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N.Y. Charter Law Is Not Union-Made

To the Editor:

A recent letter on New York state's charter school law draws several mistaken conclusions based on a misreading of the new law ("New York Charter Law Bears Union Imprint," Letters, Feb. 17, 1999).

This law, largely adopted because of the efforts of Gov. George E. Pataki, was recently rated the seventh-strongest charter school law in the nation by the Center for Education Reform, surpassing those of other large states such as California, Florida, and Texas.

First, to directly respond to the teachers' union issues raised in the letter, 10 of the 100 new charter schools will not have compulsory unionization in any circumstance, and in the other 90, the charter schools will only face compulsory unionization if the student enrollment exceeds 250 in the first year. Under the latter provision, if a school remains at, say, 249 students in the first year, it may enroll thousands of students in the second year without triggering mandatory unionization. As a practical matter, since most charter schools start out with initial enrollments below 250, the union-shop provision will rarely be triggered.

In all new charter schools, the faculty would be entitled, if they so chose, to unionize at any point. So, the law is not anti-union, but the governor thought it important to let the teachers in each school make the decision for themselves, rather than be forced into a mandatory union shop.

The bill grants extraordinary autonomy in other respects. A charter school operator is granted a blanket waiver of all state and local laws and regulations, with the exception of health, safety, civil rights, and student testing. This means that charter school leaders can set the length of the school day, adopt a longer school year, develop their own standards and curriculum, and hire and fire staff.

While the bill contains restrictions on the ability to hire quality teachers who may not be certified, no certification requirements apply to principals or any other noninstructional staff. Similarly, New York's restrictive tenure laws do not apply, nor, for new charter schools, do any pre-existing collective bargaining agreements.

New York's charter school law has prompted a considerable amount of excitement among educators, parents, and community leaders precisely because the law will allow them to set up schools that focus on educational results rather than on rules and bureaucracy.

Thomas W. Carroll
The Empire Foundation for
Policy Research
Clifton Park, N.Y.

Chicago Test Flap And Press Freedom

To the Editor:

We were extremely disappointed by your article "Chicago Schools Take Aim at Teacher Paper Over Tests" (Feb. 10, 1999). You accepted uncritically the district's spin on the story and missed the crux of the issue: the public's right to know what is in these Chicago exams, which are a central feature in the administration's reform agenda and will account for 25 percent of a student's grade.

Given the increasing reliance on "high stakes" tests, both in Chicago and across the nation, there should be more--not less--public discussion of the content of such tests and whether or not they are a valid measure of educational achievement. Defending the secrecy that surrounds the tests is, in essence, a capitulation to an inherently undemocratic process.

If the teachers' newspaper Substance had printed the tests before they were given, that would be one thing. But the paper released the tests only after they were administered. Did the Chicago central office really think they could give the same test a year later?

We're also surprised that you, as a national newspaper, would so cavalierly ignore the issue of the freedom of the press. Even the Chicago Tribune, in an editorial, said that it was wrong for the federal courts to issue a temporary restraining order and a writ of seizure against Substance.

All of those concerned about civil liberties should be appalled at the Chicago school district's call, in its request for a temporary restraining order and writ of seizure, for the newspaper and other materials already disseminated to be confiscated, "even if it takes the U.S. Marshals going to every Chicago Public School teacher's home." Is that really the mentality of those leading the Chicago reform process?

Bob Peterson
Barbara Miner
Rethinking Schools
Milwaukee, Wis.

Support for Tests Must Come First

To the Editor:

On behalf of the National Education Goals Panel, I would like to commend you for the recent article on building public support for tests ("In First Year of Tests, States Must Brace for Foul Weather," Feb. 3, 1999). Your article emphasized the importance of creating strategies to garner public and parent support before test results are released. Such strategies can assist states in avoiding possible questions and suspicions about the test once the results are made public.

Last year, the National Education Goals Panel explored this topic in great detail. The panel believes that if parents are well-informed and engaged in education-improvement efforts from the beginning (such as the development of a new statewide test), they are more likely to support the initiatives. But the panel recognized that in many states, parents are not well-informed.

For many parents (as well as educators and policymakers), the development and administration of a new state test can be very confusing and frustrating. Assisted by an advisory group of local, state, and federal officials, the panel made nine recommendations to increase parents' understanding and alleviate confusion about state (or district) tests. The recommendations focused on how to make parents more aware of new tests, their purposes, and all the changes they may bring. The panel augmented these recommendations with examples from states and districts, and provided some in-depth stories from states on a variety of issues concerning statewide testing.

The goals panel recognizes the importance of meeting the challenge of communicating effectively with parents, and offers its report, "Talking About Tests: An Idea Book for State Leaders," as a resource. It is available free of charge from the National Education Goals Panel by calling (207) 724-0015, or by visiting us at our World Wide Web site, www.negp.gov.

