Howard Gardner's Alternative To the 'Educational Wars'
To the Editor:
Stephen L. Gessner uses the Education Week classifieds as a point of departure for an analysis of what is wrong in American schooling ("What the Want Ads Can Tell Us About the Educational Wars," July 8, 1998). In his view, we should not have one school searching for a "Multiple Intelligence[s] Director" and another founded on E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s Core Knowledge curriculum. Instead, we should have apolitical schools teaching a rigorous curriculum based on national standards and assessments.
Mr. Gessner condemns educational debates in America as being political. He fails to recognize that the approach he favors is as political as the one he opposes. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that in countries where there is "one best system," one political alternative has triumphed while others have been silenced.
In an ideal world, Americans might agree on a single set of standards. As one who inhabits the real world, I have become thoroughly convinced that we cannot, at least not after the primary grades. How can we come up with middle or high schools that will satisfy Chester E. Finn Jr. and Deborah Meier, not to mention Jesse Helms and Jesse Jackson? Efforts to enunciate a single set of standards either silence one important constituency or gloss over differences that need to be grappled with.
In An Education for All Human Beings, scheduled for publication next spring, I argue that Americans cannot and perhaps should not agree on a single set of standards. Rather, we should seek to develop a set of approximately half a dozen alternative K-12 pathways, from which families can choose. These pathways will vary in terms of how traditional or progressive they are in curricula and modes of teaching, emphases on specific disciplines (for example, technology and the arts), and the kinds of assessments they use.
For a pathway to be certified, it must include education in civics; have curricula and assessments that are closely aligned; and be poised to implement measures of reform, if the pathway should fail to meet its own standards.
As Mr. Gessner notes, I have strong disagreements with E.D. Hirsch--indeed, much of my forthcoming book details a vision of education that contrasts with his. However, I respect much of what Mr. Hirsch does and believe that our country is big enough to include schools based on his ideas as well as schools that build upon mine. Moreover, I would rather send my children to a school with whose philosophy I disagree--but which is well run and committed to what it is doing--than to a school that wraps itself in "Gardner philosophy" but is otherwise confused or scattered.
In moving toward uniformity, Mr. Gessner will not only fail to gain "apolitical schools." He will also sacrifice much of what is special in our diverse land, and perhaps stifle that experimentation which may be instrumental in America's past and current successes on the global scene.
John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education
To the Editor:
There may be merit in discovering "What the Want Ads Can Tell Us About the Educational Wars," (July 8, 1998). But Stephen L. Gessner's discernments to that effect are faulty ones.
For example, his attempt to reduce the current international debate among reading-instruction specialists over the relative merits of "whole language" vs. "phonetics" teaching to a grubby political squabble is unacceptable. I assume by "phonetics" teaching Mr. Gessner means direct and systematic instruction of phonics information. (Phonetics is the science and/or study of the sounds of speech.)
Mr. Gessner is wrong in maintaining that the basic reason these dissenting reading experts' views are "so entrenched and closed to compromise is the political agenda behind these [respective] positions." His contention that the present dispute over reading instruction is based on "political polarization" is unsubstantiated.
The truth is that this reading-instruction controversy is imperative, despite the fact that explicit phonics teaching has been endorsed by lay people with conservative political affiliations, and rejected by those of liberal persuasions. At the core of the controversy is what are legitimate reading-research findings.
In this regard, the qualitative research findings that whole-language advocates produce consistently refute those that defenders of experimental research honor, and vice versa. To this effect, none of the unique principles and practices of whole language are corroborated by empirical findings.
What Mr. Gessner erroneously believes to be simple political bias in the current reading debate actually is allegiance to one of two rigorously developed research paradigms that produce irreconcilable data. His comments thus do little more than impede the resolution of this issue.
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.
Better Pay Doesn't Offset Administrative Aggravations
To the Editor:
While I appreciated the thorough response to my Commentary on the shortage of school administrators offered by Sam Minner, I am afraid he missed my point ("The ABCs of Administrative Shortages," June 3, 1998, "Administrators Have Woes, But Less Pay Isn't One,", July 8, 1998). What I wrote was that the pay differential between positions (compensation compression) was not enough to offset the other aggravations I mentioned in the essay. That is what led to the shortage of administrators.
