The active-shooter school drills

Although the threat of an active shooter on school grounds is exceedingly rare, many districts continue to carry out drills that in many cases are extremely graphic (“The Needless Trauma of Active-Shooter Drills,” National Review, Nov. 11).  That has raised the question whether schools are acting with prudence or in panic.

I understand the intense anxiety that conducting such drills can create, especially in young children.  But in today’s highly litigious society, I believe such drills are a necessary evil.  I submit that it’s better to be sued by an irate parent than to mourn a dead child.

When I was teaching high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the policy was to have a stipulated number of fire drills each semester.  During my 28 years, there was never a fire.  But had there been one and teachers and students had not been trained what to do, there could have been tragic results.

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School spending accountability badly needed


 For as long as I can remember, school districts have been demanding more money to properly educate students.  But unless the extra funding is carefully monitored, disadvantaged students in particular will be shortchanged (“California’s poorest kids aren’t getting the school funding they’ve been promised,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7).  California serves as a case in point.

The Local Control Funding Formula that became law in the 2005-06 school year provided 20 percent more in supplemental dollars for each low-income student, foster student and English learner – plus an additional 50 percent in concentration funds for schools with large proportions of such students.

On paper, LCFF sounds great.  But because of a lack of oversight, too much of the funds have gone into general spending and basic expenditures. A state audit recommended that greater transparency is needed so that the funds are used for whom they were intended.

My point is that simply throwing more money at underperforming schools by itself will do little to change outcomes.  Yes, the additional money will make us feel good, but in the final analysis it is not enough.

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Colleges should focus on learning

At a time when colleges and universities are spending a disproportionate amount of money on student amenities, it’s heartening to know that Occidental College is charting a different course (“When Admissions Adviser Rick Singer Called, This School Said, ‘No Thanks,’ “ The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 7).  Rather than chase affluent applicants, it decided to put its money into scholarships for low-income minorities.

But It has paid a steep price for its decision, losing roughly $70 million in its endowment. That’s because it has rejected wealthy students with questionable academic track records in favor of admitting low-income qualified students who are not as likely to support the school financially after graduation.

I’ve never understood why lavish amenities are needed on campus in the first place.  Students are supposed to go to college for an education.  That has nothing to do with climbing walls etc.  Let’s focus instead on academic learning, which is really the No. 1 reason colleges and universities exist.

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Parental choice pays off for students

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice even though I recognize its downsides.  The latest evidence comes from Miami-Dade, the nation’s fifth-largest school district (“Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho rides the choice wave to student success,” Education Next).

Seventy-four percent of students in K-12 in the district attend schools other than those assigned to them.  This includes charter schools, private schools and magnet schools, and makes makes Miami-Dade the district with more choices than any other.  As a result, black and Hispanic students in the district outpace the state in performance on reading and math tests.

I realize that correlation is not causation.  It may just be that other factors other than choice alone explain the impressive results. But at a time when districts across the nation have had little success shrinking the achievement gap between blacks, Hispanics and others, it’s worthwhile asking if choice is the answer.  If so, then perhaps even opponents will change their minds.

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Overdoing parental involvement in children’s learning

Parental involvement in the education of their children is one of the most important factors in learning.  But the existence of online grade books is turning out to be a mixed blessing (“The New Parental Obsession: Checking Kids’ Grades Online,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 16).

Although online grade books allow parents to detect a problem while it is still correctable, it has also led to parents becoming compulsive.  That creates anxiety because parents fixate on a particular grade rather than overall learning.  I’m also not so sure that teachers like the idea, since it means they can become overwhelmed with queries from anxious parents. For example, some parents log in several times a day, which means teachers can expect to hear from worried parents.  I don’t know how teachers find the time to respond.

When I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, teacher-parent contact included phone calls home, progress reports and report cards that had to be signed by parents and after-school conferences. Online grade books provide greater continuity, but they also can become intrusive.

