Success Academy’s built-in advantage

Rarely a week goes by without news about the admittedly impressive results of Success Academy (“Why Success Academy is making remote learning work as regular schools flail,” New York Post, May 18).  The latest involves its smooth transition to online learning.  But Success Academy consistently outperforms traditional public schools in other areas as well.  For example, more than 80 percent of its students were proficient in math.  This compares with only one-third of students of their peers.

Why should anyone be surprised?  Success Academy demands serious parental commitment.  Parents must read nighty with their children, update reading logs, check homework, drill sight words and math facts, as well as maintain frequent contact with their children’s teachers. Traditional public schools cannot deny admission if parents do not agree to do all of these things. By law, they must admit all who show up at their door regardless of motivation and ability.

I submit that if traditional public schools were allowed to operate under the same set of rules, there would be little, if any, difference in outcomes.  In other words, the playing field is heavily tilted in favor of Success Academy.

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Celebrity talk about teacher salaries is cheap

Teachers appreciate the verbal support they get from celebrities, particularly now when so many of their own children are home because of Covid-19.  But words alone are not enough to keep them in the classroom (“To Celebrities Who Say Teachers Should Make Millions: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is,” Huffington Post, May 12).

The problem is that salaries today have not kept pace with inflation.  Yes, there are some teachers in New York City suburbs who make $100,000 a year.  But the average salary nationwide is $40,000, hardly enough to recruit and retain the best and the brightest out of college.

Yet there are critics who argue that teachers are not underpaid.  A recent report by the Heritage Foundation found that total compensation for public school teachers is roughly 50 percent higher than what they would receive in the private sector.  But if that is true, why is enrollment in teacher education programs in California and other bellwether states down 53 percent since 2008?

The shortages admittedly are most acute in special education, math, and science, but all 50 states report difficulty in recruiting teachers in at least one area, according to an Education Week analysis of federal data. Higher salaries alone will not be enough to improve matters, but it is the first step.

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Virtual AP exams run into problems

The Covid-19 crisis has forced cancellation of most exams that high school students would ordinarily take.  The sole exception are the AP exams, but they have handicapped some students through no fault of their own (“NYC teachers, students grapple with tech glitches, equity concerns as virtual AP exams begin,” New York Daily News, May 14).

Although the College Board said that only one percent of students taking the exam experienced technical issues uploading their answers, it avoided addressing the problems that many students faced at home under less than ideal testing conditions.

That’s the problem with virtual assessment.  It does not control the factors that allow students to demonstrate their real mastery of what they’ve studied.  As a result, any attempt to compare results this spring with those of previous years is a waste of time.

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Homeschool students outperform peers

Covid-19 has unavoidably focused attention on homeschooling.  For better or worse, parents find themselves cast as teachers for their own children.  But what does the evidence show about homeschooling over all (“The Academic and Social Benefits of Homeschooling,” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, May 13)?

Eleven of 14-peer reviewed studies found that homeschool students significantly outperformed conventionally schooled children academically.  A similar pattern was seen for the social, emotional and psychological development of the homeschooled.  Until now, the latter was regarded as a shortcoming.
Homeschooling is not for everyone, of course.  It’s far more demanding than it initially seems.  But for those who have the motivation, it is a viable option.

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Are religious schools exempt from employment discrimination?

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule this summer whether religious schools are immune from lawsuits filed by teachers alleging employment discrimination (“Justices Struggle With Religious Institutions’ Freedom to Hire and Fire at Will,” The Wall Street Journal, May 12).  The two cases involve Catholic schools in California, but the decision will have far-reaching implications for all religious schools across the country.

One case pertains to health and the other to age discrimination.  I’m not an attorney, but I thought the “ministerial exception” issue was settled law by now.  Although federal statutes outlawing employment discrimination on race, sex, age and disability make no carve-out for church employers, lower courts have reasoned over the years that the separation of church and state protects such employers from government control.

But who counts as a minister?  In 1987 in Bishop v. Amos, SCOTUS held that religious organizations must be “free to select their own leaders, define their own doctrines, resolve their own disputes, and run their own institutions.”  Then in 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the high court reaffirmed its prior decision.  That’s why I think the plaintiffs in the two cases now before SCOTUS will have an uphill battle to prevail.