For example, the pay I received as a superintendent in a rather large district was about 30 percent greater than the average teacher salary. Twenty years ago the same superintendency paid approximately five times the average teacher salary. Certainly administrators make more annually than teachers. That is not the point. They tend to work longer hours and for more years. Rarely do teachers move from teaching directly to the superintendency, so the points made by Mr. Minner are interesting but irrelevant.
The issue is how much difference in pay there is between a teacher and an assistant principal at the secondary level, or between a teacher and an elementary principal. That is the typical sequence. Further, what Mr. Minner failed to factor in his analysis is the extra-duty pay many teachers receive or the coaching stipends that they get. Those are usually factored in as part of the total they receive in their teaching assignment and what they would lose as an administrator (administrators typically do not coach and do not get extra pay for extra work). I can assure Mr. Minner that teachers in the districts where I worked often took a cut in daily rate to move from the classroom to the school office.
Again, the difference has to be looked at position to position. Mr. Minner only looked at average teacher, principal, and superintendent salaries. That is not how the world tends to work. The sequence is teacher to assistant principal, assistant to principal, principal to central-office staff, central-office staff to associate or assistant superintendent, associate or assistant to superintendent. When you look at that sequence, there is indeed some difference in pay, but much smaller than the simplified scale offered by Mr. Minner in his analysis.
I would argue that many conclude it is not worth the abuse, blame, lack of personal life, and unreal expectations that fall to the new position. I could have mentioned, but did not, that the difference between administrative pay in the public and private sector is laughable and also a reason for current shortages. In many cases, school administrators are finding that they can take what is a tremendous skill set to the private sector for much greater remuneration.
My Commentary was not written to disparage teachers or to indicate that administration is a nobler effort than teaching. It is all a part of the same profession that unfortunately suffers from a devalued status in American culture. When you add the negative treatment that too often goes with these roles, it creates a real shortage of possible candidates.
Paul D. Houston
American Association ofSchool Administrators
Direct-Instruction Criticism Is Based on Suspect Research
To the Editor:
The criticism of direct reading instruction in a recent letter by David P. Weikart of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation seems somewhat less than credible when we consider the nature of the research upon which Mr. Weikart bases his claims ("High/Scope Study Raises Direct-Instruction Questions," July 8, 1998). When the foundation conducts its own research using just 123 children, the High/Scope teaching methodology appears to win handily against direct instruction, which according to Mr. Weikart ultimately produces low-income adults with criminal tendencies.
Yet when the U.S. Department of Education conducts comparative research using over 15,000 children and independent data analysts, the results are quite different.
In the Education Department research, teachers who used the methods espoused by High/Scope considerably underperformed the highly ineffective teachers in the control group, not only in conveying basic skills but also in stimulating higher-order thinking skills and self-esteem. In that same study, the direct-instruction teachers dramatically outperformed the control group and every other experimental group, not only in basic skills but in every category of performance. In follow-up studies, the direct-instruction students went on to enjoy the highest graduation and college-attendance rates. (To learn more about the Education Department's "Project Follow Through," the world's largest-ever educational study, read Volume 15, No. 1 of their journal Effective School Practices. To order a copy, call the Association for Direct Instruction at (800) 995-2464.)
The success of direct reading instruction is easy to understand. Children learn much better and faster when adults explain things to them in a careful and systematic way. An explanation from a teacher is many times more efficient than any program of "self discovery." And knowing how to read and compute is far more valuable than whatever it is that one learns during the protracted and often futile attempt to teach one's self.
The research base supporting direct instruction and its underlying concepts is huge and indisputably one-sided, yet many in the teaching community seem to prefer the philosophies of failed practitioners. "No one method works best," they claim. "Drill produces mindless automatons who don't understand what they've learned." "It's the dedication of the teacher, not the curriculum, that matters." None of these ideas is supported by research. These and other of today's mainstream educational philosophies have sunk our schools to the very bottom of the international heap. Let's stop the failure and start using some curricula that actually work.
I Can Read
On Weighted Grading, Pros Outweigh Cons
To the Editor:
I read with interest your article on weighted-grade policies and the dilemmas they create for some students ( "Weighted Grades Pose Dilemmas in Some Schools," June 17, 1998). As a former high school principal, I know the pros and cons of such a system, but I want readers to know that the pros far outweigh the cons for those students willing to challenge themselves with more-difficult subject matter.
