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De Facto Standards

To the Editor:

Denis P. Doyle's interesting essay on standards ("De Facto National Standards," July 14, 1999) makes many good points, but takes some purported benefits at face value and oversimplifies some problems facing educators. I worry about three instances of such credulousness:

(1) Cause and effect. The claim that "the course sequence of algebra and geometry predicts college enrollment" implies that taking algebra and geometry will cause a student to be more likely to enroll in college. An equally plausible explanation is the other way around: Students intending to go to college choose (or are steered into) that course sequence. Considerably more evidence would be required to show whether requiring other students to take those courses would affect their subsequent enrollment in college.

(2) The meaning of "comparison" of standards. When standards are written broadly, alignment between different sets of them is fairly easy to achieve. At one extreme, just the names of subjects will do. Somewhat more respectable are "table of contents" comparisons, where corresponding topics and even subtopics may be matched. That is still an easy job, because curriculum is fairly similar all over the United States. But the major reform standards of the last decade, cognizant of the very limited time available for learning, have gone considerably beyond such check-listing, to specify just what ideas in each subtopic are most important to learn--both for themselves and for supporting understanding of other specific ideas. Alignment at this level is much more difficult to demonstrate, and attempts are typically shallow. As Eva Baker, the director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles, says: "The present watchword of alignment is mostly a farce."

(3) The value of "high standards." The mere declaration of standards is confused with actually achieving them. The superior "rigor" of standards is transformed within the same paragraph into "accomplishment." Do more numerous and more challenging standards produce more and better accomplishment? Not if they lead to thicker and still more shallow textbooks, nor if a majority of students become so confused in the rush through unconnected ideas that they end up not learning much at all. More demands on teachers and students may indeed bring about some increases in accomplishment, but aiming at impossible levels can be dysfunctional. Excessive standards may, after much frustration and grief, end up being discarded or ignored.

Speculation aside, there is an empirical compromise possible between the "higher standards" proponents and the "better standards" proponents. While implementing "higher standards" programs, policymakers could keep an eye on how well students achieve at least the literacy goals. If the literacy goals are as undemanding as their disparagers believe, then it should be easy to show how well students achieve them, and then move on. On the other hand, they might continue to do poorly on modest literacy goals--even when they and their teachers are pressed toward higher standards. In that case, some reconsideration of the substantive (rather than rhetorical) value of "higher standards" would be called for.

Window-dressing reasoning, widespread as it is in education, diverts attention from the need for well-tuned goals and correspondingly well-tuned instruction. Worse, it gives the impression that something significant is being done--and so may contribute to preventing any real improvements in education.

Andrew Ahlgren
Associate Director, Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Why is it logical to assume, as Denis P. Doyle does, that the latest technological means of communication will enhance standards of educational achievement beyond those currently emanating from state departments of education, K-12 schools, and institutions of higher education?

Since in each instance one begins with euphemistic measures ("minimum competency standards") from 49 states and their respective accrediting agencies, how would a vehicle of communication increase the intellectual capital of the message's content? We are to rejoice over the prospect of electronically warehousing intellectually challenged lesson plans for national and worldwide access? Mr. Doyle's Commentary reminds me of the midcentury extravagances attributed to the educational benefits of television technology. In retrospect, television has rather contributed to the burgeoning number of the functionally illiterate than otherwise.

If Mr. Doyle and others among the technologically mesmerized were interested in educational reform, they would turn their attention to accrediting bodies, state departments of education, and the teacher education programs of study housed in colleges and universities. Such an inquiry would reveal that state K-12 assessment instruments like the Michigan Educational Assessment Program and accrediting-body criteria continue to depress academic performance by mandating below-average achievement acceptance for elementary-grade promotion and high school graduation, as well as mediocre grade point averages for teacher-education-program acceptance at colleges and universities.

Illustrative of the latter is the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education's academic standard for admission to accredited programs of teacher education: a 2.5 GPA, on a 4.0 scale. What is the value of this standard in the current climate of runaway grade inflation? Predictably, since Michigan's department of education adopted the NCATE standards some years ago, a 2.5 GPA is where one would expect Michigan's certificate-granting institutions to have established their entrance requirements--and that is precisely where a majority of them are found. Only a handful of schools fall into the B-minus category of 2.7. Among Michigan's 31 certificate-granting institutions, only one currently requests unqualified good academic achievement (a 3.0 GPA) for entry into its teacher education program, and that is Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich. With a growing number of colleges and universities posting all-school cumulative GPAs in excess of 3.0, good academic achievement could, and in most cases would, remain below the institutional GPA.

Would publishing this information on the Internet serve to increase academic achievement in America or anywhere else? No, of course not. Rather, I believe it would serve as an occasion for the opposite. To begin with, this information has been public for years. But by the time this electronic "posting" has failed to deliver upon its promises, the good membership of Achieve Inc. will be hawking another academic-standards fix provided by the latest installment of "high technology," while the ranks of the functionally illiterate will have continued to swell in America and, thanks to the Internet, around the world.

