis of Ivanhoe seems to argue all the more for the book's being retained as a candidate on a high school reading list as a thought-provoking work of literature ("Why Don't Students at This School Read Ivanhoe Anymore?" Nov. 26, 1997.) It certainly provoked him to some intriguing ideas that would form an admirable basis for a class discussion.

Although never taught with Ivanhoe, I had to read it, along with five other books (The Pearl, Jane Eyre, and other masterpieces), in the summer before high school. I can honestly say that experience launched me on a lifelong love of reading that has gone well beyond the bounds of "self-deluding nostalgia." I would guess two reasons that, as Mr. Cobbs notes, "such novels as Siddhartha, Animal Farm, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are much beloved of high school students" are that none of them is very long and all of them are written in fairly simple language.

I don't advocate teaching some "classics" because that is what others have called them, but I think students should be made (nasty word) to be exposed to stories of their heritage, to great thoughts and questions of civilization and humanity, and to the richness of the written word. I don't hesitate to critique an author because I think his or her work is not effective; but, since I will probably end my life as only an anonymous Walter, I would hesitate to summarily discard an intelligent, imaginative creation like Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe or to discourage others from reading it.

Walter Albano
Information Management Specialist
Library of Congress
Washington, D.C.

Standards Rhetoric Fails To Clarify Test Choices

To the Editor:

According to the italicized editor's preface to "Explaining Standards: A 12-Step Talking Paper," Dec. 10, 1997, Theodore Hershberg wrote the piece to "better communicate this 'revolutionary pedagogy'" of standards-based education. If improved communication was the reason for Mr. Hershberg's writing the piece, then I would urge him to rethink his rhetoric. His assertions about multiple-choice test items and open-ended items for standards-based exams may be contrary to the notion of better communication. They suggest that multiple-choice items have no place in standards-based exams, presumably because "performance ... counts in the real world."

That implication does not follow from the notions of at least one of Mr. Hershberg's sources, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chief executive officer of IBM.

In "The Case for New Standards in Education," the companion essay to "Explaining Standards," Mr. Hershberg quotes Mr. Gerstner: "We [business] can teach [students] how to be marketing people. ... What is killing us is having to teach them to read. ... "

The performances about which Mr. Hershberg writes would operationally describe what marketing people do--and for that type of measurement, open-ended items may very probably be the wiser choice, even though, according to Mr. Hershberg, they cost more than multiple-choice items. Pitting multiple-choice items against open-ended ones, and concluding that the latter are better, Mr. Hershberg sets up an antagonistic paradigm that is not, if I understand his use of the Gerstner quote, in harmony with Mr. Gerstner's point: that the schools should be teaching reading--not we in the business world.

But the standards involved in teaching people how to read, which is apparently handicapping Mr. Gerstner, might be better defined operationally through multiple-choice items, if those items are well constructed. And there lies the essential condition: If we in the education community should be teaching people how to read effectively and efficiently, then more nearly perfectly valid multiple-choice items need to be constructed and used at all four levels of curriculum: written, delivered, learned, and assessed. For the teaching and assessing of reading competencies, these items would need to be passage-dependent or text-centered, for example, and free from the flaws of near-item-dependence, which can reduce validity and reliability. They also would need keyed-correct responses and distracters that deal with critical thinking and that, therefore, avoid the pitfalls of 50-50 guessing that plague items of everyday classroom use.

Well-constructed multiple-choice items can help--not hinder--the standards-based education about which Mr. Hershberg writes, simply because such items will help ensure that people approach learning the performances needed by Mr. Gerstner and others with the necessary prerequisite reading skills and strategies.

If reading effectively and efficiently is a prerequisite to learning the performances needed to succeed in the next century, then multiple-choice and open-ended items are needed. And both types of items must be well constructed.

Michael Robert Tovino
Independent Contractor for Test Items
Lawrenceville, N.J.

Response to Bracey Letter On High School Standards

To the Editor:

In a Dec. 10, 1997, letter, Gerald W. Bracey used the occasion of my recent Commentary to make an economic case against educating all students to high standards, which I defined as college-preparatory-level content for all high school students ("Swallowing Industry Line on U.S. Education Needs," Dec. 10, 1997; "Want To Keep American Jobs and Avert Class Division? Try High School Trig," Nov. 26, 1997.)

According to Mr. Bracey, the "American economy absolutely depends on a large cadre of low-skill, low-wage workers." He argues that "[e]ducating all will take care of the equity situation but will lower wages and leave lots of highly skilled people standing around on street corners currently occupied by the low-skilled." He challenged me to support my claim that U.S. industry is creating plenty of employment opportunities requiring high-level skills. I am happy to accept the challenge.

