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Darwin Debate Is More Politics Than Science

To the Editor:

Your article "Evolution Debate Accents Deeper Science Disquiet," May 6, 1998, raises some interesting points. The statement that many teachers have a poor grasp of the nature of science is certainly true. The implication that this causes them to be poor defenders of the theory of evolution, however, is misguided.

Darwinian evolution (or macroevolution) is a theory in need of some good dialogue and debate, yet it seldom gets an honest treatment in the public schools. Essentially all textbooks present Darwinism as established fact, rather than as a theory. Typically only that evidence which seems to support evolution is presented. The great body of evidence that casts serious doubt on Darwinism is omitted from the textbooks, and alternative theories (intelligent design, for example) are either not mentioned or else dismissed as "nonscientific" or "religious" in nature.

I think I know something about the nature of science. I have a doctorate in physical chemistry and 30 years of experience as a research scientist. I have published numerous scientific articles and I am the editor of an international technical journal. I have served as an officer on numerous occasions for scientific societies.

If one is truly objective in scientific research, all pieces of evidence are examined to determine how they mesh with extant theories. One doesn't just pick and choose to "prove" a theory with which one happens to agree. If the evidence casts doubt upon a particular point of view, a scientist must be willing to modify his or her position. The question one must ask is this: If evolutionists are so confident in their theory, why are most of them so afraid to have real scientific debate on the subject?

Current scientific, political, and educational doctrine supports the theory of Darwinian evolution. As long as the establishment holds to the claim that evolution is science and anything else is unthinkable, we will continue to have polarization on this subject.

Yes, teachers should learn more about the "nature" of science. But the debate on Darwinism has more to do with politics than with science or education. When evolution is presented as fact in our schools, neither fairness nor science is well served.

Robert P. Lattimer
Hudson, Ohio

States' High-Stakes Testing Not Validated by Research

To the Editor:

Your article on testing in Texas reports the state's claim that "dramatic gains" on the 4th grade math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress are evidence that the state's high-stakes testing program is producing positive results ("In Texas, the Arrival of Spring Means the Focus Is on Testing," April 29, 1998). But increases in 4th grade math scores alone hardly constitute adequate evidence for wholesale endorsement of a larger high-stakes, test-based accountability policy. Indeed, as the National Center for Fair & Open Testing reported recently, states without high-stakes tests are slightly more likely to have made statistically significant gains in math than states with high-stakes tests.

Texas schools may well be improving, relative to improvements in other states. However, before we can come to that conclusion, we need to examine more closely a wide range of indicators, including dropout and graduation rates, grade retention, attendance and suspension rates, postsecondary enrollment patterns, and evidence from other achievement measures. We need to know something about how the quality of real student work, not just test scores, is changing. We also need to know more about the kinds of opportunities to learn, as suggested by course-enrollment patterns, for example, that shape the day-to-day lives of all students in schools.

Before more states rush pell-mell into elaborate high-stakes testing programs, they should reflect on two points. First, education can be improved at least as readily without the high-stakes tests as with them, and without the costs of narrowing curriculum and instruction to the test. Second, those European nations whose students just outscored U.S. students on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study do not administer high-stakes tests to young students, and they do not rely on multiple-choice tests.

Anne Wheelock
Brattleboro, Vt.

Tracing Reading Failure To Required-Books List

To the Editor:

Your April 29, 1998, article "More States Moving To Make Phonics the Law," highlighted both this country's concern over reading scores, and its lack of understanding over how to raise them.

Neither phonics nor whole-language instruction is sufficient to develop proficient or advanced readers. Only a love and habit of reading does that. Students who don't read for pleasure--who read only what they have to--are mediocre readers at best. They lack the ability to follow multiple plots, to understand imagery, to isolate theme, or to pick up on voice. Essentially, when it comes to any complex literature, they are tone deaf. Their writing shows an equal impoverishment, displaying an underdeveloped sense of language and clumsiness with standard forms of grammar. Efforts to teach directly an understanding of complex literature are frustrating and unproductive. Efforts to teach a complex, rich, grammatically correct writing style meet with even less success.

