Disruptive students require isolation

There have always been students who persist in disrupting the education of others.  For decades, the strategy has been to suspend them.  Only recently has restorative justice been used in its place (“Restorative practices may not be the solution, but neither are suspensions,” the conversation.com, Feb. 5).

A new study by RAND looked at restorative practices in Pittsburgh schools and concluded they were not as effective as its proponents have asserted.  That does not mean, however, going back to suspensions, which have their own problems.  Instead, I propose removing disruptive students and placing them in special isolated classrooms that are supervised.

Once placed in these rooms, students can still be given assignments to complete but without the opportunity to deprive their peers who want to learn.  Students will quickly learn that there is no payoff for their behavior.  Yes, some will drop out of school.  But that is a small price compared to the price the vast majority of students pay when they are held captive by incorrigible students.

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Phonics is essential to teaching reading

Although the reading wars between phonics and whole language continue, increasing evidence shows that the former is winning (“Nonprofit Trains Teachers on the ABCs of Reading in the Classroom,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4). The latest evidence comes from New York City, where only 28 percent of children in public schools there in the 4th grade were proficient or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2017.

That was before a nonprofit called Early Reading Matters began coaching  teachers in 34 high-poverty schools how to use phonics.  The approach has resulted in raising reading proficiency from 29 percent to 38 percent. Sadly, too many teacher-preparation programs don’t give teachers the wherewithal on how to teach reading.

I learned how to read by teachers who used phonics.  We learned how letters represented sounds by being asked to follow teachers as they read aloud to us, periodically stopping and asking us to pick up where they left off.  The strategy was most effective.  I never understood why whole language replaced phonics.

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Education can’t always be fun

If there’s one thing that teachers hate to hear, it’s: “I’m bored.” That’s because teachers have been indoctrinated with the belief that learning must always be fun.  If it isn’t, then they must be doing something wrong (“Let Children Get Bored Again,” The New York Times, Feb. 3).

But I submit that learning in the classroom is not that much different from learning in the workplace.  Boredom is an inescapable part of both.  The role of teachers is not to entertain but to educate.  If that sometimes involves boredom, so be it.  Yet teachers are often given poor evaluations if students complain that they are bored.

Some of the most valuable education I received in high school and college required sheer memorization.  Today, memorization is frowned on because it doesn’t develop critical thinking.  But I reject that assertion.  Without certain facts, which require memorization, how can students develop critical thinking skills?  Is memorization boring?  It depends on how it is presented.

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Vocational education gets toehold in colleges

Finally, there’s some good news about higher education.  A growing number of private and religiously affiliated colleges and universities are making vocational education an integral part of t he curriculum (“One Way to Make College Meaningful,” The New York Times, Feb. 3).

They’re doing so because they correctly understand that a vocation is not only a calling but also a means to a well-paying job.  Not surprisingly, these schools have seen their graduation rates increase at a significantly higher rate of growth than in a random sample of peer institutions.  When students see a direct connection between what they are studying and their future, they become immediately engaged.

Critics assert that vocational education will harm academic education. Even if that is true, I submit that the cost of a four-year degree today calls into question the pecuniary value of a liberal arts degree when student loan debt is factored in.  Learning for learning’s sake no longer is enough.  Students rightfully demand more.

Further, I question if higher education is where the disinterested pursuit of pure knowledge actually occurs.  We see evidence of this on a regular basis.  Professors teach only politically correct material, lest they find themselves vilified by students and administrators.

There was a time when few young people continued their education beyond high school.  As a result, a bachelor’s degree in any subject was enough to virtually guarantee a good job.  But the proliferation of degrees today means that what is studied is more important.  That’s why I hope vocational education continues to invade colleges and universities.

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Third-rail books in the classroom

High school teachers often wish they enjoyed the academic freedom of university professors.  But apparently even the latter find their careers in jeopardy if they teach controversial books (“The Risk in Teaching ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Commentary, Feb. 1).

An acclaimed professor at Augsburg University in Minnesota found that out when one of his students quoted a sentence that included the n-word from James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.”  In a discussion that followed, the professor raised the question if it was appropriate High school teachers often wish they enjoyed the academic freedom of university to use the author’s word in an academic context.  What followed was hard to believe.  After some students complained, the professor issued an apology.  But that was not enough.  He was suspended from teaching pending an investigation.

The main reason that tenure exists in higher education is to protect teachers from being penalized for exploring taboo subjects.  Yet time and again, they find themselves in peril if they dare do so.  As a result, students are deprived of the opportunity to develop critical thinking.  Instead, they are fed only bowdlerized material.

In high school, of course, teachers have no freedom whatsoever to assign books that are not on an approved list.  The U.S. Supreme Court made that clear in 2010 in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District when it held that only school boards can determine the curriculum.  So maybe teachers and professors are not that different after all.

