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Get a 'Profile' on Safety Consultants

To the Editor:

Your front-page article on the profiling of potentially violent youthful offenders raises some very important issues ("FBI 'Profiling' Help Worries Educators," Oct. 6, 1999).

On one hand, mental-health and law-enforcement officials are on target in supporting the need for increased training and attention to the so-called "early warning signs" that may appear before an actual incident. Unquestionably, red flags existed in a majority, if not all, of the cases of high-profile school violence. To ignore these potential indicators, and to ignore the need for training school officials on these issues, would amount to nothing short of negligence.

But, on the other hand, those who express concern over profiling checklists also raise valid points. Caution must be exercised not to foster an overreliance upon checklists and forms to identify potentially violent students. Such devices are often limited in scope and depth or generic in nature, and could easily be misused by school officials and others who work with kids.

Educators need to ask three important questions in considering this issue:

(1) Who made the checklist?

(2) Who is using the checklist?

(3) What will be done with a student once the checklist is used?

The most important step in identifying potentially violent students does not necessarily involve checking off a list of specific behaviors, but instead must focus on the importance of recognizing a change in behavior. These changes are often small and incremental rather than one-shot leaps, and before educators can spot any change in a student's behavior on Friday, they must know his typical behavior, Monday through Thursday. This requires time and individual attentionsomething that cannot be replaced by a checklist, profile, or quick-fix solution.

Many national, state, and local efforts aimed at school safety are politically or profit driven. On the political level, some, but certainly not all, "initiatives" are being undertaken for the sake of doing something or for political and publicity gains. The explosion of school safety "experts" in the past two years highlights the moneymaking side of school violence.

Educators can, and should, learn from law enforcement, school security professionals, and others who are qualified in this area. But they need to take a close look at the education and experience of the individuals claiming expertise to see if the reality matches the rhetoric.

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

A Grammar Update For Literacy Experts

To the Editor:

I read with enthusiasm your front-page article ("U.S. Students Lack Writing Proficiency," Oct. 6, 1999.)

The enthusiasm was prompted by my constant searching for answers to the question, "What can I do better to help my students write well?" I was anxiously reading to learn if grammar, sentence structure, and spelling would be mentioned, because the young 8th grade writer you described certainly needed that instruction.

In my own teaching of composition, I could not find a basic reference for grammar, structure, and other composition essentials that suited me, so I wrote my own. The student you mentioned, using such a basic text, would have had a point of reference to improve his or her writing. How will that student know when to end or begin a sentence if he or she doesn't know what a sentence contains?

But my letter is only partially about that particular example. I was disappointed by this statement attributed to Alan E. Farstrup: "There is a tendency to believe that if someone is at the basic level that they are incompetent." Mr. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, apparently needs a basic reference book to look up proper pronoun-antecedent agreement and subject-verb agreement.

Are schools of teacher education not teaching preservice teachers how to teach the basics of grammar, structure, and other rules of writing? Are we not teaching preservice teachers the importance of editing their own and their students' work? Or doesn't it matter anymore, even in prestigious journals with "literacy experts" being quoted?

Martha J. Cook
Professor of Education
Malone College
Canton, Ohio

Unfairly Maligning Education Research

To the Editor:

While Casey J. Lartigue Jr.'s Commentary, ("Politicizing Class Size," Sept. 29, 1999.), raises some fair points about the politicization of research on class size, his own cherry-picking of the class-size policy debate unfairly maligns education researchers and the federal government's ability to sponsor education research.

Over a year ago, a federally funded research analysis outlined the major questions of the class-size debate and the research surrounding it. "Class Size Reduction: Lessons Learned From Experience," a joint policy brief from three regional educational laboratories--WestEd, the Laboratory for Student Success, and SERVE--laid out several issues. (The report is available at www.wested.org/policy/pubs/full_t ext/pb_ ft_csr23.htm)

First, the STAR study, among others, did show a positive correlation between class size and performance, but it left open how and under what circumstances class size makes a difference. Second, those studies leave open several other legitimate questions for policymakers and researchers:

  • Are other interventions cheaper, and do program cost calculations include expenses such as operations, facilities, and staff development?
  • Would a federal or state program's effectiveness be muted because it did not address actual local needs for types or numbers of teachers?
  • Could other means, such as creative scheduling, have the same class-reduction effect?
  • Most critically, and as mentioned by Mr. Lartigue, will there be enough qualified teachers for the number of new classrooms created?

Mr. Lartigue concludes by asking two rhetorical questions: Would federally funded researchers "show" that President Clinton's class-size initiative is a waste of money and effort; and has the impending reauthorization of the U.S. Department of Education's office of educational research and improvement tempered researchers' revelation of the truth?

The answer to his first question is that, 99 percent of the time, researchers do not "answer" policymakers; researchers draw conclusions based on their analysis of the facts and evidence. They should present the available evidence, some of which is useful to policymakers, and some of which, appropriately, leaves questions unanswered because of a lack of sufficient data, generalizable evidence, or sufficient specificity of the question.

Mr. Lartigue's second question is just a cheap shot at education research. Education research actually takes place in schools and states across the country with researchers based at universities, regional laboratories, and other agencies that are also widely dispersed. The idea that researchers tailor their work to the pace of the congressional schedule is a little much. Indeed, Mr. Lartigue's own point that economist Eric Hanushek reviewed 277 studies on teacher-pupil ratios would seem to indicate that education researchers, to their credit, are seriously reviewing one of the most debated policy issues of the day.

C. Todd Jones
National Education Knowledge Industry Association (NEKIA)
Washington, D.C.

Vol. 19, Issue 10, Page 36

Published in Print: November 3, 1999, as Letters

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