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NCATE Test Claims Generate Questions

To the Editor:

Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, argues that data from a recent study by the Educational Testing Service show that "NCATE-accredited institutions are producing proportionally more qualified teachers than nonaccredited institutions" ("On Teacher Quality: A Hard-Won System Begins To Pay Off," May 19, 1999).

He bases this claim on the fact that 91 percent of candidates from NCATE-accredited programs passed PRAXIS II licensing exams as compared with just 83 percent from nonaccredited programs. This result is all the more surprising since the same ETS data show that the SAT and ACT scores of NCATE graduates who pass their licensing exams are below those of their non-NCATE peers. We are thus led to believe that the ETS data provide reliable evidence that NCATE programs are superior.

In fact, the NCATE/non-NCATE statistics reported by the ETS have several limitations which make conclusions about program quality problematic. One is that 14 percent of the researchers' sample of PRAXIS II test-takers never enrolled in a teacher-training program. The ETS researchers assigned test-takers to NCATE categories based on the college they attended, not whether they were actually enrolled in a teacher-training program. The never-enrolled group has a lower pass rate (74 percent) as compared with candidates currently enrolled in a teacher-training program (91 percent).

Both the NCATE and non-NCATE samples contain unreported shares of the never-enrolled. However, it is likely that the non-NCATE population will have a proportionately larger share of the never-enrolled, since test-takers who graduated from colleges without a teacher-training program will always be classified as "non-NCATE."

A more appropriate test of the effect of accreditation would compare only those test-takers who were currently enrolled in a teacher-training program. Unfortunately, the data reported by the ETS do not permit such a comparison.

A second problem with the ETS comparison is that institutional differences in pass rates are affected by the mix of tests taken by their graduates as well as the state in which the tests are taken. For example, a student in North Carolina, where NCATE accreditation is mandatory, can pass the PRAXIS II elementary exam with a score of 153, whereas the minimum passing score is 164 in Pennsylvania, where roughly 60 percent graduate from NCATE programs.

The pass rates also depend on the exam taken, ranging from 91 percent on the elementary education exam down to 76 percent on math and 75 percent on social studies. The Educational Testing Service could have clarified this matter by reporting mean NCATE/non-NCATE test scores for the major PRAXIS II exams or by disaggregating their results by state. Perhaps the researchers will do so in future reports.

In short, one cannot reliably compare the quality of NCATE vs. non-NCATE teacher training programs on the basis of the PRAXIS II pass rates reported in the recent ETS study. We can hope that ETS researchers will address these problems as their project continues. In the meantime, NCATE should be more modest in its claims.

Michael Podgursky
Professor and Chairman
Department of Economics
University of Missouri-Columbia
Columbia, Mo.

Parents, Schools Need Agreement on Values

To the Editor:

I wholeheartedly agree with Tony Wagner that "to rebuild community in schools, educators must be held accountable for more than just test scores" ("Reflections on Columbine: Standards for the Heart?," May 12, 1999). Unfortunately, our national and state policymakers seem to disagree. Never before has there been a greater emphasis on standardized testing, leaving teachers overwhelmed and with little or no time left to concentrate on connecting personally with students.

Parents and their local school districts need to agree on what they value for their children, both as learners and as people. Only when schools focus on these mutual goals will school environments have a chance of becoming more humane.

Susan Mehr
Massapequa Park, N.Y.

Select Doctors, Too, by Fordham Method

To the Editor:

Chester E. Finn Jr., William J. Bennett, Diane Ravitch, Eric Hanushek, and a list of the usual suspects in their company, under the banner of Mr. Finn's Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, have hit on the bright idea of applying the rhetoric of deregulation, so popular in our times, to the preparation of teachers ("How To Get More of the Teachers We Need," May 5, 1999).

Open the doors, they argue. Get rid of required classes and internships and degree programs. Just do a background check on applicants. Require a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree in any academic field. Require a knowledge of the subject that the candidate proposes to teach, documented best by an undergraduate major and "rigorous subject-matter examinations."

In sum, don't worry if beginning teachers know anything about teaching. Just put them in the classroom and "measure [what] really matters: whether their pupils are learning."

