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Large High Schools, Weak Self-Images

To the Editor:

One of your articles on the Columbine tragedy, "Rejection and Rage Increasingly Turn Into Violence," April 28, 1999, mentions fleetingly the problem of school size in causing despair in young Americans. The point should be made in stronger terms. Large schools are a prescription for low self-esteem and alienation. The percentage of students, for example, able to excel in high-status activities--football, basketball, cheerleading, student government, drama--is much lower at 2,000-student schools than at 500-student schools.

Consider: A 2,000-student school has 22 first-string offensive and defensive positions on its varsity football team. Four 500-student schools would offer 88. How many small-school football stars would have been bench-warmers or alienated nonparticipants at a large school? Indeed, the Columbine High School perpetrators had athletic aspirations at one time, but not the extraordinary ability required at a large school.

Two-thousand-student high schools are creations of a system that need not respond to consumer needs. Few parents, given a choice, would be eager to send a vulnerable 14-year-old to a large institution. Competition--charter schools, vouchers--would produce smaller, more nurturing schools.

Tom Shuford
Bayville School
Bayville, N.Y.

Recalling 50 Years of Curricular Study

To the Editor:

Your April 21, 1999, issue contained two items of particular interest to the Council for Basic Education, as they artfully link our past and present efforts to improve education for all children.

The special section on "The Great Debate" in education (Lessons of a Century) called to mind the very reasons for the creation of the CBE. In discussing the backlash to the life-adjustment movement of the 1940s and 1950s, mention was made of several people--Mortimer Smith, Arthur Bestor, and Hyman G. Rickover--who were intimately involved with the creation and early years of the council. In fact, the CBE's charter called for assuring that all children are held to high standards and receive access to a high-quality liberal arts education, a revolutionary concept in that era.

The Commentary by Robert J. Marzano, John S. Kendall, and Barbara B. Gaddy, "Deciding on 'Essential Knowledge,'" is further evidence of the need for the CBE's recent publication, "Standards for Excellence in Education." The publication, which includes a CD-ROM, pares those original 4,000 benchmarks set in 14 subject areas so that it in fact meets the authors' call for the specification of what is essential knowledge. Children taught to these standards would be much more likely to succeed and to achieve the vision of our founders.

In both the article and the Commentary, I am reminded that, while much has changed in the past half-century, the mission of the Council for Basic Education remains as important today as when our founders hammered out its charter at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in 1956. Sad to say, we have yet to fulfill society's commitment to ensure that all children receive the academic program that will ensure that they have the opportunity to succeed.

Christopher T. Cross
Council for Basic Education
Washington, D.C.

A Clarification on AERA Report Story

To the Editor:

This letter is to clarify a point made in your April 28, 1999, article "AERA Meeting Showcases New Ways To Present Research." In discussing a paper that Mary Klehr (a Madison, Wis., teacher) and I presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting in Montreal, you report: "But the university researchers have yet to document any improvements in student achievement in the classrooms of teacher-researchers they studied."

What we reported at the session discussed in this article was very different from what is reported in the article. What we said was: Although we do not have any evidence of improved student achievement based on standardized-test scores, we found substantial evidence that student attitudes, involvement, and learning improved in the classrooms of teachers who conducted research in the Madison School District Classroom Action Research program. The evidence for these changes is provided by teachers' careful documentation of classroom events, analysis of student work samples, and teacher-designed assessments.

Our paper provides several samples of the kinds of changes in student learning that were associated with the experience of teachers conducting action research under the particular conditions of this program. Our AERA paper and the Spencer Foundation/MacArthur Foundation report on which the paper is based are available by contacting me at [email protected].

Ken Zeichner
Hoefs-Bascom Professor of Education
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, Wis.

Staff Development Is Board Challenge, Too

To the Editor:

Michael Preston is correct in arguing that there is much that urban school board members can do to improve student achievement in their districts ("Leadership Matters," April 28, 1999). And he is correct in saying that "top-quality education depends on high-quality teachers." But his recommendations for quality teaching fell short when he omitted the board's role in ensuring powerful forms of professional development for all teachers and administrators.

Disconnected in-service days and workshops with little or no classroom applicability or follow-up are too often the norm and must not continue. Staff development that ensures quality teaching deepens teachers' knowledge of the content they teach, expands their repertoire of research-based instructional skills to teach that content, and provides ongoing classroom assistance in implementing those skills, including classroom assessment techniques that allow teachers to regularly monitor gains in student learning resulting from improved classroom practices.

This staff development has at its core a small team of teachers who meet several times a week to plan lessons together, critique student work, and assist in problem-solving. Teachers must also be connected to colleagues within and beyond their schools through face-to-face and electronic networks. For all of these things to occur, this staff development must be supported by structures and surrounded by district and school cultures that encourage innovation, experimentation, and the collegial sharing of new ideas and practices.

