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Special Schools and 'Regular Schools'

To the Editor:

The article in your "Lessons of the Century" series titled "Bringing the Special Education Students Into the Classroom, (Jan. 27, 1999) emphasizes the important and dramatic changes that have occurred over the past century. It correctly presents the history of the "disabled movement" and fairly portrays what has happened, both good and bad, to special education. Many advocates, parents, and educators would unanimously agree that special education has "made remarkable gains." Furthermore, the article correctly assumes that there is still much to be done to assure equity and excellence.

I was troubled, however, by the reference that special schools for the blind, deaf, and orthopedically disabled were given unfair treatment as compared to "regular schools." To characterize these schools as "not on a par with schools serving mainstream students" is doing the students and their teachers a disservice.

The New York Institute for Special Education (founded in 1831 as the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind) enjoys a solid reputation as one of the premier schools for the disabled in the nation. We provide educational and residential services to a diverse and highly educated student body. Seventy percent of our prekindergarten disabled students go on to regular public kindergartens with little if any need for special education; 50 percent of our elementary students with emotional and learning disabilities go on to regular high schools; 60 percent of our visually impaired graduates go on to college.

All of our students are expected to attain New York state learning standards. Parents and teachers have high expectations for their students. Perhaps you should visit and learn about the special schools you are using for comparative purposes.

Robert L. Guarino
Executive Director
The New York Institute for Special Education
Bronx, N.Y.

Accountability? We Can Do More

To the Editor:

Robert Evans' "The Great Accountability Fallacy" (Feb. 3, 1999) makes the argument that public schools have been making for many years: We can't be held accountable because poor achievement by students is the responsibility of (fill in the blank: the family, poverty, breakdown in culture, et cetera). This argument once carried some weight, but today its shoddiness is clear.

Set aside for a moment the question of whether public schools are doing as well as they should with the students who come to them from advantaged backgrounds, with two college-educated parents, and a willingness to work at academics. Mr. Evans is wrong when he suggests that public schools aren't responsible for the failure of students from poorer, less supportive backgrounds.

Here's the key fact: Effective teachers can help students from these backgrounds make up ground. Regardless of their backgrounds, students who are fortunate enough to have three straight years of highly effective teachers in grades 3-5 will have average national percentile scores 50 points higher than those who suffer from three straight years of the least effective teachers. This is shown by the sophisticated value-added research now available on Tennessee's database of over 5 million longitudinally merged records on student achievement. And it has been confirmed by research in Texas. (See for background and reports on these and other findings from Tennessee's data.)

At the high school level, Tennessee's end-of-course data, coupled with value-added analysis, show the same thing: Effective teachers can help students catch up.

So, Mr. Evans, those of us who support public education have to step up to the plate. We can no longer afford to sit on our hands and blame society. Our job is to help teachers learn how to be more effective. If we fail, our neighbors and fellow citizens are rightfully not going to be forgiving. They'll give another system the chance to help these students if we don't. Vouchers? Charter schools? The end of compulsory attendance? I don't know. But I do know that the best response is for public schools to focus on doing what can be done, and to admit that we can do a lot.

Dave Shearon
Nashville, Tenn.

To the Editor:

Unwittingly, I hope, Robert Evans, in his recent Commentary, makes the case for abandoning public education. If his depressing assessment of the impact (notwithstanding the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars) of public education on kids is correct, then state legislatures are making terrible mistakes by forcing mandatory attendance (to age 16 or more) in nearly every state. Mr. Evans' logic suggests that the only reason to maintain the public system is to pay teachers lots of money to do practically nothing of value.

Moreover, it is hard to imagine a more negative message to aspiring teachers. Why should they aim at such an inconsequential career as Mr. Evans suggests?

He must have struggled to ignore the outcomes being achieved in many charter public schools and increasing numbers of traditional public schools that are adopting more effective systems. And he certainly had to have made a conscious choice to ignore the outcomes of many of the most troubled urban kids who attend parochial and private schools.

As a longtime counselor to charter and other alternative forms of public schools, I reject Mr. Evans' thesis. The reality is that accountability is finally emerging in Minnesota and across the country as, perhaps, the most important leverage for policymakers to improve public schools. If that does not work, then Mr. Evans' assessment may, perversely, in fact become truth, with a devastating impact on public education.

John A. Cairns
Minneapolis, Minn.

Clarifying Ohio's Vocational Plan

To the Editor:

I wish to clarify a statement made in reference to the method of submission for our vocational education state plan in Ohio ("States Are Moving To Streamline Vocational Education, Adult Programs," Jan. 27, 1999). In your article, I was wrongly quoted as saying that Ohio is one of at least eight states that have no intention of combining vocational education with adult workforce programs--that we intend to align our plan with school reform efforts under the Improving America's Schools Act.

In fact, our intent is to file a separate state plan, but to coordinate vocational education with the provisions of the Workforce Investment Act, wherever applicable, and the IASA.

