Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints

For Math Improvements, Look to Brain Research

To the Editor:

Much has been written about the Third International Math and Science Study results, the differences among Western, European, and Asian mathematics instruction, student expectations, teacher preparation, resource materials, and so on. When one "peels away the onion" to find out what really works well in teaching mathematics, it is no surprise that successful endeavors focus on using patterns ("Time To Solve the Math Education Equation," May 6, 1998).

The brain is a pattern-seeking organ and, as such, naturally responds to developing and extending patterns using sight and tactile senses. For students to understand the concepts behind the algorithmic bridge that is needed to solve problems, a foundation of recognizing and constructing patterns is necessary. There is no magic bullet to learning mathematics better than the way we are now, but there are proven ways to improve things. For example, we must pay close attention to the neurological research on how humans take in information and convert it to knowledge.

Close examination of exemplary mathematics classrooms populated with average, backyard kids, reveals an environment of student and teacher modeling, pattern development and expansion, and solving real-world problems based on those ever-widening circles of intra-related geometrical or arithmetical constructs. Developing patterns this way takes a lot of time and focus, at the expense of the zillion other topics to be addressed. Teachers need substantial training in this pedagogy in order to understand that once students (or adults) learn how to recognize, develop, and extend patterns of increasing complexity, they will be able to use these keys to unlock numerous problems previously untouchable due to their strategically hidden solutions, usually embedded in some complex algorithm.

A natural result of all of this is a compacting of the curriculum ("less is more" again). For example, a time-honored ritual in algebra is teaching factoring as a "stand alone" topic. It is no surprise that developing pattern recognition for the families of ax2+bx+c and their geometric features renders teaching all the derivations of this generality as separate pieces unnecessary.

Vincent J. Hawkins
Curriculum Coordinator
Warwick Public Schools
Warwick, R.I.

Original 'Hooked on Phonics' Was Too Good To Succeed

To the Editor:

I served on the original Hooked on Phonics board of advisers--with pride, I must say. I thus find your article "Reborn 'Hooked on Phonics' Switches Strategy," April 22, 1998, an unfair rebuke of the first edition of this program.

For example, it is erroneous to say that the original Hooked on Phonics did not provide "follow-along reading activities and simple storybooks" coordinated with its phonics instruction element. This "reading practice" was an integral part of its package.

Nor was this version of Hooked on Phonics unproved. In fact, it commissioned a well-designed study of its merit in Inglewood, Calif., the findings of which were collected and analyzed independently. Parents and principals were amazed at the reading growth of the low-income children in this investigation.

On the other hand, it is true to say that the advertising campaign of the beginning Hooked on Phonics was deliberately offensive to the reading-instruction establishment (especially the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English), which was strongly committed to experimentally unverified "whole language" teaching. These Hooked on Phonics ads revealed to the nation the learning-to-read disaster that whole-language instruction causes. It correctly described how direct and systematic teaching of phonics information produces the greatest written-word-recognition skill possible.

Then, suddenly, with no warning, the Federal Trade Commission announced to the mass media that the many testimonials from satisfied customers, released by the early-edition Hooked on Phonics, constituted fraud. As everyone knows, the FTC normally allows that testimonials are the lifeblood of the advertising industry. There thus obviously was some other reason why the FTC forced the initial Hooked on Phonics into bankruptcy.

For the true reason for this outrageous governmental abuse we must look to who profited from the demise of the original Hooked on Phonics. It certainly was not the program's millions of satisfied users, who were given a money-back guarantee. This leaves the advocates of whole-language instruction, who were ecstatic with the FTC's decision.

The best advice to the new Hooked on Phonics is this: Don't get too successful in teaching children to read. In that event, you likely will suffer the same fate as your predecessor.

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Minorities Remain Strong In California Enrollments

To the Editor:

Your recent article on California colleges in the aftermath of affirmative action curbs states that minority admissions have dropped for the first time as a result of California's Proposition 209, which prohibits racial and gender preferences in admissions ("California Colleges Going All Out To Woo Minority Students," April 29, 1998). Much of the article is about the efforts of the University of California, Davis, to increase the recruiting of minorities. It cites large percentage drops in minority enrollment and states that UC-Davis officials are disappointed that their efforts failed to produce more minority acceptances.

