Universal parental choice worth a try

With vouchers one of the most controversial issues in education in this country, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at Chile, which instituted universal vouchers in 1981 (“What Might Happen If School Vouchers And Privatization Of Schools Were To Become Universal In The U.S.: Learning From A National Test Case – Chile,” National Education Policy Center, June).

The greatest criticism of a universal voucher system is that it favors middle-class families at the expense of low-income families.  It does so because schools primarily select students more than students select schools.  (Think of this as what takes place now when high school seniors apply to college.)  Chile proved this is the case because schools were allowed to use admissions tests and parental interviews to determine which students to admit.  Moreover, since 1993 voucher schools were allowed to charge parents an additional amount over the government voucher. As a result, universal choice really is constrained choice.

Critics of vouchers forget, however, that no educational system is perfect.  Rather than abolish vouchers, I say why not make them fairer.  Let’s not forget that low-income black parents in the U.S. constitute a disproportionate part of the wait lists for charter schools.  They demand choice. For example, in New York City’s Harlem and the South Bronx, there are nearly four applicants for each available charter seat.  Why are they denied that opportunity? Is it because charters don’t provide bus transportation or require unaffordable uniforms?

The irony is that in Chile the performance gap between the country as a whole and the poorest 40 percent was cut by one-third in just five years.  That’s a huge accomplishment given short shrift in the debate.  Let’s learn from Chile to try to improve the education offered to so many low-income black and Hispanic students.

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SAT/ACT essay is still valid

When Yale University recently announced that it will no longer require applicants to submit an essay score, it joined other elite schools in what has become a disturbing trend (“Another big-name university drops SAT/ACT essay requirement,” The Washington Post, Jun. 1). Although admissions officers say that writing is an indispensable skill, their words ring hollow in light of their new policies.

The only possible rationale for their decision is that timed writing does not permit applicants to demonstrate their true ability.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, professors told us that the ability to write under pressure was only one indication of competence.  Most reflective writing requires thought that cannot easily be expressed when time is of the essence.

Short of that caveat, I maintain that colleges and universities are hypocritical.  If they genuinely believe that the ability to put one’s thoughts on paper is so important, then they have to demand evidence.  In short, they need to assess that wherewithal. Multiple-choice items are no substitute. Both the SAT and ACT would be receptive since it means additional income for them.

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Discriminating against Asians in college admission

If merit were the primary factor in determining admission to elite colleges and universities, Asian-American applicants would likely occupy far more seats than they do now (“The Balancing Game,” The Weekly Standard, Jun. 8).  That’s the basis for the closely watched lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University.

We know that because the student body at Caltech, which does not use racial preferences, is more than 40 percent Asian-Americans.  A similar pattern is seen at Stuyvesant High School in the New York City system and at other specialized high schools there, where Asian-American students constitute 52.5 percent of enrollment.  I realize that merit alone has never been the sole factor in determining admission.  Colleges have long granted preference to legacies, athletes and others.  But two wrongs don’t make a right.  Setting a higher bar for Asian-Americans makes a mockery of fairness.

I was reminded once again about this after reading the latest issue of The Concord Review.  Of the 11 high school students whose work was published in this highly regarded journal, five were Asians.  They all demonstrated impressive research and writing ability.  Will Fitzhugh, the editor and publisher, makes no apology for relying strictly on merit in deciding who makes the cut.  Nor should he.  Students deserve the exposure they get because they’ve earned it.  I think the same thing should hold true for colleges and universities.  Let’s see what the outcome of the Harvard lawsuit is.

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The ‘rotten’ teacher problem

One of the favorite subjects of opinion writers is the presence in public schools of what they call “rotten” teachers (“Why New York refuses to identify rotten teachers,” New York Post, Jun. 2).  They claim that the only objective way of identifying them is how their students perform on standardized tests.

I understand their anger and frustration.  There are teachers who do not belong in the classroom and should be fired.  But what I object to is the belief that standardized test scores are the way to do so.  The truth is that so much of the effectiveness of teachers is determined by the students assigned to them.  As I’ve written often before, give a weak teacher a class of Talmudic scholars and that teacher will shine.  Conversely, give a strong teacher a class of future felons and that teacher will fail.

If teachers were randomly assigned students, which is rarely the case, then perhaps an argument can be made for using test scores.  Even then, however, great caution has to be taken in drawing conclusions.  I emphasize that because much of any teacher’s performance is dependent on factors beyond his control.  If students come to class without proper rest and nutrition, they are not going to be receptive to learning, regardless of the quality of instruction.

Blaming unions for resisting the use of test scores to evaluate teachers is scapegoating.  Yes, unions exist to protect their members, but that does not mean nothing they do is without merit.  De-linking test scores from evaluation is a good example.

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Homeschooling’s appeal grows

Concerns about violence, drugs, bullying and sex are driving more parents to choose homeschooling for their children (“Educational decline: Homeschooling surges as parents see safer option for children,” The Washington Times, May 31).  According to a 2017 Department of Education report, some 1.69 million students from ages 5 to 17 are now homeschooled.  That compares with about 1.5 million five years earlier. However, the number may be higher because most states are not required to keep count.

Shootings stand out as being the No. 1 factor, as parents lose confidence in the ability of school officials to protect their children from harm.  I understand their concern, but home schooling is a commitment that many parents do not fully appreciate.  For example, although studies have shown that homeschooled students perform better on academic tests than their peers in public school, such studies depend on voluntary participation.  Moreover, children risk being socially isolated.