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No freedom of speech for high school teachers

In an attempt to engage students who are easily distracted by smart phones and the like, high school teachers understandably try to bring topics in the news into their classrooms (“ ‘Centrism Is Canceled’: High Schoolers Debate the Impeachment Inquiry,” The New York Times, Oct. 24).  But doing so is risky.

In Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District, the Sixth Circuit held in 2010 that only school boards of education can determine the curriculum.  In short, districts hire teacher speech.  As a result, when teachers decide on their own to introduce topics that have not been approved, they put themselves in jeopardy. High school teachers cannot claim academic freedom, as college professors can.

This puts high school teachers in a terrible position.  They want to make what they teach relevant, but they must be careful not to go beyond what the school district that hires them allows.  Although the news story cited above involves social studies teachers, the principle extends to all subject fields.  For example, biology teachers need to be cautious in discussing pre-marital sex unless that is in the approved curriculum.

There will always be some brave teachers who decide to violate the Evans-Marshall ruling, but they better be prepared for legal pushback.

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Data analysis more important than algebra

Despite dramatic data generation in just the past few years, students are not getting the kind of instruction they need. That’s because we persist in teaching algebra, trigonometry and calculus (“Modern high school math should be about data science – not Algebra 2,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 23).  As a result, they are severely shortchanged.

What all students need today is an understanding of how to analyze data.  I understand the importance of traditional math for those who intend to make a career in the field. But I fail to see how these subjects have relevance to solving real-life problems for most students.  Recognizing the need, the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2013 won approval from the University of California to allow data science to substitute for Algebra 2.

I hope school districts in other states will do the same.  There is an urgent need to modernize the math curriculum if we expect students to be prepared for the fast-changing world of data.

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All-boys schools are under attack

All-boys schools are depicted as venues for male privilege, entitlement and misogyny (“What Is the Role of an All-Boys School in 2019? How the Elite Institutions Are Trying to Adapt,” Time, Oct. 14).  That’s the only conclusion I can reach.  But I maintain that it is unfair.

There are some 780 private all-boys schools in the U.S. and some 650 private all-girls schools.  Parents enroll their children in them because they believe that they best meet their needs and interests.  It has nothing to do with developing stereotypical views of the excluded group.  Yet that is the criticism leveled at them.

What is wrong about wanting young people to avoid the distraction posed by the presence of classmates of the opposite sex?  Yes, some students can overcome the temptation of paying more attention to them than to their studies, but they are the exception.  That’s why I hope that single-sex schools will continue to be an option for parents.

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The case for humanities majors is weak

More and more students are majoring in STEM than in the humanities because they believe they will have better employment prospects and higher earnings (“The world’s top economists just made the case for why we still need English majors,” The Washington Post, Oct. 19).  Although that is true for their first job, some argue in the long run the picture is different.

Their case rests on the assumption that a liberal arts education builds soft skills like problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability, which will be in ever- greater demand as technology evolves.  In contrast, STEM majors, they say, lack such skills.  Where’s the evidence that STEM majors don’t possess these essential skills?  By the same token, where’s the evidence that only humanities’ majors possess them?

The other weakness in the argument for the humanities is that it takes on average two decades for the wage gap to close. How are graduates in the humanities supposed to support themselves in that period?  Yes, there will always be exceptions to the rule, but I continue to believe that college students today are being far more realistic than we give them credit for.

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Evaluating teachers fairly

In almost all schools in this country, teachers are evaluated primarily by principals who observe instruction (“What Knowledge Do Principals Need?” Education Week, Oct. 16).  But I’ve long questioned if this is the best way to do so.

Unless principals are certified in the subject being taught, how can they know if teachers know their subject?  For example, does a principal understand the use of the subjunctive in Spanish when observing a lesson on that topic?  If not, the teacher could be providing incorrect information to students even though the teacher uses correct pedagogy.

I submit that the fairest and most accurate way of evaluating teachers is peer review.  Teachers who are certified in the subject being observed are in a far better position to assess instruction.  Although tradition dies hard in education, and principals are reluctant to yield on this matter, I believe my proposal is worth considering.

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