Pass-fail grading is controversial

Several colleges and universities have instituted pass-fail grading during the coronavirus pandemic (“A lot to worry about besides school grades,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. Several colleges and universities have instituted pass-fail grading during the coronavirus p 29).  It’s unclear whether the new system will remain in place when classes eventually resume.

Whatever happens, however, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at pass-fail.  UC Santa Cruz decided to eliminate pass-fail grading decades ago because graduate schools complained that it did not allow them to rank students.  Moreover, pass-fail tends to be pass-pass regardless of the work done by students. I think that a little competition among students motivates most of them to study harder and learn more.  I’m not talking now about cutthroat competition, which I believe is counterproductive.

Supporters of pass-fail grading say that students are already under enough pressure without adding to it.  They have a point. But employers still want to be able to sort out applicants for jobs, and they tend to look at traditional grades as the best way to do so. As a result, what seems a good idea at the moment may shortchange students later on.

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Respect for teachers still lacking

To understand why respect for teachers in this country remains so low, it’s necessary to rewind the tape to the mid-Seventies (“Teachers Deserve More Respect,” The New York Times, Mar. 20).  Prior to 1975, teachers were allowed to act in loco parentis. That meant they had the authority to discipline students who were disruptive for one reason or another.

But in 1975 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Goss v. Lopez that students had the right to due-process protection for even the most minor aspects of day-to-day discipline.  One year later, the high court held in Wood v. Strickland that if teachers knowingly violated a student’s due-process rights they could be held personally responsible for financial damages.

It’s not surprising that once their authority was undermined, morale plummeted.  I saw that when I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District at the high school where I taught for 28 years before retiring.  Teachers at my school felt intimidated.  As a result, they were reluctant to do anything that might lead to a confrontation with parents.

It was a short walk from that to near total chaos in classrooms.  Students knew their new-found rights and intended to use them.  We’re seeing the effects today and will continue to see them until teachers are once again allowed to exercise their authority.

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Diversity obsession trumps academic wherewithal

When only 10 black students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s elite schools with a worldwide reputation for excellence, critics once again called for elimination of the standardized test that is the sole basis for enrollment (“This Year, Only 10 Black Students Got Into N.Y.C.’s Top High School,” The New York Times, Mar. 19.)

Diversity is indeed a worthy goal, but admitting students who lack the aptitude to compete with their classmates sets them up for failure.  They then drop out, with their self-esteem severely damaged.  Yet critics persist in demanding the admission of more black students in proportion to their number in New York City.

The best way to increase racial diversity in elite high schools is to begin working with black students early in their education.  Waiting until they are in middle school is way too late.

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Online learning challenges traditional instruction

The Covid-19 virus has forced colleges and universities to move instruction from the lecture hall to videoconferencing.  The change is an opportunity to compare the two approaches to student learning (“School’s Out for the Coronavirus,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 18).

I realize that what students learn is not limited solely to what their professors lecture about.  Often it’s the interaction in dorms and elsewhere on campus that is equally valuable.  But in today’s obsession with measurable outcomes, there is no substitute for subject matter knowledge.

That’s why I wonder if online instruction is not as successful as traditional instruction.  In fact, it may prove to be even more so in the final analysis because lecturing is the least effective way of teaching.  I say that since students sit passively while their professors talk at them.  Online learning, in contrast, engages students by requiring them to make active responses.

Only by comparing outcomes between the two approaches can the issue be settled.  But tradition dies hard in academe, which is why I doubt anything substantial will change.

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Coaches of children need greater screening

Participation in sports can be an invaluable experience for children.  But too often they drop out because their coaches don’t know how to treat them (“Your Kids’ Coach Is Probably Doing It Wrong,” The New York Times, Mar. 11).  That’s not surprising in light of the requirements for becoming a coach.

In an attempt to produce winners, some coaches forget that they are dealing with children.  Their emphasis should be on learning and developing good habits in their young charges.  If that means a losing season, so be it.  In the final analysis, the important thing is to inculcate in children lifelong enjoyment of physical activity.

I’ve seen coaches at games yelling at their players.  Even if such behavior results in winning the game, it is a Pyrrhic victory.  Children need encouragement and support from their coaches if we expect them not to drop out.  That’s why it’s time to consider national training and standards for anyone who wishes to be a coach.