How do we develop avid readers? We stop the endemic practice of assigning specific books to our late-elementary, junior high, and high school students. Few students will read anything else with an assigned book hanging over their heads, and often they don't even read the assigned book. Instead, we should turn our classrooms into enriched literacy centers, with students reading multiple books of their own choice, and only occasional short works together.

I've been doing this for the last 20 years and routinely have high school students who read as many as 20 or 30 books a year, choosing classic authors, as well as authors of popular fiction and nonfiction. Their reading ability soars.

The phonics/whole-language debate is just a distraction that keeps us from focusing on the real problem: that schools, with their insistence on required-reading lists, are ensuring that students do as little reading as possible.

And all of the phonics or whole-language instruction in the world can't make a proficient reader out of a kid who hates books.

Mary Leonhardt
Concord, Mass.

The writer is the author of Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't, Keeping Kids Reading, and 99 Ways to Get Kids to Love Reading, all published by Crown Publishing Group.

Math Is Not Entertaining Children of 'Generation X'

To the Editor:

Regarding Madge Goldman's Commentary "Time To Solve the Math Education Equation," May 6, 1998, Ms. Goldman is missing the point. Math is in no better shape than any other area of instruction. They're all in bad shape. Many of the children we deal with in schools now are the children of "Generation X" whiners who think school is a right and that they need to be entertained. The problem with math, specifically, is that it is not fun, interesting, or relevant to the average student. I challenge any math teacher to produce a list of 30 uses for mathematics by a normal person under normal circumstances. It can't be done.

Schools are controlled by administrators who are controlled by school boards who are elected by the community. Nowhere in America is there the will to do what is necessary to fix the public schools, and that includes math. To repair the schools will take: (1) massive amounts of money and (2) major school restructuring.

Since it is highly unlikely that public schools will ever be educationally effective for most students, it is time to give parents a choice. School vouchers are the only solution to this dilemma. If parents want to put their children in mediocre public schools, that is their business. But parents who want more for their children should be given that chance. Frankly, I think that if parents had a free choice about where they would send their children, there would be a mass exodus out of the public school system.

David Lemire
Manhattan, Kan.

'Test Bashers' Redux: Another Take on Numbers

To the Editor:

Richard P. Phelps accuses unnamed "test bashers" of exaggerating the number of standardized tests administered in the United States each year in order to maintain that testing is too much of a burden ("Letters: Test Numbers: It's Not OK To Exaggerate With Caution," April 29, 1998). There are really two relevant issues at stake here: the amount of testing and, more importantly, the impact of that testing.

Ironically, my group, FairTest, may not qualify as one of the "test bashers" Mr. Phelps repeatedly slurs. Our 1987 report, "Fallout from the Testing Explosion," estimated 100 million tests annually. We did not double-count state and district tests, nor did we count each part of a test battery as a separate test. FairTest did, however, question the General Accounting Office's procedures and conclusions, such as a likely undercount of actual test use, particularly in various compensatory education programs. Further, a local study in Milwaukee found that the district itself did not know how many tests it was administering in its various programs and that at least twice as many tests were being administered as it reported to FairTest.

Mr. Phelps maintains it is duplicitous to count tests in a battery as more than one test. But if a child has a literature test in the morning and a math test in the afternoon, she does not say, "I had a test today," she says, "I had two tests today." The testmakers apparently agree: the ITBS Interpretive Guide for School Administrators for Levels 5-14, Form M (1996) repeatedly refers to the number of tests within each battery. For example, "The Survey Battery contains 30-minute reading, language and mathematics tests" (plural).

The GAO and Mr. Phelps also have minimized the impact testing has on students and teachers. For example, they drastically underestimated the amount of classroom time devoted to test preparation--time which likely has expanded since the GAO study.

The most critical question, however, is the impact of tests on curriculum and instruction. This issue cannot be dismissed simply by talking about the numbers of tests and the time they take. Repeated research has found that high-stakes tests tend to control schooling, leading to both inflated test scores and narrowing of curriculum and instruction.

If the tests just occupied a day or so of time each year, that would be a waste (given the nature of most of the actual tests), but not a tragedy. The tragedy is the reduction of schooling to test-coaching.