My chief concern in this case, however, is the notion that a high school student should get credit for any college work completed while attending high school. The various college and university programs that encourage high school student enrollment were created to provide an opportunity for a college experience prior to high school graduation and not an opportunity to supplant regular high school work. Cassie Davis indicates in your article that she took college courses to get a jump-start on college and therefore it should not have had any impact on her grade point average whatsoever. In fact, in California, it's not possible to complete a college-level course for both college and high school credit.
Another concern mentioned in your article has to do with the selection of valedictorians. If high schools would adopt the decile system of ranking instead of the typical numerical GPA ranking, many more top students would be included in the top 1 percent or 2 percent, and then additional academic-rating systems could be applied to determine those accorded the top honor.
Let's not rush to eliminate weighted grading, which has been one of the most significant factors in encouraging students to tackle more-rigorous academic work. It's often true that those who take the easy road get the best GPAs, but a good system of determining valedictorians or other senior honors can be implemented to reward the right students.
Gary D. Goff
Brea Olinda Unified School District
Physical Education Won't Step Aside for Technology
To the Editor:
In a recent Technology Update item, you cited educators bemoaning the lack of time and flexibility in school schedules as barriers to implementing technology in the schools ("High-Tech Teachers Find Their Goals Are Hard To Reach," June 17, 1998). One panelist quoted even complained about the physical education mandate.
How sad and misguided that the most important part of a student's life, his or her health, is singled out as a barrier to technological advances. Without an active lifestyle and good health habits, how will students grow up to be healthy, productive adults?
Physical education sets the stage for so many facets of life: following rules, good listening skills, kinesthetic awareness, cooperation, goal-setting, planning, good diet, and many, many more. It is a good thing we're still "stuck" with mandated physical education!
The Health Network
New City, N.Y.
To the Editor:
On behalf of the 20,000 members of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, I would like to comment on your June 17, 1998, Technology Update. We support the expansion of technology use and understanding in every subject of the school curriculum, including physical education. However, quality physical education is an integral and essential component of the education of America's youngsters.
ASPE believes that every student in our nation's schools, from kindergarten through grade 12, should be required to participate in daily, high-quality physical education. It is the role of good physical education programs to increase the physical competence, health-related fitness, self-esteem, and enjoyment of physical activity for all students, so that they can be physically active for a lifetime. Knowing that physical activity promotes health is not enough; students must be given opportunities to gain the knowledge, skills, and technological understanding to participate in active lifestyles. Children need to know that physical activity can help them: help them feel good and look good, help them succeed, and keep them healthy.
There are outstanding technological advances related to physical activity that can support and enhance this learning (including fitness equipment, heart monitoring, various software products, and movement analysis).
We encourage administrators, school staff members, and parents to learn more about their schools' physical education programs. Our professional organization of individuals engaged in the study of human movement and the delivery of quality sport and physical education programs would be happy to be a resource. The association can be reached at (703) 476-3410.
Judith C. Young
National Association for Sportand Physical Education
Teacher Collaboration: A Long-Awaited Reform
To the Editor:
In her letter to the editor, Stephanie Rico noted the failure of educational reformers to include collaborative teacher activities in their plans to improve teaching (What Teachers Could Use Is Collaborative Support," June 17, 1998). Ms. Rico's concerns reflect those expressed by Roland S. Barth more than a decade ago.
In his May 9, 1984, Commentary, "Sandboxes and Honeybees," Mr. Barth presented the idea that collegiality "among adults who inhabit a school has more to do with the school's quality and character, and with the accomplishment of its pupils, than any other factor." Mr. Barth further noted, "Yet, strangely, collegiality and the ideas it connotes have seldom shown up in the effective-schools literature of the past decade."
Why have we failed to tap this source of talent for school reform? Part of the answer is an administrative fixation with keeping teachers at the podium. The thinking is that we pay teachers to teach, not confer. Part of the answer is the fear that many teachers express about the "risks" of sharing good ideas, practices, strengths, or, heaven forbid, exposing weaknesses. Teachers often see sharing as a zero-sum game; in other words, my colleagues gain at my expense. Part of the problem may rest with the directness and simplicity of the concept. National and state reform commissions, either through oversight or to justify their existence, rarely suggest direct, simple strategies.