I agree with Mr. Finn and the signatories of his "manifesto" that we need to assess student learning in relation to the quality of teachers' work, although I believe that we need deeper, more sophisticated assessment than can be provided by machine-scored standardized tests alone. But enhancing our focus on assessment and outcomes hardly makes an argument for abandoning the premise that teaching is a professional activity that requires more, not less, preparation for new teachers.

Let me see if I understand their idea. Weed out the deviates and criminals. Make sure they know the content. Then let them at it--at children, to be precise--and then measure what they can achieve. For a month? A year? Three years? How long? And will Mr. Finn and his colleagues place their own children or grandchildren in the classrooms of these novices?

If this is such a great idea, why stop with teachers? Why not every profession in our society? Medical school is enormously expensive, both for the students and the society. Why not just apply the Fordham Foundation principles? Background check, content exam, and then let the new doctors get to work with the scalpel and the MRI. Give them a few years and see how they do.

David Marshak
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

Phones for Safety Have Other Uses

To the Editor:

I read with interest your May 19, 1999, article "More Schools Giving Classroom Phones a Ringing Endorsement." For the past two years, AT&T Safe Schools--developed with the advice and assistance of the U.S. Department of Education and the National School Safety Center--has pioneered the use of wireless technology in schools for safety purposes. In my state alone, AT&T and Ericsson Mobile Phones have provided digital phones and wireless service to 50 schools in Maricopa and Pima counties. School grants were awarded based on need, demonstrated commitment to embrace and use the technology, and availability of AT&T wireless service in the local area.

One important caveat: We do not restrict calls to emergency phone numbers only. Based on the testimonials and phone calls we receive, teachers, administrators, school resource officers, crossing guards, and field-trip supervisors agree that such limitations would render the phones virtually useless. The benefit of wireless technology is in its regular use for dozens of reasons, emergency and nonemergency. Yes, to call paramedics when an athlete breaks a leg, but also to call Mom or Dad when Sally's field trip is rained out.

Jim McPherson
Director of Communications and Public Affairs
AT&T Wireless Services
Phoenix, Ariz.

On Evolution, Threat Is Misidentified

To the Editor:

We appreciate the exposure you gave to our point of view in your recent article discussing the new booklet "Science and Creationism: A View From the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition" ("Eminent Science Group Reiterates Importance of Teaching Evolution," April 28, 1999). As you noted, the concern of biologists at the Discovery Institute is not that students are taught neo-Darwinian theory, but rather that they receive a selective presentation of the evidence relevant to evaluating it. Basal biology textbooks generally exaggerate the evidential support for neo-Darwinism and gloss over evidential difficulties.

Since our concern is with the balance and accuracy of current textbooks, it might be helpful to correct a few factual errors that appeared (I'm sure inadvertently) in your article. The article has me saying that both sponges and multicellular organisms first appeared during the Cambrian period. In fact, both appeared earlier, during the Precambrian.

The Cambrian explosion is remarkable not because of the appearance of multicellularity but, instead, because of the geologically sudden appearance of highly complex animals. Indeed, fossil finds reveal "a biological big bang" near the beginning of the Cambrian period (530 million years ago), when at least 50 separate major groups of organisms or "phyla" (including all the basic body plans of modern animals) emerged suddenly, without clear precursors. Fossil finds repeatedly have confirmed a pattern of explosive appearance and prolonged stability in living forms--not the gradual, step-by-step change predicted by neo-Darwinism.

Unfortunately, students are rarely told about findings such as these that challenge Darwinian orthodoxy. Very few of the standard high school biology textbooks even mention the Cambrian explosion, arguably the most dramatic event in the history of life. Not a single text discusses the challenge that Cambrian fossils pose to Darwinian theory, though many scientific journals and conference proceedings now openly do so.

Thus, the National Academy of Sciences' booklet errs in its definition of the problem. The threat to public school biology instruction comes less from fundamentalist parents who want to insert religion into the classroom than from textbooks that have, for whatever reason, kept relevant scientific evidence out.

Stephen C. Meyer
Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture
Discovery Institute
Seattle, Wash.