Ken Nelson
Executive Director
National Education Goals Panel
Washington, D.C.

Find Good Teachers--And Protect Them

To the Editor:

Thanks for an unusual and refreshing Commentary by Richard P. Traina regarding what historical research shows about the character of important teachers ("What Makes a Good Teacher?," Jan. 20, 1999). The Commentary was unusual for a number of reasons:

It was not by a policy wonk, education professor, or staff officer, but by an actual education leader, a college president close to the action.

It was not about policy, technique, assessment, or technology. It was about students and teachers.

Instead of being based on abstract statistical manipulation, unfettered by experience and context, Mr. Traina's remarks were based upon history as we have lived it in our classrooms.

To live in history and experience rather than in assessment land, policy land, tech land, or virtual land is to live in a place where protecting imaginative teaching becomes central. We must heed Mr. Traina's concern for respecting and protecting those teachers who care about their students, love their subjects, and have the courage of their imaginations.

Those teachers are, in any age, from Socrates to the present, an endangered species. They must be treasured, not ground down by corporate or political obsessions with conformity, credentialing, and testing.

As another college president, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, once remarked, "The hardest part of my job is protecting people." That, of course, is what educational leadership in the trenches requires.

Bruce E. Buxton
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

'Self-Education': Spread the Word

To the Editor:

As a new librarian in an academic setting, I find Kirsten Olson Lanier's Commentary wondrous ("Self-Education: Learning From the Kinsmen of the Shelf," Dec. 9, 1998). She has written of the rapture of learning without applying overworked terms such as "lifelong learning." I especially enjoyed her implication that there is a self-responsibility to the whole process. I will definitely pass on this citation to other librarian colleagues.

Patte Weathers-Parry
Reference Librarian
Washington, D.C.

More Fallout Over'Who's In, Who's Out'

To the Editor:

We appreciated your front-page article "Who's In, Who's Out" (Jan. 20, 1999), which highlighted concerns we at MicroSociety share about the listing of specific reform programs in the federal Obey-Porter legislation.

The Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, by naming names, does contribute to the creation of "an exclusive club" of school reform models. Unfortunately, your article added to the problem by giving greater exposure to the 17 named programs and very little attention to other models.

For example, the article failed to name the four design teams, including MicroSociety, that recently passed muster in a toughened Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory screening process for its catalog of school reform models addendum. Our program was the only whole-school model to make it through this review process. Three subject-specific programs--Junior Great Books, HOSTS, and Light-span Achieve Now--made it, too. We demonstrated our success at improving student performance and proved we fulfill the Obey-Porter legislation's nine comprehensive school reform criteria. MicroSociety applauds the Northwest Regional Laboratory for developing a more rigorous review process for its addendum. We also commend the American Institutes for Research for providing more "objective" information to schools making important decisions about what reform models to implement ("Researchers Rate Whole-School Reform Models," Feb. 17, 1999).

The MicroSociety program--an experiential learning system in which students create a miniature society and economy inside their schools--is a movement that's grown primarily by word of mouth. It's well-established, in wide use, and has proven results. Our first program--whole-school from the start--began 18 years ago and is still going strong. Today MicroSociety is being applied in 238 schools in 40 states. An outside evaluator at Drexel University found in a survey of 15 MicroSociety programs a 25 percent increase in math scores, an 11 percent increase in language arts, and a 7 percent increase in reading. Several individual schools have reported dramatic results. For instance, 52 percent more students at Sageland Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, passed their state's math standards, 36 percent more passed writing standards, and 11 percent more passed reading standards. Significant increases in attendance and drops in disciplinary infractions have also been recorded at many of our schools.

All too often in our field, name recognition has been more important than proven results. We're counting on respected publications like yours to give fair coverage to programs like ours that work.

George H. Richmond
MicroSociety Inc.
Philadelphia, Pa.

VOUCHER 'Bribes'

When Parents, Professors Disagree

To the Editor:

In characterizing a voucher as a bribe, Joseph W. Newman advances the misconception that public revenues are somehow government property ("Bribing Students Out of Public Schools," Jan. 27, 1999). Funds for public education, as for all government agencies, come from parents, grandparents, and other noble members of the private sector. Money passes through the hands of school administrators by way of public trust, not entitlement. It is not possible to bribe a man with his own money.

What Mr. Newman fears is the restlessness of a republic in which the electorate may prefer to direct that portion of its earnings going to schools in a way that dilutes the influence of education professors and bolsters the good judgment of American parents. The two groups are clearly at odds. In a poll two years ago, Public Agenda found a "staggering" disagreement between what education professors think schools should teach (lifelong learning, locating resources) and what parents want their children to learn (math, science, literature, and history).

