Combat pay for principals

A tentative agreement between New York City officials and the school administrators union includes not only a 7.5 percent pay boost but also a raise of between $10,000 and $15,000 a year for those working at schools designated as “hard to staff” (“New York City School Administrators Reach Labor Deal,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 13).

During the 28 years I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I worked with five principals.  As the student population changed over the years, so did the nature of their job.  It became increasingly adversarial, pitting faculty, parents and other stakeholders against one another.  So I can understand the need to offer principals additional money to accept an assignment at some schools.

But I doubt that more money alone will result in less turnover.  I’m referring now to New York City and other large urban districts. (It’s not that suburban schools don’t have their problems in recruiting and retaining qualified principals, but they tend to be less stressful.)  So much of a school’s performance is beyond the control of a principal.  In New York City, for example, the percentage of homeless students continues to rise.  As a result, it’s rare for principals to remain at the helm for very long.

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Parent academy helps students graduate college

The transition from high school to college can be perilous for even the best students.  But for those who are the first from their family to attend higher education, it can be overwhelming.  That’s why some colleges and universities provide parents with the opportunity to see for themselves what a typical day is like (“Sending Mom and Dad off to college for a day,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 11).

Nothing, of course, can substitute for a student’s innate ability to handle college-level work, but involving parents has the potential to make the difference between dropping out and on-time graduation.  Their emotional support is likely to be even more vital because it is based on what they experienced, even if it was only for a day.

Parents are increasingly being seen as partners in higher education. In the past, their involvement was largely limited to K- 12, but today they are being welcomed beyond.  I think it’s a promising trend.

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Homeless students are the shame of the nation

The more than 1.5 million public school students who are homeless for one reason or another – the highest number in a dozen years – pose a challenge that critics of public education do not fully understand (“Number of Homeless Students Rises to New High, Report Says,” The New York Times, Feb. 3).

Whether the cause is the lack of affordable housing, drug addiction or local economic conditions, the effect is the same: Teachers must practice triage on a daily basis before they can begin teaching their subject.  Yet criticism of the performance of their students continues unabated.

When I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I had a student in my first period composition class who regularly asked me if he could go to the library.  When I asked him why, he told me that he slept almost every night in his car.  The library was the only quiet, safe place where he could try to catch up on his sleep.

I challenge anyone to expect that particular student and others like him to learn what even the best teachers can teach.

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Get real about education reform

In a review of efforts over the decades to improve public education, Diane Ravitch attributes their failure to poverty (“The Education Reform Movement Has Failed America. We Need Common Sense Solutions That Work,” Time, Feb. 1). Neither vouchers, parental choice, nor charter schools have worked to boost test scores, she declares.

I don’t doubt that poverty is indeed a factor in the disappointing outcomes.  But I maintain that what takes place in the home is more important.  I’m talking about the values that parents inculcate in their children.  If poverty indeed is the villain, then how to explain the sterling performance of so many Asian students who come from low-income families?

Proper nutrition, available medical care and decent housing will no doubt help students learn more.  But they will do little to change the attitude that parents teach their children about the importance of education.  All the money in the world won’t do that.

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Hire vendors to grade state tests

Although state tests are federally mandated, that doesn’t mean local districts have to pull certified teachers out of class to grade reading and writing exams (“New York City Teachers Pulled From Class to Grade State Tests,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 5). In fact, I submit that given proper training outside vendors can do just as good a job, without sacrificing valuable instructional time.

The problem is finding enough qualified people in light of the meager pay to do such tedious work.  I say that because I remember how much I disliked reading and scoring essays during the 28 years I taught high school English in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  I don’t know of any English teacher who looked forward to the task.  But at least credentialed teachers were decently paid.  The pittance offered outside vendors will fail to attract enough takers.

I hope New York City will prove me wrong.

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Who qualifies as a tough teacher?

A new study published in Education Next concludes that students learn more from tougher teachers (“End the ‘Easy A’,” Education Next, Spring 2020).  It goes on to say that grading standards can be used as a measure in making a determination.

