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Panel's Report Lacks Input From Teachers

To the Editor:

The National Reading Panel report on reading instruction ("Reading Panel Urges Phonics for All in K-6," April 19, 2000.) illustrates one of the patterns in human affairs: You can tell what people think of you by the discussions in which you are not asked to participate.

The panel consisted of two university administrators, three university professors, five educational psychologists, a certified public accountant, a school principal, and a lone reading teacher. Their findings were based on some of the 100,000 studies on reading.

While these folks are astute and knowledgeable, in the real world of the classroom, they have limited experience in the daily task of developing children's reading abilities.

The task of teaching youngsters to read is accomplished almost exclusively by the nation's elementary school teachers. Instead of studying studies, the panel would have been better advised and informed had they gone into classrooms, observed and talked to teachers, listened to them, and respected their experience and know-how.

Hugh J. Ward
Melbourne, Fla.

'Disconnect' Widens in Teacher Training

To the Editor:

Two articles in your May 3, 2000, issue, "Building on Experience" and "Larger Teacher Presence at AERA Meeting May Mark Change" (Reporter's Notebook), hit upon a common theme in education: the disconnect—some would say the huge disconnect—between many schools and colleges of education and the real and quite pressing needs of K-12 schools.

The fact that Dennis Littky, a Providence, R.I., high school principal, dares to prepare principals in the context of real schools, rather than on campus, and the fact that at least some educational researchers are acknowledging that they need not only to talk to each other, but to engage more powerfully those involved on the front lines of schooling underscore just how disconnected schools and colleges of education have become.

There are many problems in too many schools and colleges of education. Standards are often just too low. The curriculum is too often disjointed and reflective of faculty members' whims and personal interests rather than good science. In many cases, education majors have a weak grounding in liberal arts studies. Too few preservice teachers are required to complete extensive work in actual schools. In 2000, it seems ludicrous to "simulate" a classroom on campus when a real and fully functioning school is located less than a block away.

Yet this happens all the time. The problems and issues are easy enough to see, and in some cases, they are so acute that education units should probably be closed. But no issue is more troublesome than the lack of connection between what faculty members in higher education do and what K-12 teachers, school administrators, other school professionals, and ultimately students want and need. We in schools of education have simply divorced ourselves from practice for too long. Thank goodness that some individuals, often from outside of professional education, are not.

Sam Minner
Johnson City, Tenn.

In Reform, Carrot Is Better Than Stick

To the Editor:

Seven years ago, this newspaper announced, "Annenberg Mulls Large-Scale Gift To Support School Reform" (Nov. 3, 1993). My reaction, published as a letter to the editor, was, "Mr. Annenberg, save your money" ("Annenberg's Giving Spans Range of Projects," June 12, 1994.).

Apparently, for the most part, he should have. Your recent Philanthropy column conveys that, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, "Walter H. Annenberg's $500 million gift to public education has failed to produce large-scale results" in the three Annenberg projects the foundation studied—Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia ("Philanthropy: Annenberg Challenged," April 26, 2000).

According to your column, critics of the Fordham report claim that its finding promotes the foundation's agenda of support for vouchers and other forms of school choice. Be that as it may, I reiterate what I said seven years ago: Education reform per se has a relatively disappointing history.

Since the early 20th century, university and school district professional educators have implemented hundreds of mostly fleeting reform ideas. There also has been no dearth of reform ideas coming from the private sector and from recently appointed nontraditional school superintendents. Unfortunately, however, it is difficult to identify one that "works" for all or even many kids.

One size simply does not fit all. Perhaps our expectations are too ambitious, given the diverse nature of society, families, and youth.

I have confidence, however, in one kind of reform, and that is reward. Let's find ways to reward desirable behavior on the part of parents, students, and teachers.

Let's reward parents, particularly those who overcome difficulty in order to ensure their children's school success.

Let's reward students, especially those who, despite obstacles, find ways to achieve.

And, finally, let's reward the many teachers who make extraordinary commitments to children at risk of failure at school and in life.

If we begin to identify and reward successful caregiver, learner, and teacher behavior, that behavior will become visible and perhaps contagious. And once the successful parent, student, and teacher behaviors are known, they can be instructive to others.

The carrot still seems preferable to the stick. How I wish Mr. Annenberg's $500 million had been put to this end. Just think of the success stories we would have to tell and the knowledge we would have gained.

