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Random-Assignment Studies Can Have Shortcomings

To the Editor:

Jay P. Greene makes an admirable case against the "nihilism" of competing educational claims, by placing stock in research that uses a random assignment of students ("Rescuing Education Research," April 29, 1998). Clearly this is one criterion for identifying potentially better studies, but the omission of other criteria oversimplifies the point.

Trade-offs and considerations of validity, reliability, objectivity, and generalizability also warrant attention. Studies with random assignment can still have technical and analytical shortcomings. Bias and limitations can be introduced through data collection, manipulation of statistics, faulty conclusions, and selective reporting of results.

A true experiment using random assignment--though often impractical--can undoubtedly contribute to a good research design. But it is neither the only hallmark of quality nor an automatic indicator of integrity.

For consumers of research, like all other products, caveat emptor.

Michael Stewart
Director of Grants and Research
Dobbs Ferry School District
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

On Bilingual Education's 'Xenophobic Detractors'

To the Editor:

Ron K. Unz has taken it upon himself to eliminate bilingual education in California ("What Price English?" April 29, 1998). The majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is introducing legislation to eliminate funding for bilingual education, or at least severely limit it. And Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Calif.) has done the same. They do this, they say, in order to teach children English. This is a scam and a travesty at the children's expense. Bilingual education is much more than teaching English. It is making children literate in two languages, an idea many more Americans should welcome.

The xenophobic detractors of bilingual education do not understand second-language acquisition, nor do they want to. They are afraid of a culturally diverse country where different languages and ideas are shared. They are not willing to wait for children to develop the necessary academic English skills and, in the meantime, they continue to misinform the public, the parents, and the politicians. Bilingual education is effective and, among the many studies I could cite, a recent study undertaken by Jay P. Greene of the University of Texas has proven this.

Let us not forget that bilingual education is not just for limited-English speakers. It is also for American children who are learning a foreign language. These programs are two-way bilingual programs. Do Messrs. DeLay, Riggs, or Unz realize they would cut such programs, too? Bilingual education affects the lives of many, and it could actually bring us all closer together.

People who do not support bilingual education base their reasons on emotion, not on fact. The debate will continue to rage between people who have not set foot in the classroom. As for me, I know it works because I see its success every day in my classroom.

Stephen Pollard
Bilingual Educator
Cedar Hill, Texas

Another Who Misses Yesterday's Leaders

To the Editor:

Finally, someone has the guts to tell it like it is. Henry F. Cotton's Commentary "The Old Order Changeth?" (April 15, 1998) cuts through the smoke screen and self-serving bureaucratic distractions that are perpetuated by "educational leaders."

Like most of my fellow educators, I am tired of hearing that our schools are failing and that teachers don't care. The problems of family and society that are played out in our classrooms every day make it impossible--or at least highly improbable--for real academic learning to take place. But until we, the educators, through leadership and courage are willing to do the things we know are necessary for successful schools and competent students, we should be held accountable. Are we willing to put students' needs ahead of our pocketbooks? Are we willing to take the ethical and moral high road or continue on the tenure-protected and politically correct low road?

I, too, miss the educational leaders of yesterday and look with anticipation and desperate hope for the new educational leaders to come forward before it is too late.

To answer Mr. Cotton's plea for innovative ideas in education, I recommend that educational leaders of tomorrow read Are Schools Really Like This? by J. Gary Lilyquist. It is an excellent resource book in an easy-to-read style, filled with practical information for helping leaders understand school structures and implement change for school improvement.

Scott Kloetzke
Executive Director
The TesseracT Group
Minneapolis, Minn.

Appreciation for Essay on 'White Conditioning'

To the Editor:

Finally, someone has addressed cogently and with enormous courage the issue of broadening our required reading lists to include cultural diversity ("'White Conditioning,'" April 22, 1998). Susan Sandler should be be commended. And someone should be sure to see that Ward Connerly receives a copy of the message.

John Harwell
College Counselor
Lausanne Collegiate School Memphis, Tenn.

A Closer Look at Schooling Reveals 'Perpetual Ignorance'

To the Editor:

Ignorance is alarming, but our reaction to the ignorance of others is revealing. That Sandra Stotsky writes a Commentary to send off an alarm about the state of our elementary school science curriculum is commendable (there is barely any science taught), until one gets into the details ("More Teachers, Smaller Classes: Are These Our First Priority?" April 1, 1998).

Ms. Stotsky's ideal science curriculum for grades K-4 is taken, she implies, mostly from another era's social studies textbooks. But whichever--science or social studies--there's plenty of evidence that in Ms. Stotsky's "good old days" the stuff that students didn't know and couldn't spell was at least as appalling to well-educated adults then as it is to Ms. Stotsky now. And worse, what she wants to do about it would dig us deeper into our ignorance.

