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Research Findings Don't Sell Themselves

To the Editor:

Regarding your article "What Is (and Isn't) Research?" in your recent special report on education research ("The State of Research: New Priorities, Focus Sought for Research," June 23, 1999): Have results from research ever "sold" themselves? The devil's in the dissemination and acceptability, and as long as consumers of research deny results that contradict their beliefs, as easily as saying "I don't believe in gravity," the paradigm will continue.

Perhaps education research would be better served by looking at a preponderance of evidence and the move toward practitioner accountability to help in the meaningful application of findings.

G.A. Smith
Education Associate
Delaware Department of Education
Dover, Del.

School Safety Debate Misses the Mark

To the Editor:

I find it ironic that the concept of school security continues to be framed by some within the education community--as reported in two articles in your June 23, 1999, issue, for example--to equate school security to "prisons" or "armed camps" ("In Schools, a Sigh of Relief as Tense Spring Draws to a Close"; "S.F. Board Reconsiders New Policy on Police"). These perceptions not only illustrate a lack of understanding of what professional school security actually is about, but also show that we have a long way to go before our schools will truly reduce security risks and improve safety.

Following my recent testimony before a U.S. Senate committee, several media representatives and other officials quickly framed the issue as "prevention or tighter security." Not only did they apparently miss my message, but they again raised my decade-long question of why we must have an "either-or" approach to school safety. Why can't it be "prevention and tighter security"?

Reactions to the school tragedies of the past two years also tell us that many people continue to equate school security inaccurately with big-ticket equipment and heavy manpower in our school halls. While these items may appropriately be a part of the puzzle in some districts, professional security programs focus on enforcement of security-related policies and procedures; training of all staff members on security threats and strategies; completion of professional security assessments and implementation of their recommendations; and development and testing of crisis-preparedness guidelines.

Threats to the security of our schools will likely continue and, unfortunately, we will not be able to prevent every single incident. The question, however, will focus on what steps we have taken to reduce the risks. Ridiculous measures such as those in San Francisco, where the board wants school police officers disarmed and only administrators to be allowed to call the police, are as counterproductive as some of the knee-jerk, overreactive steps seen elsewhere.

If our legislators and top administrators are sincere about improving school safety as we have heard in recent months, perhaps the best place to begin would be to practice what we preach: education. Let's start by educating these individuals and others within, and outside of, the education community as to what professional school security really means and how such programs can be implemented in a balanced, rational manner with other related curriculum, discipline, prevention, and intervention programs. Maybe then, and only then, will we really see a difference.

Kenneth S. Trump
President and CEO
National School Safety and Security Services
Cleveland, Ohio

Big-City Success With After-School Time

To the Editor:

Our thanks to you for highlighting just how difficult it is to ensure that children have safe places to go to after school in their communities, with caring, competent adults and challenging activities ("Report: After-School Programs Not All They Could Be," June 2, 1999). The National Institute on Out-of-School Time has been working to support programs in our emerging field for 20 years, and we are more optimistic than we have ever been that our programs will get the support they need to meet the potential these hours hold for children.

With support from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle have been working to make this happen in their cities through the "Making the Most of Out-of-School Time," or MOST, initiative, and we have seen some stunning successes. Creative public-private partnerships developed in each city maximize existing resources, such as the use of park-district facilities to house after-school programs and private funders' pooling of funds for subsidies to help parents afford such programs. In Boston and Seattle, for example, Mayors Thomas M. Menino and Paul Schell have elevated the need for more and better after-school options by providing leadership to city efforts.

It is true, as your article points out, that all the problems are not solved. This fact should come as no surprise, since making after-school programs all they can be requires sustained short- and long-term solutions, and, as yet, not all of these have been uncovered. For example, developing a trained, adequately compensated workforce to staff new and expanded programs is an issue that MOST has been and continues to address in each city through strategies related to recruitment, retention, and budget issues.

The interim evaluation of our program conducted by Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago is meant to highlight early findings, and we look forward to the final report for insight on how to fine-tune the MOST initiative to meet the expressed goals.

With community leadership and increased public funding, the new millennium will bring high-quality opportunities to the children of our cities. We are learning how to make this happen through the laboratories created by the MOST initiative; now all we need is public support and leadership.

Joyce Shortt
Director, MOST Initiative
National Institute on Out-of-School Time
Center for Research on Women
Wellesley College
Wellesley, Mass.

If Nobody Listens, Fine-Tuning Is Futile

To the Editor:

I could not ignore Dennis Kafalas' disappointment in my take on the effectiveness of the K-12 venue in introducing the love of learning to American-born children ("The Fiddler's Playing, But Nobody's Dancing," May 26, 1999; "Drop the Excuses, Rethink the Approach," Letters, June 16, 1999). I suppose it stems from his overcooking of my thesis, which he claims "boils down to the most pervasive and accepted myth in the profession, which is that students don't care ... for any learning activity." He then accuses me of "blaming the students, ... our culture, testing, standards, lack of funding, and so on ... "

For one thing, I don't blame students--just pupils who balk at becoming students--and I don't blame our culture--just the rejection of the best our culture has to offer. As to the other scapegoats on the proffered list, I suggest another reading of the essay; I'm afraid Mr. Kafalas has "boiled it down" beyond recognition.