The article correctly quotes me as saying that we are as concerned about our students' academic success as we are for their occupational and career success. My concern is that readers might misinterpret Ohio's commitment to workforce development. Vocational education relates to both the workforce-development and the K-12 systems. This has been, and will continue to be, a focus in Ohio.

Joanna Kister
Division of Vocational and Adult Education
Ohio Department of Education
Columbus, Ohio

Best Reading Tip: Hire Good Teachers

To the Editor:

There is more to the story than is apparent from Brenda Power's Commentary, "Reading Reform: Lessons From Maine" (Jan. 20, 1999). The reason California is in such a mess is that the state did away with phonics-based reading six years ago. There was a huge push for whole-language/literacy-based reading. The innovators persuaded the education community to throw out basal reading books. The California Curriculum Code was rewritten to reflect the new methods, and all schools were required to purchase new textbooks that taught reading using whole language and "embedded" phonics. Within two years, reading scores plummeted.

California is now trying to get back on track by "un-reforming" its reading curriculum. Having been part of the educational community and having had children who attended California public schools during this period gave me a bird's-eye view and a distrust of whole language and "embedded" phonics.

Maine's efforts are to be applauded, though. As with students, each state is unique, and by sharing successes and failures we can come to a better realization of what works best for our situation. Montana had a brief skirmish with whole language, but has settled for a curriculum with a solid phonics foundation enriched by a strong literacy and writing program. Our teachers are encouraged to be innovative and resourceful, supplementing or modifying the curriculum to fit their classroom needs.

About every 20 years, people forget how they learned to read. New and imaginative methods are proposed and implemented, the reading program goes through a tremendous upheaval, and in spite of all our efforts, most kids still learn to read. Then the reading community settles back to the basic foundation of phonics, enriched by remnants of the innovations, and most kids still learn to read.

It is impossible to get 100 percent (or even 50 percent) agreement on something as diverse and complicated as reading, especially since "agreement" is mostly opinion. After centuries of research, nobody really knows exactly how children learn to read. The best insurance for good readers is a good teacher (one who is enthusiastic about teaching, proficient in a variety of reading strategies, cares about her students, and creates an environment of respect). A good teacher will find the best way for her students to achieve reading success.

Karla R. Christensen
Superintendent of Schools
Garfield County
Jordan, Mont.

Testing 'Snapshots'

Base Evaluations on a Continuum of Scores

To the Editor:

During the month since results from Virginia's Standards of Learning test were made public, there have been many newspaper articles on the low scores (a "failure" rate of over 97 percent) Virginia's children attained on the SOL test ("Massive Failure Rates on New Test Daze Virginia," Jan. 20, 1999). Are the state's teachers, educational programs, and the learning they are designed to produce of such a poor quality that so many children from across the commonwealth and at all socioeconomic levels would fail what are supposed to be basic competency tests? Or is something else really at play here?

Let me say up front that I believe we must have high and appropriate standards for learning and achievement if we are to continue as the world's technological and economic leader. A basic level of competency in reading, writing, language, mathematics, and computer literacy is a necessity today if future citizens are to become responsible and productive members of an information-based, globally oriented society. And teachers, principals, and administrators at all levels must be held accountable for what goes on in the schools.

But in the quest to raise standards, it seems that common sense, reason, and what we know to be true concerning child development, brain theory, demographics, and other factors that affect learning are being deliberately ignored by state boards of education and affiliated standards-setting decisionmakers. It is imperative that these considerations be brought back into the standards-setting equation.

Measuring the academic success of students and subsequently inferring the quality of their teachers and the schools they attend by a single test--one for which the passing score has been deliberately set too high for over 97 percent of students to attain--is unfair, politically dishonest, and likely to lead to false assumptions about and negative consequences for students, teachers, and public schools. As a principal, I would have a real concern with any teacher who felt justified in failing 97 percent of the students who did not meet his or her "high standards." I have a major concern with a state that does the same thing.

As a number of respected educators and parents have pointed out, Virginia's students, teachers, and schools are simply not that educationally inept. Furthermore, the implication that teachers and administrators who work in schools with a high percentage of students from affluent homes, who typically obtain the highest scores on state or national tests, are more competent and do a better job than those who work with the most disadvantaged children is an insult to the profession. If that were the major reason why test scores in more affluent schools are so high, then it would logically follow that if those teachers were transferred to the more disadvantaged, lower-performing schools, the scores at those schools would rise. I don't think any reasonably knowledgeable person would seriously believe that would solve the problem.

Anyone who has ever been a parent or worked with young children knows that every child is unique, each one growing and developing at a different rate. We accept the fact that, barring a handicapping condition, differences in learning to crawl, stand, walk, talk, and meet other developmental milestones are a normal aspect of early-childhood growth and development. Most adults would not consider a child who, for example, learned to walk at 8 months of age a superior walker and another who walked at 12 months a deficient walker. By 14 months they're both typically running around and are hard to keep up with. Such differences are well known, continue through childhood, and are accepted as normal up until the child enters kindergarten in September of his or her 5th year.