I try to impress upon my students that instances of social effect accrue from multiple sources of influence. Educational reform is not an exception. If Mr. Doyle would wish to be aggressive in his investigations, he might also factor in the effects upon the academic achievement of students seeking admission to teacher education programs by athletic directors and alumni associations as well as those contributed by governors' offices in conjunction with state education departments.

I do not share Mr. Doyle's enthusiasm for organizations like Achieve Inc. They represent sources of largely uninformed educational influence within and between policy and service sectors. According to Mr. Doyle's description, Achieve Inc. is an organization jointly chaired by the head of an electronics firm and a governor, one evidently populated by mercantilists and politicians, two vocational groups that have not been known for their acuity in distinguishing educational means from ends. Or perhaps more fundamentally, education from training.

Walter G. Lewke II
Associate Professor of Education
Hillsdale College
Hillsdale, Mich.

More Pieces to the 'Technology Puzzle'

To the Editor:

Larry Cuban provides several insights into computer use in our schools in "The Technology Puzzle," Aug. 4, 1999. He is absolutely on track, for example, when he identifies teachers as ardent technology users at home but reluctant users at school. But of the possible reasons for this contradiction, I believe he missed two of the most important.

The first problem in using technology in most schools is the "technology administrator." This individual almost always grew up in the day when hard- disk space was too expensive for mere mortals to be allotted their share. All types of security systems were put on computers to save disk space. And teachers were not given the passwords to access trouble-shooting programs. Every student or teacher error created lost work, angry students, and frustrated teachers. It rapidly became far too frustrating to take students to such a computer lab.

The second unmentioned cause for underuse of technology is the time required to scrounge for equipment and to make it work once obtained. I am a physics teacher in an inner-city high school. My classroom now has 10 computers--Pentium or better--and a hub. The hub was obtained through a grant request I wrote outside of school time. Three of the 10 computers were purchased for use in the classroom; the other seven were obtained when administrative computers were updated. The machines receive daily use in the lab portion of my course. To keep my classroom network running, I administer 10 computers during my "planning" time.

Clearly, the time spent repairing computers comes out of my non-existent planning time or unpaid overtime. Technology use will increase when we begin to provide teachers with meaningful support and compensatory time or extra pay for the hours required to maintain classroom computers.

John Wilson
Omaha, Neb.

Georgian Clarifies Character-Law Stance

To the Editor:

I want to correct several errors in your July 14, 1999, story "A Kinder, Gentler Student Body," for which I was a source, and clarify my position about Georgia's so-called character education law.

Atlanta's Blalock Elementary School was one of five schools involved in a character education grant project that began in 1996. It was funded by the Georgia Humanities Council for one year-- not three, as reported. We received $18,000 for 1996-97. Blalock alone has continued to improve its school climate and relationships because of the commitment of its staff--not because of funding or outside help.

When your reporter asked me about central-office support, I used the term "passively supportive," not "indifferent," the word used to characterize my sentiments, and I mentioned visits by central-office administrators to the school. With respect to teachers featured in the article, it was not Monica Viega but one of her students who said the class was like a Jerry Springer show early in the year. You referred to me as a social worker, rather than a school psychologist, and described my book as a "handbook for teachers," rather than a "handbook for school planning and teacher training in universities and schools," as I described it.

Moving on to a more important issue, the article's minimal coverage of various points of view about the inclusion of "respect for the creator" in Georgia's legislated list of virtues caused further polarization here. The gap seems to have closed somewhat within recent weeks. Though long convinced of both the public and constitutional support for character education, my initial reaction to this legislation was pessimistic with respect to the avoidance of a lawsuit. Like many experts around the country, I was concerned about the effect litigation might have on the character education movement. Now that I have read the Georgia Department of Education's definition of "respect for the creator," I am more optimistic. Coupled with a better understanding of the First Amendment on the part of teachers and parents and a desire to work together to build character and community in our schools, we may be able to move forward without disruptive litigation.

Several Gallup polls over the past decade have shown that most people believe that efforts made by schools, on the one hand, and by families, churches, and other nongovernmental youth-serving organizations, on the other, can be mutually supportive, and that there is a large reservoir of moral values shared by citizens, even in a culturally and religiously diverse country like ours. No one wants the school to be the primary socializing institution in society, but nearly everyone feels that schools need to become a more effective part of the village it takes to raise good children.

Many schools and school systems across the country have worked effectively with parents to educate for character and build community and have done so without controversy. These partnerships are a return to, rather than a departure from, tradition. Georgia is not in the lead in this process of going "back to the future" with such partnerships, but it could take the lead if it handles its current legislation in a way that seeks common ground and remains focused on children's developmental needs.

Gordon Vessels
School Psychologist
Oxford, Ga.

New San Diego Chief Errs on Reading Tack

To the Editor:

From my vantage point, both the negative and positive criticism accorded San Diego's new superintendent, former U.S. Attorney Alan D. Bersin, are deserved. But your tally of these brickbats and bouquets did not cite his most grievous mistake so far ("In San Diego, Pace Is Quick Under Bersin," Aug. 4, 1999).

