Panic buttons in schools

In an attempt to protect students from shootings, Florida is considering a bill to require installation of panic alarms in all public school classrooms (“Florida Considers Panic Alarms for Schools to Respond to Shootings,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 13, 2020).  The silent alarms would transmit information to 911 dispatchers about the location of the caller.

But this is a little like closing the barn door after the cow has escaped. I say that because it will still take far too much time for police to arrive.  In fact, armed security officers on campus have not been sufficient to protect students.  That’s why critics have proposed allowing teachers to be armed as long as they have undergone sufficient training.

Shootings on campus take place too fast to rely on external force.  Yes, it sounds reassuring to have panic buttons in every classroom, but it is a comforting delusion that it will make a difference.

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Private school teachers lack the rights of public school peers

When Ethical Culture Fieldston, a progressive private school in New York City, fired a history teacher for criticizing Israel in school and on his Twitter account, it raised the question of whether free speech exists in non-public schools (“Fieldston, Elite Private School, Faces Backlash From Jewish Parents,” The New York Times, Jan. 10).  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pickering v. Board of Education in 1968 that public statements by public school teachers about issues of public importance are protected speech and teachers cannot be fired.

The situation in private and religious schools, however, is entirely different.  It’s hard to understand why the Fieldston history teacher was fired for what he posted on his private Twitter account.  That should be completely different from what he said in class about Israel, or in fact about any issue because teachers’ speech is hired by the district or by the school.  What teachers in any school say off campus is not part of the bargain.

I realize that certain statements by teachers are bound to create a backlash by stakeholders, but part of the education process is to expose students to ideas that by their very nature make them feel uncomfortable.  How they handle those situations is part of their education.  I have no brief for the Fieldston teacher, but I think the school was wrong in terminating him for his private comments.

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Military kids face unique challenge to get an education

Those who make the military a career frequently move from one base to another during their service.  They accept that as part of the deal.  But their children often pay a heavy price because the quality of the local schools near their base varies so widely in quality (“Military Kids Change School Up to 9 Times. So Let’s Make It Easier,” The New York Times, Jan. 9).

Dissatisfaction with the education their children receive is a significant factor in their leaving the service.  Which is why a new bill called the Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act of 2019 needs to become law.  It would give them up to $6,000 to help with private school tuition, home-schooling, tutoring. college-prep classes and on-line courses in place of public school.

The sacrifices made by the men and women in the military are enormous.  The least we can do as a grateful nation is to give them greater flexibility in the kind of education their children receive.

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Museum field trips pay off

When school budgets are tight, the first item to be cut are field trips, in the belief that they are frills.  But several studies have shown that students who go on field trips to museums perform better on standardized tests than those whose schools do not do so (“Going to Museums May Be Good for Your Health,” The New York Times, Jan. 1).

The question is why this correlation exists.  One explanation is that such field trips engage students in ways that few classrooms can. Studies have found that students retain a great deal of factual information from these tours.  Perhaps viewing art enhances their ability to remember details in other subjects as well. For example, teachers often ask their students to write short essays in which they express what they think is going on in a particular painting and then ask them to explain why.

Critical thinking depends in part on the ability of students to observe a given subject carefully and use their observations as the basis for developing a thesis.  I know nothing about art, but even I notice that I become more focused when I visit the Getty Museum, where great works of art are exhibited.

Of course, the greater the connection between what is observed in a museum and what is being taught, the greater the likelihood of transfer.  If I were teaching history, for example, I would make the Smithsonian the destination for my students rather than the Getty, even though both museums are world-class.

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Landmark school choice case

In 2015, Montana created a scholarship program to “provide parental and student choice in education.”  It established a tax credit for parents who used the funds to send their children to a “qualified education provider” (“The Democrats’ School Choice Problem,” The Nation, Dec. 30).  In 2018, however, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that religious schools were entirely off-limits for the program.

In doing so, the Montana Supreme Court cited the state Constitution that expressly prohibits taxpayer funding for religious schools.  These prohibitions are referred to as the Blaine amendments, which are on the books in 35 states.  Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue aims at such constitutional prohibitions.

I’m not a lawyer, but I think the U.S. Supreme Court will overrule the Montana Supreme Court.  I say that because of its decision in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.  It held that as long as a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion and provides assistance directly to parents who then make their own choice, it passes constitutional muster.  Montana seems to meet all these criteria.

If Espinoza is upheld, it will mark the beginning of a new era in education in this country.  I’ve long believed that education will not be recognizable in the U.S. a decade from now.  Espinoza will be further evidence of that.

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The diversity obsession in education

Despite the best efforts of schools to narrow the achievement gap between whites and Asians on one side and blacks and Hispanics on the other, it persists (“The Cost of America’s Cultural Revolution,” City Journal, Dec. 9).  This has led reformers to argue that racism is the cause.

In New York City, for example, admission to the system’s elite high schools is based solely on a standardized test.  But because so few blacks and Hispanics score well, reformers want to eliminate the test.  This will allow more students from these two groups to enroll, but at what cost?

Diversity is a worthy goal, but it unintentionally hurts students who are not prepared to handle rigorous academic work. Students lacking academic wherewithal would be far better served with a vocational curriculum. There is nothing inferior about vocational education.

