The next Secretary of Education needs to be a teacher

In any other field except education, the person chosen to head up a major department has direct experience in that area (“The type of education secretary Biden needs,” New York Daily News, Nov. 17).  The latest example is Betsy DeVos, who knows as much about the realities of the classroom as I do about the realities of an operating room in a hospital.

The usual candidates for education secretary in the past have been at best professors of education from major universities even though they lacked relevant classroom experience.  The rationale was that such people were familiar with the best research studies about education.

I submit that only recent classroom experience in a public school should be the primary basis for the next education secretary.  Such candidates know what teachers need to do their job effectively.  Yes, administrative experience is important as well, but it is secondary to classroom experience.

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Intransigent teachers unions losing parental support

As readers of this column know, I support teachers unions.  But I think they are making a mistake by opposing reopening of schools.  New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, is a case in point (“United Federation of Teachers is proving itself the enemy of New York’s parents,” New York Post, Nov. 18).

Despite scientific evidence that students in schools are relatively safe from Covid-19, UFT remains adamant in opposing reopening their doors.  As a result, taxpayers are beginning to suspect that the union is far more concerned with the narrow interests of its member than with the students they are paid to teach.

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Nothing takes place of IQ in ‘weed-out’ classes

A new study claims that enduring what are known as “weed-out’ classes in STEM has less to do with innate ability than with social connections with classmates (“Surviving Weed-Out Process May Be a State of Mind,” The New York Times, Nov. 17).  I don’t doubt that social connections are helpful in outcomes in these classes, but I submit that innate intelligence is more important.

STEM classes are notorious for their rigor – and rightly so.  The material is hard by its very nature. Therefore, no matter how many friendly classmates there are, they are no substitute for IQ, which I continue to believe is largely innate.  I’m not saying that environment doesn’t play an important role, but it is not enough to overcome intellectual deficits.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, algebra was a requirement for graduation.  I was in a class with math whizzes, who breezed through the material.  I passed the class, but there was no way I could have competed with my classmates.

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Cheating makes a mockery of college education

Cheating in college is nothing new, but the pressure to do so is (“Just How Dishonest Are Most Students?” The New York Times, Nov. 13). There are several reasons why, but I believe that the No. 1 reason is that increasing numbers of students have an entitlement mentality.

The cost of a college degree keeps rising, creating the belief in students that they are customers.  They’ve gone into heavy debt to get a degree and nothing is going to stop them from achieving their goal.  If that involves cheating on final exams or term papers, so be it. The fact that some schools ask students to sign an honor code is evidence of how bad things have become.

I don’t see matters improving.  In fact, they are only going to get worse as a degree becomes seemingly indispensable for a well-paying job. 

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Book censorship shortchanges students

When four parents in the Burbank Unified School District in California complained about five novels, middle and high school English teachers were told that they were not allowed to teach them (“Off the reading list,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 12).  Included in the banned list were “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

The parents objected not only to the language but to the way Blacks were portrayed. A protest by The National Coalition Against Censorship came to naught.  Although textbook censorship has a long history in this country, it is particularly dangerous today if we ever expect to teach critical thinking, which can only be developed when students are exposed to ideas that sometimes make them feel uncomfortable.  No one wants to deliberately make students feel uncomfortable, but sometimes that is the price to be paid.

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Most teachers didn’t quit because of Covid-19

The media raised the specter of teachers retiring because of Covid-19, but that did not happen overall (“Teachers Said Covid-19 Would Drive Them to Quit. Did They?” Education Week, Nov. 10).  There are several explanations.

First, when teachers realized how much their benefits would be reduced by early retirement, most decided to stay put.  Second, the teaching force is becoming younger, which means they are less vulnerable.  Finally, some teachers remain totally dedicated to their students.

But I don’t think teaching will ever be the same even after a vaccine is available.  The pandemic has shown that remote learning is viable.  Although it can’t replace in-person instruction, it will gain popularity as teachers become more familiar with its potential.

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Affirmative action won’t die

Despite the Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003 that affirmative action programs can pass muster only if they are “narrowly tailored” to achieve the “compelling interest” of promoting racial diversity on campus, the University of North Carolina continues to favor Black and Hispanic candidates in its admissions (“Latest Trial Over College Affirmative Action to Begin in North Carolina,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9). UNC denies the charge, saying it evaluates each applicant individually.

Apparently no matter what the high court rules, colleges and universities are determined to give academic merit a back seat to race in their admissions.  As I wrote in “The Last Refuge of Pure Meritocracy” on Nov. 6th for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, doing so does a terrible disservice to those granted admission because it stigmatizes them as incapable of competing on their own merits.

California serves as a case in point.  When Proposition 209 barred the use of race in admission to the state’s public colleges in 1998, Black and Hispanic enrollment initially fell, but then Black enrollment more than doubled and Hispanic enrollment increased nearly five times since the year before Prop. 209 went into effect.

It’s time to stop taking race into account in admissions.

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The academy is hostile to independent thinking

There was a time when admission to a college or university meant that students would be exposed to ideas different from those they brought to the classroom (“Woke Universities Lead America to a Primitive State,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 3).  But today higher education is characterized by mob rule.  Students not toeing the party line are subjected to abuse – both verbal and physical.

Few administrators have the spine to denounce what is taking place on campuses for fear of retaliation in one form or another.  As a result, what purports to be education really is nothing more than indoctrination in the social sciences and humanities. 

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s, students were there to study.  Whatever protests took place were short-lived.  I don’t remember any professor allowing personal ideology to contaminate instruction.  As a result, a bachelor’s degree meant something.  That’s more than can be said about its value today.

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Online learning vexes even the best teachers

The pandemic that has closed so many public schools has forced teachers to balance their instinct to push students to reach their full potential against their feelings of compassion for the hardships they are enduring (“The hardest midterm test,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2). 

Those teachers who are most effective in a traditional classroom are finding themselves particularly conflicted.  They’ve never had to deal with anything even remotely similar.  They don’t want their students to fall behind, but at the same time they don’t want to exacerbate the pressure they are under.  It’s a no-win struggle.

I don’t see anything significantly changing in the near future.  In fact, the toll taken on both teachers and students will likely only intensify.

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NAEP is a reality check about college readiness

The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress that were compiled before the pandemic showed that the average math score has been flat since 2015, while the average reading score dropped two points on a 500-point scale (“Even Before Pandemic, National Test Finds Most Seniors Unready for College Reading, Math,” Education Week, Oct. 28).  Is it any wonder that so many students fail to graduate?

I realize that no single test has total predictive value, but NAEP cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. Yet we persist in the fiction that college is for everyone.  The truth is that not everyone is college material.  They lack the wherewithal,  whether in the form of IQ, study habits or motivation.

It’s time to give vocational education in high school the respect it deserves.  There is nothing inferior about such a curriculum.  Our competitors abroad have long tracked students.  Only those who can pass rigorous entrance exams are admitted to universities.  We should do the same.

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