Poor judgment is no excuse for firing

When does the punishment not fit the crime?  I have reference now to a lawsuit filed by a white public school teacher in New York City who was canned because of a lesson she prepared on slavery for her middle school students (“Teacher fired for making black students play slaves plans $1B lawsuit,” New York Post, Jan. 11).

There’s no doubt that Patricia Cummings used atrocious judgment when she had black students lie on the floor while she allegedly stepped on their backs to teach them about slavery conditions. That’s like having Jewish students wear black-and-white striped pajamas to teach them about the Holocaust.  In both cases, students would feel humiliated.

But unless Cummings has a record of using similar practices or was otherwise ineffective, I think she should be given another chance.  First offenders in criminal cases are routinely placed on probation for a stipulated number of years and ordered to comply with other conditions.  Cummings did not commit a crime. Why is she different, particularly because she is now unemployable as a result of the publicity surrounding her dismissal?

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Afrocentric schools’ appeal

New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, remains one of the most segregated.  But rather than demand integration, some black parents are opting for schools that are specifically designed for their children (“ ‘I Love My skin!’ Why Black Parents Are Turning to Afrocentric Schools,” The New York Times, Jan. 8).  These Afrocentric schools tend to post high test scores and high graduation rates compared with other public schools in the city.

I understand the reason that some black parents – not all by any means – have chosen to enroll their children in Afrocentric schools.  But I wonder if abandoning integration serves these students well in the long run.  One of the most persistent goals in education is promoting diversity. But these schools by their very nature do not do so.  Yes, there are some Hispanic students enrolled but few, if any, whites.  In an increasing diversified workforce, will black students who have self-segregated be shortchanged?  Nevertheless, as readers of this column know, I support parental choice.

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Teacher strikes will hit charter schools next

Whatever the outcome of the strike by teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one thing is inevitable:  Charter schools will be next in line.  I say that because the first-ever charter school strike in the nation already took place in Chicago (“A Labor Strike at a Charter School?” The Nation, Jan. 7).

Until now, teachers in charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have overwhelmingly not belonged to a union.  But conditions are slowly changing as a result of disaffection with the status quo.  Chief among these is resentment over the lack of autonomy accorded teachers and salaries that are 20 to 30 percent less than teachers at traditional public schools.

It’s true that wait lists for admission to charters in many cities are already long and growing longer.  Yet I wonder if exasperated parents will feel the same way about the hype surrounding their alleged superiority once teachers threaten a strike and go through with it.  The fact is that teaching today is much harder than it was in the past, whether in public, private or religious schools.  Sooner or later, teachers will flee the classroom unless they are given greater respect and support.

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Ministerial exception rule is being abused

When a teacher at St. James Catholic School in Southern California requested a leave of absence to receive treatment for her breast cancer, she was subsequently fired (“Teacher with cancer can sue,” San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 19).  The school said it would be unfair to students to have two teachers in one year.

A lower court held that the school had the right to fire her because she was effectively a minister. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals correctly overruled that decision. Putting aside the fact that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the claim is ridiculous on its face since the teacher had no training in Catholic pedagogy and the school had no religious requirements for the position.  Would the same school claim that an observant Jew or Muslim was a minister as well?

It’s necessary to look back to 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC that the First Amendment allows religious employers to discriminate against their employees without any court review.  (EEOC is the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.)  By doing so, the high court permitted religious schools to enjoy absolute freedom to choose their ministers.  It wasn’t long after that they began to abuse the right.

For example, a Catholic school district in Montana in 2014 fired a teacher for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. Ten other teachers in Catholic schools across the nation were fired for the same reason.  The schools all said they had the right to do so because of ministerial exception.  I realize that there is a distinct difference between becoming pregnant and developing breast cancer.  But I submit that religious schools will take advantage of the ministerial exception shield.

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Intelligence is more than literacy and numeracy

Whether nature or nurture is largely responsible for the outcomes on IQ tests is an ongoing debate (“James Watson Won’t Stop Talking About Race,” The New York Times, Jan. 1).  James Watson, who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize for describing the double-helix structure of DNA, still maintains that “all the testing” shows that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites.

Watson bases his view about intelligence on tests that assess only literacy and numeracy.  Of course, they are important, but they are not the only kind of intelligence.  In 1983, Howard Gardner (no relation) identified multiple intelligences.  During the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw the truth of his contribution.

I had students who could barely write a one-paragraph essay and yet played various musical instruments.  I also had students who struggled to spell but were expert in diagnosing and repairing a car engine problem.  Critics will argue that such skills are evidence merely of talent but do not constitute intelligence.  I disagree.  I don’t know where they developed such abilities, but they certainly were not from my English class.

If Watson took the time to investigate other areas of human ability, I think he would see that blacks on average are no less intelligent than whites.

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Apprenticeships won’t work here

When only 37 percent of students enrolled in college graduate in eight years, there’s something terribly wrong (“Looking for an Alternative to College? U.S. Studies German Apprenticeships,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29).  The usual explanation is that high schools are not doing their job.  But there is another side of the story that warrants a closer look.

