The writing skills needed for the workplace

It comes as no surprise that employers are hard pressed to find workers who can effectively communicate (“What Skills Do Students Really Need for Work? Education Week, Sep.26).   I say that because I taught English for 28 years in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  During that time, I saw the disconnect between the kind of writing curricular guides required and what I knew the workplace demanded.

I have nothing against creative writing.  But I question if the skills required are transferable.  Employers need workers who can clearly and succinctly express themselves.  I seriously doubt that courses in creative writing will provide students with that wherewithal.

Journalists are criticized for being mental lightweights.  But they are successful in making sense of even the most arcane subject.  I attribute their ability to do so by having their writing scrutinized by their editors.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism from UCLA, I learned how to take even the most complex subject and make sense of it for readers through constant practice followed by immediate feedback.

Creative writing certainly has its place.  But if the goal is to prepare students for the job market, it will not be seen as an asset.

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The Harvard discrimination lawsuit

By now, anyone who follows education in this country knows about the lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University (“Harvard on Trial,” The Weekly Standard, Oct. 22).  It charges that Harvard discriminates against Asian-Americans by holding them to a higher standard than students of other races.

I’m one of the few educators who believes that academics alone should be the sole basis for admission to private colleges and universities.  If that results in a far less racially diverse student body, so be it.  It’s not that I don’t see the benefits of having students from diverse backgrounds.  All I care about is the ability of students to handle the work

Consider the California Institute of Technology.  It uses no racial or legacy preferences in admissions.  Not surprisingly, its student body is more than 40 percent Asian-American.  Are students there being shortchanged by not being in a school with more students of other races?  Perhaps, but I maintain that the price they may be paying is worth it in light of the school’s high academic standards.

Put differently, how are students who lack the aptitude and ability to handle complex material helped if they are admitted on the basis of achieving diversity?  I believe that everyone is good at something.  The challenge is finding what it is and then pursuing a career.  You don’t have to go to Harvard to do that.

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State tests need to be used properly

Since standardized tests are not going away anytime soon, it’s time to revise the way they are used (“New York’s state English exams are a horrific waste,” New York Post, Sep. 30).  At present, most state tests are administered in April, but the results are not released until summer.  That makes no sense.

I say that because the primary purpose of standardized tests is to provide teachers with feedback about their instruction.  The sooner they get the results the sooner they can revise their lessons.  For students, the delay is even more troublesome because it’s too late to enroll in summer school.  In New York City, this year’s summer school enrollment was down by more than half since 2013.

Further, unless standardized tests are directly aligned with the curriculum, scores are relatively meaningless.  They essentially are measuring what students bring to class in terms of their socioeconomic backgrounds rather than what they learn in class through effective instruction.  That’s an important distinction given short shrift in the debate.

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Diversity in education has different meanings

Mention the term diversity to most people and chances are they will assume it refers strictly to race.  But in actuality it can also mean socioeconomic diversity or academic diversity (“NYC’s school diversity plan could lead to another ‘white flight,’ “ New York Post, Sep. 29).  The differences in meaning create different reactions from people – and for good reason.

Parents want the best education for their children. Racial and socioeconomic diversity has proved to be beneficial, which is why parents tend to support that goal.  What they don’t support, however, is academic diversity because it undermines quality.  For example, efforts are underway in New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system, to open the doors of its academically rigorous high schools to students who want to go there.  The trouble is that students who are unprepared for the tougher curriculum will fail.

What will no doubt happen then is that they will drop out or standards will be lowered to accommodate them.  If the past is any indication, it will be the latter.  As a result, parents will likely pull their children out of these schools and enroll them in either private school or in charter schools.  I don’t blame them.  They’ve made great sacrifices to provide their children with a quality education.  If academics are to be undermined in the interest of other considerations, they will do what’s best for their own.

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College students deserve due process in sex-assault cases

Until recently, the fate of college students who were accused of sexual misconduct was determined by campus disciplinary bodies.  But the federal Sixth Circuit appeals court correctly ruled that they have a right to due process (“Thank the courts for rescuing college kids from unfair sex-assault charges,” New York Post, Sep. 28).

The truth is that campus courts were kangaroo courts, which favored accusers.  They did not allow cross-examination.  Without it, those accused were unable to mount a defense.  As a result, being accused of sex assault was tantamount to being found guilty.  It was a travesty of justice.

Victims of sexual assault should be required to file a complaint with off-campus police.  Disciplinary systems on campus have long been tilted in favor of accusers.  Yes, they have rights, but so too do the accused.  Too much is at stake to return to the old system.

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For-profit schools don’t belong in education

Although the focus today is on for-profit schools that have defrauded students, I submit that they have no place whatsoever in education (“What Betsy DeVos Thinks She Can Get Away With,” The New York Times, Sep. 24).  That’s because producing a profit is fundamentally incompatible with education’s basic mission.

Let me explain.  In an ideal world, schools and students would equally benefit. But I don’t think that’s possible in for-profit schools.  Finding themselves caught between the interests of students and those of financial stakeholders, for-profit schools will invariably choose the latter or soon find themselves out of business.  For example, studies show that students learn more effectively when classes are small.  But hiring more teachers will always cut into profits.

