Pay for performance mismatch

I always have to laugh when I hear reformers demand that teachers should be fired when they don’t produce results. The implication is that laggards in the executive suite are canned when they don’t deliver, while those in the classroom are not.  But a recent analysis found that even laggards in the corner office continue to receive raises (“Big Companies Pay CEOs for Good Performance – and Bad,” The Wall Street Journal, May 18).

In fact, for the fourth consecutive year, the biggest U.S. companies set CEO pay records, even though a majority posted negative stock market returns to shareholders.  What makes the comparison even more absurd is that CEOs have the power to hire only those they want.

Contrast the above with the situation in traditional public schools.  Teachers must accept in their classes all students who show up at their school’s front door regardless of ability or motivation.  Further, disruptive students cannot be summarily expelled.  Yes, it’s true that firing a chronically underperforming teacher is difficult.  But it’s not impossible because all tenure does is guarantee due process

Critics of traditional public schools argue that students suffer when weak teachers are allowed to remain the classroom.  In the corporate world, shareholders suffer, but CEOs who finally are fired walk away with more money than a hundred teachers could ever earn in a lifetime career.

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‘Adversity Score’ on the SAT

There’s more to the SAT’s new “adversity score” than meets the eye (“The New and Unimproved SAT,” The Wall Street Journal, May 17).  Officially called the Environmental Context Dashboard, the score is based on 15 factors that total 100.  It includes an applicant’s home life, community and school.  Race is not a component.

The ostensible purpose is to provide admissions officers with a more comprehensive view of an applicant than exists at this time. But the real purpose is to help schools diversify their student bodies without explicitly looking at race, and to protect SAT clients from being sued for ignoring a future ban by the U.S. Supreme Court on using race in admissions. Because adversity scores are calculated by a third-party algorithm over which they have no control, colleges erect a formidable legal barrier against litigation.

Students who overcome huge disadvantages to do well on the SAT deserve recognition and praise.  But the SAT is fundamentally a business, which is why everything it does needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

 

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Sexual assault rules in K-12 need reality check

The Trump administration has proposed that complaints about sexual assault under Title IX would have to be “severe and pervasive” to trigger an investigation (‘It’s Like the Wild West’: Sexual Assault Victims Struggle in K-12 Schools,” The New York Times, May 12).  Moreover, schools could decline if claims took place off campus.

At first glance, this seems outrageous because it would exacerbate the psychological and physical harm done to victims.  But there is another side of the issue that warrants consideration.  I’m not talking now about sexual assault itself but instead about where it takes place. Why are public schools in K-12, which educate minors under the law, responsible for what happens off school grounds?  Studies show that students of that age often engage in off-campus sexual activity.  Are school officials supposed to intervene in every complaint?  The proper authority is the police.

The girl featured in the article cited above was only 14 when the assault allegedly occurred off school grounds.  Although the Winchester Public Schools district in Virginia seemed more concerned with protecting itself from legal liability than in protecting the girl, I believe a line has to be drawn about a school’s responsibility.

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School segregation more nuanced than understood

A study finding that the percentage of intensely segregated schools tripled between 1988 and 2016 is seized upon as evidence that prejudice exists (“ ‘Threatening the Future’: The High Stakes of Deepening School Segregation,” The New York Times, May 11).  But before jumping to conclusions about the reasons, it’s important to take a closer look at the issue.

Reformers maintain that court rulings that released school districts from desegregation orders are responsible.  There is certainly some truth to that belief.  But I think it overlooks a far more important reason.  Parents are concerned that their children will be hurt academically if they are forced to attend schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students who just so happen to be largely black and Hispanic.  Studies have called their fears unfounded, but they persist.  I don’t think it’s because of prejudice.  Instead, I think it’s because of concern over the academic deficits that these students bring to class through no fault of their own.

I don’t blame parents for wanting to get the best education for their own children.  In fact, ethicists have repeatedly pointed out that that duty to kin is No. 1.  I’m not saying that segregated schools are not disturbing.  Of course, they are.  But it’s wrong to attribute sinister reasons for their choice.  Let’s not forget that former President Obama sent his two daughters to a private school in Washington D.C. even though he was an outspoken supporter of school integration.

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‘Wraparound services’ warrant closer look

The term “wraparound services” came into prominence in connection with the Harlem Children’s Zone.  Supporters claimed that the approach resulted in better outcomes than those posted by schools elsewhere with similar populations.  But a new study calls into question their benefits (“Current research finds little impact of wraparound services on student learning,” Education Next, Summer 2019).

More specifically, the study found that although attitudes about school and relationships with adults and peers improved, there was no evidence of improved student achievement.  That’s not to say that affective outcomes aren’t important.  On the contrary, they are often more lasting.  But schools primarily exist to teach knowledge and skills.  If they cannot produce evidence that they are achieving their objective in this area, taxpayers will be reluctant to support them.

Further, although graduation rates at treatment schools increased, they did not improve more than at comparison schools.  That datum alone is telling because graduation rates will always rise if standards are sufficiently lowered.  It’s time to ask why wraparound services have not resulted in far better results.  Until the answer is forthcoming, it’s too soon to jump to conclusions about their worth.