To ensure these more powerful forms of staff development, urban school boards must adopt standards for student learning, for teaching, for leadership, and for staff development (such as those promulgated by the National Staff Development Council). High expectations are the fuel for outstanding staff-development efforts.

School boards must also provide adequate funding for staff development (the NSDC advocates that at least 10 percent of a district's budget be allocated to professional learning) and make the quality of staff development an important part of the superintendent's evaluation. Boards that regularly review school improvement plans should do so with an eye toward their staff-development components. Boards must adopt incentive systems that reward improvements in student achievement and promote continuous team-based learning on the part of everyone who affects that achievement. Boards can also modify school schedules and the annual calendar to accelerate staff learning. And, when approving special programs, board members should ask how adults will acquire the necessary skills, knowledge, and dispositions to ensure the program's success.

While this list of actions is not intended to be exhaustive, it demonstrates why urban school board members must view themselves as staff-development leaders in their districts. The policies they establish and the resources they invest affect the professional learning of district employees. And the model they themselves can provide of lifelong learning and commitment to the welfare of students will inspire others to do the same.

Dennis Sparks
Executive Director
National Staff Development Council
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Does Slavery Project Send Wrong Message?

To the Editor:

While Barbara Vogel is to be commended for bringing national attention to the widely neglected issue of slavery in Sudan ("Liberating Lesson," March 31, 1999), encouraging children to purchase the freedom of slaves sends the wrong message. These students are being taught that human life is for sale; and in Sudan, it can be bought very cheaply. By raising money to buy the freedom of slaves ($50 to $100 per slave), Ms. Vogel's students become unwitting participants in a modern-day slave trade. Sadly, these children may be actually creating a slave market by encouraging slave traders to capture more slaves for future sale.

Clearly, the children of Highline Community School in Aurora, Colo., have only the best intentions and should be lauded for their energy, enthusiasm, and social awareness. However, these students must learn that, while good intentions are important, they can sometimes have disastrous consequences.

Ms. Vogel asks, "What do we do, leave them in slavery until [the politicians] solve the problem?" Her question is a valid one, and there is no easy answer. However, what we do not want to do is free one slave or even 100 slaves and inadvertently perpetuate the institution of slavery for decades by giving it economic legitimacy. In poor countries like Sudan, the law of supply and demand drives the local economy. Sending money to Sudan to buy the freedom of slaves encourages slavery.

Ms. Vogel deserves the gratitude of the world for projecting this condition of human misery into our consciousness. We must now help her answer the question of how to address this issue immediately. The answer is intelligent, effective political and economic actions from every country in the world that considers itself civilized. The world community must create strategies to end slavery everywhere in the world now.

Teaching our children to buy the freedom of slaves is not the long-term solution to this issue and could cause more harm than good.

Phillip Jackson
Chief of Staff
Chicago Public Schools
Chicago, Ill.

Educational Research: Now Is the Time To Press for a First-Rate System

To the Editor:

Writing in these pages in March, Thomas C. Boysen and Thomas Sobol proposed six steps to give the reform effort in education coherence and support ("The Next Steps," March 10, 1999). The six steps were well-funded, long-term, nonpartisan research and development financed by the federal government; expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress; state and local funding of assessment efforts; investment in developing the capacity of teachers and students to meet the new standards; public officials and educators devoting more time to engaging the public in these issues; and giving the effort time to produce results.

I agree strongly with all six steps. However, it is the first step I want to comment on: the need for well-funded, long-term, nonpartisan research. One function of the Education Commission of the States is to assemble, synthesize, and explain the research in the field of education to policymakers, particularly those at the state level. The goal of the ECS is to help these policymakers create more effective policy based on evidence and best practices, rather than on ideology or strongly held opinions. In this, however, we face a singularly difficult dilemma--the lack of compelling research about subject after subject.

Far too often, what masquerades as research are journal articles that are largely opinion. Seldom do we undertake the kind of intensive, carefully structured research that produces the hard evidence we need. Seldom do we replicate in several subsequent sites the research findings that appear to move us in new directions. Seldom do we follow students over many years in longitudinal studies to ensure that we understand the long-term effects of changes.

I also agree with the authors that it is the federal government that needs to lead this effort. As we have found in essentially every other field of research, funding at the federal level has two major advantages. First, it reflects the fact that the fruits of the research are shared nationally, not just in a particular state. Second, the federal government has a well-developed, peer-reviewed, competitive grant system functioning in many fields, from biochemistry to physics to economics. Unfortunately, education is one of the few fields in which the federal system works without the degree of political insulation that is essential for first-class research. But given the urgency with which policymakers across the country and in Washington see the need to improve education, now is the time to press for a first-rate system of federal research support.

Frank Newman
Education Commission of the States
Denver, Colo.

Vol. 37, Issue 18, Page 34-35

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Letters

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