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Vocational Learning, in Bloom's Taxonomy

To the Editor:

Having worked in vocational education (career and technical education) for 16 years, I appreciated your front-page coverage ("Mix of Academics, Technical Skills Heralds a 'New Day' for Voc. Ed.," Sept. 27, 2000). But the article continues to promote a paradigm we have been trying to change for years: that career and technical education is inadequate if it does not model itself after academic education.

It might seem a funny notion to some that career and technical education is told to be more like academic education at a time when the latter is searching for its own model to teach "all children." The newest banner is "relevancy" in educational delivery and trying to get away from the cognitive calisthenics of traditional methods. All anyone has to do is look at the latest innovations in preservice and in-service training for "academic" teachers, and at constructivism, brain-based teaching models, theories of learning styles, thematic integration, multiple intelligences, and other new subject matter, to see that academic education needs to give career and technical education its due.

Our brand of education is experiential and, by its nature, deals with relevant activities and projects. We deliver curriculum through multiple modalities and cognitive conventions that would make Howard Gardner proud.

I believe that career and technical education is closer to the curriculum and delivery systems of gifted education than to that of regular academic education. Most of the time, gifted education deals with the highest three levels of Bloom's Taxonomy (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation). Careers that use diagnosis and prescription as a basic process (for example, computer maintenance, heating and air conditioning, automotive technology) also will be significantly involved in the top three levels of intellectual activity as classified by the late Benjamin S. Bloom and his colleagues.

Of course, the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation won't all come out of a book in auto shop, because the diagnosis will be assessed on a multi-modality basis. But I think that's the same way a physician diagnoses.

It all goes back to the brain preferences. We know that a majority of the students who do well in school have good verbal intelligence because, generally, that's what schools assess. Schools get what they look for. There is certainly more human potential than verbal intelligence, as Mr. Gardner theorizes in his work with multiple intelligences.

Career and technical education is not just about "knowing," it's also about doing. Academicians' disparaging perceptions about students who attend career and technical education only perpetuate stereotypes that are a disservice to our children and colleagues.

Can we ever get beyond the cerebral dominance of the academic model and give every student a chance at being good in a variety of ways? When have grades or tests ever predicted "success"? Let's define success in more than one way, and let the students have more than one model to choose from.

Al Babich
Northland Career Center
Platte City, Mo.

Is Testing Mania a Form of Abuse?

To the Editor:

Alfie Kohn is right to attack the effort to standardize what children know, and how they come to know it, and the high-stakes tests that are attached to this process ("Standardized Testing and Its Victims," Commentary, Sept. 27, 2000).

Parents and educators in Michigan, for example, now face the uncomfortable choice of deciding how much they need to be bribed in exchange for allowing the state to abuse their kids. How much is integrity worth?

The bribe, attached to the high-stakes Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP, was made necessary by growing boycotts in the state by students and teachers who have turned their backs on the bogus exam. In one of the state's largest suburban high schools, only four students took the social studies exam, which still has no funding attached to it.

All of these standardized state exams are born in an era of rising inequality and authoritarianism. And they serve to deepen those problems.

The odd unity of Vice President Al Gore, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, and the leaders of both major education unions in support of the standardization and testing is explained by their common stake in enforcing a system that needs to mask the fact that it requires poverty and racism as fuel. The tests clearly further the segregation of kids by class and race. They are not written to create critical thinkers, but people who will adapt well in a tough job market: cooperative employees.

Moreover, the tests steal educators' most precious commodity, time with kids. Replacing the mind of the teacher with the minds of the "standardistos," the exams shatter the progress of the curriculum, exhausting up to 30 percent of instructional time in our more frantic districts. Like most of our textbooks, the tests attempt to turn professional educators into missionaries for the privileged classes. In Michigan, for example, tests have had to be withdrawn repeatedly because of clearly racist questions.

These kinds of tests know nothing about the unique strengths of individual children or the particular knowledge that must be developed in urban communities—or in rural areas, for that matter. The Michigan tests are scored in an utterly unprofessional manner and, like all of the tests, the MEAP requires thousands of kids to fail. Fortunately, no university of any standing in Michigan considers the scores significant.

These tests, coupled with carrot-and-stick approaches to teaching to them, amount to nothing less than child abuse. Only bribes and massive, misleading ad campaigns can make them appealing. It is unfortunate that insecure administrators are refusing to tell the public that they have a right to object to the tests, and that kids have the right not to take them.

Good teachers can teach around almost anything. And they will do so with this current bout of testing mania. But over time, as these state tests become national exams and wages are linked to scores on them, financially threatened teachers will discover the truth to the old saw, "An injury to one precedes an injury to all."

Education professionals need to organize against this threat to their academic freedom to teach as they know best. Students and parents should ridicule the exams and the bureaucrats who profit from them. No child should be abused. Let the boycotts grow.

Rich Gibson
San Diego State University
College of Education
San Diego, Calif.

Brain Study Suggests Early Language Boost

To the Editor:

I am writing to provide clarification to the article "Brain Power" in your recent special supplement "Middle Grades: Feeling the Squeeze" (Oct. 4, 2000).

When I read in the journal Nature the brain-research study mentioned in your article, I wrote to the lead author of the study, Paul Thompson, and posed the following question: "What are the implications of your research for teaching foreign languages?"

