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Beware of Essayists' Cautions

To the Editor:

Here's a hint for the uninitiated: Be wary of essayists who begin their story by cautioning you against those who lie with statistics. Casey J. Lartigue Jr. would have you believe that the push for reducing class size emanating out of the White House (and out of statehouses throughout the country) is some sort of political con game ("Politicizing Class Size," Commentary, Sept. 29, 1999). He believes we should focus instead on improving teacher quality. Now, I'm all in favor of better teachers, too, but I'm afraid Mr. Lartigue has given your readers a one-sided account of the class-size debate.

Mr. Lartigue tells readers that economist Eric Hanushek's assessment of some 277 studies concludes that smaller classes are not associated with better achievement, but he does not tell readers that reputable scholars at the University of Chicago and elsewhere have reanalyzed Mr. Hanushek's data and reached the opposite conclusion.

He tells readers that Japan has much larger classes than do we and manages to achieve better test scores anyway, but he does not tell readers that Japan also has a powerful central ministry of education, a national curriculum, a program of national testing, and a culture that stresses obedience and conformity over individualism, all qualities that are anathema to political conservatives and libertarians who seem to so envy the educational successes realized by our friends in Asia (and in the industrial West).

He tells readers that average class size in the United States has dropped substantially since the early '60s without any improvement in test scores, but he does not tell readers that levels of test performance nowadays are about the same as in the early '60s overall, and that test performance among African-American and Hispanic children has improved substantially over this period, despite changes in the environment outside school (such as increases in childhood poverty, increases in central-city-concentrated poverty, and increases in one-parent households) that might be expected to lower academic performance.

He tells readers that the U.S. Department of Education has flip-flopped on the issue, but he does not tell readers that this is a result of new and compelling evidence, like that reported in Tennessee's Project star (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio). A large, well-controlled field experiment in which elementary school children were assigned on a random basis to different size classes and their educational progress monitored over several years, Project star concluded that class-size reduction resulted in substantial achievement gains. And guess who gained the most? Arguably our neediest children: minority students attending inner-city schools.

I don't for a minute think that reducing average class size will solve all our educational problems, or even that it necessarily is the most cost-effective strategy for achieving the amount of benefit associated with smaller classes (I'm a fan of summer school myself). But it is playing fast and loose with the facts to tell the world that the answers all are in, and that those answers all are negative. Class-size reduction has proven to be a useful tool in school reform, but it is most effective when implemented in conjunction with other useful tools, including better teaching. It's called "whole school reform," and that ought to be the goal.

Karl L. Alexander
John Dewey Professor of Sociology
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Md.

Gender Gap Favors Girls in Academics

To the Editor:

A front-page article in your Oct. 13, 1999, issue highlights the need for equity in athletic participation ("Florida Trying To Court Girls for Sports"). Unfortunately, Florida's approach has not been extended to require schools to show gender equity in academic results.

The most recent educational statistics clearly show a gender gap: Male students are less likely to attend college and are substantially underrepresented in recognition for academic achievement (honor rolls and the National Honor Society, for example).

These results strongly suggest that most schools do not provide an equal education for male students. Therefore, just as schools have been required to develop proactive measures to ensure female participation in sports, schools should also be required to make the same effort to ensure that male students are equally involved in all academic activities.

If Florida's schools are required to show the same number of male and female athletes, they should also be required to have the same number of male and female students on the honor roll and in the National Honor Society.

Steve McGuinness
Morgantown, W.Va.

Better Salaries, Better Teachers

To the Editor:

John Merrow is right to say that a teacher shortage could be eased if education did a better job of retaining teachers ("The Teacher Shortage: Wrong Diagnosis, Phony Cures," Commentary, Oct. 6, 1999). But there's something new about the present crisis. Technology has erased boundaries, making all markets unitary, including labor markets. Schools can no longer count on a captive pool of idealists, females, or upwardly mobile low-income people to teach at low wages. In an open market, potential educators have other career choices.