The vast majority of our fellow citizens have been forgetting most of what they were taught since time immemorial. Also complicating matters is the fact that what their teachers think are the bedrock, essential facts seems to change more slowly than the world does. (Maybe there's a connection between these two?)

On our perpetual ignorance: Kids have always been "remarkably stupid." I recommend Dale Whittington's article in the Winter 1991 issue of the American Education Research Association's Research Journal, "What Have 17-Year-Olds Known in the Past?" He notes that, despite the fact that 17-year-old test-takers in the two prior periods he studied (the 1930s and the 1950s) were a more selective group, they were equally ignorant of precisely the kind of basic facts Ms. Stotsky is so alarmed about. Given that the amount of material to be covered in modern science (and history) has grown exponentially since then, being "equally" ignorant may be a positive finding. What would Ms. Stotsky say of the results of a questionnaire administered by The New York Times to elite college freshmen in 1943 on which large numbers could not identify Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt, some thought that George Washington had been president during the War of 1812, and others identified Walt Whitman as a bandleader? That was before open admissions, social promotion, whole language, or other modern scapegoats. How would she interpret a New York City newspaper editorial written at the turn of the last century decrying the spelling and grammar of students? To ignore such facts may provide good headlines, but it's also a display of ignorance.

What to do about it? This kind of criticism is often coupled, as it is in the case of Ms. Stotsky's Commentary, with a call for more focus on substance and less on process. In the context of her essay, what Ms. Stotsky seems to mean by substance is more attention to names and dates and less to the nature of scientific inquiry--to thinking "scientifically." In a nation in which the majority of citizens don't understand the difference between astrology and astronomy, and trust the authority of the former more than the latter, the absence of serious science education is distressing--substance and process. But not science dressed up as book reports about important men, as Ms. Stotsky is suggesting.

The way out of this anti-scientific climate is tackling the debased culture that schools too often perpetuate. Knowing the key identifiers that distinguish Edison, Franklin, Einstein, and Jefferson (and how to spell their names) might or might not be the big winner if our students and teachers were immersed in serious science investigations. I suspect it would be a happy byproduct, as it might have been in the good old days if history had been taught with more attention to "process." But more importantly, it might help create a culture in school that took ideas seriously. Seriously enough to wonder how people have come to their particular ideas, how we test an idea out, and what kinds of facts count as good evidence. You've got to know your "stuff," and you've also got to know when to trust it and how to place it in context.

Teachers can't change the larger culture. But they can build on what's best in it. They can encourage the invention of schools that ask both adults and children to exhibit such fundamentally critical "habits of mind," schools where adults take responsibility for their own ideas and practices. Such schools could be centers of learning for all.

It's easy to dismiss this as a silly dream and settle for schools that aim only for four more right answers on the latest version of the latest standardized test (including "open ended" closed questions). But the evidence exists that all kids can take ideas seriously and reason their way through tough issues, exercising both imagination and discipline, even if the results don't fit neatly into most assessment systems. But it's well to remember that a nation of above-average test-scorers may, in fact, turn out to be a sillier and sadder dream.

Even if Ms. Stotsky could get us to go back to the pre-1971 readers she remembers so fondly, half of us would still be below grade level, as we were then and will forever be.

Deborah Meier
Mission Hill Public School
Boston, Mass.

The writer is a founder of the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City and of that city's Center for Collaborative Education.

To the Editor:

Julian Weissglass is correct when he says that "discrimination falls the hardest on people from lower socioeconomic classes who do not receive equal educational opportunity and on people of color who endure subtle and sometimes blatant racism that affects their learning and self-confidence" ("The SAT: Public-Spirited or Preserving Privilege?" April 15, 1998). This lack of access to educational opportunity basically means fewer and poorer-quality high school college-preparatory courses for many of those students. Without such courses, anyone will do less well in college and on the SAT. If we were to eliminate the SAT, as the author suggests, we would only obscure some of the educational problems it helps to uncover.

I believe Mr. Weissglass needs a refresher course in cause and effect; the SAT is not the message, it is the messenger. In its long history, the SAT has been a door "opener," in providing students--no matter what their background--the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to succeed academically. It has allowed minority students, in particular, to show they are ready for college, as reflected in the growth in minority SAT-takers and minorities on college campuses in the past 10 years.

I was particularly concerned about the author's polemic on Carl Brigham and the implication that the SAT was--and remains today--a reflection of Brigham's earlier controversial and misguided ideas on race. The SAT was first administered in 1926. Brigham was already referring then to his ideas as "stupid" and later agreed they were "without foundation." The SAT is an empirically based test, and the lamentable and later-abandoned ideas of one poor soul 70 years ago are irrelevant. There has been phenomenal progress in psychological research and theory since then and the SAT reflects that progress.