Monty Neill
Executive Director

Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

We read Eileen Kalinowski's eloquent and moving Commentary, "Teaching Those Who Don't Want To Learn," April 15, 1998, and we understand. We're both well acquainted with the struggles of working with oppositional and apathetic students in crowded urban classrooms, though our own discussion of those struggles is usually more colorful than your author's polite prose. Ms. Kalinowski should take heart: It's not her fault.

We find it difficult to criticize a teacher whose work assignment includes 15 different classes, each meeting only once a week, packed with students of widely varying abilities. A classload like this is a shame and an outrage. Ms. Kalinowski is beating herself up for failing at an absurdity. We suspect that her job responsibilities and schedule are more to blame, along with the other challenges that teachers routinely face in most urban settings: "little" things like textbook shortages, overflowing classrooms, violence, and Third World facilities. Ms. Kalinowski's resolve to continue searching for answers gives testimony to her dedication and drive, but we are pretty sure that teaching methods are not the problem, nor is the search for "different ways to frame questions that will get them thinking." We're delighted that she is reflecting on her practices, and would be happy to exchange experiences and ideas with her.

But from what Ms. Kalinowski describes, the problem may have more to do with unrealistic expectations for student behavior and inadequate preparation than anything else. We would have hoped that the scar tissue from K-12 teaching hadn't totally healed from the hands and hearts of her professors of education, so that they could remember the tumult and fatigue with which Ms. Kalinowski has to deal. We would have hoped that her professors would have gotten to know her well enough to give wise counsel on how to prepare for these and similar issues.

We would have hoped that this had happened very early in Ms. Kalinowski's program. If she did not get this kind of personalization until her student teaching, she's been had. We would have hoped that her professors of education had told her that teaching is not an eight-hour-per-day job. That Jean Piaget is fallible. That some kids don't fit anybody's profile. That some kids don't learn like she learns. That some students simply want to prove that they can fail if they want to. That some students may prove themselves to be clear and present dangers to her and their peers. That some students are victimizers--not just victims--who must be addressed with something other than platitudinous sentimentality. That turning every classroom into an exercise in Athenian democracy might culminate in students' exercising their "right" not to learn at all.

The truth is that failure to learn is not the sole fault of the teacher. There are limits on what one caring human being can do with 35 or more restless adolescents in an institutionally mandated period of time. Fifteen different classes meeting only once a week is utterly unconscionable. Ms. Kalinowski says she doesn't believe in "self-esteem" curricula; that accomplishment is the basis of any self-concept worth having. We don't believe self-esteem can be doled out by distributing a few extra gold stars either, but we believe there is a place for what might be called "manufactured" success--giving intellectually brutalized kids some "high percentage" activities to give them a chance at a fresh start. Building on such assignments may do much to heal the humiliating and disappointing experiences underachieving students may have had in their academic careers. There is a useful middle ground between the fluffy, feel-good claptrap pushed by many teacher education programs and the trivia-driven standardized "test-osterone" flowing in many state legislatures.

As teacher-educators with considerable urban K-12 experience, we fear that Ms. Kalinowski's preparation may not have suggested to her that the problems she is encountering are less the result of teaching methods than of personnel mismanagement. At the least, a teacher should be given enough time and administrative support to form personal bonds with students. If human connections are made, then cognitive connections become feasible. Without the human touch, learning can turn into a continuous struggle, and schooling an annoyance.

Like many teachers asked to perform impossible feats under outrageous conditions, it sounds as if Eileen Kalinowski has been set up for failure by an educational system that usually gets better teachers than it deserves. Somehow, she's been conned into blaming herself for problems beyond her control. We applaud her zeal to do better. But for neglected or alienated kids, learning often requires close, frequent contact. To teach them, a teacher first has to reach them. At 15 different classes meeting once a week, the best teacher in the world would have trouble reaching more than one or two kids. The burnout Ms. Kalinowski feels is understandable. But burnout may not be a psychological problem, nor even an instructional problem. It just might be a policy problem.

Lawrence Baines
Associate Professor
Berry College
Mount Berry, Ga.
Wade A. Carpenter
Assistant Professor
Berry College
Mount Berry, Ga.

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Pages 33-35, 37

Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as Letters

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