Accompanying the article is a chart showing the University of California's admissions by ethnicity for 1997 and 1998. A little simple arithmetic shows that the data in the chart simply do not support any of your conclusions. You neglect the fact that the number of white students accepted also declined from 1997 to 1998. When the actual minority data from the two years are compared, there is a relative increase in minority population, up from 49.1 percent in 1997 to 51 percent in 1998.

It would be interesting to understand why UC-Davis officials are "disappointed" that only half of the university is composed of minority students.

Richard W. Simpson
Assistant Superintendent
Instructional Services
Conejo Valley Unified School District
Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Bilingual-Study Results And Random Assignment

To the Editor:

Jay P. Greene notes that in evaluations of bilingual education, studies in which random assignment has been done show bilingual education to be effective ("Rescuing Education Research," April 29, 1998). He also states that studies without random assignment show different results, which, he suggests, is why experimental results in this field are not readily accepted.

I reviewed 13 published studies in which researchers failed to randomize or otherwise control for initial differences (in Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education, Language Education Associates, 1996). In 11 studies, there were positive effects for bilingual education, and in two there was no difference. I also concluded that several studies in which all-English approaches appeared to be better suffered from mislabeling: What was labeled "immersion" was often bilingual education, with a significant amount of instruction done in the primary language.

Mr. Greene is of course correct when he says that studies in which random assignment has been done should carry more weight. But the results of studies without random assignment should not be ignored, especially when there is no reason to suspect that differences between the groups existed, and when results are so consistent.

Stephen Krashen
Professor of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Proposition 227 Ignores Second-Language Difficulty

To the Editor:

For many years, I have looked to Education Week for balanced, accurate coverage of the issues and controversies in the education of public school pupils. This makes your story on California's Proposition 227 doubly disappointing ("What Price English?" April 29, 1998).

The proposition launched by Ron K. Unz is not only about bilingual education. If it passes, it will negate the work of many teachers dedicated to teaching English as a second language. The International Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, and its California affiliate, CATESOL, have taken principled stands against Proposition 227 because it ignores the difficulty of learning a second language for academic purposes, invents new terminologies (exactly what is "sheltered English immersion"?), and dictates local district policy and methodology.

I have taught English as a second language in California for more than 18 years. It may be news to Mr. Unz and to you, but most K-12 school districts already have ESL curricula designed for students who are learning the language. But even with specially designed and adapted curricula, and even for the brightest and best students in our classes, language learning is difficult. Though it is possible to speak English conversationally after 183 days of instruction (the California school year), it is the rare child or adolescent who can immediately and successfully compete on grade level in all subject areas with native English speakers. Proposition 227 would require second-language learners to compete on grade level after the single year of so-called sheltered English immersion.

Where are the interviews with TESOL professionals, where are the visits to ESL classrooms, where are the interviews with students in their second or third year of English-language learning? Where is a balanced perspective? By reducing the Unz proposition to a simplistic referendum on bilingual education, you have done California ESL teachers and their students a grave disservice.

Linda Sasser
English-as-a-Second-Language Teacher
Altadena, Calif.

'Our Tests, Ourselves': Teaching With Commitment

To the Editor:

I wholeheartedly agree with Edgar H. Schuster's Commentary "Our Tests, Ourselves," April 8, 1998. Mr. Schuster argues that the assessment of students' knowledge can also indicate teacher effectiveness and content taught. Testing in its traditional sense is only one tool of many that can indicate learning and retention. Other "arrows in a teacher's quiver," as Mr. Schuster puts it, may include performance assessment, questioning techniques, assignments, and portfolios.

The fact that some teachers neglect their students' learning by reducing the number of strategies they employ is completely unacceptable. In a profession that must attend to students' individual learning needs, it is up to the professionals to lead their students in multiple directions to understanding and to be sure that those students are learning to the best of their abilities. If teachers are willing to offer less than 100 percent to their students, it is inconceivable that they could expect anything more in return.