Education professors are unabashed in their trivialization of traditional curricula. Harvard University's Howard Gardner writes that his greatest concern for his children's school is that it be "well-run and committed to what it is doing." Americans, he says, "cannot and perhaps should not agree on a single set of standards." Education professors denounce the National Collegiate Athletic Association for relying on the SAT to determine minimum competency in (cover your ears!) math and English. Instead, the professoriate encourages teachers to let the ignorant fancies of young people set the parameters for what is learned, presumably guided by each student's own unique brand of genius.

Where does this leave parents who want schools to impart knowledge to their children? Out of luck. Certainly there are well-prepared, committed teachers in public schools. But any devotion they bring to a rigorous liberal arts curriculum arises in spite of their professional training, not because of it.

This nation's dismal test scores accurately reflect educators' insouciance toward academic disciplines. States can appoint blue-ribbon panels till the end of time, but no set of standards and no amount of money can rectify what teachers have been taught to regard as success.

Vouchers do not deny those who embrace the pervading educational philosophy the opportunity to immerse their children in it. But no system should prohibit parents from choosing a different one. The Los Angeles high school teacher Jaime Escalante proved that penetrating intellectual capital is well within the reach of any teenager, contingent on a belief in the value of the knowledge offered and a teacher ready and eager to deliver it. Vouchers pose a tectonic shift away from institutions in the authority over what is taught. For millions of children, that's not a bribe, it's a blessing.

Leon J. Leonard
Rockdale County Board of Education
Mansfield. Ga.

Reading Rebuttal

Maine's Approach May Disappoint

To the Editor:

Brenda Power makes a passionate but futile plea to steer the nation in the direction taken by Maine in reading reform, rather than that recently taken by California ("Reading Reform: Lessons From Maine," Jan. 20, 1999). It will soon become clear to teachers and administrators in Maine, however, that literature-based reading instruction (a close kin to whole language) and Reading Recovery are just not as effective as they hoped. Other states and districts have already learned that lesson.

There is no substantive scientific research that demonstrates that literature-based reading instruction is as effective or more effective than explicit, systematic phonics instruction.

To the contrary, reading research (summarized in major reviews beginning in 1967 with Jeanne Chall's classic analysis) has repeatedly demonstrated that systematic phonics instruction, not the "embedded," incidental approach Ms. Power advocates, is the most effective means to teach reading. In 1985, Becoming a Nation of Readers stated, "Research evidence tends to favor explicit phonics." Since 1985, numerous substantive, scientific research studies have confirmed the superior results of explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The National Academy of Sciences' 1998 landmark review of reading research recommends explicit phonics instruction. The Learning First Alliance, composed of 12 major national education organizations, recommends explicit, systematic phonics instruction in its "Every Child Reading Action Plan."

Ms. Power asserts that standardized-test scores in Maine have risen since 1983 due to three statewide initiatives: "using children's literature to teach reading," writers' workshops, and Reading Recovery. She does not provide test-score data showing the cited increase, nor evidence that these three initiatives, which are not universally used in Maine schools because of local control, have had a positive effect on the scores.

Reading Recovery is a popular tutorial program developed in New Zealand where, according to the New Zealand journal North & South, "25 percent of 6-year-olds go through Reading Recovery and if there was 100 percent coverage that percentage would be higher" (June 1993). You see, New Zealand teaches its children with the literature-based methods Ms. Power recommends.

The unfortunate outcome of this approach is reflected in a longitudinal study of Reading Recovery funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Education. The study, presented to the American Educational Research Association in April 1998, found that "96 percent of the children who completed the RR program were not 'recovered' in terms of book-level assessment (conducted by classroom teachers) criteria for successful completion of the program, and most of the RR children were performing at around one year below age level on most measures of reading performance 12 months after the program." The Reading Recovery children failed to outperform the "poor reader comparison" children who did not receive Reading Recovery on virtually all language, literacy, and self-concept measures immediately following and one year after the program. The authors of the study conclude:

"The finding that Reading Recovery in New Zealand appears to be an ineffective intervention program for transforming early failing readers into skilled independent readers whose reading performance is at or above the appropriate age level is not surprising because systematic instruction in word-level strategies is not a component of the rr program. Rather, Reading Recovery is essentially a more intense version of regular classroom reading instruction in New Zealand, where an emphasis is placed on encouraging children to use sentence context cues as a primary strategy for identifying unfamiliar words in text, with as little as possible letter-sound information being used to confirm language predictions."