If parents fully understand what is required to provide their children with a quality education, then I get the appeal. The problem is that many parents learn too late that they are over their head.

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Catholic schools’ appeal to parents

In an attempt to provide their children with a quality education not available in traditional public schools, parents often choose Catholic schools (“The Catholic School Difference,” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 2). But contrary to popular belief, they are not always Catholic.

A new study conducted for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute by the University of California- Santa Barbara found that the emphasis on self-discipline was the reason.  This manifested itself in less disruptive behavior among students compared with their contemporaries in other schools.  Black and Hispanic students in Catholic schools in particular post higher achievement, higher graduation rates and higher college enrollment than their peers at nearby public schools.

I’m not sure that religion itself is the reason.  Catholic schools, like all non-public schools, play by a completely different set of rules.  They can admit and expel as they wish.  Charter schools can also do the same, which is why I question the role of religion.  Nevertheless, I’ve long believed that Catholic schools offer a sound education at a reasonable cost.  That’s why Catholic schools remain the largest non-government provider of education in the country, even though their number is shrinking.  It’s easy to forget that not too long ago Catholic schools educated one of every eight children and did it quite well, as renowned sociologist James Coleman documented in 1982.

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Civic duty is worthy goal

Teaching the responsibilities of citizenship used to be high on the list of what schools did.  Over the decades, however, that objective lost favor. Some reformers argue that re-instituting conscription is a way of bringing it back (“How to make up for what schools have stopped doing,” New York Post, May 12).

I have the greatest respect for the military and the sacrifices the men and women make for the country.  Those who serve most certainly value patriotism.  But I submit that the military is not the only way of teaching young people individual responsibility.  I have in mind now an updated version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was one of the most popular programs of the New Deal.

Those who participated quickly learned lessons about hard work and civic duty by constructing roads and buildings.  During the great Depression, the money earned and the meals received were welcome.  But equally important was the sense of making a contribution to the country.  I think a new CCC would be a more realistic way of doing what schools are supposed to do, but too often aren’t.  It’s certainly worth a try.

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Vocational education is in high demand

No other country in the industrialized world treats vocational education as shabbily as the U.S.  It’s a huge mistake (“Perks for Plumbers: Hawaiian Vacations, Craft Beer and ‘a Lot of Zen,’ “The Wall Street Journal, May 24).

Consider the market for plumbers.  Job openings reached a record 6.6 million in March.  The annual median pay for plumbers was nearly $53,000 a year in 2017, but far higher wages are routine, with six figures not uncommon.  Vocational education in high school and in community college, combined with apprenticeships, prepare young people for a gratifying career without the onerous student debt that four-year degrees create.

Yet the U.S. persists in the fiction that college is for everyone.  It is a delusion.  The appalling failure of so many students to complete their education for a bachelor’s degree should be a rude reminder, but it isn’t.  As a result, we have a generation of young people whom we have shortchanged.

The usual argument about the premium attached to possession of a bachelor’s degree compared with a high school diploma does not take into account the kind of major studied.  I seriously question whether a B.A. in gender studies, say, is as valuable in the market as a certificate in, say, plumbing.  Let’s not forget that a degree almost always comes with student debt.  Nevertheless, I doubt anything will change.  We are obsessed with college for all.

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Keep elite schools elite

In a misguided attempt to help disadvantaged students, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to change the admission rules to New York City’s specialized high schools (“New York City Mayor Alters Exam-School Admissions,” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 2).  What will happen is that the very students he wants to help will be precisely the ones who will be harmed.

When students lack the wherewithal to succeed in academically rigorous schools, the curriculum will be diluted, the students will be placed in easier classes, or they will be flunked.  But de Blasio is determined to engineer a racially acceptable mix of students regardless of the damage he will do.  Not only will ill- prepared students suffer, but parents whose children are succeeding will likely pull them out to go elsewhere when they realize that rigor is undermined.

A far better way of increasing the number of disadvantaged students in elite high schools is to intervene early in their lives through wraparound services. Unfortunately, by the time these children enter kindergarten, they are already months behind.  When intervention is done properly, the payoff will be reflected in the number of students who can qualify on their own merits for admission to elite schools.

It would be a shame if New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, caves in to pressure and destroys its best schools without considering the consequences.  Nations with the best schools have no problem in differentiation beginning at an early age.  For example, Singapore, which consistently ranks near the top on tests of international competition, begins the sorting out process with its Primary School Leaving Exam.

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Workplace needs trump academics

Despite increasing attention to preparing students for the workplace, too many courses are still promoted as essential for success when, in fact, they are hard to defend.  I’m thinking now of calculus (“Who Needs Calculus? Not High-Schoolers,” The Wall Street Journal, May 15).

Since the 1980s, the number of high schools teaching calculus has grown dramatically.  For students who intend to major in math, physics, or engineering, calculus is indispensable.  But I wonder if most students would not be better off learning statistics or computer science?  Analyzing data in all their various forms is far more likely to be useful.

The argument against aligning courses with the reality of the workplace is that doing so turns schools into training camps for business.  But students and their parents are entitled to know if what is being studied has relevance.  There is some truth to the claim that it’s impossible to know the answer beforehand.  Yet the cost of going to college today is so exorbitant that few are willing to wait to find out.  They demand to see a direct connection between what they are studying and its marketability.

I remember when Latin was defended as essential.  But time has shown that its benefits were wildly oversold.  Latin is certainly academic, but I think students would be far better off learning Mandarin or Arabic as a foreign language.  It all comes down to its value in the workplace.

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