Since 1984, my school's faculty and I have attempted to put Mr. Barth's ideas about collegiality into practice. Our attempt has been a work in progress. A small number of teachers still have difficulty with the concept. For the many teachers who have engaged in collegial activities, the results have been rewarding. Teacher isolation has been reduced. The knowledge base for participating teachers has increased. Good ideas that were once locked in single classrooms are now widely used throughout the school. Teachers have an increased sense of ownership of schoolwide goals. Student achievement has increased. The practice has spread to other schools in the district. Recently, a veteran teacher made the following observation: "To work with another, to discuss the success and/or failure of a lesson, to 'toss around' other ideas, seemed to give both of us more direction and excitement in teaching."
The reforms suggested in the Commentary by Linda Darling-Hammond and Barnett Berry ("Investing in Teaching," May 27, 1998) offer positive strategies for improved teacher preparedness and increased student learning. But if we subscribe to the idea that real and lasting reform takes place at the school and classroom levels, Roland Barth and Stephanie Rico are correct in suggesting that reformers should take a closer look at the potential benefits of providing teachers with the time to reflect on and share their ideas and practices.
Robert A. Keefe
John F. Kennedy School
Textbook Publishers Are Misreading Teachers Needs
To the Editor:
Your item headlined "Report Assails New Social Studies Texts," (June 17, 1998) summarizes the major observations that were presented in the report "A New Generation of History Textbooks," issued by the American Textbook Council.
I have read the entire ATC report and have found it to be accurate and insightful. For example, the writers of the report correctly tell that recent textbooks in history and social studies have been brutally dumbed down, have offered content that is "thinner and thinner," and have been packed with jumbles of sidebars, feature articles, and gaudy pictures that overwhelm the main text and render the books unreadable. Many of the books, moreover, have been written by people who know nothing about the subject matter. These books are so heavily laden with phony "information," ignorant guesswork, pious slogans, and racist hearsay that they seem to be the work of pranksters.
In the last paragraph of your item, you quote Rick Blake, the vice president of the school division at the Association of American Publishers. Mr. Blake replies to the ATC report by claiming that textbook publishers are merely responding to teachers' needs, and that current books reflect "what an overwhelming majority of teachers and educators believe and are telling publishers they need."
Ho-hum. Textbook companies and their trade associations have been making such statements for as long as I can remember--but, as far as I know, they never have supported those claims with any evidence. Indeed, I have speculated that the claims are mere inventions, contrived by companies that seek to maximize profits by employing hack writers, by producing vulgar and brainless books, and by using deception and fraud in promoting those books to educators.
Am I wrong? If so, I hope that Mr. Blake will soon explain to us how the textbook companies have learned about what teachers "need." Have the publishers collected great stacks of letters in which teachers declare a need for books that are incomprehensible? Do teachers write to Mr. Blake's organization and demand books filled with "history" that is fake? Do teachers send urgent requests for schoolbooks like the ones that I've been reading lately? Books written by dolts who imagine that Australia is in Asia, that Africa is a nation, that the Philistines were Phoenicians, that missionaries from the ancient Byzantine Empire visited the Soviet Union, and that navies haven't used submarines since World War I?
I find it hard to believe that "an overwhelming majority of teachers and educators" have announced a need for such junk, but I'll gladly examine any evidence Mr. Blake may choose to bring forth.
William J. Bennetta
The Textbook League
'Ideological Agenda' Informs States' Standards Review
To the Editor:
Please keep press releases in that realm. Your article "Many States' Standards Add Up to 'D' in Critique," (July 8, 1998) is based only on the work of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. This group has an ideological agenda and relies on the same friends of Chester E. Finn Jr. who have bashed national standards for years. Their reports are the work of a very small number of scholars who have an ax to grind and a very narrow syllabus that they want to see in schools.
At the very least, you should give the background and political bent of organizations that make such statements.
Adult Peer Groups Are Best Model for Students
To the Editor:
In their recent Commentary, Frank Riessman and Audrey Gartner address the issue of peer pressure and our schools' failure to use it as a resource ("Turning Peer Pressure Inside Out," May 20, 1998). This is a resource also neglected by our society as a whole.
