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Why 'Medical Model' Fails in Assessing School Leaders

To the Editor:

Paul D. Houston presented an excellent assessment of the perils faced by school administrators ("The ABCs of Administrative Shortages," June 3, 1998). Having just finished a brief "tour of duty" as a secondary school administrator, I want to address a deeper issue affecting many, if not all of us, in education.

Beneath the mess that school administrators experience on a day-to-day basis is a philosophical point of view that is deeply ingrained in our culture. This way of thinking is best described as, and relies on, the "medical model" to guide and structure administration in particular, and schooling in general. In short, the medical model posits that if something is wrong, it can be diagnosed, then treated. This is the way the medical profession and auto mechanics, to name but a few, operate.

Translated into a school setting, however, the medical model can all too frequently be viewed and used as a way to "treat" noncompliant students and handle discipline problems (detentions and suspensions); to motivate failing students (grades, remedial courses, retention); and to make teachers keep order, "cover" the curriculum, and show up on time for their duties. Outside players in the school game have also learned that if they make enough noise or "talk to the right people," then "something will be done."

This pervasive external-control mind-set underlies Mr. Houston's analogy of administrator as a "pi¤ata"; of getting the blame when things go wrong; and of keeping administrators confused, then banging on them when results are not achieved. A "medical model" mind-set is dangerous because it also assumes that there is a solution for every problem and that administrators should be able to "fix" every problem thrown at them. And if they can't, "then we'll find someone who can."

It seems strange that we spend millions of dollars and countless hours training teachers to incorporate cooperative-learning and critical-thinking strategies; to attend to diverse cultural and learning styles; and to model and facilitate conflict-resolution processes with students. School mission statements are full of words and phrases that encourage collaboration, communication, personalization, respect, and community. Yet, the pervasive culture and the modus operandi within most buildings and districts is one of compliance, criticism, and coercion.

Maybe these philosophical and operational contradictions explain, in part, why we're just not making much progress toward real student achievement or school reform.

Joseph J. Stehno
Weare, N.H.

Unseemly Accreditation Feud Affects Teaching Goals

To the Editor:

Although there have been significant improvements in teacher education in recent years, the critics of teacher education remain unconvinced. They do not believe that participation in a teacher education program is a prerequisite to becoming a good teacher.

By determining the extent to which a teacher education program meets commonly agreed-upon standards, a program-accreditation process can contribute to the improvement of teacher education. Now, unfortunately, we have two national organizations (the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council) seeking to accredit teacher education programs. In essence, the two organizations exist because teacher-educators could not agree on the standards that should apply to teacher education programs and how to determine the extent to which programs meet the standards.

The critics of teacher education can now argue that if teacher-educators cannot agree on what constitutes good teacher education, the teacher-educators can hardly defend the necessity of teacher education. The critics have a point.

This untimely and unseemly accreditation feud will impede the further improvement of teacher education. It is a shame that our teacher education leaders have allowed this to happen.

Carl O. Olson
Cary, N.C.

Board-Certification Process Offers Multiple Benefits

To the Editor:

In their Commentary, "Some Unanswered Questions Concerning National Board Certification of Teachers," June 10, 1998, Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky criticize the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards for not obtaining "a correlation between its assessments and more objective measures of teacher performance (for example, student test scores)." Their assumption that students with the highest test scores are those who had the best teachers is akin to assuming that people with the best annual physical exam--in other words, those with the best health--are those who have had the best doctors.

Later in their essay, the authors question the cost-effectiveness of national board certification, citing costs of developing the system, fees paid by candidates, and opportunity costs of the time teachers invest in providing the information required for the assessment.

Those costs are indeed substantial. However, the methodology created by the national board is available to institutions, state agencies, and schools and can facilitate the major reforms under way across the country. In addition, participation in the national board process is a professional-development activity. Teachers with whom I worked in one of the field-test centers were adamant on several points: 1) Participation in the assessment process was the best professional-development activity they had ever experienced, far better than continuing-education courses offered by institutions, and 2) their teaching would forever be better because of what they learned about teaching from participating in the process.

I think the two economists who wrote your essay should amortize the national board's costs across all of the benefits from those expenses.

Dale P. Scannell
Professor of Education
Indiana University-Purdue University
Indianapolis, Ind.