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LA teachers strike’s real lesson

Now that the dust has settled on the teachers strike in Los Angeles, it’s a propitious time to see what it has actually accomplished (“Some Teachers Say Deal to End Strike ‘Is Not What I Picketed for,’ “LAWeekly, Jan. 29.)  Although UTLA is boasting that it won, the truth contains less cause for celebration.

I say that since so much of the final agreement was what the district offered in the first place.  Yes, teachers will see the size of their classes reduced by one student, but that is hardly a major victory.  And yes, teachers will get a fraction of a percentage point increase in pay, but that too does not qualify as anything to crow about.

Instead, I think the real victory is less obvious.  Teachers showed that they no longer would remain passive in the face of deteriorating conditions for learning. Put another way, they would now be worthy of more respect for standing up for what they considered essential.

When I participated in the first strike in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1970, many of my colleagues were reluctant to join because striking was not “professional.”  They crossed the picket line.  But in 1989, the same teachers had changed their mind.  I’m not sure exactly why, but I venture that they realized how they had been used by the district.

Teachers unions face an uphill battle across the country.  Critics say that if teachers are so disaffected, they should quit.  I say that if teachers have it so good, critics should become teachers.

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College readiness misleads taxpayers

Public schools are largely being evaluated on the percentage of students who are prepared for college (“DeBlasio’s empty boasts about graduation rates,” New York Post, Jan. 30).  The latest example is New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district.

Although 75.9 percent of students who started in public schools there graduated, only half met CUNY’s standards for admission. The disparity between the two is seen as evidence of failure.  But where is it written that college is for everyone?  What about taking into account students who have no interest or aptitude for college?

More specifically, I’m referring to vocational education.  Students who want to learn a trade and take courses in line with that goal should be given equal weight to students who want to go to college in evaluating schools.  But vocational education continues to take a back seat to an academic curriculum. This does a terrible injustice to both students and their schools.

I’ll bet that the percentage of students who graduate on time after taking a vocational curriculum would far exceed the percentage of students who graduate on time after pursuing an academic curriculum.  Yet we completely ignore vocational education in this country.  Our competitors abroad are far more realistic.  For example, Germany accords vocational education the same respect it confers on academic education.  It’s little wonder that Germany has the lowest unemployment rate among young people in the industrialized world.

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Black dialect shortchanges students

It’s not enough to maintain that non-standard English hinders opportunities for young people in the workplace.  It also is a handicap in the judicial system (“Speaking Black Dialect in Courtrooms Can Have Striking Consequences,” The New York Times, Jan. 27).

Researchers found that even certified court reporters regularly made errors in transcribing sentences spoken in what linguists term African-American English.  On average, they did so in two out of every five sentences.  Such errors have serious consequences by confusing jurors about what defendants say.  It’s not just white court reporters who blunder but black court reporters as well.

The results of the study have widespread implications for public schools, where not that many years ago Ebonics was being considered.  Because blacks are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, their very freedom from prison hangs in the balance.

When busing began at the high school where I taught for 28 years, I had trouble understanding what many students were saying.  But trying to point out the need to speak standard English was frowned on by the district as being insensitive.

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Evaluating teachers fairly

In eliminating test scores to evaluate teachers, New York State has taken a step in the right direction (“New York Lawmakers Pass Bill to Drop Student Test Scores From Teacher Reviews,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24).  Although the action will be attacked for lowering the quality of education, it reflects reality.

So much of instructional effectiveness is dependent on the students that teachers happen to inherit.  Teachers who are assigned a group of Talmudic scholars will shine in spite of, not because of, their expertise.  Conversely, teachers who are assigned a group of future felons will fail in spite of, not because of, their expertise.

The only way to get around the issue is to randomly assign students. That eliminates the inherent advantage or disadvantage teachers have in producing results. But such a policy will never happen because principals want to reward certain teachers and punish others.

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Engineering diversity will undermine excellence

The latest venue for the obsession with diversity in public schools is New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio is hellbent on giving 20 percent of seats at the city’s elite high schools to disadvantaged students (“De Blasio Lawyers Say Change for Elite Schools Isn’t Biased Against Asian-Americans,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19).

A state law allows the city to offer spots to disadvantaged eight-graders who miss the cutoff score but agree to summer tutoring under a program called Discovery.A suit filed in federal court by Asian-American civil rights groups and parents argues that Discovery discriminates against their children because it is limited only to the highest poverty middle schools, whereas in the past applicants citywide were eligible to sign up.

I support efforts to diversity schools – but with one caveat.  Diversification must not negatively impact excellence.  If students cannot handle the work at these elite schools, they will either drop out or standards will be lowered.  In both cases students will be shortchanged.  Asian-American students disproportionately comprise enrollment at these schools.  But they do so because they have demonstrated the aptitude to achieve.  Enrolling students to meet a quota, which is precisely what de Blasio is doing, will mean an end to the academic jewels of the New York City system.

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