Is the SAT perfect? No, but there is no such thing as a perfect test of any kind. Grades are not perfect either--nor are essays, evaluations, or whatever kind of assessment--if any--Mr. Weissglass uses in his courses. The comments he makes about the SAT appear to apply equally well to any form of assessment or grading. A student's potential should certainly not be reduced to a number, and the College Board cautions colleges and others about using the SAT alone. However, contrary to Mr. Weissglass' assertions, the SAT adds significantly to the prediction of college success: When combined with high school grades, the SAT provides a higher correlation with freshman grade point average.

It is also fair: Each question must meet extensive test specifications, pass sensitivity reviews, and undergo statistical analysis to ensure that no question impacts unfairly on any group. It is useful to institutions: With more than 20,000 high schools differing widely in curricula, difficulty of courses, and grading standards, the SAT provides an index through which all students can be compared. This usefulness explains the continual growth in the number of colleges using the SAT in the admissions process: One hundred and two colleges have added it since 1990, bringing the total to 1,450 institutions (82 percent of all four-year colleges).

I also must disagree strenuously with the author's contention that the College Board and the SAT represent an educational system designed "to preserve privilege and economic inequality." The College Board has striven since its founding in 1900 to increase access to higher education by making the transition process simpler and fairer for all students, irrespective of background, geographical area, or schools attended. Does Mr. Weissglass really want us to return to the days when who you were and whom you knew--not what you knew--were the most essential criteria for getting into college? If the SAT were the terrible barrier that Mr. Weissglass asserts, why has American higher education commonly been regarded as the best in the world?

The SAT has been a tremendous democratizing factor in American education; more than 50 million college applicants have taken the SAT since 1926, and most of them have arrived on some campus somewhere--including millions of disadvantaged students who were often excluded in the past. We are proud of that.

Charles A. Kiesler
Professor of Psychology and
Thomas P. Weil Distinguished Professor
of Health Services Management
University of Missouri, Columbia
Columbia, Mo.

The writer is the chairman of the College Board in New York City.

To the Editor:

Like cheap romance novels, there seems to be a formula for writing about achievement testing today. Unfortunately, again like pulp fiction, the result can't be considered to be serious critical analysis or offer any hope for guiding efforts to improve education. The Commentary of Julian Weissglass provides a perfect example.

First, it is perhaps only true in the field of testing that everyone believes themselves to be competent to provide informed analysis. Although I occasionally skim the Journal of the American Medical Association, and read the business section in the newspaper, I've never passed myself off as authoritative on topics such as AIDS, economic recession, and so on. Mr. Weissglass, a professor of mathematics, is unashamed to speak authoritatively about a topic for which he apparently has no training.

The problem with being ill-prepared is that one must rely on formulae. I suppose that, if given enough detail regarding the accepted format, anyone could write a romance novel. For all I know, computers can be programmed to crank them out.

The formula for writing about testing goes like this: Cite some examples describing missteps in the early years of the testing profession, include examples of past social injustice, then tie it all together with three letters: SAT.

The result is that every criticism about testing seems obligated to mention phrenology, eugenics, test bias, and so on. (Actually, more than mention; Mr. Weissglass' Commentary is about 90 percent this.) Why? Every suggestion for medical advances doesn't begin with a diatribe about leeches. Computer buffs don't run down the abacus every time they want to make a point about Windows 95. I'm not going to impugn Mr. Weissglass' field because Ptolemy's trigonometric screw-ups gave us the geocentric universe, or mathematicians (until recently) were wrong every time they offered proofs of Fermat's last theorem.

Ultimately, his ancestor-bashing aside, Mr. Weissglass just wants to say that he doesn't want tests. He believes that it's disrespectful to reduce a person's understanding to a number. Fine. I support his right to believe whatever he wants. (Although, as a mathematician, he probably contradicts his stated beliefs every day. He'd probably be quite intolerant of a student whose understanding of grouping four objects with three objects didn't result in seven--an understanding reduced to a number.)

Stripping away the hysterical, historical accouterments, Mr. Weissglass simply asserts his unwillingness, inability, or simple lack of desire to make distinctions between degrees of competence. Unfortunately, the SAT is a poor vehicle for promoting the merits of utopian egalitarianism; the result is an anemic philosophical treatise. Worse, it fails to accomplish what Mr. Weissglass' goal--hopefully--was: to contribute to informed discussion about educational reform.

Gregory J. Cizek
Associate Professor
College of Education
University of Toledo
Toledo, Ohio

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Pages 41, 43-44

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Letters

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