Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Are Japan's schools really better?

Date:      Fri, 25 Nov 2005 07:49:27 -0800 (PST)
From:     "Richard Wolfe" <>
Subject:     re Are Japan's Schools Really Better? (7 Letters)

Dear Editor:
re Are Japan's Schools Really Better? (7 Letters)

Seven letters but not one that answered the question. My answer: no.

US schools are better. Why? Brent Staples’ arguments
are part of a decades-old, knee-jerk litany that he and every other talking head uses so much it seems like an MP-3 player on repeat. Excuse me, but I was hearing the exact same thing in 1972 when I graduated from high school. How is it that technologically and in terms of Nobel Prizes we remain at the top of the heap, still the world leader in industry after industry, still the leaders in space exploration, and the originators of the Internet to boot? C’mon! Something else is going on that makes the test-score comparison a meaningless diversion. I suspect it has to do with local autonomy as opposed to national standardization, but there may also be a sense in which our system is somewhat more open to late achievers (doesn’t make as much use of high-stakes tests that close off educational avenues). And one more thing: stop bashing our teachers. During the 1990s, Japan’s Education Ministry began to encourage emulation of US teachers’ more experiential approach: could they have concluded that their students’ high test scores weren’t doing the country any good? Instead of bashing our teachers for their methods or the state of their content-area mastery, how about doubling their numbers? Then that hard-to-manage 26-student class would be 13 students, a size that’s quite amenable to the new, individualized approach known as differentiated instruction.

Richard Wolfe
43 Blanchard Road
Cumberland, Maine 04021


Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

To the Portland Press Herald:

Dear Ms. Quimby:

Thank you for your coverage of the work of this very distinguished panel, whose existence was previously unknown to me (even though I am a student in a teacher certification program). With your assistance, I was able to locate the full report on the Department of Education’s (DOE) website. (For readers: it is listed under a different name, "The Learning State.")

I disagree with the report’s opening statement that “Maine schools are not ready for the 21st century.” The statement, which can be interpreted as implying that our schools are a century behind, is alarmist and, coming from such a distinguished group, surprisingly uncivil.

What is the panel’s reasoning in applying this unkind description? The “Student Performance” section of the report cites the National Assessment of Educational Progress (1996, 2000 and 2003), the Maine Educational Assessments (three most recently available school years), a DOE “estimate” that half of all students entering Maine’s community colleges and the University of Maine System must take remedial reading, and a comparison of US and foreign students’ math scores.

Despite these sources’ seemingly unimpeachable pedigree, it is entirely possible to look at the same data through a different set of eyes and reach the opposite conclusion: our students outperform national averages and there has been at least modest progress in the last three years. (Three years seems rather a short time frame on which to base such dire conclusions.) The performance discussion occupies only three, double-spaced pages (interspersed with tables). Its implication, made without any attempt at justification, that US average math scores can be attributed without qualification to students in Maine is indicative of a superficiality that, again, surprises me, given the composition of this committee.

I also disagree with, and am confused by, the panel’s assertion that Maine “cannot afford the educational infrastructure currently in place.” This assertion, at the outset of the “Recommendations” section, stems from per-student comparisons of employee headcount and school square footage versus national averages and eventually leads the panel to conclude that the state’s schools should be consolidated into 35 districts. Why is a report that is supposed to be for the good of Maine’s schools headlining the conclusion that we “cannot afford” our schools? What is the motive here?

Consolidation on such a scale would strip smaller communities statewide of one of the remaining demarcations of their identities and ultimately, their existence. It flies in the face of the Governor’s efforts to find ways to support the “Other Maine.” The panel admits that it has no expectation of anything more than a small portion of its recommended consolidation ever taking place, and yet it goes right ahead and quotes a savings figure of $270 million based on what it estimates to be the entire savings from all of the shutdowns and busing that would be necessary in a Maine of only 35 school districts.