Uncritical Data Reporting, Gratuitous School-Bashing

To the Editor:

In the popular press, one reads a lot of what I have come to call "gratuitous violence" visited on the schools. Gratuitous violence occurs when an author pens a column about a topic totally unrelated to education, but manages to take a gratis swing at the schools along the way. For example, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, in an essay called "Save the Border Collie," somehow managed to digress from his exposition on dogs to say that "we have gotten used to finishing dead last in international comparisons." And, in one of Conde Nast Traveler's "Where Are You?" contests, the opening clues begin, "You are in a nation of rampant illiteracy. No, it is not the United States." So it goes.

Unfortunately, something related to gratuitous violence pops up a fair amount in education literature, including Education Week. In publications such as this, the violence is not so likely to include a freebie hit as it is the repetition of inaccurate statistics as if they were acceptable facts.

Thus, writing about the teaching of reading in Houston ("Drilling in Texas," June 10, 1998), you say that many districts are beefing up their reading programs because they are "responding to alarming statistics on reading achievement among young children--some 40 percent of the 4th graders could not read at the 'basic' level on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress. ... "

Why didn't someone at your publication flag this statistic? Someone should have been aware that the psychometric community has rejected the NAEP performance levels. Studies by the Center for Research in Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, or CRESST, and the U.S. General Accounting Office have leveled strong critiques.

This year, noted psychometrician Lyle V. Jones of the University of North Carolina observed that "efforts to fix cut scores in NAEP to separate achievement levels--basic, proficient, and advanced--have not been successful." Mr. Jones' statement was made in the William Angoff Distinguished Lecturer series of addresses at the Educational Testing Service, put on the Internet, conventionally published by ETS, and summarized in my April 1998 "Research" column in Phi Delta Kappan. Not everyone at Education Week needs to be aware of all these various sources of this information, but someone should have had enough familiarity with at least one of them that alarm bells would have sounded on reading the aforementioned sentence.

In his speech, Mr. Jones pointed out that in the most recent NAEP science assessment, only 18 percent of the 4th graders were at the proficient level, and a meager 2 percent attained advanced status. He then noted that when these same 4th graders went up against 4th graders in 25 other nations in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, they finished third. This leads Mr. Jones to ask if the dismal NAEP findings accurately describe the performance of 4th graders who do so well against their international peers. He doesn't answer his question. He doesn't have to.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

Unions' Merger Talks Build on Prior Agreement

To the Editor:

Your recent story, "Merger Camps Making Push in Home Stretch," June 10, 1998, emphasized the differences among members of the National Education Association over the proposed "principles of unity" that would govern the unified NEA and American Federation of Teachers. The article overlooks an important point: A majority of NEA members and a majority of NEA affiliates have already committed to the idea that we need to go beyond cooperation. It's time to take the next step and do what's right for children, education, employees, and public education.

The NEA's negotiations team was acting on the authority of a two-thirds vote of the 1995 Representative Assembly. The NEA executive committee and board of directors both approved the principles agreed to by NEA and AFT leaders. And most of us believe that once NEA members have had an opportunity to review the principles and hear the debate, they will support it by the necessary margin.

We can't continue battling among ourselves, diverting resources and energies on internecine struggles, when we have more important issues to address. Most members recognize that a united organization will be better equipped to work to improve teacher quality, enhance school safety, and modernize America's public schools. A united organization will be more focused and effective than two separate organizations saying essentially the same things.

Florida has a keen interest in national unity. After many years of fierce competition, Florida Teaching Profession-NEA and Florida Education Association/United recently adopted principles for statewide merger best facilitated in the context of a single national organization for education employees.

Critics of unity have a right to their opinion, but one point should be clear. As the NEA merger-negotiations team said in a report just mailed to delegates to our annual meeting: "The unity negotiations began to soar way beyond an exploration of shall we do it 'our' way or 'their' way. The new question became: What's the best way?"

The principles of unity represent more than the back and forth of a zero-sum negotiation. They are designed as a way to fulfill a dream that has motivated leaders in the NEA and the AFT for generations, the dream of an organization that can effectively represent children, public education, and all education employees.

That's the organization we will be voting to support on July 5.

Kay Lybeck
Arizona Education Association
Phoenix, Ariz.

Aaron Wallace
Florida Teaching Profession-NEA
Tallahassee, Fla.

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 37, 41

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as Letters to the Editor

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