First, Mr. Bracey is right to point out that current projections from the U.S. Department of Labor show continuing demand--in numbers--for low-skilled jobs, such as janitors, food-service workers, laborers, and so on. However, in terms of occupational growth over the next decade, the most rapidly growing demand is for jobs requiring some postsecondary training, with "computer scientists and systems analysts" topping the lists of both projected jobs (755,000 by the year 2005) and growth (91 percent). The Labor Department projects that "all categories [of jobs] that generally require an associate degree or more" will exceed the average growth of all occupations (14 percent), while jobs requiring less education will increase at rates below the average.

The rapid growth in high-skilled occupations is further evident in states experiencing economic booms. In Virginia, for example, jobs in high-tech industries grew by 36.1 percent between 1991 and 1996 and generated 40 percent of the total gain in employee compensation (inflation-adjusted), according to a recent study from the College of William and Mary's Bureau of Business Research.

These projections are compelling on their own. However, they are based on currently known conditions. Because of this, they have limits as predictors of what the economy will support 10 years from now, not to mention 20 or 30 years down the road when today's students will presumably be hitting their occupational peaks. Suppose that the present system educated all students to the level I argue for. How would the economy respond to the availability of all that brainpower?

No one can confidently predict the economic impact of so much developed talent. But the closest analogy might be the effect of the GI Bill, which gave returning World War II veterans a ticket to college. While cynics at the time argued that allowing the riff-raff into higher education would dangerously lower academic standards, few today would claim that it was a bad move, as it was largely credited with moving an unprecedented millions of Americans into middle-class prosperity.

Which is exactly the point that, in my mind, exceeds all other arguments for raising standards for all students. The undeniable link between education and earning potential makes the case against educating all collapse under the weight of its own moral perversity. The country may well need workers to fill the low-skilled jobs Mr. Bracey seems so preoccupied with. But a projected need for janitors should not be used to justify the present system that makes being born poor or brown or black a lifetime sentence for low wages.

Patte Barth
Senior Associate
Education Trust
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

I cannot let Gerald W. Bracey's letter go unanswered. While his swallowing of the Ford Motor Corp.'s propaganda is consistent with his usual themes, his statement that General Motors "just wants schools to do for free what it should be paying in worker investment" is just too ludicrous for any reasoned, educated person to accept. In fact, it is downright offensive.

Mr. Bracey is arguably somewhat correct that our economy depends on trained, low-wage workers, but the same is not true for our democracy. I was taught in public elementary school that nations are ruled by the educated (not trained) aristocracy, and that, in our country, the educated aristocracy consists of "we the people."

Mr. Bracey may not believe in educating all the people, but perpetuating our democracy is far more important than driving our economy. Having a noneducated workforce that fuels the economy yet consists of citizens insufficiently schooled to understand that economy, as well as ill-prepared to cast an informed vote on issues of trade, taxation, health care, or deficits, is as big a threat to this nation as Communism or the Cold War ever was.

Michael E. Tomlin
Associate Professor of Education
University of Idaho
Boise, Idaho

Seeing Bias in Depiction Of OCR and Its Director

To the Editor:

I was surprised at your biased depiction of the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights and its director, Norma V. Cantu, in the feature article ("In the Line of Fire," Dec. 3, 1997.)

I could barely recognize either Ms. Cantu or the OCR in your story. To my mind, it might more accurately have been described as a portrait of conservative legal activist Clint Bolick, not Norma Cantu.

Nan Stein
Senior Researcher
Center for Research on Women
Wellesley College
Wellesley, Mass.

Portrait of African-Americans, Catholic Schools Incomplete

To the Editor:

Jacqueline Jordan Irvine's rather glowing tribute to the education of African-American students in Roman Catholic schools is less nuanced and critical than some of the material in the 1996 book, Growing Up African-American in Catholic Schools, of which she was co-editor ("Public Schools, Parochial Schools," Dec. 3, 1997.)

Her book shows that the successes of African-American students in Catholic schools are often related to the forms of selectivity practiced by those schools and the requirements for parental involvement that cannot be imposed in public schools. Her Commentary also fails to mention that a main purpose of pervasively sectarian Catholic schools is to convert non-Catholic children.

Her book, like her Commentary, fails to examine the effects of racism, inadequacies and inequities in public school funding, poverty, and concomitant social disorganization on the educational performance of students in urban schools.

One contributor to her book, Kimberly Ellis, concluded: "I would not suggest that Catholic schools are the answer for today's black American child. Catholic schools remain a part of a system that does not have the best interests of the child in mind."

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

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