Scapegoating is, in fact, exactly the offense I decry, as the essay was precipitated in large part by the "most pervasive and accepted" practice of scapegoating the educational community--especially teachers--for the generally acknowledged "dumbing down" of America. I have long suspected that teachers in particular are the most desirable targets for scapegoating, as we are the only variable in the education equation that can in any way be controlled. We are no longer allowed to expel pupils who prey on their classmates and wreck the school environment, and we are increasingly pressured not to hold them accountable for their performance in school. In fact, if we really want to "drop the excuses," we should note that blaming teachers has become a popular excuse for pupil and parent failure.

Education is a function of communication, and communication must have at least two participants to work. We should be wary of intellectually sloppy jargon like "evidence suggests" (What is the evidence? What was the scope of the research? What was the apparatus used to produce the "evidence"? What exactly was the result?) and "student-centered, problem-based learning works" (What is the precise definition of "student-centered"? I have never met a teacher who didn't hold students and pupils at the center of all lesson-planning. And the precise definition of "problem-based"? What self-respecting teacher does not address problems in his or her classroom? And how do we determine if a technique "works"? What are the statistics, and how are they measured?).

If only we fiddlers are communicating while the dancers sulk in their chairs, we are not educating anyone, no matter how we fine-tune our "approach."

Freda Schwartz
New York, N.Y.

Another School Goes Online for Elections

To the Editor:

I was very interested to read in your June 2, 1999, issue that there is a World Wide Web site that provides the ability to conduct elections online for schools ("Technology Update," June 2, 1999.). I've already contacted www.votehere.net, the Internet voting company in Kirkland, Wash., for pricing information.

Our district, the Rahway Public Schools, has its own Web server and Web site. My high school technology-center facilitator and a student technology assistant set up the proper forms on our Web site to conduct our high school elections online. On May 7, high school students voted for student government officers and sophomore- and junior-class officers by accessing the district's Web site and casting their ballots. Students cast their ballots in the high school technology center. The principal was very pleased with the procedure and the enthusiasm that was shown by the students.

While we didn't use VoteHere.net, we did conduct student elections via the Internet using our own programs. Woodland (Wash.) High School's April elections were a few weeks before May 7, so the school's claim of being first in the nation to have conducted an election on the Internet is valid. My team just feels that we deserve to go on record as having done this totally on our own. I would not be surprised to hear that other schools have designed software to conduct voting online, also.

This has already led to discussions with our local education association. They have asked to have next year's voting for their officers set up using the district's Web site.

Barbara Martin
District Manager of Technology
Rahway Public Schools
Rahway, N.J.

Teachers and Class Size: What Research and Common Sense Tell Us

To the Editor:

The class-size-reduction Commentary by Randy Ross was right on target ("How Class-Size Reduction Harms Kids in Poor Neighborhoods," May 26, 1999). Mr. Ross correctly points out that even before this latest fad for improvement, we didn't have enough teachers, particularly in inner-city schools.

I was one of the principal investigators in the classic U.S. Office of Education "First Grade Studies," in which we tried out different teaching methods for reading. As a byproduct of this study, we correlated reading achievement with class size. To the surprise of some, we found no correlation between reading achievement and class size. Smaller classes do not yield students with better reading skills.

What we did find was a wide difference in reading achievement between the classes of different teachers--a far wider difference than that between reading teaching methods. Thus, as a parent, I would rather have my child in a classroom with 35 children and an excellent teacher than in a classroom with only 20 children and a teacher who was below par.

We need to retain and support our excellent teachers and dismiss our inferior ones. I well know that this is politically incorrect. Nearly any teacher will argue for reduced class size; certainly the teachers' unions (which collect dues by the head) want more teachers, and even some parents incorrectly assume smaller classes mean better education.

What we can and should do is support our best teachers with full-time and well-paid teachers' aides; give them a good budget for buying books and materials; see that they have a pleasant, well-maintained school building; and cut down on requesting them to perform trivial services.

If we want to go a step further, let's encourage the poor teachers, the uninspired, the minimal performers, to retire early or simply seek another job where they are apt to be happier. Since legislatures want to tinker with school policy, such as changes in class size, let them pass some legislation that will enable administrators to ease out poor-performing teachers. Let them take some of the enormous amount of money used in reducing class size and give it to our best, fully credentialed teachers and their aides.

The normal distribution curve applies to teachers as well as students: The greater number of teachers society demands, the more we will have to accept below-average teachers.

What research, and common sense, tell us is that we need to keep and recruit master teachers. We need to support them with pay, praise, and political action. We don't instantly need more classrooms, we need better classrooms.

Edward Fry
Professor Emeritus
Graduate School of Education
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

Vol. 18, Issue 42, Pages 37-38

Published in Print: July 14, 1999, as Letters

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