At that time, a mysterious "equality clock" starts running, and the false expectation is established that every child--regardless of normal developmental differences, innate ability, prior learning opportunities, socioeconomic and cultural experiences, and parenting--should be at the same point in learning and academic achievement by April of the 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade years. If they are not, it is assumed by many that they and the schools they attend have not met the expected standard for learning and achievement. They have "failed."

All children can learn, but not every one will learn at the same rate, in the same way, or at the same time. Given the wide range of backgrounds, abilities, and other factors, to expect every child to meet the same "high standards" at the same point in time is ludicrous. For example, a child who is of low-average ability is generally not going to be able to do academic work of the same difficulty level or learn skills as quickly as a classmate who has above-average intellectual ability. This and the many other individual variables that affect learning and school performance are simply the reality we must live with.

Depending on the collective makeup of a particular group of children, every educator knows about and has experienced classes of children that perform quite differently from others, despite a teacher's best efforts. One year, scores may be up, while in another--even though the children have worked with the same teachers, curriculum, books, and other materials--they may be down. The momentary "snapshot" approach to evaluating a school or an entire district is misleading and paints an inherently inaccurate picture of the quality of work being done. As the saying goes, apples need to be compared to apples, not oranges.

The only reasonably fair and accurate method for determining the quality of any instructional program or school is to look at longitudinal data, the continuum of scores that is generated year after year for individuals or a group of children as they move through the various grades. Regardless of where they start (which schools can control), the criteria need to be based upon whether or not students are making continuous progress, improving from one year to the next.

No matter how much money is spent by Virginia and other states for materials and training aimed at improving student performance on standards-based tests, it will never happen for many students if state and local officials continue to view children as uniform, interchangeable parts in a factory assembly line. Schools simply do not have that kind of quality control over their raw material. States that insist on establishing inordinately high and rigid academic standards that fail to take into consideration the critical variables that affect student learning do their children, teachers, and educational systems a great disservice. One wonders if public schools in such states are being deliberately set up for failure to reinforce certain special-interest groups' agenda.

Public schools are charged with the awesome responsibility of trying to adequately educate every child, regardless of what that child looks like, where he comes from, whether he is rich or poor, has a handicapping condition, or whatever his prior experience or innate ability might be. Yes, there is room for improvement in public education, and many schools have been making good progress. Yes, we need to have appropriate and fair standards that all children, not just the college-bound, can reasonably be expected to meet. But to sacrifice our system of public education in the name of "high standards" only serves to promote an elitist system and does our children a great disservice.

John E. Lensch
Highland Park Learning Center Magnet School
Roanoke, Va.

No Exit Deal With Failing 8th Graders Now

To the Editor:

In Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit," three recently deceased characters are condemned for eternity to one another's company. "You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the burning marl. Old wives' tales! There's no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is--other people!" Considering the rate at which students seem to be flunking exit exams across the country, I wonder if we are about to see a case of life imitating art ("In First Year of Tests, States Must Brace for Foul Weather," Feb. 3, 1999).

Like the governors of Virginia and Georgia, Gov. Gray Davis has vowed that California's exit exam will be a rigorous measurement of what students should know before being allowed to graduate. It is hard to argue with their good intentions. We all want a high school diploma to mean more than seat time in a series of desks. But what will it be like to try to run for office in a district where only a handful of seniors walk across the stage in June? Who will face the angry parents? Orders for caps and gowns are going to be way down.

If we don't want this hellish scenario to be played out, schools are going to have to mobilize themselves right now. It's not as though we don't know which students are already in danger of not passing such an exit exam. All an administrator has to do is look at last year's Stanford-9 results and this year's grades. Any 8th grader with test scores in the bottom quartile in reading or math and/or with less than a C average is on target to fail the 2003 exit exam. It doesn't take a psychometrician to figure this out. It just takes common sense and a willingness to look bad news in the eye.

So what's to be done? Every parent of an 8th grader who fits this profile should receive a letter from the school inviting them to a meeting where options for an accelerated learning program are laid out. Parents should be able to choose from Saturday school, summer school, or after-school programs. If they or their children choose none of the above, both should be counseled about the consequences of leaving school without a high school diploma.

And as students are enrolled in these programs, they must commit to the program, and not simply in terms of bodily presence. It might help to teach them the Latin root, attendere, which means to "stretch toward and give heed to." Teachers and tutors are going to have to inspire these youngsters to want the learning that has, for whatever reason, gotten by them up to now. Kids are going to have to work.

If the governors want an exit exam that promotes rather than discourages student achievement, they are going to have to make sure that children have a fair shot at passing. As Stanley Rabinowitz of WestEd has said, "Setting the high scores makes you feel good today, but that's not half of the battle. Do you have the fortitude to provide remediation and systemic accountability? Do you even know what to do?"

Too many students already view high school as hellish. Installing "No Exit" signs without offering them a reasonable chance to find their academic way out will only make things worse.

Carol Jago
Santa Monica, Calif.

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Pages 53-55

Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as Letters to the Editor

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