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College rejections are blown out of proportion

It’s extremely rare for a high school senior to be accepted to all colleges applied to.  Nevertheless, those rejected feel devastated (“Almost All of the Colleges I Wanted to Go to Rejected Me. Now What?” The New York Times, May 5). I’d like to offer some comfort, as a former high school teacher.

What feels like the end of the world at the time will in the long run be irrelevant.  I’ve seen that time and again in my former students.  Students who are accepted in second—tier colleges and universities can – and do – have a life as rewarding as those who gain admission to the Ivies and their ilk.  So much depends on one’s major and attitude.  I question if majoring in the humanities from, say, Harvard means more than majoring in computer science from, say, the University of Mississippi.  Notice that I’m referring strictly to jobs after graduation.  An even stronger case can be made by referring to personal gratification.

The entire issue boils down to brands.  Just as some people only feel good wearing a designer line of clothing or driving a luxury car, so too do too many young people feel validated with a degree from a marquee-name school.  It all comes down to one’s values.

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Student newspapers still venues for controversy

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines School District in 1969 that students do not shed their right to free speech at the schoolhouse gate, it seemed that the issue was settled once and for all.  But that was not the case in the Lodi Unified School District when the Bear Creek High School newspaper published an article about a student who made pornographic videos (“Writing About Teenager Who Makes Sex Videos, School Paper Becomes the News,” The New York Times, May 4).

The district demanded that the article be turned over for review before appearing online or in print, claiming that the piece might violate a state rule prohibiting anything featuring “obscenity, defamation and incitement.”  Only after the newspaper’s faculty adviser and the student who wrote the piece retained a lawyer did the district finally relent.

What is disturbing is the hypocrisy of school officials who say they want to develop critical thinking skills in students and yet refuse to treat students accordingly.  It’s little wonder that high school students rebel.  Adding to the controversy is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988. In a 5-3 ruling, the high court held that school administrators can exercise prior restraint of school-sponsored expression, including newspapers.  If that is so, then the ruling makes a mockery of its decision in the Tinker case.

I can understand if the article in the present case disrupted learning or was libelous.  But it clearly was neither.  Nevertheless, the district tried to block publication on the grounds that it had a duty to protect young students from harmful content.  But how would these students be harmed?  They are regularly exposed to images that go far beyond what the article described.  I wouldn’t want to be the adviser for a high school newspaper in the present climate.  It’s a thankless job.

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College teaching woes intensify

The number of college students today stand at an all-time high of 20 million, as compared with 8.6 million a half century ago.  Since 1970 alone, the number of faculty members has grown to 790,000 compared with 370,000. But lost in the data is the number of part-time faculty, which has increased to 755,000 from 105,000 (“ ‘The Adjunct Underclass’ Review: Teachable Moments,” The Wall Street Journal, May 2).

These adjunct teachers are referred to as freeway flyers in California because so many are forced to travel long distances between assignments in order to make ends meet.  Their salaries are low, and their benefits are few.  Yet it’s hard to feel sorry for them.  They must have known that earning a doctorate today in anything but science, technology, engineering or math would not make them marketable.  Nevertheless, they persist in their quest for a permanent position.  I don’t blame them for trying, but I wonder what they were thinking when they decided to earn a doctorate.

It’s understandable why colleges are reluctant to eliminate adjunct positions.  They provide flexibility in meeting the ever-changing needs of students.  Yes, entire departments of tenured professors can be abolished when demand dwindles to a trickle.  But why go that route when adjuncts are more easily jettisoned?  Further, most adjuncts receive no benefits, which make them cheap labor.  I’m not defending colleges, but they have to be realistic.  The situation is only going to get worse, as the supply of doctoral students continues to exceed the demand for their services.

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Charter schools’ reality check

In the relentless debate over charter schools, one factor is persistently given short shrift (“Toughening up on charter schools, finally,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29).  If charter schools are indeed public schools, then they should be required to act as such.

The truth is that charter schools demand public financing but resist public scrutiny for their practices.  For example, unlike traditional public schools they aren’t required to admit all who show up at their door at any time of the year, and they aren’t forced to retain the most incorrigible students.  As a result, they have a distinct advantage that makes comparisons with traditional public schools unfair.

All the scrutiny in the world will not matter if traditional public schools remain the schools of last resort.  What good do transparency and accountability mean as long as charter schools operate essentially as private schools?  I support parental choice, including charter schools, but they operate under a completely different set of rules.

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New hope for the gifted

For too long, gifted students in this country have been shorthanged. But a little-known program at California State University in Los Angeles is changing that for children as young as 11 (“Cal State L.A. is a haven for the young and gifted,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 28).

Since establishing its Early Entrance Program in 1982, Cal State has allowed academically gifted students to bypass years of boring classwork to achieve their full potential.  It does so despite the paltry funding of such programs by the federal government, which amounted to just $12 million in 2017.  That compares with $13 billion for special education.

Despite the urgent need to identify and nurture these students, critics persist in calling them elitist. Only in this country is that label the kiss of death.  Our competitors abroad understand the importance of supporting elitism.  But we are too guilt-ridden to keep up.

Given the brouhaha over diversity in elite schools, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lawsuit is soon filed against Cal State for not enrolling the “correct” racial balance of students.  That is already happening in New York City, whose elite high schools are under fire for not admitting enough black and Hispanic students.

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