Peer pressure, which I prefer to call peer influence, is the primary concept on which my own school is structured. What a group does or does not do is based solely on how honest the group members are with one another. The various groups at our school are responsible to themselves and to each other. Each group has a purpose and therefore a responsibility to each individual and to the group as a whole. It does not matter which group we talk about: dormitory group, class group, teacher group, residential-staff group, administrators, and so on. All are responsible as "peers." Staff members are hired by consensus among the other faculty members. True consensus, all for or all against, must be maintained. This forces honesty among the peer members.
With the faculty modeling how peer influence works, the students are able to learn the process--the difficult as well as the beneficial parts. For this to occur, as Mr. Riessman and Ms. Gartner note, faculty members must change their role "from imparters of information to facilitators of a learning process."
But the authors fail to address the need for administrators and teachers to put themselves in the same peer-influence dynamic. What they recognize from Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson--that no one is above anyone else in the peer-influence process and that all share equal responsibility and privilege--is what works, not only in the recovery process, but also for the education process. Just conveying information will not.
Few school peer programs will truly be successful without role modeling from the faculty. That involves modeling both the struggle and the process. We, as teachers, have often not practiced what we teach. Cooperative education in schools where teachers do not, will not, or cannot teach cooperatively seems hypocritical. Mentoring programs without adult mentoring will not guide anyone.
Programs for at-risk students that do not also address the at-risk behaviors of the faculty will only flounder.
School boards, administrators, and educators need to function as peer groups with the same investment we would like the students to maintain. We should provide ways for these groups to model the struggle of relating to one another and share this with the students. In our society, we are not demonstrating many constructive ways to express ourselves as adults, so how can we expect anything different from our students?
World-Class Standards: An Italian Reality Check
To the Editor:
Compare the constant tone and focus of multiple weekly articles in your paper about national standards, state graduation requirements, teacher accreditation, and student assessments with the following excerpt from the June 26, 1998, Italy Daily, published by The International Herald Tribune. Your readers are overdue for a too-infrequent reality check by looking at what another country holds up as standards for students finishing the equivalent of secondary school.
In mentioning that over half a million Italian high school students were beginning the written round of graduation exams, the brief article shared two examples of essay questions that had appeared on the exams, and that every student must attempt to answer.
The first was, "Reconstruct the political and social-economic scene in Italy just before the First World War, concentrating on the policies of the Giolitti government, on the choices it made, and on their consequences for the Italian political life in those years."
The literary question on the exam, referencing the Italian novel of the 19th century, was, "Analyze the literary genre making reference to your reading and appropriate citations of the text."
Students who pass the written exams were to take the oral exams the following week.
These questions, and others, assume an in-depth understanding by Italian students of the unique history, culture, and literature of their country. More importantly, the students are expected to have read widely and critically and to be able to think and write expressively on the assigned topics. We may assume that national graduation exams in other countries demand no less in the way of thinking and writing skills than is illustrated here.
How many more such examples will the U.S. educational community need to see before coming to the realization that we expect too little of our students, aim too low in our teaching, and vary too widely by state and district to guarantee our students a world-class education? Perhaps a national program that would set challenging curriculum standards, create an end-of-course testing program similar to what is done in most other countries, and set higher teacher-certification standards is the only way to provide American students in all states and districts, irrespective of real estate tax bases and family income levels, with a world-class education.
Schools and Society: 'An Opportunity, Not a Burden'
To the Editor:
Certainly schools alone can't solve this country's monumental problems (drugs, violence, poverty, and family disarray). But rather than criticize the high expectations the public has for schools, as does James J. Gallagher ("Education, Alone, Is a Weak Treatment," July 8, 1998), we can encourage our schools to be a crucial partner in addressing societal issues.
This is an opportunity, not a burden. Schools are not strangers to a leadership role in issues that impair learning. For decades, schools have provided eye tests, medications, immunizations, and screenings, never believing that doing so implied full responsibility for those problems. Certainly today's more complex societal problems warrant equally aggressive action.
For example, the health and well-being of students is often neglected in education reform initiatives, and they suffer because of it. Consider instead an education reform package that includes provisions for schools to coordinate their myriad health-related programs so that what students learn in the classroom relates to what they eat in the cafeteria or to services they can receive at school or through a linked community agency. Such "coordinated school health programs" are funded by federal agencies and increasingly embraced by states, national organizations, districts, and schools around the country. A natural ingredient of reform, they feature classroom activities, psychological and health services, and an improved school climate, all of which boost children's health so that they can succeed.