The truth is that not everyone is college material.  They lack either the aptitude or the interest, or both.  Yet we persist in counseling them to apply to a four-year college or university, when they would be far better served taking a vocational course of study in high school, combined with an apprenticeship.  I submit that the main reason is our aversion to differentiation in education at any age. Our competitors abroad have so such problem separating students into tracks based on their ability.

Even though student debt is at an all-time high, students persist in believing that without a four-year college degree they can’t make a decent living.  If they had been better counseled, they would quickly see that is not the case.  For example, welders now command salaries of $100,000.  And they are not burdened with student debt.  I see many of my former students, who never went to college but took a vocational education, doing what they like and leading a gratifying life.  It’s time to get real about the obsession with college for all.

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Teacher exodus is poorly understood

Teachers are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate on record (“Teachers Quit Jobs at Highest Rate on Record,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29).  Contrary to popular belief, low salaries are not the No. 1 reason.

According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities that investigated unprecedented low enrollment in colleges of education, it is the lack of professional autonomy.  When coupled with constant scapegoating, teaching is seen as an undesirable career.

The long summer vacations and alleged short working days may be enough to recruit the best and the brightest to the classroom, but they are not enough to retain them.  That’s particularly the case with minority teachers who are leaving the profession the fastest. Attempts to show that teachers are fairly paid compared to other workers with similar education fail to change their minds.

The military has long understood the importance of morale.  Unless the same attention is paid in education, I expect to see an acceleration of the exodus. Unfortunately, the situation is best summed up this way: The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

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The reading wars continue unabated

Despite evidence showing that phonics instruction is the key to learning how to read, there seems to be no end to the debate (“Schools Seen as Falling Short in a Pillar of Teaching Reading,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 27). That’s because supporters of the “whole language” approach insist that learning to read is a natural process that children can pick up from being immersed in appealing books.

That’s a little like saying children can learn about the Archimedes Principle by playing with duckies in the bathtub. Maybe some children can do so, but I doubt it is an effective way.  Likewise the “whole language” technique.  Maybe some children will look at the first letter in a word and correctly guess from a picture cue how to pronounce it, but it’s not nearly as productive as learning how to sound out words. The National Reading Panel’s report that was commissioned by Congress in 2000 confirmed this.  It said that systematic phonics instruction is an essential part of an effective reading program, much to the disappointment of “whole language” supporters.

What’s so disheartening is that too many teachers have not learned how to teach reading.  That’s because many teacher-preparation programs nationwide completely ignore, or give little attention to, the science behind how children learn to read.  When I was in elementary school, teachers used colorful charts to teach how to sound out words and then had us read small passages aloud.  Even in high school, I found that students liked to hear me read to them while they followed.

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School aid increases but not test scores

If spending more per student resulted in higher test scores, taxpayers would likely not object to paying higher taxes.  But New York State already spends $23,000 per student, which is more than any other state and has little to show for it (“New York taxpayers don’t need to pay any more school aid,” New York Post, Dec. 23).

On the latest National Assessment for Educational Progress tests, for example, students in the state posted scores that were “not significantly different” from the national average in math and reading.  In fact, fourth graders did worse in math.  I realize that test scores alone do not capture overall educational quality, but the situation in New York State can’t be dismissed.  Taxpayers deserve an explanation.

That’s particularly so in New York State, where funding has skyrocketed 80 percent from $15 billion in 2005 to $27 billion today.  I question if spending more per student will improve test scores.  Granted, there are other outcomes to look at.  For example, has the on-time graduation rate improved?  Has the achievement gap between the races been narrowed?  But in the final analysis, taxpayers persist in focusing on test scores.  Unless they rise, taxpayers are going to resist being taxed more heavily.

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Education should be a right

Although the U.S. Constitution does not specifically mention education as a right, several lawsuits recently have attempted to make it so (“Is the Time Right to Make Education a Constitutional Right?” Education Week, Dec. 11).  Based on court rulings in the past, I doubt it will ever gain that status.

The closest was in 1976 in Peter W. v. San Francisco Unified Court District.  The Court of Appeal, First District, California ruled that school districts cannot be held responsible for graduating students without fundamental skills.  In short, there is no basis for an educational malpractice claim.

In 1973 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the equal protection clause did not extend to school district finance inequities. The rest of the claims were dismissed.

In 2016, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in Martinez v. Malloy ruled that the state’s policy of limiting charter schools and magnet schools violated students’ due process and equal protection rights did not deny students protection.  It held only that the state had failed to fulfill its duty of public administration.

In 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Gary B. v. Snyder dismissed the lawsuit claiming that the U.S. Constitution contains an implied right of access to literacy instruction.

The latest lawsuit to make education a right is pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island in A.C. v. Raimondo.  It argues that there is an implied right for an education to prepare students to be capable citizens.

I doubt that plaintiffs will prevail in light of the past record.  Perhaps there will be a victory on some narrow ground but not enough to make education a broad right.  I hope I’m wrong, but I keep coming back to the Peter W. case as evidence.

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