As a former teacher and current graduate student in education, I am fully aware of the amount of work it takes to reach all students. I am also aware that those educators who commit themselves to their students' understanding, and who will settle for no less, make the best practice-teachers. These are the teachers that students respect, admire, and search out as personal role models.

After reading Mr. Schuster's Commentary, I realized that we need to constantly reflect upon and face the realities of the classroom. A test cannot be regarded as a universal assessment instrument in an orchestra of student, teacher, and curricular evaluation.

Derek Brown
St. Paul, Minn.

Three Cheers for Music In Schools' Curriculum

To the Editor:

Three cheers for David H. Porter and other parents who recognize the importance of music study and insist that their children have a complete education that includes the study of music ("Music and Brainpower," April 29, 1998). Despite the overwhelming evidence that music makes a difference, many schools across America are shortchanging our children. When budget problems surface and tough curricular decisions have to be made, comprehensive and sequential music programs are often the first to be put on the chopping block. Those of us who care about our children and their musical and intellectual needs must speak up and take action.

Readers can obtain more information by calling our national office at (800) 336-3768.

Carolynn A. Lindeman
Music Educators National Conference
Reston, Va.
The writer is a professor of music at San Francisco State University in San Francisco.

Eyes of Texas Spot An Inverted State Flag

To the Editor:

I read with great interest your article "In Texas, the Arrival of Spring Means the Focus Is on Testing," April 29, 1998. On page 21, there is a photograph of the flags flying outside the Los Fresnos district's central office. The district is proudly flying its "recognized status" flag under the state flag of Texas. Amazingly, however, Los Fresnos is flying the Texas flag upside down. (The red is supposed to be on the bottom, making the five-pointed star point toward the heavens.) Does this mean that Los Fresnos still considers itself "in distress"?

David Sanders
Richardson, Texas

More on Competitive Schoolwide-Reform Programs

To the Editor:

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Robert Slavin finds our Commentary on his "Success for All" program ad hominem ("The Diogenes Factor," April 8, 1998; "Slavin Responds to Essay's 'Ad Hominem' Critique," April 29, 1998). We merely point out, however, that as developer of a widely disseminated, revenue-generating program, Mr. Slavin may not be in the most disinterested position to evaluate the worth of competitive schoolwide-reform programs, including his own. When he ranks his Success for All program above the others, readers, not we, must draw their own inferences about the purity of motives that he claims.

Actually, our Commentary's focus was on the problems of research bias in program evaluations, particularly when developers evaluate their own government-sponsored programs. Success for All provides a good example. We pointed out that Mr. Slavin put forth only positive evidence for Success for All and left out negative evidence of his own and others. Success for All self-evaluations, moreover, employed subjects and assessment instruments favoring the program, and employed Success for All schools with clear advantages over control schools. These are substantive--not ad hominem--points, which Mr. Slavin ignores in his letter.

Mr. Slavin criticizes us for pointing out that independent, national Title I evaluations have shown little or no effect of the federal compensatory education program, which has expended more than $100 billion during the past quarter-century. We maintain, nonetheless, that it ill serves Congress, educators, taxpayers, and students to bury such research. Rigorous, independent evaluations are required to improve programs or terminate ones that consistently fail.

Herbert J. Walberg
Research Professor of Education and Psychology
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, Ill.
Rebecca C. Greenberg
Doctoral Student
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

I was flabbergasted by Robert Slavin's response to Herbert J. Walberg and Rebecca C. Greenberg's Commentary criticizing the claims for Success for All.

Particularly disappointing was Mr. Slavin's response to the reference that a study by Richard Venezky of the flagship Success for All demonstration sites in Baltimore found that by the end of 5th grade the average Success for All student declined to almost 2.4 years below grade level. Mr. Slavin defended his program against what most would view as an educational disaster by saying that Success for All students did substantially better than control students and that Success for All does not guarantee that all students will reach grade level. To defend such a terrible result on the basis that control students were even worse off shows no regret for the terrible performance of Success for All students and a callous disregard for the achievement of students--especially given the high cost of the program. Mr. Slavin's characterizing the sharp decline of the average Success for All student after the 3rd grade as students not reaching grade level is so gratuitous and biased that it makes me question the accuracy of his other supposed research-based claims.

