Student Achievement Letter to the Editor


November 07, 2001 17 min read
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DOD Strategies and Inner-City Schools

To the Editor:

The lead paragraph in your article on U.S. Department of Defense schools promised insight into replicable strategies that all schools could use to close the achievement gap between majority and minority students (“DOD-Run Schools Cited for Closing Achievement Gaps,” Oct. 17, 2001). The report itself, however, seems to show that nonschool factors and less easily replicable school factors account for the encouraging results achieved in these schools.

The article highlights significant similarities between DOD students and those in stateside urban schools. In both, there are high rates of minority enrollment, low income, and a highly mobile population. How then do DOD students score so well? The article emphasizes that DOD schools incorporate “high expectations of teachers and instructional leadership of principals.” Therefore, the lead researcher suggests these DOD schools point the way for civilian school reform efforts.

These two factors, which are selectively highlighted in the story, are secondary considerations in the report itself. Anyone interested in what the researchers concluded might read the report. Or they might consider briefly the implications that schools located on American military bases are comparable to those found in America’s densest and poorest cities.

Consider these characteristics of life on a military base and compare them to the underclass neighborhoods described by William Julius Wilson. On the military bases, there is a cohesive, well-defined community culture, guaranteed housing that meets code, free medical care, full employment with myriad opportunities for advancement, financial support for continued education of adults, commander-required parental involvement in school, high-quality preschool programs, and after-school care. In addition, the teachers are well-trained and better paid than average, there is a high proportion of small schools, and there are adequate classroom resources. In the neighborhoods described by Mr. Wilson, none of these conditions exist.

The article nevertheless highlights the specious notion that if the high expectations of teachers and the instructional leadership of principals on the bases are replicated elsewhere, minority student achievement in civilian schools will rise.

Given the profound differences between life on the base and life in the ‘hood, why should anyone pretend that high expectations and instructional leadership are the reason for the successes in DOD schools? Could it be that these factors are cited because they require no money and no commitment on the part of society to children in poor urban neighborhoods? Could it be that these factors are cited precisely because they allow politicians to say to schools, “Just do it”?

It is one thing to say, as many of our politicians have, that ideas that address poverty, class, family behaviors, or ethnic culture are off the table when developing school reform programs. It is another thing altogether to imply that poverty, class, family behavior, and ethnic culture are irrelevant to the question of whether schools can raise student performance. In the report, the researchers show that these nonschool factors are fundamental to DOD’s success. In the article, the researchers show that they know which answers their funders expect them to highlight.

What the reported results show is not that schools alone can close the gap, but that the gap can be closed when family, community, and schools are drastically changed. The results demonstrate what we have all claimed to believe in the last 20 years: All kids can learn. But they do not in the least demonstrate that with the simple adoption of high expectations and instructional leadership, all schools can teach.

Rona Wilensky
Boulder, Colo.

Does ‘No Tolerance’ Apply to Adults?

To the Editor:

As you correctly report, Susan Braun, a member of the San Diego city school board, recently threatened to shoot two of her fellow members (“San Diego Board in Turmoil Over ‘Shooting’ Suggestion,” Oct. 17, 2001). In her e-mail to this effect, addressed to school district officials, Ms. Braun noted that she did not think she could kill both with one bullet, since “they are too heavy for that to work.”

The district’s police and the local district attorney excused Ms. Braun’s threat as not being genuine. That was based mainly on a sentence in her e-mail that read, “I will seriously listen to any ideas.”

After the shootings by students at schools in San Diego suburbs, no child who made Ms. Braun’s threat would be treated so generously. In fact, there is a no-tolerance policy in the area’s schools for students who make such intimidating statements. Thus, the qualifier, “I will seriously listen to any ideas,” would not protect students from arrest and prosecution.

My own communication with Ms. Braun suggests she does not “seriously listen to any ideas.” After she voted to require use in San Diego schools of the scientifically discredited whole-language approach to the development of students’ reading ability, I requested from her the list of experimental studies on which she based her vote. In turn, I received from her an intemperate reply that charged, among other things, that I was attempting to sabotage the district’s supposedly highly cost-effective reading-instruction program.

Because of this, I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered that Ms. Braun had not added my name to her list of people who disagree with her and deserve to be shot. I have not yet, however, received the apology she was forced to tender her fellow board members.

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

Surprised by ‘People in the News’ Item

To the Editor:

I always look to the “People in the News” section of Education Week to find information about professional transitions and about the work of various educational organizations. Imagine my surprise when my own notice in that section did so little of that (“People in the News,” Oct. 10, 2001).

Instead of information about the work of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America and my transition to its chairmanship, the item featured references to a lawsuit and divisiveness over an issue the association has little to do with directly.

My 24 years in education include grade school teaching, community development, fund raising, and service on the Washington Waldorf School’s board of directors, as a member and as chairman.

The association represents 150 independent Waldorf schools in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It provides support, consultation, publication, and curricular and organizational development. The association is an active voice for Waldorf education and for its contribution to educational progress and childhood issues.

Donald Bufano
Association of Waldorf Schools of North America
Fair Oaks, Calif.

Reader Sees Irony In Ohio Voucher Case

To the Editor:

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider the Ohio religious-school-voucher case (“Supreme Court to Hear Pivotal Voucher Case,” Oct. 3, 2001) is fraught with irony. The events of Sept. 11 prove decisively that this is not the time for government-sponsored religion.

Many thought it a legal stretch when the court got involved in the Florida presidential vote count. And the court in this instance is again involving itself in an issue that divides people. Independent polls show that the public does not support vouchers, and when given the chance, people vote against them.

One thing all sides agree on, however, is that the decision in the Cleveland school voucher case could be historic. Some liken it to Brown v. Board of Education. Ironically, were the Supreme Court to decide that it is constitutional to give public money to religious schools, the court could create de jure segregation. The majority of “vouchered” schools separate children by religion and race, and they are not equal.

Mary Bills
Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

Change That Counts Doesn’t Come Cheap

To the Editor:

John Keller’s letter responding to Charlotte K. Frank’s September essay is one more opportunity for practitioners to say, “There they go again” (“Missing Cures,” Letters, Oct. 3, 2001; “Do We Care Enough?,” Commentary, Sept. 19, 2001).

Ms. Frank’s Commentary reminded us of Ron Edmonds’ cry from a quarter of a century ago: We know what to do, and can do it, but we apparently don’t care enough to do so. That is, we have the knowledge base we need to assure that all kids learn to read, write, calculate, and think critically. What we have to do is provide the resources (initially, in the form of dollars) to do the job right. Educational research supports this position, and then some.

Mr. Keller, though, decries this view of reform because, he says, it “misses ingredients key to educational success.” Some of the ingredients he notes are ones that I, too, consider necessary for change, but not sufficient for success. He says that if mere dollars were truly the crux of the problem, “at great expense we could rectify the inequities” in educational attainment.

Am I missing something here, or am I just being led through a huge, dark, never-ending cave? We cannot implement change or rectify inequities without the infusion of an adequate supply of funds.

Mr. Keller says we need to work differently, not merely harder. Very good. But who will show us how? When will it be done? After school? During school? In the summer? By osmosis? Money is the answer, no matter what Mr. Keller thinks, and it has not been provided.

Money is needed for staff developers, for teachers to attend workshops, for principals to go to conferences and talk to one another about trends and practices. Money is needed for superintendents to meet with researchers to discuss new and promising data on doing what we do better; and money is needed for miscellaneous other district staff members to be trained to help implement what’s new and good and possible in order to change a culture of ingrained practice.

Change does not come cheap. But surely, Mr. Keller says, necessary funds will be supplied to rectify the inequities. He and others like him should stop dreaming. They seem to want the system to change first, at no cost to the public, before educators get the money needed to change what really counts. Something is wrong with this thinking.

Anthony A. Galitsis
Special Assistant to the Superintendent
Community School District 15
Former Principal
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Teacher Certification Needs Dispassionate Analysis

To the Editor:

Though your Oct. 17, 2001, article’s headline reads “Foundation Stirs Debate With Report Questioning Research on Licensure,” the article itself lays out only one side of that debate. Linda Darling-Hammond’s rebuttal to the Abell Foundation’s report, which the article acknowledges but does not describe, is thorough, thoughtful, and clear both on the shortcomings of the foundation’s research and the strength of the case for the significance of credentialing.

I could not tell from the article whether the quote from the sponsoring foundation’s president, Robert C. Embry, about the empirical justification for continuing current systems of teacher certification—“It’s just a factual question”—was hopeful, wry, or simply out of touch with the challenge of knowing how best to equip teachers for the richly complex work they do. If more questions in education could be disposed of with a factual answer, we would be miles ahead of where we are.

Instead, teachers, and the work of those who do research on what makes teachers effective, are embedded in a web of causal factors that make the design and execution of research that could efficiently dispose of such complex questions impossible. As a consequence of this complexity, good educational research as well as good practices in education are closer in design to pieces of a living puzzle than to simple building blocks. Philosophical assumptions, rigorous research, educated judgment, and historical, political, and other contextual factors all require consideration in arriving at the incremental decisions that point in the most promising and sustainable directions for improving K-12 education.

The burden of proof that rests with anyone who asserts that good teaching does not oblige careful and systematic professional preparation is formidable. Even greater is the burden on those who advocate lowering the threshold for those entering teaching by eliminating certification.

The debate that the Abell Foundation intended to begin is about one of several contemporary issues that deserve the qualifier “high stakes.” These issues’ coverage in the education press needs to reflect their significance, the passions they stir, and the need for dispassionate analysis that combines values, facts, experience, and objectives.

Ray Bacchetti
Stanford, Calif.

The writer is a former education program officer at the Hewlett Foundation.

Teaching Democracy: Not ‘Something to Be Memorized and Tested,’ But to Be Practiced and Preserved

To the Editor:

As a historian of 20th century politics and war, I could hardly agree more with Diane Ravitch’s plea for better teaching about democracy (“Now Is the Time to Teach Democracy,” Oct. 17, 2001). I would add only two points.

One, political history must regain top billing over recent fashions to avoid it. We are told it is boring and only about “elites.” The thousands of victims of Sept. 11 were not “elites.” Any teacher who cannot bring the drama, the frequent tragedy, and the vast human consequences of politics alive for students should look for another line of work.

Two, at the century’s turn, the United States faces a political challenge that has worried our brightest leaders since the Constitution was written: How shall democracy preserve itself, and win the respect of good people abroad, when its wealth and power, and pride, reach imperial heights? Athenian democracy utterly failed to meet this challenge and was ruined. So was Rome’s republic. To honor Lincoln’s vision of us as earth’s “last, best hope,” we shall have to be wiser than some notably wise ancients.

Study democracy, its past adventures, and its necessary conditions, here and elsewhere? We have no choice.

Paul A. Gagnon
Professor of History Emeritus
University of Massachusetts
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

I am deeply saddened by the Commentary by Diane Ravitch. Her simplistic view of multiculturalism as somehow un-American and undemocratic is simply wrong and misleading. Multiculturalism is based not only on the differences between racial and cultural groups but also on the similarities. It is a celebration of the humanity of all cultures found within many of those very differences.

While we cannot blame the events of Sept. 11 on the lack of, or inclusion of, multicultural education in schools, we can say that intolerance has led to the deaths of Arab-Americans and the other hundred racist actions taken against Arab-Americans. The everyday American who also calls up talk shows advocating the mass internment of Arab-Americans or racial profiling lacks tolerance. These actions based on fear, hatred, and lack of understanding, not multicultural education, are what feed racial and ethnic tensions.

True, the values of democracy are to be celebrated within our country, and students should know the history of their country and of the world. This country was built on the coming together of various groups, first in the name of religious freedom and then through the immigrants who sought economic opportunities.

But many immigrants, slaves, and the first true Americans, Native peoples, were also denied the blessings of the basic ideals the author extols. Some would argue that many groups still are denied access to these democratic ideals. Our own history is rich with stories of the denial of freedom and human rights to groups based upon fear, hatred, and other factors, for example, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Let us continue to believe in the humanity of all peoples, while understanding and respecting the differences among us, with the goal being true tolerance. That would be an important lesson for our children in human rights and democratic ideals.

Margaret Adams
Dedham, Mass.

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch writes that “now is the time to teach our children about democracy.” Though I cannot disagree with her sentiment, we need to take it a step further than merely teaching “about” democracy (envision chalk-filled blackboards crammed with definitions and interrelationships of the three branches of our government ... and a test soon to follow).

Teaching and learning to be an active member in a democracy needs to be experiential for it to work. Our children must feel the power of democracy firsthand to comprehend its greatness, its moral superiority to authoritarian governance, and why it is worth fighting for.

Currently, most of our schools are organized and run, if not fascistically, certainly in the form of an oligarchy. Students take orders from teachers, teachers from administrators, administrators from principals, principals from higher-ups (now in the form of fax machines and e-mails), and those higher-ups from other higher-ups like local boards of education, state boards, or Washington.

While we can teach students “about” democracy in our classrooms, when they enter the “real world,” they will have some lingering questions (consciously or unconsciously): Where is democracy to be found in the American education system? What lessons have I really learned from being a cog in this authoritarian machine for 12 to 16 impressionable years of my life? How do I participate in a democracy when I have never had any practice?

Democracy is not something to be memorized and tested. Democracy is something that needs to be practiced. It’s not easy to be a good citizen in a democracy. One needs to be patient, reflective, courteous, dedicated, relentlessly critical, relentlessly positive, and willing to compromise—yet not willing to compromise one’s principles. Practicing democracy means much more than having schoolwide elections. It means restructuring our schools (primarily high schools) so that all students will understand the importance of speaking in class discussions; have an impact on school policy; congregate to discuss school, local, and worldwide issues; have a choice in deciding their curriculum and the methods by which they are assessed ... the list goes on.

Otherwise, we are merely teaching our children to ride bicycles by using anecdotes, manuals, and movies. Isn’t someone bound to ask sooner or later: When am I going to actually practice riding one of these things before I find myself in the middle of traffic?

Douglas Knecht
San Francisco, Calif.

To the Editor:

I want to applaud Diane Ravitch for answering the question so many educators have been asking since Sept. 11: “What should we tell the children?” Ms. Ravitch says that the exhortations to teach tolerance, multiculturalism, and world history in response to the horrific events of that day are not only inappropriate but also suggestive of the charge that weaknesses in our current educational system somehow caused the atrocities. She suggests that we, instead, “teach young people the virtues and blessings of our democratic system of government” in response to this tragic day in history.

An excellent idea for certain, yet still not enough. I believe our schools can and must do more than simply teach our children about democracy. We must represent democracy. We must teach the precious ideals of democracy by modeling democracy in our classrooms each and every day. The only true way to teach children the value of the free society in which they live is to provide freedoms in the classroom. The only true way to teach them the value of the individual is to acknowledge and accommodate the unique qualities of individual students.

Early in the 20th century, John Dewey called for a shift in the focus of education away from the teacher and toward the student. Dewey maintained the importance of education that gives the individual control of learning. He believed that education and democracy should be mutually supportive. Education is a process of living, Dewey said, not preparation for living; and democracy is a way of life, not a form of government.

A century later, we are still too seldom putting the focus of learning on the individual student, and the focus of democracy on the the individual citizen.

To simply teach about democracy without modeling it is counterproductive and hypocritical. Shouldn’t we celebrate our nation’s way of life, which was so viciously attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, by instilling the true meaning of democracy in our students by way of real-life democratic experiences in the classroom?

Molly Mee
Middle School Teacher
Adjunct Education Professor
Annapolis, Md.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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