Coaches have too much clout in admissions

The widely publicized admissions scandal reveals the outrageous position that athletic programs occupy (“Colleges Rethink Athletic Special Admissions in Wake of Indictments,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 18).   Only in the U.S. is this the case.  Students in other countries participate in sports, but the options open to them and the weight given to them pale in comparison.

I realize that football and basketball in many schools are a cash cow.  But the obsession has so distorted academics that it makes a mockery of higher education.  For example, some 158 slots annually are reserved for use by athletic coaches.  If those admitted genuinely possessed the ability to compete with their non-athletic peers, that would be a different story.  I seriously doubt that is so. Moreover, football coaches at some schools earn several million dollars a year, more than college presidents.

The argument for the status quo is that varsity athletics contain vital lessons for real life, such as discipline and teamwork.  They also help keep participants in physical shape.  But those same goals can be achieved by intramural sports.  Of course that will never happen because alumni pressure wouldn’t allow it.  Moreover, few schools are willing to forego the money that is attached to the present system.

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Admissions scandal is nothing new

There’s not much more that hasn’t already been written about the college admissions cheating scandal (“Bribing your way to college,” Reuters, Mar. 14). However, one thing does merit further consideration.

It’s Campbell’s Law.  More than 30 years ago, Donald Campbell, an eminent social scientist, warned about the danger of measuring ability by any single influential metric.  He said that the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.

As long as scores on the SAT and ACT are given so much weight by admissions officers, they will invariably create an atmosphere that serves as an incentive to cheat.  For example, in 2011, in what The New York Times called “one of the most conspicuous cheating scandals in memory,” five students from prominent and respected families in Great Neck, N.Y. received as much as $3,600 to take SAT and ACT tests for students with undistinguished records. They were charged with felonies, while the 15 accused of paying them faced misdemeanor charges.

The irony is the SAT was originally supposed to be a way that merit – not parentage – would be the basis for admission to college.  At least that was what James Bryant Conant, then president of Harvard, intended when he supported the test.  But over the years, his vision was corrupted.  The history was laid out in detail in “The Big Test” by Nicholas Lemann in 1999.

As long as cutthroat competition exists for admission to elite colleges and universities, I see little hope for significant change.  Money in one form or another will always play a dominant role in who is accepted.  We can eliminate legacy preferences and development cases, but money speaks louder than anything else.

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Animal therapy for special needs students

Students who have special needs can’t always get the help they deserve at even the best traditional schools.  But evidence is slowly emerging that placing them in schools where animals constitute the center of learning is paying off (“ ‘I Had Finally Found the Right Place for My Son,’ “ The New York Times, Mar. 3).

At Green Chimneys, located on a former dairy farm in Putnam County, NY., students make remarkable progress by caring for animals.  Although this fully accredited day and residential school is expensive, with tuition at $50,000 for day students and much more for boarders, the demand continues to grow. Perhaps that’s because school districts pay the tuition due to the shortage of certified special-education teachers in public schools.

But another more likely reason is that animals provide the love and support many students have never had before.  There’s an old expression that there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.  I’d expand that to include all animals, both big and small.  I expect to see new studies conducted that confirm the benefits of animal therapy. It’s not a panacea, but I submit that it is invaluable.

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More funding doesn’t mean better schools

Spending more money for each student in order to turn around failing schools has great intuitive appeal.  But doing so has not produced the desired results.  New York State serves as a case in point (“$773 Million Later, de Blasio Ends Signature Initiative to Improve Failing Schools,” The New York Times, Feb. 26).

Although New York ranks near the very top on per-pupil expenditures in the nation, many of its schools continue to fail. Consider New York City under Mayor de Blasio.  Despite spending $773 million on nearly 100 low-performing schools on his Renewal program, 75 percent have fallen far short of the hoped-for improvements. Still undeterred, de Blasio now will direct funding to the neediest schools under a new centralized data system called Edu Stat.

I don’t believe anything significantly different will emerge.  I say that because so much of any school’s success is dependent on factors beyond the control of teachers and principals.  The Coleman Report made that clear decades ago.  It’s not that schools don’t matter. But family and neighborhood play a greater role.  There will always be exceptions, but they are outliers. I’m thinking now of Jaime Escalante, who performed miracles at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

Let’s give greater support to struggling schools, but let’s also get real.  Schools are not Lourdes.

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AP tests are latest victim of diversity

Once considered the pride of schools in this country, Advanced Placement courses have fallen out of favor (“AP Tests Are Still a Great American Equalizer,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 23).  Many elite private and public schools have eliminated them out of concern that they place unnecessary stress on students and fail to produce the ideal racial outcome patterns.

Our competitors abroad have no such compunctions.  For example, France continues to administer the bac, which is a national standardized exam consisting of a series of 10 to 12 tests over the course of a week.  It is the sole requirement to move on to university.

Advanced Placement courses have never been designed for all students.  They exist as evidence that students are capable of handling rigorous work in college.  But because they fail to deliver the desired racial quota outcomes, they are said to be guilty of elitism.  It’s why efforts are underway in New York City to eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, which has long been used as a screening device.