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The education school scam

Teaching in a traditional public school in this country requires a license.  To get it in most states means having to attend a school of education. What transpires there, however, is nothing short of a scandal (“The Burden of Bad Ideas,”  by Heather MacDonald).

The problem is that schools of education have become centers of political indoctrination rather than venues for inculcating effective pedagogy.  I vividly remember when I was working on my California teaching credential in 1964 how disappointed I was with the courses I had to take at UCLA before beginning my student teaching.

One course was educational psychology, which was totally irrelevant.  The second was educational philosophy, which was even more so.  The one exception was a course in curriculum and instruction in secondary schools, which was outstanding because it provided a viable paradigm that could be immediately used in the classroom.

Matters have gotten only worse since I was working on my credential.  Today, courses serve as venues for victimization. When the Los Angeles Unified School District was under court order to integrate, teachers were required to take an in-service class about cultural differences.  Instead of providing knowledge about how to reach students from diverse backgrounds, it focused solely on cultural grievances.  I sat through the class, counting the minutes until the bell rang but no more prepared to teach these new arrivals.

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College athletics make a travesty of higher education

With the exception of a few small colleges, sports programs are a juggernaut that shortchange athletes (“How College Sports Turned into a Corrupt Mega-Business,” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal,” Mar. 11.)  Division I schools in particular spend three to six times as much on athletics than they do on academics.

There was a time when athletics took a back seat to academics.  But it soon became apparent that athletics were a cash cow.  Any attempt to put athletics in their proper place today is doomed to failure.  There is simply too much money involved.  My main concern is for those who are exploited by the system.  I’m talking about the athletes themselves.  Too many who graduate lack the wherewithal to get a job that their academic peers can.

The argument that athletics builds teamwork is true, but so can intramural athletics.  Yet no college president dare propose that as a solution.

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UC Santa Cruz handling of teaching assistants is scandalous

Despite the hard work that graduate teaching assistants perform at UC Santa Cruz, site of one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets, university officials have not only refused to offer them a modest monthly increase but have fired 54 of them (“UC’s harsh response to a student strike shows it’s a business more than a university,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 8).

I submit that if professors were required to teach more hours than they do at present, the problem would soon be ameliorated.  There is a precedent for my view.  In 1986, the University of Wisconsin, another large and prestigious state university, reported that the average professor taught only six hours a week.  According to the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, even that number was deceptive because it reflected “student contact hours,” in which professors were credited with classroom time actually handled by teaching assistants.

What is taking place at UC Santa Cruz is not that much different.  Teaching assistants are doing the lion’s share of instruction but are not being compensated for the time they put in.  Yet little will change until teaching is weighed as heavily in granting tenure as research.

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Coronavirus poses special threat to public schools

The decision to close schools because of the threat posed by the coronavirus is made particularly complex because many children from low-income families lack internet access at home (“Coronavirus in N.Y.C. : Why Closing Public Schools Is a ‘Last Resort’ “ The New York Times, Mar. 7).  Not only that but public schools are the only place where they can get three hot meals, medical care and clean clothes.

Private schools serve far more advantaged students.  Their students have internet access at home, allowing them to work from there.  Moreover, they operate independently, without having to follow guidance from local and state education departments.  As a result, some elite private schools already have closed their doors for a few days to allow contractors to sterilize their interiors.

If the coronavirus threat persists with the arrival of warm weather, school officials will be faced with a hard decision. Do they keep schools closed for the duration of the semester? They will be criticized for what they do one way or another.

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Charter schools at a crossroads

Until now, charter schools seemed to have a bright future, as witnessed by their growth to nearly 7,000 serving nearly 3.2 million students.  But two events don’t bode well for their continued prosperity.  Spending on charter grants, presently at $440 million, will be rolled into a $19.4 billion block grant to be doled out to state school systems (“Charter Schools Set for Fight as Funding Flatlines,” The New York Times, Feb. 26).

Further, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that tuition tax credit programs can be used to help students attend religious schools, it will mean that charter schools, which until now have been the only way most parents can exercise school choice, will lose enrollment.  After all, why would parents send their children to traditional public schools or charter schools if they can send them to religious schools?

I expect to see religious schools and other private schools grow exponentially in the years ahead.  Traditional public schools will be the schools of last resort for many students.

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