History major is no assurance of critical thinking

The number of students majoring in history has dropped more steeply since 2011 than any other undergraduate degree (“Fewer Students Are Majoring in History, But We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Why,” Time, Dec. 6).

There are several explanations for the trend, but none more convincing than the cost-benefit analysis.  In short, students are rightly asking if a history major will enhance their earnings potential. There was a time when possession of a B.A. in any major distinguished the holder when entering the job market.  But today that’s no longer true.  What matters far more is one’s major.

Defenders of the history major maintain that students develop writing skills and critical thinking skills, which are vital in getting a decent salary.  The only evidence I’ve seen to support that argument is The Concord Review, which publishes research papers by high school students. College professors, on the other hand, complain that their students are unable to write a coherent essay, as I wrote about recently.

How to explain the disparity between the two?  Will Fitzhugh, publisher of TCR, says it’s the result of students being required to read extensively.  Unfortunately, too many college students have never done so.  As a result, they not only lack factual knowledge about their subject but also lack the wherewithal to express themselves in writing.

I wish that college professors would make TCR required reading for their history courses.  Doing so would be far more effective than lecturing about how to demonstrate critical thinking.

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Teachers’ pensions at risk in California

All eyes are on California this week as the state Supreme Court hears oral arguments challenging what is known as the California Rule (“State’s justices consider pension disputes,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 6).  Three cases – the Marin, Tri-county and CalFire – relate to reductions in retirement benefits made by the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2012.

The California Rule protects only vested benefits, which cannot be reduced without mutual agreement from the employee.  (Non-vested benefits are not covered.)  But the state Legislature can still modify the promised benefits over objections from employees.

If the California Supreme Court rules in favor of the three plaintiffs, it will be the final straw in destroying attempts to recruit and retain the best and the brightest to the teaching profession.  Morale is already at an all-time low, as attacks on teachers and their unions intensify, coupled with ever growing responsibilities.

One of the attractions of making teaching a career is that practitioners can look forward to a secure retirement.  Once that security is abolished, what else is next?  Teaching is not intended for those who seek affluence.  But the reward of working with young people is not sufficient to induce college graduates to a classroom career.  I hope the court keeps the California Rule in place, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.

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Mismatch theory harms students

In a well-intentioned attempt to reach out to low-income black and Hispanic students to apply to elite college, school counselors are unwittingly setting them up for failure.  The latest example is the T.M. Landry College Preparatory School (“Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the Reality,” The New York Times, Nov. 30).

The Ivies and their ilk are brands that have great appeal.  But they are not for everyone because of their rigor.  Counselors need to be more realistic in directing students to apply to all schools after high school graduation.  Some are better served by attending a community college, while others to a state university.

I say that because when students are rejected by marquee-name schools or can’t handle the work and drop out, their self-esteem is going to be severely affected.  I understand the sex appeal of certain colleges and universities, but students need to be reminded that they can get a solid education at second-tier schools.  Moreover, they often get far greater gratification by pursuing a vocation course of study in high school, accompanied by an apprenticeship.

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Principal diversity remains elusive

Few people will deny the important role that principals play in educating students, which is why the low percentage of people of color in authoritative positions is disturbing (“School leadership: An untapped opportunity to draw young people of color into teaching,” brookings.edu, Nov. 26).  But let’s not jump to any conclusions.

Despite the opportunities for leadership in schools for blacks and Hispanics compared with leadership opportunities in other fields, principals are largely white. Reformers argue that the reason isracism.  But I submit that not everyone wants to leave classroom teaching for the front office.  That’s because principals today are saddled with unprecedented responsibilities.

When I was in public school from K-12, the principal’s job was far less stressful than it is today.  As a result, the decision to leave the classroom was easy.  Some teachers wanted higher pay and were willing to put in the additional hours.  But today, the additional pay simply is not as alluring because of the unprecedented responsibilities that go along with it.  In short, it’s a personal choice.

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Professors need basic course in pedagogy

College professors still overwhelmingly rely on lectures to teach their subject and then wonder why students don’t perform as expected.  I was reminded of this after reading an essay by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and Laurence Steinberg (“Beyond the midterms: Helping students overcome the impact of No Child Left Behind,” brookings.edu, Nov. 21).

They say they’ve been teaching and grading undergraduates for more than 35 years.  During that time, they’ve seen a decline in the ability of their students to write a coherent and well-structured essay even after distributing a series of questions in advance of the test day.  They blame the problem on No Child Left Behind, which relied heavily on multiple-choice tests.

But what about their responsibility in the matter?  They claim that with “adequate preparation” everyone should get a good grade.  I submit that unless their students are given frequent practice writing coherent and well-structured essays their students will continue to disappoint them.  I doubt the two professors do anything even close to that.

The most effective way is to give students appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback.  If the goal is to have students write an essay that meets their criteria, then it behooves them to provide their students with the opportunity to do exactly that.  Instead, they likely lecture what an acceptable essay looks like and then assume their students will miraculously produce one.

When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, we spent afternoons in a writing lab.  We were given a topic to write about and then sat down at our typewriters while the professor circled the room making suggestions as he looked over our shoulders.  It worked beautifully.

I know that lecture halls are not conducive to such a practice.  But why can’t the two professors break up the students into small groups and ask them to compose an essay on their ubiquitous laptops while they visit each group to make comments?  The best essay can then be displayed as a model.  I know this will never happen because tradition dies hard in higher education.