To the Editor:

Your feature story, "Pride & Prejudice," (April 14, 1999) detailed a lawsuit for sexual harassment that is being pursued by six gay students. The defendant in the case is Live Oak High School of Morgan Hill, Calif. The students are suing the district "for failing to protect them from student harassment." This is a very serious case, and it would be inappropriate to comment on the litigation at this time.

However, within your article there was reference to Breed Junior High School in Lynn, Mass. I am the principal of that school. I believe that my character, my beliefs, and my school were denigrated by what appeared in the two paragraphs that referred to our school.

When I write "our school," it is because Breed Junior High School belongs to the community. Lynn is a diverse, industrial city. Our school population consists of 56 percent minority students. Our goal is to provide the best possible education for our students in an atmosphere that is safe and comfortable for all. We have a no-tolerance policy for harassment, threats, or violence.

I truly resent the remarks attributed to me in the article for the following reasons:

First, there were 70 paragraphs referring to high school issues, and only two paragraphs referring to middle schools. This article was not about the problems of gay children in middle schools. Rather, it was about the high school, where sexual attitudes are much more pronounced.

Second, my references to the fact that homophobic issues are "not even on the radar" in our school is true. Why? Simply, we have a no-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind. Our vice principals, guidance department, and faculty have had many hours of professional development offered by our district's health coordinator. None of the employees at Breed Junior High School could ever be called uncaring or insensitive to issues of sexual harassment, or any type of harassment for that matter. The implication that this kind of activity is condoned in our school is patently false and misleading.

Our district's Title IX harassment policy is second to none, and we will initiate court action, if necessary, to seek relief for anyone who is being harassed because of race, religion, or sexual orientation, or who is bullied or threatened in any way.

We have an in-school conflict-resolution program with a trained counselor who is, at times, pressed into service to solve problems of harassment or physical threats. This counselor educates our students to the fact that "words hurt" just as much as physical violence. Students are told, in no uncertain terms, that none of this kind of activity will be tolerated by anyone on the staff.

Slurs are not common at our school, but when they do occur, they are dealt with quickly and effectively. Sometimes, middle school students use terms in an ignorant fashion, and when they learn that these terms hurt others, they are ashamed and embarrassed. It is our role to instill the idea within our students that these offensive words are not acceptable in public circles. I believe that we are consistently fostering positive behavior at Breed Junior High School. To imply, as your article did, that anti-gay language or harassment is not "considered a severe underlying problem" to us in our district or school is to take my comments and spin my words in a way that was contrary to my meaning or my intent.

For those two paragraphs in question, I spoke with a reporter by telephone for 45 minutes. We discussed many middle school issues, but none of these appeared in the article. I believe my words were twisted and spun to create an impression that was false, misleading, and scurrilous. My words were used to fit the agenda of the journalist. They were used in an unfruitful way.

My entire professional life has been dedicated to the children of Lynn, Mass. I will continue to fight for tolerance, justice, and values. I will continue to insist that my faculty and staff do the same. Every day, we at Breed Junior High School place our hearts and souls on the line in an attempt to make the world a better place for our students.

Some journalists should do the same.

Warren F. White
Breed Junior High School
Lynn, Mass.

In Reading Debate, the Term Has No Meaning

To the Editor:

I agree with Jerome Harste, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, that balance is not the "answer" to the so-called reading wars, though not for the reasons he gives ("Reading Experts Question if 'Balance' Is the Answer," May 12, 1999).

The NCTE's leadership historically has been in the camp of whole language, and Mr. Harste's fascination with "the professional judgment of the teacher" is unjustified by repeated research indicating that less than one teacher out of 10 is today competent to teach reading. This latter condition is directly attributable to the political juggernaut that has thrust whole language down everyone's throat and held it there, so that California is still gagging on its struggle to restore some semblance of science to its reading instruction.

Whole language has been shown, since the 1980s, as bereft of any taint of science by Jeanne Chall, Isabelle Liberman, Marilyn Adams, and others, and lately by Diane McGuinness (Why Our Children Can't Read, Free Press, 1997). After analyzing her survey of teacher views and practices regarding phonics and whole language, Ms. McGuinness writes:

Something is clearly amiss; teachers doing one thing and believing something else, or thinking that the two approaches are compatible when they are mutually contradictory. When they try to do what they believe, they have no understanding of how or where to begin.