But do rigorous grading standards by themselves make good teachers?  If that is the case, then all teachers have to do to receive an excellent evaluation from their principal is to raise the bar so high that only a handful of students pass the class. I’ve long believed, however, that the best teachers are those who make clear to their students what the course’s instructional objectives are and provide them with appropriate practice and feedback so that they can achieve the stated goals.

If most students are able to do so, then in my opinion those teachers are good.  Does that mean they are not tough enough?  The answer goes back to the purpose of teaching.  Is it to fail as many students as possible by erecting impossibly high standards that only a few gifted students can attain?  Teachers are supposed to help students learn as much as they possibly can.  If achieving that goal makes it too easy, so be it.

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Motivation to learn must come from students

When students don’t learn in school, the automatic assumption is that the fault lies with their teachers.  But the reality is different, for reasons reformers don’t want to admit (“Go Ahead, Drop My Course,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 3).

The truth is that motivation can’t be forced on students.  Yes, there are degrees of motivation, but my point is that even the best teachers are not miracle workers.  If students don’t come to class ready and eager to learn, they will not learn.  (I’m not talking now about homeless children who fall into a completely different category.)

Students differ in the degree of their motivation largely because of their family background.  Some families place the highest emphasis on the importance of education.  They instill in their children the value that education inherently possesses.  At the same time, they teach their children to respect teachers.  These are the students that every teacher desperately wants.

When I was in school, my mother impressed on me from an early age to revere teachers and to be grateful for what they taught.  It was a lesson that I’ve never forgotten.

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Interpersonal element in classrooms is vanishing

In an attempt to prepare students for life after graduation, schools have become obsessed with technology (“More tech is the last thing our classrooms need,” New York Post, Jan. 31).  I don’t doubt its importance, but I submit that what students remember the most is the connection they have with their teachers.

For students who come from broken homes in particular, the need for an emotional bond is essential.  Their teachers often are the only positive adult figures they have in their lives. That’s a lesson we easily forget as pressure builds to post ever higher test scores.

In contrast, technology by its very nature requires that students work alone.  That largely minimizes the role that teachers play.  Working independently is essential, but how can we expect students to work collaboratively if we don’t provide them with the opportunity to do so when they are still in school?  Human interaction still is vital, no matter how much money we invest in the latest technology.

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Child care from birth to age 3 pays off

Kindergarten used to be the start of most children’s education.  But today we know that it should begin even earlier – from birth to age 3 – to maximize benefits (“Some Dog Walkers Earn More Than Caregivers for Babies. Educators Want to Change That.” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 25). That’s because it is a time of rapid brain growth and language acquisition.

For toddlers from low-income families, the need is most acute.  They are not exposed to the same factors that their peers from affluent families are.  I have reference now to educational toys, music and the like.  If disadvantaged children receive high-quality child care in the form of games, for example, they have a better chance of catching up with others.

The trouble is that getting college graduates to choose a career in this field is hard because pay is low. For example, Early Head Start, a government-subsidized program for low-income infants, pays only $31,000 a year for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree.  I’ve always felt that most people view education at that level to be little more than babysitting. As long as that attitude prevails, I see little hope for attracting people to the field.

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Academic fraud in NYC schools

Charges of academic fraud in New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, are finally being investigated by the FBI (“FBI probes allegations of ‘deep-rooted’ academic fraud in NYC schools, The New York Post, Jan. 25).  I submit that it is long overdue.

For too long, schools in New York City have gotten away with practices that are clearly unethical and illegal.  For example, teachers at Maspeth High School have been encouraged by their principal to cheat on exams, enforce a no-fail policy and suffer retaliation if they didn’t play along.  By doing so, the chancellor and the mayor can then claim students are learning more.

But I’ve never believed the success stories. For one thing, so much is the result of credit recovery, which allows failing students to get credit for an entire semester on the basis of a few hours of on-line work.  How is that justifiable? My point is that by continuing to lower standards, schools will post results that purport to prove that students are performing better.

I hope that the FBI succeeds in its probe because what is going on is an educational travesty.

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