In fairness, the panel also declares that “societal attitudes must support increased attention to education,” and several of the report’s recommendations would involve increased financial commitments (such as: teacher incentive pay, a mutual fund account and laptop for every student, a publicity campaign to stimulate college enrollment, and, most prominently, a longer school year); however, the report links these new commitments back to the hypothetical amount to be saved from consolidation and declares that the “savings… can be redirected to classrooms across Maine to fund many of the changes for improved student learning advanced in this report.” If the panel admits that only a fraction of its consolidation proposal is ever likely to be carried out, then only a fraction of the associated $270 million of consolidation savings will ever become available. Funding the proposed improvements, if done at all, is going to have to come from other sources (such as a more supportive societal attitude toward education). If the challenge before us is “more important than when we enacted the G.I. Bill or when we mobilized to respond to Sputnik” (two events that were in fact separated by only 13 years), then a change in public attitude is the only hope we have.

Space does not permit me to respond to each of the panel’s proposals so specifically as I would wish, but I must add that there are several other respects in which I disagree profoundly with the panel’s conclusions and with its fundamental approach, and these include the recommendations for imposing new professional requirements on teachers. Our teachers already are well-qualified professionals, what we need is not to police them but to fund the hiring of more of them, so that they can work with smaller class sizes – the true route to more effective pedagogy.

And finally, how would a student feel if this report fell into her/his hands? True, the high school students I’ve worked with are a savvy lot, well used to critical public discourse on the subject of the schools they attend. But somewhere inside, would it not be discouraging to read about not being ready, especially knowing that the opinion is being registered by some of the most distinguished names in the field of education in our state? Why not phrase the message in more positive, or at least less hurtful terms?
Richard Wolfe

December 15, 2005 4:53 PM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

To the Portland Press-Herald, in response to its coverage ( )of Education Week's annual release of state-by-state "scorecards" on education:

There are ways to improve Maine’s public schools, but not by paying any heed to Education Week’s “scorecards.”

As so well stated by USM’s Prof. Miller, the current testing vogue has resulted in a “decline in instructional time” in favor of “monkeying with assessment.” A particularly hilarious send-up of the “scorecards” is that, as Education Week says (on its own website), “state efforts to improve teacher quality have had a negative relationship with student achievement.” So Maine’s low marks for improving teacher quality may in fact be helping our students! (Probably because “efforts to improve teacher quality” primarily involve installing new systems of accountability, i.e., still more scorekeeping.)

Then there are our “stellar grades” for the size and condition of our schools: what, if anything, are we to make of this praise? It stems in part from having a lot of small schools, and it turns out (again from the Ed Week website, in previous years, the scorecard “excluded districts with enrollments under 200 students.” So our scores must have gone up because they changed the scorecard this year!

It’s particularly ironic to see us winning high marks for having small schools in light of the prominent recommendation from a recent report ( by a panel of Maine’s most distinguished educators that we “take a hard look at school size and reduce cost per square foot per student in school construction.” The report further recommends consolidated down to 35 school districts (from the present 286). Whatever good it’s done us to have small schools, it’s about to be done away with!

When it comes to meaningless compilations, this scorecard takes the cake. One is reminded of the Monty Python routine where two women derive their daily entertainment watching a cable TV channel with nothing but a traffic camera. The ladies intently and competitively record the numbers of their favorite car makes that pass across the camera’s field of vision.

If we really want to improve our public schools (which are pretty good already), there is one very real, though very costly thing we can do: hire a lot more teachers and really reduce student-to-teacher ratios. Have we got the guts and the public spirit to do this? Probably not, if the national trend according to is any indication. In contrast to the increasing emphasis on imposing tighter standards, Education Week says “the number of states with class-size-reduction programs has remained steady in recent years.”

Instead, we can continue to satisfy ourselves by installing still more “accountability” measures, still more detailed standards and specifications, resulting in still more time spent “teaching to the test.” And when we get all done doing that, and the test scores come in, will we really be measuring whether our children are better educated? Or will they just be better at taking tests?

January 05, 2006 11:35 AM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

Re Maine Learning Results: A lesson in wishful thinking?