"In the final analysis," she concludes, "none of the whole-language principles are supported by any evidence, not by historical record, not by 'structural linguistics' ... not by any scientific research on how children actually learn to read." Ms. McGuinness calls the attack on phonics misguided. "There are problems with phonics," she writes, "but phonics programs are not 'wrong' for the reasons whole-language advocates claim, that direct instruction about letters and sounds is bad for you."

The strongest research comes from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's 15-year study of how children learn to read. The NICHD's clearest and most consistent finding is that the most important skill factor is accurate word identification, preferably practiced to the point of automaticity. This is consistent with eye-movement studies on efficient readers that show them to proceed uniformly forward, with virtually no regressions or reprises. By contrast, inefficient readers make frequent regressions to correct wrong guesses via use of "context clues" to compensate for their weak decoding skills.

These considerations illuminate two areas of classroom practice where the worlds of whole language and phonics collide and are, as Ms. McGuinness says, "mutually contradictory":

(1) Directions to students, when encountering an unfamiliar word: To substitute (guess) a word and check it by subsequent context clues vs. taking the time to decode the word phonetically before proceeding; and

(2) Choice of reading materials: "Immersion in 'rich' literature," even that which may be "over students' heads," creating situations of guessing or for teaching "embedded" (as opposed to explicit) phonics vs. scrupulous selection of practice texts for which needed word skills have been taught in advance.

These are the two "sticky wickets" where day-by-day, even minute-by-minute, pedagogical decisions and practices tend to shape children's reading instincts in two diametrically opposite ways. Mixing the two creates a cognitive dissonance--an emotionally wrenching scenario that can lead to psychological problems, if vulnerable children are torn between one and the other by alternate teacher admonitions.

Though there are undeniable syntactic and semantic signals needed to resolve the various meanings and sounds of "read," "bow," "contract," and so forth, these come into play after the decoding process has narrowed the field. The irregularities of from 10 percent to 15 percent of English words do not create a practical impediment to children's fluency when taught in small doses.

Persons who oppose or misunderstand phonics claim that children can be taught to identify words from configurations of length and shape, or as assemblies of parts of other memorized words, or by predicting (guessing) from context "clues." The weight of research says that these claims are neither reliable nor conducive to skills that can be made automatic. Evidence from eye-movement studies further attests to these being the strategies of inept readers--serious barriers to handling science material and math problems.

"Balance," then, as it relates to the two sticky wickets of the field of reading instruction, is an elusive gossamer which boils down to who is in charge. The so-called reading wars are not over. Is it not a mutually contradictory decision-set whether children should practice the skills of efficient or inefficient readers? Anyone for a "balanced" nutrition program of equal amounts of vitamin C and arsenic?

Charles M. Richardson
Huntington Station, N.Y.

To the Editor:

The only opinions about "balanced reading instruction" you present in your recent Reporter's Notebook item are those of two leading advocates of the whole-language approach: University of North Carolina Professor James W. Cunningham and Jerome Harste, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English. And no notice is taken of their loyalty to whole language. Not surprisingly, they deplore the added emphasis on direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive phonics teaching--DISEC--that some districts now are sanctioning. According to Mr. Harste, in doing so, such schools "destroy the reading process."

In truth, the term "balanced reading" has become nonfunctional for at least two critical reasons: One, it is an expedient substitute term for whole language, since the latter has received much bad publicity of late as being an inferior approach. And two, it is impossible to balance most of the findings of experimental and qualitative research on reading teaching because they consistently contradict one another.

Therefore, the legitimate balanced reading program, as based on experimental findings, develops in students the following: (1) quick and accurate word recognition; (2) precise knowledge of word meanings; (3) independent literal comprehension of texts; and (4) critical reading skills. Contrary to Mr. Cunningham's and Mr. Harste's views, experimental research finds all of these are fostered best by DISEC instruction.

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Pages 34-35, 59-60

Published in Print: June 9, 1999, as Letters

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