The reading wars continue

There is no end to the debate over how best to teach kids to read, but at last there is growing agreement that phonics is the way (“We Know How to Teach Kids to Read,” The New York Times, Sept. 3).  That’s because the whole word method has not lived up to expectations.

Although sounding out words letter by letter does not always work, it remains highly effective. Unfortunately, only 15 percent of programs training elementary-school teachers include actual instruction on how to do so.  As a result, children from low-income families are particularly shortchanged.  Their plight would be even worse if Ebonics ever caught on.

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Innovation zones can improve failing schools

Persistently failing schools remain a problem for reformer (“What Should Our Leaders Do About Failing Schools?” educationnext.org, Sept. 9).  State takeovers in Jersey City, Paterson and Newark have proved largely ineffective.

Far more promising is the creation of achievement zones that go under various names.  By relying heavily on local input, they avoid the resentment associated with state takeovers.  They involve establishment of an autonomous district that is overseen by an appointed board, which is held accountable for performance.

There is no panacea for turning around failing schools, but innovation zones deserve serious consideration.

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Public schools are running out of excuses

As readers of this column know, I support traditional public schools.  But my patience is wearing thin in light of their persistent inability to provide a basic education for Black students (“The Real Structural Racism,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 7).

Despite the expenditure of upwards of $28,000 per student in New York City, public schools are not doing their job.  They then compound their failure by trying to eliminate tests that measure student performance. Worse, they oppose parental choice.

The only excuse is that unlike charter, parochial and private schools, traditional public schools must enroll all who show up at their doors regardless of ability, interest or motivation.

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More war on excellence in public schools

It’s hard to understand the rationale behind the Department of Education’s decision in New York City to eliminate honor rolls (“DeBlasio’s DOE takes its war on learning to a new extreme with ‘no honor roll’ push,” New York Post, Sept. 1). The justification is that students instead should get a grade on their “contributions to the school or wider community, and demonstrations of social justice and integrity.”

The move is all part of the campaign to ruin whatever excellence still remains in the nation’s largest school district.  Under Mayor DeBlasio, it also included efforts to cancel Gifted and Talented classes, as well as screening for admission to elite high schools. It’s little wonder that there is a long waiting list for admission to the city’s charter schools.

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High school transition programs post anemic results

In an attempt to make more high school students ready for college, transition programs have been instituted (“High school transition programs have mixed success in improving college readiness,” brookings.edu, Aug. 31).  But they have done little in achieving their objective.

That’s not at all surprising.  Remediation in high school is way too late.  It needs to begin much earlier.  But even then, it’s important to get real about what it can accomplish.  So much of a students’ potential is determined by factors outside the classroom.  That’s why achievement has been found to be inordinately affected by socioeconomic factors.

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Vocational education to the rescue

The high drop-out rate among college students should be convincing evidence that not everyone is college material.  That’s why Future Schools, which is based on the Swiss apprenticeship model, needs to be adopted (“Education and climate are at stake,” Los Angeles Times, Aug.30).

Starting at age 14, high school students would pursue a vocational curriculum along with an apprenticeship.  The truth is that not all students possess the wherewithal and interest to handle college-level work.  By according vocational education the respect it deserves, we would avoid many of the behavioral problems when students see no connection between their interests and what they are studying.

Yet I doubt our obsession with college for all will ever wane.  There are simply too many special interests involved in maintaining the status quo.

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Low standards are inherently racist

There was a time when a high school diploma meant something.  But that time has long since passed, as states continue to lower graduation requirements in the misguided belief that doing so benefits Black and Hispanic students (“The American educational demise fails our kids and cedes power to China,” New York Post, Aug. 29).

The latest example – but certainly not the last – is Oregon, which no longer requires students to demonstrate any level of proficiency in reading, writing and math. That is outrageous because it shortchanges precisely those students it is supposed to help. 

Our competitors abroad are far more realistic. They know that standards are indispensable. 

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Diversity of ideas is absent in schools

Diversity is the mantra in education.  But sadly it refers only to race, rather than to ideas (“The self-silencing of American students,” New York Daily News, Aug. 25). That’s evident from surveys conducted throughout New York.

Students in both public and private schools there said they were afraid to voice their true opinions about what was being taught out of fear of how their teachers and classmates would respond.

That’s a telling commentary.  Students can never develop critical thinking if they feel muzzled.  But I see little hope that matters will change.  If anything, the situation will only get worse.

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College is not for everyone

The latest evidence that not everyone is college material comes from the California State University system (“Cal State students failing, withdrawing from many required classes at a high rate,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21).  With a 20 percent or more failure or withdrawal rate, officials still refuse to acknowledge the truth.

Instead, they want to overhaul courses and improve instruction.  That will not be sufficient, which means stepping up remediation.  But remediation belongs in K-12.  The truth is that too many students are being counseled to apply to four-year colleges even though they lack the wherewithal to succeed. They would be far better served pursuing a vocational curriculum in high school or applying to a community college.

Our competitors abroad have long accorded vocational education the respect it deserves. As a result, the unemployment rate and dropout rate among young people are lower than in this country.

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Break up large school districts

The argument for breaking up large school districts is that doing so would allow for greater accountability and transparency (“State Bans on Critical Race Theory Won’t Work,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 20).  The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, is a case in point.

During the 28 years that I taught there, it was virtually impossible to affect change because of its size and diversity.  School board meetings open to the public were cathartic, but they did little to alter the status quo.  The claim that consolidating districts results in efficiency gains was found to be negligible. But special interests make it highly unlikely that district behemoths will be broken up into more manageable pieces.

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