Response to critic of education reform

First Published: 2007-10-05

On September 26 Larry Smith in his “Tough Call” column wrote about “Reversing the decline of education.” He reported on a preliminary second report of the Coalition for Education Reform; and posted his column on BahamaPundit.com. Gordon Mills, the Editor, Office of Communication, College of the Bahamas, responded to Mr. Smith’s article and criticized the Coalition’s ideas. His full response is posted on “bahamapundit”, but his major points appear as follows:

Point #1. The Coalition for Education Reform advocates an elitist solution by suggesting the restoration of “Old” Government High. Their proposal is “an old chestnut”, “a mirror of old stuff or privilege”, “a love affair with the way things used to be.”

Response. This is simply an erroneous statement. The proposed All Male Primary & Secondary School is described in detail in Appendix C, pages 18-19, of the June 2005 Bahamian Youth: The Untapped Resource report as posted on BahamasEmployers.org. It is based on the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of 57 free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools in under-resourced communities throughout the United States. More than 80 percent of KIPP students are low-income and more than 90 percent are African American or Hispanic/Latino. Nationally, nearly 80 percent of KIPP alumni have matriculated to college.

Attendance at the proposed All Male Lab School would be on merit; and admission would require written commitments to academic excellence and a code of behavior by both Parent and Student. Failure to fulfill those commitments would mean a return of the student to another public school. The objectives are high expectations, much more study time, a positive and cooperative attitude and respect for both teachers and other students.

Point #2. The real core of the problem is the outdated and unsuitable curriculum that is a relic from old grammar schools and is relevant to only 25% of the population. Today’s failing students need a curriculum based on today’s technological world, a world of CDs, DVDs, cell phones and other hand held devices…physics could come alive with a study of electronics.

Response. This is another erroneous statement. The Coalition contends that “the problem” is very basic. The forthcoming Coalition report will show that “56 per cent of students from public schools who take the [BGCSE] English language exam “fail”, and 82 per cent of public school students who take the [BGCSE] math exam “fail.” This level of academic achievement produces graduates who are unprepared to learn job skills.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a very large funder of education reform in the U.S. For instance, it has given $130 million to New York City alone. Bill Gates states –

“If you don’t know how to read, it doesn’t matter how creative you are. More than a third of the people with high school diplomas have no employable skills.” He and his Foundation would like to push technology; but he feels that schools are flunking the basics. He states “When we gave up on phonics, we destroyed the reading ability of those kids.” (Parade Magazine, Miami Herald, September 23, 2007.)

Point #3. “Of course, students do need to learn accurate writing, reading and numerical skills.”

Response. This Point is not a criticism but an “understated assumption” that alludes to an issue contained in the above quote of Bill Gates. Such a comment is the by-product of the heated conflict over the best method of reading instruction that arose in the 1980s and 1990s.

The English language is indeed complex and is based on the idea that letters represent sounds. Some words are composed of single letters that alone represent specific sounds and together comprise a single word. However, the same letter may represent different sounds when preceded or followed by other letters. There are “literally dozens of rules that are 75% or more reliable.” This body of knowledge is referred to as “phonics” or “language skills”. However, single words have limited meaning; and whole sentences, paragraphs and stories can have great meaning.

“Whole Language” is an instructional philosophy that became very popular in the 1980s and 1990s being actively promoted by the Education Departments of virtually all major universities. It was based on the theory that one did not learn from small chunks of knowledge but by “experimenting with stimuli and responses”…by frequent reading, independent reading, free interpretation of text and free expression in journals. Whole language considered grammar, spelling, capitalization and punctuation as not being linked directly to understanding and “true literacy”; and these skills were at best relegated to mini-lessons embedded in other lessons.

The problem with the Whole Language movement was the statistically significant drop in reading scores on the National Assessments of Educational Progress in the U.S in the 1990s. This drop occurred at a time when huge investments were being made to improve the quality of education for everyone. Two large scale national studies in 1998 and 2000 found that “phonics instruction of varying kinds…contributed positively to students’ ability to read. Both panels also found that embedded phonics and no phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement from most populations of students.”

Mr. Mills appears in Point #3 as a Whole Language advocate making a reluctant and perhaps even a dismissive concession to the importance of language skills in the early years of schooling.

Point #4. The BGCSE Core Exams tests students at a “C” grade level or lower; and these students are precluded from taking the Extended Exams that test at the “A” and “B” level.

Response. This Point fails to separate two distinct issues.

a.) Is the two test system valid? The “Core” exam tests skill levels of “C” through “U” on the eight point scale, and the “Extended” exam tests skill levels “A” and “B”. One cannot answer the validity question without an informed evaluation of the system.

b.) Is the system properly administered? Clearly a school administrator that does not encourage students to aim higher and take the Extended Exam, as the critic suggests, is failing in his/her duty. It is not a test design problem but an administration problem.

Point #5. Retraining teachers and the constructing an education model that is relevant and meaningful to students can take them and the country forward.

This is the one point raised by Mr. Mills that is truly common ground.

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