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New Title IX regulation is welcome

College students accused of sexual harassment and assault used to face an uphill battle to defend themselves (“DeVos’s Rules Bolster Rights of Students Accused of Sexual Misconduct,” The New York Times, May 7).  But a new Title IX regulation allows both the accused and accuser to submit evidence, participate in cross-examination, and appeal the final ruling.

The change is long overdue.  I say that because until now the presumption of innocence was absent.  The odds were overwhelmingly on the side of the accuser.  The typical scenario gave the woman the upper hand.  No cross-examination was allowed, which meant that virtually anything she said was accepted as true.  As a result, the man found himself the victim of what was essentially a kangaroo court.

By allowing “clear and convincing” evidence to be the basis for a verdict rather than the previous “preponderance of the evidence,” the higher standard means that falsely accused students now stand a better chance of defending themselves and clearing their name.

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Is there life after middle school?

The debate over the purpose of middle school continues today in what is known as articulation (“Traumatized by Memories of Middle School? You Are Not Alone,” The New York Times, May 5).  To understand the issue, it’s necessary to review the roles that the Committee of Ten in 1893 and the Committee of Five in 1905 played in ultimately establishing the country’s first junior high school in Columbus, Ohio in 1909.

Both insisted that eight years was too long for elementary education and that fourteen years was too late to begin secondary education. By the late 1920s, most urban school systems had committed themselves to a 6-3-3 organization, which persists to this day.

The problem is that young people today are exposed to graphic images and information far more so than their predecessors.  As a result, middle school in many ways is the most challenging place to teach.  Students are no longer the sheltered children of the past nor the sophisticated young adults of the present.  I’m not surprised that recruiting and retaining teachers to fill the middle school classrooms is so hard.

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Colleges face reality check due to coronavirus

The coronavirus is forcing students and parents to decide if a bachelor’s degree is a good deal (“Coronavirus Pushes Colleges to the Breaking Point, Forcing ‘Hard Choices’ About Education, The Wall Street Journal, May 1). I submit that question is long overdue.

When few people went to college, possession of a four-year degree in virtually any subject was a distinct asset.  But today the picture is entirely different.  One’s major is paramount in landing a well-paying job.  Nevertheless, too many high school students still are being counseled to apply to college even when they lack the aptitude and interest.  It comes as no surprise, therefore, that degree holders in non- STEM subjects have jobs paying minimum wages while they try to pay off their student loans.

Parents and students are finally asking if a four-year bachelor’s degree is worth the tuition, particularly if instruction will be almost exclusively online.  I say college is not for everyone. It’s time to give vocational education the respect it so richly deserves.  Only in this country is vocation education treated so shabbily.

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Educational malpractice lawsuits now possible

Is there a right to literacy?  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that students do. In doing so, the court stripped public schools of what had effectively been immunity from negligence (“Detroit Students Have a Constitutional Right to Literacy, Court Rules,” The New York Times, Apr. 28).  The ruling in Gary B. v. Whitmer breaks with decades of past decisions in which the courts have been reluctant to involve themselves in such matters.

A group of students in Detroit argued that they were deprived of a minimum education as guaranteed by Michigan’s constitution.  Yet in three similar cases in the past (Peter W. v. San Francisco Board of Education, Donohue v. Copiague Union Free School District, and Hoffman v. Board of Education of the City of New York), judges ruled that courts should not interfere with the professional judgment of local school officials in administering their systems.

It’s unclear if the decision will be appealed.  I hope it will reach the U.S. Supreme Court to finally clarify the issue.  Schools have a duty to provide students with a basic education, but there are mitigating factors beyond their control.

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Higher ed won’t ever be the same again

Covid-19 has forced colleges and universities to embrace digital learning (“Transforming Higher Ed?” The New York Times, Apr. 24). Whether the transformation will persist once the pandemic abates remains to be seen.

But strictly from a pedagogical point of view, I maintain that the change will be beneficial in the long run.  I say that because so much of traditional instruction in higher education is not effective.  I’m referring now to lecturing, where students sit passively while professors talk.

 In contrast, well-designed digital programs engage students by forcing them to make active responses followed by immediate feedback.  As a result, students move at their own speed and tend to retain what they have learned.  I’d be most interested in seeing the results of an experiment in which one group of students was taught by lecturing and a second group of students was taught digitally.

Even if the results proved that lecturing was inferior, I seriously doubt that much would change in higher education.  Tradition dies hard there.

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