What is novel about these programs is not their individual components--many schools already have much of this in place--but their continuity and coordinated approach. Schools that directly address health reap great rewards: improved attendance; fewer disciplinary problems; decreased use of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes; reduced suspension and dropout rates; improved test scores; and
reduced teacher absence and frustration.
Rather than defensively argue that schools can't do everything, we should work with them to seize every opportunity to make important contributions.
Center for School Heath Programs
Senior Research Associate
Education Development Center Inc.
The writers are the editors of Health Is Academic, published in March by Teachers College Press.
To the Editor:
James J. Gallagher is unfortunately and profoundly right. How we could wish otherwise. How wonderful it would be if education really could perform the miracles we ask of it.
In some sense, as we work to improve schools and talk about goals and standards, we can well be giving the public the impression that schools can do it alone. This is dangerous and can leave the public thinking that we can just keep going along, outside the schools, as we have been.
Education reform and societal reform go hand in hand. This country has shown that it can do almost anything it wants to do.
Can we spend more time with our children? Sure.
Can we make better use of resources for schools? Sure.
Can we put across to parents and community what it takes to educate kids? Sure.
Can we restrain ourselves from immediate gratification and media hype, so that kids get a real sense of themselves and the world? Even for this harder one--sure.
Mr. Gallagher's Commentary is an important wake-up call to educators as well as the public. We have to make sure that, while we make schools better, they will never be better enough to make up for what goes on outside the school walls. And this is a major message we have to get across. Can we do it? Sure.
Founder and President
MegaSkills Education Center
The Home and School Institute Inc.
Critiquing the NBPTS: The Personal in the Professional
To the Editor:
The Commentary by Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky has brought to light troubling issues I experienced as part of the national effort to identify superior teachers ("Some Unanswered Questions Concerning National Board Certification of Teachers," June 10, 1998).
Recently, my husband presented me with a T-shirt emblazoned with the words " ... but it doesn't get me Board Certified." The reference was to the fact that all of my accomplishments for children and for professional development during 30 years of dedication to the field went unrecognized when I fell several points short of passing the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in early-childhood education. As morose as I felt, I laughed at his T-shirt. Yet nothing in life had prepared me for such professional devastation.
I have long prided myself on being the consummate early-childhood educator. Professional growth and development have been a cornerstone of my career. I had followed closely the evolution of the NBPTS over the past 10 years and took great pride in applying for the first class of early-childhood educators to become board-certified. The experience was remarkable. I analyzed each teaching moment. I struggled with the conflicts presented. I did a fabulous job--or so I thought.
Almost one year after submitting my portfolio, I learned I did not pass. Me--exemplary teacher (one who holds a master's degree and 45 credits); Lucretia Crocker Fellow; former Teach For America faculty member; finalist for the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and the National Teachers Hall of Fame; adjunct faculty member to the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Bridgewater State College, and Lesley College; veteran teacher of 1st grade children; and recipient of numerous grants. With this background of professional commitment, recognition, and expertise, I could not fathom such a defeat. And as sad as it was to me, I was more upset by the reactions of my colleagues who now voiced reluctance to undertake such a risky voyage themselves. The refrain would be reiterated by many, "If you can't pass, what chance do I have?"
What disappointed me even more than not passing was the lack of constructive feedback and evaluation the NBPTS provided me about my performance. My training and philosophy is such that I believe students should have an explanation that accompanies their evaluations. I ask no less of the NBPTS. Unfortunately, the board's members do not see the benefit of such an exercise. Rather, they rely on a compilation of rubrics whereby I alone am left to determine the extent of my alleged inadequacies. I find this approach difficult to comprehend and intellectually insulting. I have tried, in vain, to ascertain where it is I did not meet the standards. I believe I did meet them, and it is for this reason I have chosen not to reapply for board certification.
How can I possibly hope to correct the flaws in my portfolio when I believe I have met the criteria and the NBPTS has not had the professionalism or intellectual discipline to show me clearly where I have fallen short? When would a responsible classroom teacher ever inflict this travesty of evaluation on his or her students? (The board does provide for an elaborate appeal process for which candidates pay an additional $100. Having just completed that process--the only candidate to do so, or so I am told--I have been informed that my appeal was denied. True to the end, the board has seen fit to continue its policy of failing to provide constructive, thorough feedback, resorting instead to empty rhetoric and unsubstantiated assertions.)