Mr. Slavin's failure to disclose the student decline in his published articles about the Baltimore Success for All demonstration site is hypocritical because he has long criticized other approaches, and Title I in general, as a failure because early gains were not sustained. He presented the schoolwide approach of Success for All as the cure. Clearly, the early gains of Success for All students were not sustained, and he should have labeled the experiment a failure. Further, this omission is dangerous because Mr. Slavin used his reported results from the Baltimore project to convince almost everyone that a largely homogeneous schoolwide intervention with a major focus on K-3 is the way to go, and that specialized programs are not needed after the 3rd grade and are ineffective. As a result, he has misdirected the field to overinvest in K-3 and divest itself of specialized programs, and he has inhibited investment in the development of better-specialized programs.

Mr. Walberg and Ms. Greenberg's criticism of Mr. Slavin for selective disclosure of results is valid and long overdue.

Stanley Pogrow
Associate Professor of Education
University of Arizona
Tucson, Ariz.

'Warm Demanders' and National Certification

To the Editor:

The example of an African-American teacher drawn by Jacqueline Jordan Irvine and James W. Fraser ("Warm Demanders," May 13, 1998) would probably finish her remonstrances to the boy, Darius, with words of encouragement and approval: "I believe in you, Darius. Now let's get this act together." To omit those words of affirmation seems to imply that negativity and harshness are the only indicators of the cultural differences demonstrated by African-American teachers.

The Commentary asks whether culturally responsive teaching styles are included in the process of national board certification. As an African-American, national-board-certified teacher, and as a member of the board of directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, I can give personal assurance that not only does the national board include intensive attention to cultural and ethnic differences in teaching styles, but it also seeks to recognize language barriers, teaching demographics, or historical inequities that might affect a candidate's certification.

Ms. Irvine and Mr. Fraser assert that the teaching practice of Irene Washington, presented in their Commentary, would not meet local or national performance standards. Since Ms. Washington is a hypothetical case, and we do not have a full measure of her teaching performance, we cannot draw conclusions. But the description of Ms. Washington's culturally responsive teaching style falls within the NBPTS standards' expectations regarding contextual practice. In fact, the African-American teachers who are now nationally certified teach across the full range of environments and use skills and styles appropriate to their students. I am confident that with continued conversations, the appeal of the board's already strong standards and assessments will grow among teachers of all backgrounds and teaching contexts.

Ms. Irvine and Mr. Fraser cite teaching behaviors of effective African-American teachers as employing a style filled with rhythm and response, as working as advocates for their students, using cultural experiences to link new concepts, using slang to relate to the lives of their students, and as teaching with authority and discipline to effect positive change. Not only do I, as an African-American who is board certified, employ all of these methods and more in my classroom, but so do most of the most effective teachers I have met, regardless of race, in my travels across the country as the 1997 National Teacher of the Year. An effective teacher must be culturally responsive to the students in his or her classroom, and the board has recognized and celebrated that fact since its inception.

Each set of NBPTS standards requires that accomplished teachers know their students well and practice in a way that best advances the learning goals of the students. Candidates for national certification must compile an extensive portfolio documenting their knowledge and analyzing their teaching skills in the context of knowing their students. Not only are multiple paths to knowledge allowed, they are required of accomplished practitioners. Accomplished teachers who respond to the needs of all students have a repertoire of strategies at their disposal and use them effectively.

As reported in the Commentary, African-American teachers have achieved national certification at a lower rate than candidates in other racial groups. In fact, because African-Americans historically have experienced differential pass rates in standardized and norm-referenced testing, the national board chose to develop and adopt a performance- and criterion-based assessment, hoping this new type of assessment would avoid sources of alleged bias observed on other tests. The board decided at the outset to confront head-on the issue of adverse impact in the development of its policies, standards, assessments and to support an extensive research program to identify and eliminate all potential sources of bias that could threaten the fairness of national board certification.