Dear Editor:

You say that “the state should revisit the idea of an exit exam,” but in your subsequent discussion of such a move, you concede that school districts are “…worried teachers would limit their curricula and simply teach the test.”

Thank you; that pretty much sums it up. All on one page, you “revisit” exit exams and provide the reason why they are such a disaster.

I’ve taught high school under such a regime, and the pressure, exerted by one’s own students, day-in and day-out, not to cover material that isn’t in the past exams and exam guides, extended even to the teaching methods I chose. The students not only enforced teach-to-the-test but even insisted I hew to rote drill and multiple-choice questions to the exclusion of learning by experience and performance-based assessment.

Yes, an exit exam would be the perfect way to enforce your military-school concept of public education, and all for the sake of mimicking Massachusetts’ higher scores of the last three years (an insufficient time span upon which to base conclusions).

Speaking of the Massachusetts exit exam, I should also thank you for pointing out, in your February 26th article, Maine's education reform stalls (another of your school-bashing pieces) that a “Boston Globe study last year found that the test has little effect on those who enter the state's public colleges.”

So, to remedy what you perceive to be the Maine Learning Results’ shortcomings, you would saddle our school districts with a teach-to-the-test classroom culture. Did it ever occur to you that the problem could lie in the decision to promulgate standards in the first place, as if teachers, who are trained professionals, weren’t already following well-established academic standards?

On this point, I have once again to thank you for another of your unwitting revelations. In still another of your loosely-reasoned, school-bashing articles, State receives low marks for education standards (January 5), you include the following nugget (buried at the end of the article).

“Lynne Miller, education professor at the University of Southern Maine and co-director of the Southern Maine Partnership, discounted the report's findings.

She said Maine students still outperform most other states on national achievement tests. She said more important for Maine students is the decline in instructional time they are receiving because teachers are spending so much time assessing students.

‘We have spent a lot of time monkeying with assessment and not enough time focusing on instruction,’ she said.”

When are you going to start listening? When are you going to start thinking? You could, from your bully pulpit, do much to improve the situation in our classrooms.

You could start by clarifying why our per-pupil spending is so high: it’s the direct result of our state’s lingering rural character, which means small, community schools. The recent report of the Governor’s “Select Panel on Revisioning Education in Maine” makes this point conclusively (as you ought to know, having covered the Select Panel's work).

So if we want to preserve our state’s character (which is what everyone seems to think is worth doing), then how fair is it to cite, without qualification or explanation, our spending on a per-student basis?

You’re not doing your job here. Your job should be to help the public understand why we’re spending more. Then, maybe we could move on to understanding the benefits of sacrificing to provide still more support (i.e., more teachers) for our public schools.

There is more that you can do. I’ve previously suggested running Scholar of the Week alongside Athlete of the Week (to no response from you). You may say that articles like Decathlon: Academic slam dunk (March 5) show that your coverage is balanced, but I think you should pay heed to the words of the winner of this year’s Maine Academic Decathlon, who is quoted by your reporter saying, “It's not as much a part of the school spirit as football or something. Maybe if we make it to nationals, we might get noticed." Still think your (occasional) news coverage of scholarship balances your (daily) varsity sports coverage? Face it; you are a part of the problem.

Previously, I’ve suggested you take a look at the work of Alfie Kohn ( to get some perspective on standards, specifically their psychological effect on our kids (not to mention the much more corrosive effect of high-stakes testing). If you would take the trouble to inform yourselves and at least present this alternative point of view, you would be enriching the ongoing debate. Mr. Kohn travels the country speaking on this subject, but I have not heard of a visit to Maine, despite his being based outside of Boston. Your coverage could be the catalyst for such a visit (which I suggested to my PTO last year, apparently in vain).

Finally, having written this much, I would like to offer this as the basis (with some editing that I can do) for a guest column, to be published, perhaps this coming Saturday, as a rebuttal to “Our View.”

March 13, 2006 9:09 AM  

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