My decision disheartens me. I wanted so much to advocate for national board certification. I believe, still, that the respect and stature for teaching the board is attempting to advance are important. Unfortunately, the board has overlooked the most important aspect of learning, one that good teachers have always known and been able to do. Exemplary teachers demonstrate to their students what is expected and clarify for them what they cannot readily understand. The board-certification process lacks these essential attributes of good teaching. How sad that an organization believes it can strengthen skills in others without first mastering them itself.
Joyce Pietras Kraback
To the Editor:
As a candidate this year for middle-childhood-generalist certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, I think I am in a position to offer some insight that Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky sorely lack. Their objection to the "vagueness of the standards and the subjective element that enters any performance assessment" and their call for "more objective measures of teacher performance (for example, student test scores)" lead me to believe that these gentlemen are removed from the real world of public school education ("Some Unanswered Questions Concerning National Board Certification of Teachers," June 10, 1998).
As Roger Farr, a professor of education at Indiana University, wrote last year in Education Update, "I don't think there's any way to build a multiple-choice question that allows students to show what they can do with what they know." Mr. Farr continues: "Adults do very well when they are required to remember basic concepts and to problem-solve. If it were true that what students learn through lecture and rote memorization is important, then adults would remember that stuff. ... Just learning the facts doesn't mean you can apply them."
From my perspective over 15 years in elementary, high school, and college teaching, I know it is fair to say that a teacher takes students from the place they are when they enter the classroom. The playing field is not even, and to judge a teacher's performance solely on the basis of students' test scores would be unfair. Emotional and disciplinary problems tolerated in today's classroom and policies of "social promotion" put the teacher and students at a great disadvantage. No amount of pedagogical talent, by itself, can overcome these obstacles. No test score reflects these factors.
The months I spent preparing the portfolio entries for national board certification have been, both professionally and personally, a singularly enriching experience. The process encouraged me to focus on my teaching and to reflect on my own performance and how I could improve it. This is the same focus inherent in the new assessment approaches to which Messrs. Ballou and Podgursky seem to object.
As I prepare for the eight-hour written assessment at a testing site later this summer, I have no doubt that I will once again be asked to demonstrate my teaching ability. I strongly suspect that my performance on that assessment and on the portfolio will be expected to align. This alone seems like a reasonable check on cheating.
I myself paid the fee for this certification, and I did so because I have high standards for my students and for myself. The fact that a teacher would, in essence, carry two full-time jobs during the portfolio-preparation process makes a powerful statement about commitment to the profession.
As to the authors' suggestions about using merit pay as an assessment of a teacher's performance, because, in their words, such a system relies on "supervisors who are in daily contact with the teacher (as well as the parent-consumers)," I have this to say: Do they really have a handle on the actual contact time and level of expertise of some of these supervisors? I think not.
Clifton Park, N.Y.
Board's Research Is Sound
To the Editor:
In their attack on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, assert that it will not be possible for the current studies of whether board-certified teachers teach better than other teachers to reach objective conclusions ("Some Unanswered Questions Concerning National Board Certification of Teachers," June 10, 1998).
The researchers involved in these studies have selected a research design that is conservative (dare I use the term around Messrs. Ballou and Podgursky?) and sound. Studying the validity of national board standards and assessments, working under the auspices of the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching, or NPEAT, they are comparing the performance of board-certified teachers with the performance of teachers who sought board certification but did not pass. Had they wanted to be sure that board-certified teachers were "the best," the researchers could have compared board teachers with a random sample of teachers.
The best protection against bias in research is to require that research methods and data analysis are public, that findings are carefully reviewed by other researchers, and that findings are open to discussion and debate. All of these conditions are provided for in NPEAT-supported research.
It is appropriate to raise questions about the national board. I have one for Messrs. Ballou and Podgursky: Having examined the standards for national board certification, would they want their children taught by teachers who were board-certified?
Dean, College of Education
University of Maryland
College Park, Md.
What Failed Reform?