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For-profit colleges are a rip off

I thought I had seen the last of for-profit colleges after the media revealed a series of scandals.  But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos restored federal recognition to the body overseeing them (“For-profit college accrediting group is revived,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 23).

Too many students enrolled in for-profit colleges wind up with overwhelming debt, non-transferable credits, and no degree.  Those who graduate receive a degree that isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.  But because the degree comes from a “college,” the unsophisticated continue to apply. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools is no assurance of positive change.

I don’t believe that profit has a place in education.  That’s particularly the case in higher education, where debt is non-dischargeable.  As a result, students get hammered twice: a worthless degree and crippling debt that haunts them for decades.  They would be far better served by going to accredited community colleges, which are quite affordable.

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Education savings accounts run wild

Parental choice takes several forms, but arguably none as appealing as education savings accounts.  Arizona was a pioneer in establishing them in 2011.  But what has happened there serves as a cautionary tale for other states (“Cosmetics and Clothes: Parents Misspent $700,000 in Arizona’s School Choice Program,” Education Week, Nov. 19).

The way they work likely explains why.  The state deposits 90 percent of per-student funds allocated to a participating pupil into a dedicated bank account.  Parents are given a debit card to spend the money on a list of approved educational expenses.  But some parents have been using the money for prohibited purchases such as cosmetics, clothing and travel.

Arizona has not aggressively monitored the program until recently.  The only way to do so is to track cash withdrawals on a daily basis, rather than wait until parents have run up thousands of dollars of withdrawals.  Education savings accounts are not personal piggy banks to be used as parents alone see fit.

Florida uses the accounts also, but the state does not administer the program.  Instead, two non-profit groups are charged with that responsibility.  Yet even under that system abuses are possible unless oversight is systematic.  The lesson to be learned is that parental choice funding requires constant accounting.

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Teacher unions are still needed

Teacher unions are scapegoated for all the ills afflicting public schools today.  Critics say their existence makes trying to fire incompetent teachers a Sisyphean task.  I understand their anger and frustration.  But there’s another side of the story that needs retelling (“A School Strike That Never Quite Ended,” The New York Times, Nov. 17).  It’s a history lesson that is relevant today.

In 1968, black leaders urged the creation of a local school district in the low-income Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y.  They demanded hiring more black teachers who would serve as role models for the largely black schools in that district.  The local school board sent telegrams to 19 unionized teachers informing them that they were terminated.  (One black teacher mistakenly was included but was immediately rehired.)

Only the intervention of Albert Shanker, the union president, prevented their dismissal.  But he was unable to prevent their involuntary transfer, despite filing a grievance and submitting to arbitration.  Contrary to widespread belief, the union did not call a strike at that point.

What finally led to a protracted strike was the lack of due process for the teachers, which he correctly knew would set a precedent for future dismissals.  What is forgotten is the long record of politically- and personally-based transfers that non-unionized teachers had to endure.

Which brings me to today.  If teacher unions were abolished, it would subject even the best teachers to retaliation by abusive principals.  Critics assert that only the worst teachers would be affected.  But that is not so.

I’ve written often before about what happened in 2004 and 2005 at Brooklyn Technical High School, which is one of a handful of elite high schools in the New York system.  The principal bullied so many teachers during his tenure, including some with exemplary records, that several requested transfers.  If it were not for the existence of the union, I venture that they would have been terminated or so hounded that they would have quit.

Some teachers believe that they possess immunity because they are well liked by their students.  They are naïve.  Principals still possess enormous power because of the state education code and school board decisions.  Without the protection of unions, they all are vulnerable.

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New college sex assault rules long overdue

College students accused of sexual assault found themselves in what were essentially kangaroo courts (“Betsy De Vos Reverses Obama-era Policy on Campus Sexual Assault Investigations,” The New York Times, Nov. 17).  But that is about to change – and not a moment too soon.

Defendants will soon have due process rights, including most importantly the right to cross-examine their accusers.  I never understood why administrators did not refer such cases to off-campus police.  I say that because the lives of many men have been ruined under the old system.  I’m not implying that all accused students are innocent.  On the contrary.  But they deserve the right to defend themselves when the stakes are so high.

If colleges and universities insist on trying sexual assault cases on campus, then it’s incumbent on them to adhere to the rules of criminal law.  I’m glad that some sense of fairness may finally come to higher education.  My main concern is that schools can still use a “preponderance of evidence” rather than “clear and convincing evidence” as the standard.

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Collegial collaboration is hard to achieve

As pressure mounts to improve student performance, professors from time to time weigh in with proposals that are supported by research (“How better teachers are made,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 16).  The latest example is Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and emeritus professor at Stanford.

Darling-Hammond says that instruction is improved when teachers are “supported with good ideas.”  The key, she urges, is collegial collaboration.  I agree, but she needs a reality check because the lockstep schedule that characterizes public schools in this country makes her suggestion almost impossible.

Teachers in pre-K-12 don’t have the luxury that professors enjoy.  Their day barely allows them time to use the restroom, let alone sit down with their colleagues to discuss instructional strategies.  Teachers are simply too exhausted.  I challenge university professors to teach for a month in a public school.  They’ll quickly find out what I mean.

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