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Free college for all will be a disaster

Democratic presidential hopefuls have made free college for all an issue that can no longer be ignored (“Free college for All Is an Experiment That Has Already Failed,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 7).  With student debt topping $1.6 trillion, its appeal is understandable. But if the proposal ever becomes a reality, it will be a fiasco.  The most ambitious effort ever made to promote equality of opportunity in higher education in this country that began at City University of New York in 1970 still stands as the best evidence.

Under an open admissions policy, all students who graduated in the top half of their high school class or who had a grade point average of 80 were entitled to enroll at CUNY.  From the start, the faculty had to engage in remedial instruction beyond anything they had done in the past.  In 1999, as the system continued to decay, a task force appointed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani called for a major overhaul.  It brought in Mathew Goldstein, who was then the president of Adelphia University, to lead the effort.  By imposing demanding admissions requirements and establishing clear performance metrics, CUNY once again regained its reputation.

In “City On A Hill,” James Traub describes what actually took place at CUNY from 1970 to 1998 when open admissions prevailed.  What he writes serves as a cautionary tale for those who want free college for all. The fact is that not everyone is college material. It takes a certain IQ to handle college-level material.  Our competitors abroad have long accepted this truth.  That’s why they give vocational education the respect it deserves. Germany, for example, uses scores on its Abitur to determine who receives a vocational or academic education.  Its two-tier system has helped keep youth unemployment remarkably low.

Yet we persist in the fiction that vocational education – now branded as career and technical education – is inferior.  We pay a stiff price for our attitude.  The vast majority of four-year colleges and universities are non-selective in their admissions.  They churn out thousands of graduates with degrees in useless fields. In the average bachelor’s degree program, students leave school with a debt burden equal to about 80 percent of their salary in the first year after graduation.


In contrast, community colleges offer inexpensive two-year associate degrees and one-year certificates in a wide range of desperately needed specializations.  Graduates are quickly employed without the debt their peers shoulder. Nevertheless, high school counselors continue to advise seniors to apply to four-year institutions, in the fiction that without a bachelor’s degree they face a bleak future. The mismatch explains why 40 percent of those who go to college don’t earn a degree. The blow to their self-esteem, coupled with the debt they incurred, should be enough to call into question free college for all.

But what about the wage premium attached to a bachelor’s degree?  Although those who have the degree earn on average a million dollars more over a lifetime than those with a high school diploma, it does not follow that all will do so.  The payoff for the coveted degree varies dramatically by field of study.  Gender studies majors, say, don’t earn nearly as much as, say, welders.

Moreover, there’s little connection between an institution’s brand name and the earning power of its graduates.  That’s a lesson parents caught up in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal never learned.  They falsely assumed that a degree from a marquee-name school warranted the expenditure of thousands of dollars.

The truth is that we have been wildly oversold on the value of a bachelor’s degree.  College is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn.  It is not an absolute determinant.













Billionaire philanthropists deserve praise in erasing college debt

When billionaire philanthropists engage in various acts of giving to colleges and universities, their largess is criticized by some as doing little to help solve the fundamental problem (“How Philanthropists Can Ease College Debt,” The New York Times, Dec. 27).  In other words, no good deed goes unpunished.

There’s no question that existing tax laws and their own egos explain much of their generosity.  But that’s no reason to denigrate their giving by calling them “shock benefactors.”  They could just as well not donate anything at all to educational institutions. They’re not responsible for what exists in higher education.

It’s impossible for these 1-percenters to solve the inequities that characterize colleges and universities in this country.  That’s why I applaud them for their actions, regardless of their motivation.

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Income-share agreements will change college majors

With student loan balances at $1.6 trillion, a new financial instrument is attracting attention (“New Kind of Student Loan Gains Major Support. Is There a Downside?”  The New York Times, Dec. 24). Students who sign a legally binding document called an income-sharing agreement pay a certain percentage of their earnings over a fixed period.  If they make more than they owe, they pay more.  If they make less, they pay less.

If income-share agreements catch on, I believe they have the potential to make students think what they should major in.  Critics will argue that the value of a bachelor’s degree should not be based on its marketability alone.  Otherwise, colleges will become merely trade schools. I understand that view, but critics need a reality check. Students have to be able to pay their bills after graduation.  They can’t live on passion alone.

The days when few people graduated from college is over.  With so many degree holders, the ability to hit the ground running after graduation is essential for sheer survival.

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Better ways of teaching teamwork

The case for tackle football in high school rests on its claim that it teaches leadership and teamwork (“The Risks of Turning Our Backs on Football,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 21).  It does, but the price paid is far too great.

I’m referring not only to concussions but to the joints as well.  The human body is not designed to sustain trauma, which is what characterizes tackle football.  There are other team sports that achieve the same goals but without the risks.  Water polo and lacrosse immediately come to mind.

The sheer violence of tackle football is also said to build character.  Using that argument, I suppose a case can be made for boxing, which by its very nature is built on inflicting as much pain as possible on its participants. But I’m opposed to boxing as well for the same reasons.

I’ve seen too many former players at the gym where I belong who can hardly walk because of arthritis.  Athletics are an important part of the curriculum.  But they’ve become an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end.  The assertion that athletics are responsible for this country’s exceptionalism is absurd.

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