It is true that upon taking office Mr. Bersin declared, as his first priority, the improvement of young students' literacy skills. To this effect, he directed that a three-hour block of morning time be devoted to that end.

However, he then inexplicably decreed that primary-grade reading instruction must follow the whole-language approach. His instructions to teachers in this regard are taken verbatim from books by the whole-language luminary Regie Routman.

It has been brought to Mr. Bersin's attention, but to no avail, that none of the novel principles and practices of whole-language reading instruction is corroborated by experimental research. He also persists in favoring whole-language instruction despite recent state laws that proscribe its further use in California public schools.

Unfortunately, these laws stipulate no penalties for flagrant violation. Nonetheless, Mr. Bersin's violations do validate the judgments of many competent teachers as to his stubborn support of the indefensible and ruthless disregard for their opinions about how reading is best taught.

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

To Raise Test Scores, Close Ed. Schools

To the Editor:

Suzanne Tingley's Commentary "Weighing the Cattle" (Aug. 4, 1999) is notable for its all-too-common refusal to deal with reality. Educators like Ms. Tingley constantly blame the "test," parents, lack of funding, and a myriad of nonfactors for the low test scores of students and teachers.

The fact of the matter (a fact that everyone but the educrats and education school professors recognizes) is that low student test scores have more to do with the abysmal quality of teaching in this country and the methods (such as whole language) used to teach students reading than anything else. Ultimately, the root cause of our education crisis is to be found in the intellectually infantile world of the education schools. As President Leon Botstein of Bard College recently suggested in The New York Times, education schools should be closed and future teachers required to have degrees in real subjects.

If Ms. Tingley wants to improve student test scores, she should hire teachers with degrees in academic subjects.

Brad Thompson
Ashland, Ohio

Political Power vs. Bilingual Research

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to your article "Research Board Urges Broad Approach to Bilingual Ed.," Aug. 4. 1999. The article states that one purpose of the National Education Research Policy and Priorities Board conference was to address the criticism that educational research on the education of language-minority students fails to provide clear answers for formulating public policy.

It concludes with statements by Professor Christine Rossell of Boston University, who indicts researchers for having "created the current debate over policies for [limited- English-proficient] children." Ms. Rossell is quoted as saying that research on bilingual education doesn't show "bigger effects" because academics have constructed a "cockamamie theory" about the relationship between native-language proficiency and transition into English.

These criticisms are an illustration of the challenges facing the academic community in communicating not only with the public, but with each other. Is it not the purpose of educational research to generate intellectual debate, which in turn leads to the formulation and examination of theories to explain objective data and research findings? It is indeed a very strange research paradigm that seeks to show that a theory causes an effect. This obfuscation of research does a disservice to public-policy discussions and academic discourse as we attempt to discover variables and discernible patterns of results to illuminate our understanding of effective schooling practices for language-minority students.

Ms. Rossell misrepresents the theory behind transitional bilingual education as she attacks it as the "cause" of research findings. When English-speaking children of age 6 arrive at the schoolhouse door, it is assumed that they have a normal and average level of language development in their native language. If, when they are assessed for age-appropriate levels of cognitive and linguistic development, they are found to be not fully proficient in English, this deficit is given immediate attention through instructional interventions. Thus, a normal level of proficiency in English is assumed to be a requirement for normal academic progress.

Ms. Rossell would have us believe that an educational theory stating that, in order to achieve fully in English in an academic setting, a non-native speaker of English needs to develop full proficiency in the language is "cockamamie." In other words, she ridicules theories accepted by the research community to explain academic achievement in native speakers of English when they are applied to speakers of other languages.

What we have here is a confusion of theories that explain cause and effect in education and political ideologies. Ms. Rossell served as an expert witness in the case of Varelia G. v. Wilson, the U.S. District Court decision that denied the injunction against implementation of Proposition 227, the California measure that seeks to curtail bilingual education. Her opinions regarding bilingual education research are a matter of public record. She has also offered up her own theory to explain the "effects" of structured English immersion.

In the federal court case, the judge stated in his decision that the court's responsibility is only to ascertain that a school system is pursuing a program informed by expert educational theory. The federal court at no point rejected the theory behind bilingual education as unsound, but rather acknowledged the validity of "sound but competing" theories.

According to the federal ruling, the voters of California enacted their "policy preference" for structured English immersion. In other words, the electorate of California made an educational policy decision, and the court accepted the decision because it was supported by "some experts in the field." Consequently, no matter how sound the theories of bilingual education and the validity of the research supporting those theories, the majority vote won out in the debate over public policy. The outcome is a result of political power rather than the validity or credibility of educational research.

So, how is it that researchers have "created" a public-policy debate? Is it not rather that educational research has been used by proponents of a political ideology to validate a policy decision made by the electorate? It is this conversion of educational research into the handmaiden of politics that has caused research to lose its legitimacy.

Jill Kerper Mora
Assistant Professor of Teacher Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Pages 50-51

Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as Letters

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