Donald R. Cruickshank
Professor Emeritus
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio

Voucher Data Show a 'No Risk' Option

To the Editor:

I greatly appreciate Education Week's series of articles on school choice, but I am concerned by your and others' characterization that the data on student achievement in voucher schools are inconclusive ("Charters, Vouchers Earning Mixed Report Card," The Changing Face of Public Education, May 3, 2000).

Referring to three studies of Milwaukee's voucher program, you assert that their findings were "mixed." As a person with little statistical expertise, I assumed that meant some studies showed improvements while others showed a decline in academic achievement. As I read further, however, I discovered that no study showed lower test scores among students in voucher schools. One showed no difference between students in voucher schools and public schools, while the other two showed a clear improvement for voucher students. The studies only disagreed over the degree of improvement.

The conclusion I draw from the studies is simple. Voucher programs do not encumber students' academic progress; rather, they may improve students' academic success. It's a no-risk proposition. The worst-case scenario for voucher schools, according to these studies, is that they will provide no better an education than traditional public schools. The more likely scenario is that they will improve students' academic performance.

As educators, we should embrace such a low-risk reform proposal. Vouchers may threaten some jobs, but they are no threat to the students depending on us.

Ryan J. Stuart
Albuquerque, N.M.

Parent Put-Downs Display Arrogance

To the Editor:

Only a few paragraphs after citing an observation by Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, that people don't believe parents' approval of charter schools is sufficient evidence of their worth, you provide a perfect example of that by quoting Michigan State University Professor of Education David N. Plank: "On what basis would we possibly expect parents to express dissatisfaction with the schools they choose for their children" ("Charters, Vouchers Earning Mixed Report Card," May 3, 2000.)?

Such arrogance and put-downs of parents' concerns have long been a major problem for those in public education who care about the students and, yes, their parents.

The answer to Mr. Plank's question should be obvious: We would expect them to express dissatisfaction with an inadequate program because they care about their children and their futures. In his own field of higher education, students and parents change their minds and programs all the time. Some reports hold that about half of all college students fail to graduate, and that half of those who do graduate do so from a college different from the one in which they first enrolled (admittedly, to a considerable degree because so many start with a two-year institution).

A better question would be, "On what basis would we possibly expect professors of education, or educators in general, to express dissatisfaction with, or admit the existence of problems, including outright failure, in programs they themselves have designed and implemented—and for which low-income parents and students at the K-12 level have no other option?"

Typically, educators deny such problems or failures exist. Or, should the evidence be overwhelming, they place the blame on something or someone else, such as the lack of money or insufficient time for the program to prove itself, or, sadly, they blame the students and families for having such poor backgrounds that it is difficult (impossible?) to teach them.

Imagine if doctors, with whom we educators so often like to compare ourselves, said members of such families could be more successfully treated if only they came from more affluent surroundings.

David W. Kirkpatrick
Harrisburg, Pa.

Does Kansas City Vindicate Critics?

To the Editor:

Regarding your recent front-page article "A Hard Lesson for Kansas City's Troubled Schools" (April 26, 2000): "Remember Kansas City" will now become a battle cry to those critics who have dared challenge the National Education Association's mantra of more money equals better schools.

After reading your article, I was left with only one question for the Kansas City education pooh-bahs. Pray tell, gentlemen, during your 23-year exercise in fiscal madness, how many teachers did you get around to firing for incompetence? Your answer might prove illuminating.

Patrick Gould
Middleton, Wis.

Autonomy Remains Charter Concern

To the Editor:

As you report in "Redefining 'Public' Schools" (The Changing Face of Public Education, April 26, 2000), charter schools are enjoying considerable popularity across the political spectrum as a way of responding to demand for more choices in K-12 education. Those of us who favor choice in many flavors frequently point with pride to the increase in charter schools—from a lone outpost in Minnesota 10 years ago to some 1,700 in 34 states today.

But toward the end of your excellent article, there is a wise cautionary note from Bryan C. Hassel, the author of The Charter School Challenge and an astute analyst of the charter school movement. Mr. Hassel notes the political reality that, in many states, so many compromises are necessary to pass authorizing legislation that charter schools find themselves hamstrung with financial and bureaucratic constraints that limit their ability to live up to their promise.