To the Editor:
Evan Keliher undoubtedly intends to be provocative when he states in his recent Commentary that school reform efforts "have always failed in the past and they will continue to do the same in the future'' ("If It Wasn't Around in the Middle Ages, It's a Fad!," June 17, 1998). If only the examples he gives as evidence of failed efforts were examples of school reform. New Math? Televisions in classrooms? Hardly what anyone involved in improving schools is engaged in or considers critical, comprehensive reform.
The examples Mr. Keliher cites as failed efforts of school reform show his lack of understanding of what reform is and what it is attempting to achieve. School reform is not about whether or not there's a television in the classroom. It's about creating learning environments where teachers are qualified, engaged and committed, and know each student well; where parents are involved in the life of the school and the education of the child; and where the community in which each school exists is both a resource and a partner in the school's success.
As we work for comprehensive school change, reform leaders such as those involved in the Annenberg Challenge are not trying to push students to learn "better, faster, [and] easier than they did a century ago," as Mr. Keliher asserts. We are not competing in a contest, training kids to do better than they did a century ago in some kind of educational marathon. Rather, we are working to meet the evolving needs of students in this century's classrooms, needs resulting from realities that last century's students and teachers could not have imagined.
School reform today is about fostering and maintaining smaller and more intimate learning communities where students are supported and families and communities are connected. It's about encouraging collaboration between teachers and creating opportunities for them to grow, plan, and reflect in ways that greatly affect their ability to teach each child well. School reform is about reducing isolation among individuals within a school community, between schools and families, and between schools and communities.
Mr. Keliher suggests that a teacher in a classroom with a chalkboard, textbook, and willing students is all that is necessary for successful schools. If only a "roomful of willing students who want to be there" resulted from simply installing someone named "teacher" at the front of the room.
We're not likely to forgo the chalkboard, but there have been some advances in thinking in the last one hundred years, even in the last 10, about what helps students learn. The 20th--soon to be 21st--century may intimidate Mr. Keliher, but the kids who are in school today, I suspect, are grateful that someone is meeting them where they are now, not relying on practices that were in place a century ago.
Chicago Annenberg Challenge
To the Editor:
What a surprise it was to read in Evan Keliher's Commentary that the Annenberg school reform program is failing in Los Angeles. Mr. Keliher's essay is filled with inaccuracies.
Even Mr. Keliher admits he could be "dead wrong" and makes a plea for someone to enlighten him. I will try to do just that. Using incorrect and distorted information, he reached erroneous conclusions--a perfect example of the phrase "garbage in, garbage out." His lack of integrity in presenting the facts is troublesome, especially because he is a former teacher.
Mr. Keliher is mistaken when he says that Walter Annenberg's Challenge to America, the $500 million grant directed to public school reform, is in its "fifth and final year" in Los Angeles. Our network of schools, called School Families, has been engaged in deepening their reform efforts for two to three years. The Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, or LAAMP, was granted a five-year period to raise the matching funds. Most initiatives will continue through 2000--some through 2002--but the capacity gained will far outlast the grant period.
The author incorrectly states that The Los Angeles Times has criticized LAAMP. To the contrary, the Times headline on Nov. 21, 1997, proclaimed "School Reforms Get High Marks for the First Year" in its coverage of LAAMP-supported schools. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Daily News in a Nov. 24, 1997, editorial, commended the LAAMP School Families after they publicly reported their achievements.
Mr. Keliher is actually referring to an op-ed piece submitted to The Los Angeles Times by a guest columnist, Patrick Reilly, assailing Walter Annenberg for supporting public education rather than scholarships and vouchers. This is all a part of a well-orchestrated campaign to discredit any philanthropy directed to the renewal of public education where it will benefit the many vs. the few.
Mr. Keliher's narrow and distorted perspective about the Annenberg gift is disguised in his simplistic proposal to resume traditional teaching methods to teach traditional students. We all know our classrooms have changed dramatically. But we can reinstate traditional expectations and make sure our teachers are better prepared to face today's challenges. We must do more than equip teachers with chalk and a textbook. We must give them all the tools available to reach today's students. We know that all students can learn. The Annenberg Challenge promotes environments in which teachers can help students achieve their fullest potential.
Rather than condemn Ambassador Annenberg for his generous support of public education, all Americans who care about the fate of our children should drop on their knees in appreciation for his support.
María A. Casillas
Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project
Los Angeles, Calif.
Vol. 17, Issue 43, Pages 45, 53-57Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as Letters