Iowa has a shortage of substitute teachers, even though the number of available substitute days has quadrupled in two years. But shortage affects "per diem" substitutes only; "long term" substitutes can be found, when benefits and a professional wage are offered. What we have here is a shortage caused by teachers who refuse to teach at submarket wages and take other employment. This is a revolutionary development.

If a general shortage of teachers develops, the combination of market competition, full employment, and submarket wages will be catastrophic. Unless salaries become competitive, schools will get only the talent that they pay for. This will reduce teacher quality and student achievement, even if retention is improved and preparation programs are made more efficient.

The challenge is to make salaries competitive before a decline in talent affects students. To raise salaries by one-third will be expensive and will require federal assistance. But only compensation can solve a compensation problem.

James Sutton
Organizational Development Specialist
Iowa State Education Association
Des Moines, Iowa

Essay a Reminder of What Matters

To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing Anne Spencer's superb Commentary, "Trained or Educated?" (Oct. 6, 1999). Everyone should know her list of the qualities of an educated person. Moreover, in the midst of the standards mania, there is no better time to be reminded of the differences between training and education.

On a facing page in the same issue, self-confessed "Standardisto" Scott Thompson appreciates that Susan Ohanian's book, One Size Fits Few (a must-read for every thoughtful educator), is "deliciously irreverent" ("Confessions of a 'Standardisto,'" Commentary). I wish he appreciated as much that Ms. Ohanian always writes out of a deep understanding, respect for, and love of kids. These qualities, all too often, are ignored in the manifestos of the Standardistos, who are far more interested in training kids than in educating them.

Edgar H. Schuster
University Park, Pa.

Give Teachers Time To Expand Expertise

To the Editor:

Jerry Jesness' Commentary "Ballast in the Battleships of the Reading Wars" (Sept. 22, 1999) makes two excellent points: Teachers should be experts in their fields, and "when children switch from learning to read to reading to learn, knowledge becomes more important than methods."

If school systems, through local colleges or through distance-learning programs, offered their teachers opportunities to increase their expertise in the subjects they teach, they would help develop more qualified teachers. Two courses during the school year and two courses during the summer would allow teachers to earn a master's degree in three years and a doctorate in another six.

If the same school districts, simultaneously, convinced their students that knowledge is very important to their success in life, we would see more excellent school districts emerging. Students must understand that they can gain knowledge by using all of their senses. Education is about learning, and school systems must truly recognize this fact. Mr. Jesness must be thanked for his timely essay.

Louis A. DeFreitas Sr.
Mitchellville, Md.

Standards Critique Is a 'Masterpiece'

To the Editor:

"Confusing Harder With Better" (Commentary, Sept. 15, 1999) is the best essay I have read concerning the standards and accountability movement. This should be required reading in every state department of education in the United States. Instruction is not remotely improved simply by increasing the work load. The Commentary was brilliant and, I hope, will incite a revolution aimed at raising the bar in the area of increased understandingnot marathon assignments. The ability to teach should be judged by one's capacity to reach, motivate, and inspire a student into rather than away from higher academics.

Alfie Kohn has written a masterpiece that should be used as the cornerstone for all reform movements intent on the improvement of education. I have heard many students, over the last 20-plus years, complain that they just can't master mathematics, English literature doesn't do a thing for them, and grammar seems to be more about endless, confusing rules than about efficient and effective communication. Accountability defuses part of its power when it promotes confusion and misunderstanding, rather than rewarding the talented teachers, who, like magicians, make the hard look easy and the easy appear useful.

I urge this newspaper to feature more articles such as this one, while the effort to improve our schools is receiving so much attention. I hope Mr. Kohn's books are reaching those persons who make decisions that will determine how many students are educated or how many are made to memorize all the books in the Library of Congress. Let it be said that teachers need to be evaluated on their ability to prepare students with the skills to pursue their dreams as well as to have them. When an academic subject is "hard," the goal should be to bring it to the students' level of understanding, not move it in the other direction.

John Arnold
Sylva, N.C.

Vol. 19, Issue 9, Pages 40-41

Published in Print: October 27, 1999, as Letters

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