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On TEAC Accountability Measures, Readers Can Judge for Themselves

To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing Hendrik D. Gideonse's Commentary on the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, or TEAC ("Accountability Confusion," May 20, 1998). On May 4, 1998, the latest versions of the council's "Foundations for an Innovative Accreditation System" and its "Bylaws" were mailed to the presidents and program administrators of every college and university in the United States that prepares teachers. Thus many of your readers will be able to judge for themselves whether Mr. Gideonse has accurately described the TEAC criteria, procedures, and governance structures.

In my view, he has missed the mark by a wide margin, while ignoring the critical issue facing all accreditation bodies committed to shifting the focus of their reviews from process standards to performance assessments of student learning. Currently, the rhetoric advocating performance assessments far exceeds our knowledge of how to conduct them. On this score, the research literature is depressingly thin.

From the outset, those of us working on the TEAC design have recognized this crippling gap between reform intentions and the availability of reliable and valid measures of success. We have sought to stimulate informed discussion as a strategy to enhance our assessment capabilities, but we welcome even biased scrutiny because it helps us refine TEAC's approach. Better yet will be open, honest, and nondefensive exchanges on accreditation, rooted in outcome data. This quality of inquiry-driven conversation challenges us all--TEAC, institutions, and states--to strengthen teacher preparation and its internal and public accountability.

The widespread endorsement of TEAC is coming from many types of institutions, large, small, public, and private; state education agencies; national professional associations; and individual educators. These expressions of interest suggest the search is on for approaches in teacher education accreditation that urge programs toward greater rigor and continuous improvement. Easier said than done, but the idea seems to be catching hold that to advance the learning of the young, we need to pay more attention to the quality of their teachers' preparation. Commitment to this proposition has been the Teacher Education Accreditation Council's driving force.

Donald Warren
University Dean
School of Education
Indiana University
Bloomington, Ind.

The writer is the chairman of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council's standards and process committee.

'Value Added' Research Methods Are Helping Private Schools

To the Editor:

Your fine article "A Question of Value," (May 13, 1998) raises awareness about the folly of comparing schools based on average test scores, when the real issue is what schools and their teachers do to add value to their students.

While mentioning William L. Sanders' research in Tennessee and in other states, you were apparently not aware that Mr. Sanders is now also working with some of the best private schools in the country in analyzing the influences of their curricula and teachers on the assessment outcomes of their students. His new company, Educational Value-Added Assessment Services, has joined in partnership with SchoolWorks, a division of Independent School Counsel Inc. of Atlanta, in offering a menu of assessment services to nonpublic schools.

Evidence of the success of his research methodology with a group of private schools in a pilot study indicates that if the finest college-preparatory schools (whose "average" assessment scores are already near the top of the scale) can "fine tune" their academic programs using value-added research methods, state and district public school systems might want to re-evaluate comparing schools by, in effect, using criteria that say little about a school's actual impact on its students.

Ted Lingenheld
Raleigh, N.C.

More Than One Quality Characterizes Top Research

To the Editor:

I thank Jay P. Greene for recognizing the quality of the Tennessee class-size study, Project STAR, and for attempting to address the "nihilism" of competing claims in education research ("Rescuing Education Research," April 29, 1998). Mr. Greene recommends that policymakers use good research in policy planning. Folks may attack solid research with competing claims that "something else" might be better, but the advocates of the "something else" seem unfettered by the obligation to provide data or evidence of their claims. These issues can lead to the perception that education research is not very useful, or as Mr. Greene quotes someone else as saying, "It's all garbage."

Mr. Greene starts in the correct direction by seeking a rescue from the nihilism. He suggests that medical research, some Head Start studies, and Project STAR all use "random assignment" and thus are exempt from the nihilism: "The results of these random-assignment experiments are readily accepted," he writes. First, Head Start and STAR results are not "readily accepted," as Mr. Greene claims. Head Start has never been fully funded, and class size is still hotly debated with the "something else might be better" or "it is too difficult to do" challenges. Yet, these points do not seem to be at the heart of Mr. Greene's concern.

He seems to ask why some studies that also used random assignment are not as well accepted as the class-size and Head Start random-assignment studies. Surely, Mr. Greene must know that good research requires more than random assignment: It requires correct method and design, replicability, peer review, accounting for all initial subjects, appropriate sampling, valid instrumentation, careful monitoring, and (ideally) some longitudinal results. In addition, good research requires that the researchers approach the research with a mind open to inquiry rather than driven by advocacy. Why, for example, do folks not readily accept the tobacco-industry-supported research that shows benefits of, or at least that there are no harmful effects of, smoking?

The ties that bind "good" research efforts are much stronger than simply "random assignment." The connection of research that meets only the random-assignment criterion of goodness to (unnamed) medical research and a few education studies that employ random assignment and the other quality criteria seems very weak indeed.

C.M. Achilles
Geneva, N.Y.

The writer was a principal investigator of Tennessee's Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (star) Project, a four-year longitudinal study of class-size effects on student achievement in grades K-3.

Are Standards-Setting Debates Being Used Against Reform?

To the Editor:

In the past month or two, several projects and issues related to benchmarking and otherwise rating standards for student learning have come to light in the pages of Education Week. As an alliance of national associations concerned with K-12 curriculum and instruction, and having many of the associations who developed national subject-area standards as members, we have been following your reports with interest. You published a rather cogent overview of these and other standards-rating endeavors in your April 15, 1998, issue, which provided useful background information for discussions at our most recent meeting ("An 'A' or a 'D': State Rankings Differ Widely"). I am writing to share some observations, concerns, and words of encouragement that arose from those discussions.