Democratic politicians particularly find themselves whipsawed: They wish to respond to the public interest in providing genuine choice within the public school system, yet their education establishment allies (particularly the teachers' unions) would prefer not to have real competition for students and money.

Existing charter schools also face the possibility of re-regulation as vested education interests try to put the clamps on them. So rather than reveling so much in the sheer numbers of charter schools, supporters of choice should start counting how many such schools possess the autonomy necessary to respond to consumer demand and to diverge from education orthodoxy.

Robert Holland
Senior Fellow
Lexington Institute
Arlington, Va.

A Transition Zone: Stop Administering State Tests in Grade 4

To the Editor:

I was talking with a group of 4th grade teachers shortly after the publication of my recent Commentary, "Beyond the 'Good Start' Mentality" (April 19, 2000), and our discussion made me realize that I had left out a key policy point.

The Commentary indicated that we are overinvesting in getting kids off to a good start in the belief that it translates into success later on—but that research does not validate the claim that early success generates later success for disadvantaged students. These are almost independent processes. I noted that while it is indeed important to get kids off to a good start, equal attention must be given to developing more-advanced intellectual processes in disadvantaged students in grades 4-8 via intensive Socratic discussions. However, I ignored a key implication of the distinction between K-3 and 4-8 needs and processes.

Given that grades K-3 and 4-8 are very different and almost independent stages of intellectual and academic growth for disadvantaged students, it makes no sense to test students statewide in grade 4. This is a transition zone. Most individuals will have trouble adjusting right away to a major shift in cognitive demands. My research suggests that it takes two years for most disadvantaged students to make the transition with the right help. A test score in the middle of the 4th grade (at the start of the transition process) is not a true indicator. Students and teachers should be given some development time before we try to judge whether students are making the transition successfully.

High-stakes testing at grade 4 is therefore unfair both for disadvantaged students and their teachers and provides no precise information. Indeed, the need to teach to the test makes it impossible to initiate the very help that students need at the start of the 4th grade to ease the transition process.

Unfortunately, most states are in fact administering their state tests in grade 4.

If we are going to have state tests, it makes more sense to test students at the end of grade 3 to see how many have successfully completed the first stage of development (having basic reading and math skills). In addition, such results can be used to determine which students are going to need help making the transition to the more cognitively demanding next stage, and to provide the two years of intense, Socratic interaction needed to help disadvantaged students adapt.

It also makes sense to test toward the end of the 5th grade (particularly if we can get results back quickly), or even the 6th grade. These later results are useful to help determine which students are in fact having trouble adjusting to the second stage of development while it is still early enough to provide the needed help.

While it is right to continue the philosophic debate on the appropriateness of high-stakes testing, states should immediately cease the technically inappropriate practice of testing during the 4th grade.

Stanley Pogrow
Associate Professor of Education
University of Arizona
Tucson, Ariz.

Homeric Heritage: Call for Classroom Poetry Has Echoes in Athens

To the Editor:

Should children of the 21st century be asked to memorize and recite famous poems? Professor Emeritus of English Morris Freedman raises the issue in "Poetry, Dead or Alive" (Commentary, April 26, 2000):

"It might not hurt for teachers to revive the fun inherent in poetry by having children recite, possibly memorize again, catchy works, like Poe's 'Bells,' Scott's 'Lochinvar,' Browning's 'How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix,' Kipling's 'Gunga Din,' ... the irreverent doggerel in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," he writes.

Mr. Freedman's suggestion recalls a description of a typical Athenian boy's schooling in A Forest of Pencils: The Story of Schools Through the Ages (1973) by Winifred Trask Lee. After the boy could write letters, words, and sentences:

His writings were now passages of poetry dictated by the teacher. It has been said that while boys of other nations were taught by priests, Athenian boys were taught by poets. ... The favorite was Homer ... whose epics sang the heroic history of Greece. The poems were not only beautifully written, they were filled with high thoughts and deeds. ...

From writing and reading it over again, the boy learned much of Homer by heart. The more Homer he could recite, the higher his education. One proud father claimed that his son could recite all of Homer—which, if true, was quite a feat, since the Odyssey and the Iliad run to hundreds of pages.

Could it be that the innovative capacity of the ancient Greeks—in science, mathematics, visual arts, drama, philosophy, politics, medicine—was nurtured by that culture's emphasis on poetry and memorization?

Tom Shuford
Ventura, Calif.

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Pages 41-42

Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as Letters

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