Standards will continue to fall across the country as long as differentiation in education in any form is considered anathema to democratization.  That’s a pity because a college degree used to mean something.

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Do sex education right

Despite evidence that abstinence-only education actually increases rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections, only 13 states require such education to be medically accurate (“As Colorado Moves to Bar Abstinence-Only Sex Education, Teenagers Take the Lead,” The New York Times, Feb. 21).  That’s appalling when the consequences are fully understood.

Unfortunately, too many parents incorrectly assume that teaching the truth about sex will result in their children engaging in intimate practices.  California passed the Healthy Youth Act in 2016, which required schools to teach the truth about the subject, even though some parents attacked the act as being pornographic.

It’s amazing that the U.S. persists in its prudishness about sex, particularly because kids mature much earlier than in past generations and are exposed to sexual images on an unprecedented scale.  Other countries are far more realistic.  For example, Sweden treats sex as important as other subjects.  It insists on truthfulness.  Too bad the U.S. does not follow Sweden.  Our young people would be better served and tragedies could be avoided.

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Vouchers still are viable despite setbacks

Although events in several states seem to indicate that vouchers in their various forms have no future, the U.S. Supreme Court still remains to be heard (“Has the Tide Turned Against Vouchers?” National Education Policy Center, Feb. 21).  The closest it came in that regard was in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, when the high court held that Cleveland’s vouchers did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment even though parents were permitted to use them for religious schools.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I’ve also stressed time and again that public money should not be used for religious schools.   SCOTUS disagrees.  I still don’t understand the rationale for the Zelman ruling.  Late last year, the Montana Supreme Court agreed in part, when it struck down the state’s three-year old neovoucher program because it funded private and religious education.

I don’t believe that voters are willing to completely give up on traditional public schools.  The closest they are can be seen in the popularity of charter schools, which are publicly funded. But even charter schools are facing pushback by a cap placed on their growth by some school districts.  As things stand, charter, private and religious schools play by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools. As a result, comparing outcomes is totally unfair.

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Peer effect is overrated in student performance

The latest argument for admitting students who do not pass the entrance exam to selective high schools is the peer effect (“It’s the peer effect, stupid: What makes schools like Stuyvesant great. It’s not test-based admission, but broader culture of excellence,” New York Daily News, Feb. 20).  What advocates maintain is that being in a school where academic excellence permeates the atmosphere is enough to help all students succeed.

I don’t doubt for a second that the peer effect is a factor in how students learn, but I think it is highly overrated.  If students are admitted when they lack the skills and knowledge to handle rigorous work, they will struggle and eventually fail no matter who their classmates are.  It takes a certain IQ to deal with the kind of college-level work that elite high schools in any community offer.  Yes, being around other students who are far brighter can act as a motivation, but it is not enough to compete.

Hollywood would have everyone believe that grit is how poorly prepared students can succeed.  But the prose of textbooks used in New York’s specialized high schools requires what educators have said is an IQ of about 115.  That’s the top 16 percent of the distribution.  There will always be a few exceptions, but how can being around other smarter students help students who don’t possess the same intelligence?

There has been much coverage in the media about the mismatch when students choose a college or university.  I say the same thing applies when students are admitted to elite high schools.  We are setting them up for failure despite the best intentions.

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Elitism is a dirty word in education

Everyone talks about the importance of standards in education.  Yet when it comes to teaching English, most say that teaching correct grammar is elitist (“A Style Guide for the 1 Percent,” The New Yorker, Feb. 11). Apparently, they are content with allowing students to write without any rules.

If that’s so, then why make English a required subject for graduation from high school at all?  Let students simply write whatever they want.  By the same token, let students read whatever they want.  Who cares about exposing them to the classics, which they would no doubt find boring?

I taught English at the same high school for 28 years. During that time, I saw how dumbed down the curriculum became as pressure built to make everything relevant.  You don’t have to be a pedant or snob to realize that without standards school becomes little more than a protracted playground. We talk so often about the importance of preparing students for college or the workplace.  But by abandoning standards because they are said to be elitist, we shortchange them.

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Diversity hypocrisy in higher education

The latest twist to the diversity obsession in colleges and universities comes from an accomplished Korean-American playwright who attributes her success to affirmative action (“I’m Asian-American. Affirmative Action Worked for Me.” The New York Times, Feb. 10).  Young Jean Lee believes she was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley because Asian-Americans were underrepresented in the English department.

Lee goes on to explain how being exposed to people from different races expanded her intellect.  What she fails to mention is that diversity in higher education is limited only to race and gender.  It does not apply to thought.  That’s the supreme irony of what is happening on campuses across the country.  Political correctness prevents students from getting a real education.  Anyone doubting my view needs only to recall speakers who are shouted down by students when they attempt to present views not in line with what they want to hear.

If students are shortchanged by the disproportionate absence of people of color on campus, they are even more shortchanged by lack of exposure to diverse viewpoints.  That kind of hypocrisy makes a mockery of what a college education is supposed to be.

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