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Shaping the Public Debate on Education

John Allegrante, Professor of Health Education and President and CEO of the National Center for Health Education (NCHE), testified this year before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

Presenting the Issues

Health Education

John Allegrante, Professor of Health Education and President and CEO of the National Center for Health Education (NCHE), testified this year before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. He spoke on behalf of the National Center for Health Education about the critical need to advance universal implementation nationwide of coordinated school health programs and comprehensive health education.

"Perhaps more than at any other time in our nation's history, children and adolescents in our society are facing challenges that can have a profound impact on health," he said. After outlining data from the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey and other studies that indicate how many young people smoke, drink, are sexually active, carry weapons, and die in motor vehicle accidents, Allegrante noted, "What I and those of us at NCHE find so disturbing about this is that something can be done."

Through a federally funded cooperative agreement, NCHE works with CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health to help teachers, parents and school leaders coordinate the development of school health councils. In 2001, these types of programs resulted in improvements to the school health environment in schools in 21 states. He asked the Committee to provide a $25 million increase to allow the programs to be expanded.

High-Stakes Testing

Standardized tests are a big concern for educators these days, and Teachers College helps them understand the issues. The Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning and the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST) gathered a panel of experts to discuss the legalities, policies and realities of standardized tests.

Panelists were Thomas Sobol, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice at TC and former Commissioner of Education for New York State; Jay Heubert, Associate Professor of Education at TC and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at Columbia University Law School; and William Cala, a school superintendent in upstate Fairport, New York, who has been a vocal critic of the State's testing policy. The moderator of the panel was Gerry House, President and CEO of the Institute for Student Achievement, a not-for-profit organization that supports the education of students at risk.

House asked how schools can be created, especially for students of color and those living in poverty, that provide a high-quality education. Sobol suggested that people get involved in promoting the kind of standards and assessments we should have. "What has been going on is a political phenomenon, not a pedagogical phenomenon," he said.

Heubert's comments focused on tests that determined promotion versus retention. "Thirty years of social science efforts tell us that the strongest predictor of who drops out of school is retention in grade," he noted. Large scale assessments should, instead, be used to improve curriculum and pedagogy and to identify and address learning needs.

Cala, in a study he conducted in his own district, found that 85 percent of students that had been held back a grade were drop-outs. He encouraged his audience to become educated in testing. "We have to understand it before we can criticize it," he said. "when we do understand it, we have to be vocal, we have to write, we have to inform and continue to do that, and we will change minds."

Another meeting of the minds regarding high-stakes tests was held by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE). The panel discussion called, "Profiting on the Test: How Businesses Translate High-Stakes Testing into Commercial Opportunity," looked at the importance of test scores to school districts and how, as a result, educational publishing and test preparation companies are in a position to make a large profit.

Panelists included Peter Jovanovich, CEO of Pearson Education; John Katzman, CEO of the Princeton Review; and Gary Natriello, TC Professor of Sociology and Education. The group was moderated by Matthew Pittinsky, Chairman of Blackboard, Inc., and Ph.D. candidate.

The potential pitfalls and opportunities of mandatory testing in school reform were discussed. Natriello noted that, on the positive side, businesses will invest sufficiently in testing to grow and develop the enterprise in ways that could enhance the process. A pitfall might be that if most of the product's customers were conservative, there would be no pressure for innovation.

Katzman focused on the types and structure of tests and what they measure. The three types of tests need to work together, he stressed. And while tests might be replaced with other steps, they won't go away completely, he said.

Javanovich said that the political aspect of testing-the need for accountability-cannot be ignored nor can the fact that schools are not doing well, especially in relation to disadvantaged children. "There's no magic formula to make everyone learn," he said. "We are trying to link assessment and instruction in a limited way-we just sell tools, not the classroom."

"The Partnership Project"

In addition to conferences and panels like the one above that provide independent non-partisan analysis and information on issues involving privatization in education, NCSPE continues to conduct research. Director Henry M. Levin, the William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, received $1 million from the Pew and Ford Foundations to study and comment on the broader issues of privatization.

The Pew Foundation's interest in privatization is in looking at the many new developments that are taking place in that area of education-home schooling, school contracting, and tuition tax credits. The Ford Foundation will be supporting community engagement and dissemination of information regarding privatization. The "Partnership Project" will inform the public on educational privatization issues by establishing partnerships with civic, educational, and government organizations and the media to develop strategies that will inform stakeholders, Levin said.

Working With the Media

Most journalists who cover education are dubious of education research, though nine out of ten believe research findings should have some influence on decisions affecting schooling, according to a Teachers College, Hechinger Institute survey. The survey was sent to 161 writers, editors and editorial writers who specialize in education at major newspapers and who have attended Hechinger Institute seminars during the previous two years.

A separate and smaller survey of deans of education schools across the country suggests that journalists are not alone in doubting their capacity to judge the quality of research. Not one dean surveyed rated journalists as even "adequate" in their understanding of the research. Taken together, the surveys suggest a need for more formal training of journalists in areas such as statistics and quantitative and qualitative research methods. It also makes it clear that if researchers want their work to be better understood, they have to work harder at communicating with a general audience.

The goal of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media is to improve the coverage and understanding of education and to deal with issues at the nexus of education and the media. The Institute organizes and sponsors seminars for journalists with top policy makers and researchers on timely issues in education. The seminars are tailored to the interests of different groups of journalists who write about education. The Institute also commissions books and reports on key education topics.

Headed by Gene Maeroff, former New York Times education reporter, the Institute recently added a Deputy Director, Richard Lee Colvin, an award-winning education writer with the Los Angeles Times. Maeroff said of Colvin, "He's able to translate research into plain language, knows the players, and is respected by journalists and educators alike."

Looking to the Future

At an event titled "Can Urban Education Be Saved?" featuring a panel of six Teachers College faculty members and advocates for public education, explored the future of New York City's public schools. The event was organized by the Metro New York City Alumni Club, a chapter of the TC Alumni Association.

Moderated by WABC-TV education reporter Celeste Ford, the panel discussion covered issues from class size to remediation to state funding and school governance. Panelist Tom Sobol, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice and the former Commissioner of Education for the State of New York, suggested several approaches to rescuing the city school system from what he described as its "vast middle ground of stagnant mediocrity." He suggested a centralized authority that would oversee smaller operating units within local communities, a higher priority on diversity, and decried the "immorality and stupidity of telling children what they need to know to function in society and holding them responsible to get that knowledge-and depriving them of adequate resources."

Professor Emeritus Maxine Greene added a philosophical point of view to the discussion, saying that the notion of public education needs to be expanded while still maintaining a commitment to the democratic ideal. As a supporter of educational standards, she suggested that standards imposed "from outside" are doomed to failure. "Standards must awaken a sense of urgency in each child," she said. "They cannot be seen as a matter of compliance."

Published Tuesday, Sep. 2, 2003