He replied, in a personal communication to me (Oct. 2, 2000), as follows:

"We were interested in determining which systems of the brain grow fastest at different ages. We were using MRI scans to see dramatic, localized growth in children, scanned repeatedly between ages 3-15. There was a region of extraordinary growth, between ages 7-11, in the isthmus of the corpus callosum, which we know sends fibers selectively to Wernicke's language area at the cortex. There was also prominent growth in the language cortex itself, suggesting a key maturational phase in brain regions that support the learning of new languages. Equally surprising was a dramatic shutting-off of this growth just after puberty, at ages 13-15. It was like seeing a wildfire of growth that just stops.

"As you know, this makes a lot of sense in the context of second-language acquisition, as brain researchers and educators have known for years that a 'critical period,' in which children are most efficient at learning new languages, ends around puberty. Of course, that doesn't mean to say that you can't pick up these skills later, it will just be harder to do because the brain is less 'plastic' (less able to adapt, reorganize, and make new connections) than during a period of dramatic tissue growth. The new imaging research seems to reveal a physical process in the brain that is likely to correspond to the ending, around the edge of puberty, of a period of maximum efficiency in learning new languages."

In their article, Mr. Thompson, Jay N. Giedd, and their colleagues say that their research supports the finding of two other brain researchers, who used the PET (positive emission tomography) scan and identified a similar "critical period" before puberty. The studies, thus, support the introduction of foreign language in elementary school.

The research further suggests to me (although I am not a brain researcher) that beginning a foreign language should start earlier (between the ages of 7 and 11), when the brain is more "plastic." It does not mean that foreign- language programs should be stopped at puberty, but, in my opinion, if the brain is "wired" earlier (that is, in elementary school), the continued study of foreign language might be facilitated. I found this to be true in the results of an Advanced Placement French test in 1995, conducted by the Educational Testing Service, in which students who had started the study of French in grades 1-6 outperformed those who had started in grades 7-12.

We look to the brain researchers for further research.

Gladys Lipton
National FLES (Foreign Languages in Elementary School) Institute
Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics
University of Maryland, 
Baltimore County Baltimore, Md.

Fixing Research: AERA's Stance Was Misconstrued

To the Editor:

In "Fixing Education Research and Statistics (Again)" (Commentary, Sept. 20, 2000), Chester E. Finn Jr. offers his views about pending legislation to reauthorize the U.S. Department of Education's office of educational research and improvement, or OERI. At the outset of the essay, one finds the observation that the American Educational Research Association is "beside itself with anxiety that these changes might actually come to pass." This is incorrect.

Rather than being opposed to the significant changes proposed in the legislation (HR 4875), the AERA contributed to their development through sponsorship of an independent panel made up of former members of Congress and state legislators, researchers, and representatives of practitioner associations that use research.

This apolitical panel, co-chaired by former U.S. Rep. Steven Gunderson, R-Wis., and Lorrie Shepard, a past president of the AERA, was convened specifically to make recommendations to the Congress to improve the federal education research office. Congressional staff members and association representatives were invited to all meetings of the Panel on Improving Education Research, known as PIER, and have been briefed fully on the panel's recommendations.

While there is a good deal of agreement among researchers and policymakers about what the problems are with the current office of educational research and improvement and what must be done to correct them, U.S. Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., and the committee's staff have been kind enough to say that they drew heavily on the work of the panel in crafting their legislation. Indeed, some of the core proposals found in HR 4875 are identical with the PIER recommendations (for example, the creation of a National Center for Education Research within the OERI to parallel the National Center for Education Statistics).

The AERA does have reservations about several aspects of the bill in its present form, and has taken advantage of opportunities provided by Rep. Castle and Republican and Democratic staff members to explain those concerns. We anticipate continued discussions about two issues in particular.

First, the AERA believes there is little point in reorganization of the research agency along the lines proposed unless that is accompanied by a substantial increase in resources.

Many who have examined the federal education research capacity, including the Education Task Force of the Republican Main Street Partnership, the Senate Task Force on Education chaired by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, or PCAST, have urged substantial increases in funding for education research.

But the proposed legislation currently authorizes no additional funds for research. (The AERA has recommended an incremental approach to reach the $1.5 billion annual funding level recommended by PCAST.)

Second, the AERA, along with many other scientific associations, believes it is as inappropriate for Congress to become involved in defining scientific research in education as in any other arena. The AERA looks forward to continued conversation about this issue.

We do concur with Mr. Finn's recognition of the commitment and energy of Rep. Castle in moving the legislation forward. The OERI, despite its many problems, has been fortunate in having its reauthorization handled by House subcommittee chairs—Republicans and Democrats—who are passionate about helping the agency achieve its potential: Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., in the last round, and Rep. Castle now. No matter which party controls the House in the next Congress, we know that Rep. Castle will continue to provide leadership on issues of education research, and we look forward to working with him to achieve our mutual goal: an exemplary federal education research agency.

Catherine Snow
American Educational Research Association
Washington, D.C.

The writer is the Henry Lee Shattuck professor of education at Harvard University's graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass.

Vol. 20, Issue 7, Pages 42-43

Published in Print: October 18, 2000, as Letters

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