The national board has closely examined the outcomes of each assessment administration for sources of the adverse impact on groups. We were dismayed to learn that in our first few administrations, African-American candidates did not perform as well as other groups. Ms. Irvine and Mr. Fraser suggest several explanations for the lower certification rate: "racism that continues to assure limits on the preparation of people of color at every stage of their schooling; lack of mentoring and adequate professional development; culturally specific styles of writing and reflection; and racial interactions between assessor and candidate." Several of these factors are outside the responsibility of the NBPTS, but it has considered them all in an attempt to find either correlative or causative factors.

Part of the NBPTS's ongoing research focuses on assuring the equality of our standards and assessments across teaching contexts. Studies have examined interactions by race between assessors and candidates, the level of candidate support, writing demands in the assessment, demographic factors, and teaching context. None of these studies has revealed consistent or significant differences by race, teaching context, or educational background that explain the lower pass rate for African-Americans. Extensive studies of the scoring methodology have revealed no differences between the way white or African-American assessors score performances of white or African-American candidates.

Nevertheless, these studies have helped us strengthen the certification system. We have identified ways to make instructions clearer for all candidates. We have made everyone aware of the demands of the assessment process and disclosed scoring guides so that there is no mystery about the level or quality of performance necessary to achieve national board certification. We have encouraged and facilitated extensive local networks of support for all candidates. As noted by Ms. Irvine and Mr. Fraser, the pass rate overall has risen, and for African-Americans, it has risen at a faster rate in the four years in which the system of national board certification has been available.

Despite the fact that NBPTS-commissioned studies have revealed no bias in our work, and no clear indicators of what might underlie the differential pass rates of African-Americans, the national board is not satisfied with this differential outcome and has expanded its studies and other program strategies. We have raised, in fact, the very questions about valuing culturally responsive teaching raised by Ms. Irvine and Mr. Fraser. In 1996, Lloyd Bond of the University of North Carolina launched five studies, working with a panel that included some of the people referred to in the Commentary: Treana Adkins-Bowling, Ceola Baber, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Katy Dula (a national-board-certified teacher), Joyce Elliott, Michelle Foster, David Haynes, Tchaiko Kwayana (a national-board-certified teacher), Robert Linn, and Paul Ramsey. Mr. Bond reports that panel members were able to identify instances of cultural markers across performances, but not a consistent pattern of impact on teachers' assessment scores. The national board is continuing its investigations and welcomes the participation of additional experts.

The Irvine-Fraser Commentary asks the question of "who is setting and defining the standards," possibly implying the lack of African-American representation. The national board is an unprecedented coalition of teachers, school board members, administrators, governors, business leaders, and parents. A broad array of policies and procedures have been implemented to assure that racial, ethnic, and gender diversity is included in every aspect of its work. Forty percent of the NBPTS's 63-member board of directors, which creates the policies guiding our work, are members of minority populations; the largest number of these are African-Americans. The standards committees, whose task is to create the high standards of accomplished practice against which teachers are measured, number almost 500 educators, including a 25 percent minority membership. Similar levels of minority participation are found in the scoring system. These hundreds of outstanding educators have brought to the table exactly the sort of vigorous debate about including culturally responsive practice that Ms. Irvine and Mr. Fraser call for in their Commentary.

The mission of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is to improve teaching by helping to create a professional place where accomplished teaching is encouraged and lauded. I believe in the potential of national board standards and performance assessments to improve teaching among all teachers--and thus, improve learning opportunities for all students. I am very proud to be a national-board-certified teacher and an active member of the board of directors of an organization that welcomes discussion, recognizes and honors diversity, and celebrates accomplishment and excellence.

Sharon Draper
Cincinnati, Ohio
The writer is a member of the board of directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and was the 1997 National Teacher of the Year.

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Pages 37-41

Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Letters

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories