(submitted to the Plain Dealer in response to its March 16, 1999 editorial “Missing Connections”)
Letters to the Editor
The Plain Dealer
1801 Superior Ave.
Cleveland, OH, 44114
March 16, 1999
I am pleased to see greater coverage of issues in education in the Plain Dealer such as the March 16 “Missing Connections” editorial. However, I am disappointed that this coverage rarely puts the presented information in its proper perspective. Even the opening sentence, “The rift is growing between the perceptions of schools by those inside and outside the classrooms,” is misleading.
The editorial focused on three findings of Public Agenda’s November 1998 Reality Check survey. However, Public Agenda’s web site highlights five survey findings and Education Week’s January 1999 Quality Counts (for which the survey was conducted) highlights fourteen. Obviously, limitations of space could prohibit addressing fourteen issues, but one must wonder why Public Agenda’s other two findings were omitted. Aren’t the facts that a). parents rate schools highly while admitting to having little information and b). at least two-thirds of all groups reported that standards have been set in their local schools equally newsworthy? When discussing the declining skills reported by employers, the editorial lists “skills ranging from grammar and math to working with others effectively.” However, it did not mention that the greatest change from last year’s survey is that more employers report declines in skills such as “being respectful and polite” (up 22%) and “work habits/being organized and on time” (up 19%). Who is to be held primarily responsible for these skills? The parents, the students, the employers, or the teachers?
While the fact that over 2,000 people were surveyed was duly noted, there was no mention of the finer details (given by both Education Week and Public Agenda) that the employer and college professor populations were much smaller (about 250 each) compared to the teachers, students, and parents (about 700 each) thus making their results slightly less reliable (+/- 6% margin of error compared to +/- 4%). In light of these facts, where do parents fall—“inside” or “outside” the classroom? The survey suggests the former while the editorial suggests the latter.
Perhaps Public Agenda’s own warning to journalists called “Common Errors” can provide some insight. It begins, “At first glance, education seems like an easy beat to cover—after all, everyone’s been to school.” We seem to “know” the answers already. Hard facts and details just get in the way. An April 1997 Public Agenda survey revealed that when asked the source of “the most useful information” on schools in their community, only about one-third of parents listed their own “experiences and observations,” 5% answered “school newsletters” and about 1% responded “talking to kids.” Over half cited either “conversations with people you know” or “news from TV, radio, or newspapers.”
The last paragraph, I am afraid, reveals the true intent of the omissions. “Schools should consider ways to make student performance more a factor in teachers’ professional evaluations.” Half to two-thirds of employers and parents favor such accountability while over two-thirds of teachers and professors think it a bad idea. (Oddly, the students weren’t asked this question.) This is a no-brainer, isn’t it? Any “rational” person would accept this idea. Teachers and professors must be against it because they are doing such a bad job as it is, right?
Wrong. Teachers are concerned with the details of such performance evaluations because the implications can be counterintuitive to those on the “outside.” What should be the basis of such performance evaluations? Standardized test scores or student grades? Should teachers teach traditional content, the skills employers desire, or “teach to the (standardized) tests”? Should a teacher of Advanced Placement courses be judged by the same criteria as a teacher of standard or remedial courses? If so, the AP teacher could be at a disadvantage. If a low D (60%) student works his way up to a C (70%) or a B (80%), his grade has improved 17% or 33% respectively. Must a teacher force the A student (90%) to work for an A++ (105%) or an A++++ (120%) to match these percentages? Typically, more experienced or “stronger” teachers are assigned to teach advanced or gifted classes. However, it may make more sense to place the “stronger” and more experienced teachers in beginning courses to provide a solid foundation and models of excellence to the students who truly need them.
The issues and problems facing our schools are complex and are not easily reduced to sound bites and headlines. Perhaps the dirty little secret of this survey is that those most closely associated with education best understand its details and complexity. If your newspaper really wants “those inside and outside schools [to] spend far more time talking to one another,” it should provide its readers with as much information and detail as possible to promote an intelligent and meaningful dialogue.
Milton Alan Turner