Worse, for-profit schools have engaged in a pattern of lying about career opportunities.  That’s not surprising because they are always under pressure to boost profits.  In order to keep their financial backers happy, they must always produce ever greater returns.  What better way to achieve that objective than by misrepresenting facts about gainful employment.

Education is by its very nature extremely labor-intensive.  The steps that companies in the private sector have taken to please financial backers will shortchange students.  That’s why I maintain that education should remain non-profit at all levels.

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The charitable-industrial complex

When Jeff Bezos announced that he is donating $2 billion to create a network of free Montessori-inspired preschools, he was praised for not following in the footsteps of other titans who have chosen to financially support top-down charter schools (“How to Realize Preschool Dreams,” The New York Times, Sep. 21).

That’s because recent research conducted at the University of Virginia found that children from low-income families in public Montessori programs were more likely to catch up to their advantaged peers than those who attended programs elsewhere.

But the study did not specify what those other programs were.  That’s an important omission because it leaves unanswered if the other programs were charter schools or traditional public schools.  For example, how did children in Montessori schools compare with children in Success Academy?  How did they compare with children in public schools in affluent suburban areas?

Montessori schools may be a godsend for some children but a disaster for others.  So much depends on what parents believe their own children need.  The Montessori model emphasizes child-directed learning in multiage classrooms.  It individualizes instruction. I vividly remember the media hoopla given to Summerhill School in Suffolk, England in the 1960s.  It appealed to parents who saw traditional British and American schools as rigid, joyless places.

I’m glad that Bezos is going to invest in a Montessori network.  His funding will give parents even more options than they have now.

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The race of teachers and student learning

Do students learn best when their teachers are of the same race? (“Teacher Diversity and Learning,” The New York Times, Sep. 23). That seems to be the widespread assumption. But I question it.

It’s based on the belief that all teachers of the same race bring the same  attitudes to class about their students, whether of the same race or of a different race. Stereotyping teachers is the real problem. The truth is that no race is a monolith.  Students of color are no more alike than white students.  By the same token, black teachers are no more alike than white teachers.

I’m not saying that greater efforts shouldn’t be made to increase teacher diversity.  As I pointed out in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on Sep. 23, nonwhite teachers leave the classroom at a higher rate than other teachers because of a lack of support and collegiality.

In the final analysis, however, knowledge of subject matter and excellence in pedagogy are more likely to translate into instructional effectiveness than race alone.

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The school day schedule needs revision

Tradition dies hard in education, but nowhere more so than in the hours of a typical school day (“The Curse of America’s Illogical School-Day Schedule,” The Atlantic, Sep. 19).  Classes begin too early and end too soon to meet the needs of most students and working parents.

The usual start time for public high schools is 8:00.  The trouble is that most teenagers don’t naturally fall asleep until 11:00 or so.  As a result, they arrive at school half awake.  I vividly remember the semester when I had two classes of senior composition.  The first began at 8:15, and the second after lunch period at about 1:00.  Both classes were composed of students of equal ability.  But the difference in performance between the two was dramatic.

Working parents whose children are in elementary school also find the present schedule to be a burden, but for a different reason.  They are forced to find caretakers until they arrive home from work.  During the long winter months, they worry about their children walking home in inclement weather.

Eventually, I foresee public schools providing wraparound services that begin with breakfast and end with supper.  That would be costly, but I think pressure is building for such a radical change.  For one thing, The RAND Corporation estimates that starting school after 8:30 would contribute at least $83 billion to the national economy within a decade.  That’s no small thing to consider.

Unfortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown of California vetoed a bill that would have required middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.  He said such decisions are best handled at the local school level.

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In-class presentations can actually be enjoyable

The latest protest by students involves in-class presentations, which they say are discriminatory (“Teens Are Protesting In-Class Presentations,” The Atlantic, Sep. 12).  According to them, this traditional practice creates anxiety in those prone to the condition.  I think that eliminating such presentations actually does a disservice.

One of the most effective ways of reducing anxiety is to gradually expose students to precisely what they fear the most.  The key to success is how it is done.  If teachers provide students with appropriate practice, I submit that anxiety will be eliminated or at least greatly reduced.  Let me explain how.

When I began my 28-year teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I was assigned an introductory speech class.  I decided to throw away the textbook and instead try a different approach.  After introducing myself the first day, I asked each student to come to the front of the room and introduce oneself in two or three sentences.  Nothing else.

It was quite apparent that almost all students were nervous and self-conscious.  But the mere act of standing in front of their peers immediately helped them to see that their fears were greatly exaggerated.  I used their first appearance as a baseline from which their progress would be compared over the semester.

My point is that how teachers prepare their students for the assignment is the key to success.  Avoiding what we fear the most only reinforces the fear, even though it may be initially uncomfortable.  By the way, the approach I used resulted in several of my students winning state speaking tournaments, with trophies still on display in the school’s showcase.

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