The findings of this study were remarkably similar to those in a study in my home state of North Carolina. Wake County, the first county in North Carolina to implement Reading Recovery, wisely embarked on a longitudinal study using comparison groups to determine whether the huge commitment of school funds to the program would produce positive results. The Wake County study concluded: "Only one-third of the 1990-91 and 1991-92 RR students who successfully reached the 1st grade reading level still scored at grade level as 3rd graders on the End of Grade Reading test, about the same percentage as in the comparison groups who received no RR services." It stated: "If RR is viewed as a long-term investment, the cost per long-term-successful student appears to be about $8,800. Because about the same percentage of low-achieving students not served by RR were also reading on grade level at grade 3, Reading Recovery in [the Wake County schools] cannot be considered cost-effective as implemented in past years."

The 1998 National Academy of Sciences review of reading research devotes four pages to a thoughtful analysis of Reading Recovery research. The review points out some of the valid criticisms leveled at RR research conducted by the program's developer, Marie Clay, and other RR disseminators. One of the many serious concerns is that results reported by RR are only for children who have successfully been discontinued from the program, excluding about 30 percent of the participants.

Not all of the teaching tools used in Reading Recovery are ineffective. Many are research-based. The fundamental reason that RR and literature-based reading instruction have proven woefully ineffective is that they rely on the disproved theory that contextual guessing strategies are the best ways to identify words. In The Reading Teacher, the distinguished reading researcher Keith Stanovich, who initially thought the context view was correct, says that "our initial investigations of this problem revealed just the opposite: It was the less skilled readers who were more dependent upon context for word recognition. The reason for this finding eventually became apparent: The word-recognition processes of the skilled reader were so rapid and automatic that they did not need to rely on contextual information. Over 10 years later, this finding is one of the most consistent and well replicated in all of reading research."

Another distinguished researcher and author of the 1990 landmark review of reading research, Beginning To Read, Marilyn Adams, states it this way: "[S]cientific research converges on the point that the association of spellings with sounds is a fundamental step in the early stages of literacy instruction. ... There are literally hundreds of articles to support these conclusions. Over and over, children's knowledge of the correspondences between spellings and sounds is found to predict the speed and accuracy with which they can read single words, while the speed and accuracy with which they can read single words is found to predict their ability to comprehend written text" (American Educator, Summer 1995).

Cathy Froggatt
North Carolina Division
The National Right to Read Foundation
Asheville, N.C.

Sometimes the System Needs Bypassing

To the Editor:

One need search no further for explanation of why the teaching profession frightens away competent, dedicated educators than the example set by the disciplinary action taken against George Alper. The Mesa, Ariz., high school instructor had the unmitigated gall to contribute $20,000 of his own hard-earned money and acquire from Microsoft Corp. an equivalent amount's worth of computer software, all to benefit the students of Desert Vista High School ("Teacher Disciplined for Donations," Feb. 17, 1999).

District officials described Mr. Alper's actions as "unprofessional and insubordinate conduct." Granted, he failed to follow so-called proper procedures, but for such a clearly benevolent person to be publicly chastised, castigated, and disciplined by his bosses demonstrates the failings of educational administrators obviously too far removed from classrooms to recognize an exemplary act of humanity even when it stares them squarely in their stoically by-the-books faces.

Years ago, as a state-university student charged with the responsibilities of operating and conducting the business of a student newspaper that I was able to transform from an embarrassment into a nationally award-winning example of academic journalism, I too met with the brick wall of institutional bureaucracy and opted to bypass "the system." And, like Mr. Alper, I paid a hefty price for what university administrators construed to be insolence and malicious criminal activity on my part. (Ironically, my alma mater earlier in its existence was solely a "teachers college.")

Since then, having befriended many fine educators and, as a journalist, often covering the education beat, I frequently hear of, or report on, boards of education concurrently condemning the work of and reprimanding quality educators while placing on pedestals and overremunerating incompetent school administrators.

Such hypocrisy is reprehensible.

But it can be changed. Such as happened two summers ago at a Chicago public elementary school, when teachers, students, and parents took a stand against the unfair firing of a deservedly much-beloved instructor. As a result, the teacher remained, a monomaniacal principal's contract failed to win renewal, and the teacher now is an assistant principal, working with a new principal wise enough never to have abandoned the classroom.

For those who are interested, the school is named for a Chicago police officer who gave her life to safeguard the lives of both students and employees of another school she was assigned to protect.

Perhaps in that case it was the officer's perpetual spirit that led to the clearing of clouded minds. In other cases, such as that concerning Desert Vista High's allegedly unprofessional and insubordinate Mr. Alper, perhaps if not a higher power, a spirit of common sense will prevail.

We can only hope. And, most important, speak out.

Gary Alan Byron
Newsworthy Enterprises
Chicago, Ill.

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Pages 35-37

Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as Letters

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