Altogether, the national standards are voluminous, and they don't generally share the same easy-to-reference formatting and footnote style, nor do they always use key terms like "standards," "performance," and "achievement" in the same way. But neither do the various subject areas always share language and ways of knowing and understanding with each other.

This is a key point, and one that seems to have been occasionally missed by some who have rated national standards. While the intention was to define "what students should know and be able to do," the result of years of work and consensus among thousands of subject-area specialists, educators, parents, and discipline leaders was, in most cases, a broad definition of each discipline. If one looks at the resulting "lists" represented by the tall pile of standards documents, one might overlook the fact that there are some key themes that most of the standards have in common.

Standards are an attempt by the national associations and by many states and districts to create a foundation on which student literacies and competencies may be built and, subsequently, assessed and evaluated according to rigorous criteria that are applicable to all students. Both content and context matter, and most of the standards have attempted to focus on what it means to truly understand and know within a particular discipline--what it means to be "literate" in math, science, English, social studies, the arts, physical education, and other subjects. Teaching to this definition of what students should know and be able to do requires a more profound knowledge of the discipline or knowledge area.

The Alliance for Curriculum Reform encourages the standards-rating groups to work more closely with states and national associations to ensure that these key understandings are not lost when assessing standards-setting efforts. Better learning for all students must be the central focus, or standards-based reform efforts will lose their way.

We all know that national guidance on standards--both the national standards themselves and subsequent evaluations, revisions, and comparisons--will not solve the basic issue for states, districts, and schools, which still have the largest task ahead of them. Regardless of quality, standards will not help students if schools are not able to address them adequately. We do believe, however, that national standards offer valuable assistance to states, districts, and schools as they make decisions about structuring and implementing systemic reform. We encourage the national associations and their state affiliates, states, districts, and institutions of higher education to help provide the resources and support that teachers need to work with these new expectations and bring them into the classroom.

As educators, we have a responsibility to engage the public in understanding the hows and whys of evaluating standards and of using standards for student learning. Otherwise, we will succeed only in deepening their confusion and mistrust of the education community. We believe that it is important for states and districts to have a way to ensure that their student standards are comparable to others'. Most of the work done so far by many of the benchmarking and rating projects has been well constructed and well intentioned. It is crucial, however, that educators who believe in the centrality of high achievement by all students support each other and help the public understand that student success is not just learning a list of content items and acquiring a slate of basic skills. Success is also gaining a deep understanding of how to apply knowledge, think, and be "literate" in many ways. Good standards should place this idea at the core of systemic education reform.

It is important for students that standards not be used as a political football. Carrying on the process of educational improvement, with the criticism and revision that it and any learning process require, is difficult enough. It becomes much more difficult when those who may or may not understand the issues use our own "critical friendships," discussions, and debates against us. Too often, the reform efforts and the students they are designed to benefit are what suffer. Those who have taken on the important and difficult task of judging national, state, and local standards efforts should work cooperatively with those who are setting and implementing standards, for the good of all our students.

Kent Seidel
Executive Director
Alliance for Curriculum Reform
Cincinnati, Ohio

Let Public Schools Compete; Level the Regulatory Field

To the Editor:

The subject of vouchers appears on a regular basis in newspapers, magazines, and education journals such as yours. Support is growing for parents to be allowed to use vouchers at the private, parochial, charter, or public school of their choice. My concern is that the degree of accountability required of public schools is not equally applied to the other schools of choice.

If the various schools are going to receive the benefits of public funds, shouldn't they all be held to the same rules, regulations, and requirements--or the absence thereof? Private and parochial schools suffer very little government control and are exempted from the myriad lawsuits that plague the public arena. Even charter schools have been freed from many of the bureaucratic rules, giving them freedom to take some bold steps.

Uniforms, discipline, and special education are just three examples of areas where the public schools are held to higher standards, legal scrutiny, and a plethora of paperwork.

Everyone is asking for higher academic and behavioral standards in public schools, and many are saying that the nonpublic schools are outperforming their public counterparts. But at the same time, the courts and legislatures place requirements and restraints on the public schools that prohibit them from controlling their school environment.

The majority of the public is not aware of the wide discrepancy in expectations. In all my reading on the subject, I have yet to encounter even one article that accurately details the differences in the requirements among public, private, and charter schools; the erosion of local control over the school environment; and some of the reasons behind the spiraling costs of public education (for example, expensive legal challenges, court decisions, and legislative mandates that public schools alone must adhere to).

There is a growing trend for groups or individuals to offer substantial sums of money to pay for vouchers. If they are truly concerned about the state of the public schools, this powerful group could help lobby federal and state government representatives, as well as the courts, to stop micro-managing schools. Admittedly, there are probably a certain number of schools that need to be closely monitored, but isn't that the job of the district and the community? The vast majority of schools deserve to be allowed to choose their own paths, while working with their parents and local community in the best interest of their students.

To increasingly control the public schools, and then in turn to praise their nonpublic counterparts for successes gained without being subjected to the same controls, is unfair. Statisticians and those conducting comparative research would say that is comparing apples to oranges.

The rallying cry for vouchers seems to be that public schools must be treated more like businesses and subjected to competition. Why not let all schools function on a level playing field, and then we'll see how the game goes.

Tom Furby
Sheridan, Wyo.

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 39-41

Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Letters

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