Don’t change NAEP

Until now, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has rightly been called the nation’s report card.  By focusing on measuring reading comprehension, NAEP provides invaluable feedback.  But a proposal threatens to undermine its value (“A Feel-Good Report Card Won’t Help Children, City Journal, Oct. 13).

The proposal argues that greater emphasis needs to be placed on the role that socioeconomic factors play in the development of reading skills.  I don’t doubt that these are important to understand, but I submit that they are overemphasized.  Charter schools that enroll almost all Black and Hispanic students produce impressive results about the ability of their students to read.  These schools do not place undue emphasis on socioeconomic factors.  Instead, they rely on tried-and-true instruction.

If the purpose of education is to prepare students to read the language they will encounter after graduation, then anything that deviates from that approach shortchanges them.  Let’s not tinker with what so far has been highly successful.

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Admission screening is necessary

In an attempt to increase racial diversity in New York City schools, reformers want to eliminate admission tests (“Especially now, public schools for all: NYC should do away with middle- and high-school admission screens,” New York Daily News, Oct. 9).  They say the use of such tests is racist because acceptance rates for white students are up to 16 times that of students of color.

But there’s another side of the story that warrants attention.  How are students of color or white students helped if they are admitted to schools where they lack the aptitude to handle the work?  I realize that such screens often reflect inequities rather than achievement, but in the final analysis students will not prosper when they lack the wherewithal to compete.

We talk so much these days about promoting the self-esteem of all students.  If so, it’s time to get real about the damaging effect that failure will have on students of any color.

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Critical race theory can backfire

On paper, critical race theory seems worthy of inclusion in the K-12 curriculum (“No, Critical Race Theory Isn’t ‘Anti-American,’” Education Week, Oct. 7). After all, students today are far more sophisticated than in the past because they have access to images and content not readily available before.

But unless great care is given to the issue, most students are going to come away with a distorted view of the history of this country.  I say that because I vividly remember how the Los Angeles Unified School District handled the controversy surrounding Rodney King and the riots that ensued.  Instead of presenting a balanced picture of race relations, the workshop left the distinct impression that all people of color are victims.

Perhaps adults can put the matter in better perspective than students.  I hope so because there is too much indoctrination taking place under the guise of education at a time when we need to come together as a nation, rather than see ourselves as victims.

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Administrative bloat in secondary education

At a time when teacher pay is stagnant, administrator pay has skyrocketed in secondary schools (“Growth in Administrative Staff, Assistant Principals Far Outpaces Teacher Hiring,” Education Next, Oct. 1).  Half the states now have more non-instructional personnel than teachers.

One of the reasons for the growth is the ever-increasing demand for equity.  For example, when the media reported that Black students are suspended more often than white students for the same misbehavior, districts responded by hiring administrators whose sole responsibility was to erase the disparity.

The real need is for more classroom teachers who can engage students from diverse backgrounds.  Yet we do too little to recruit and retain them, instead focusing on hiring more administrators.

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Covid-19 is ripping off students

It’s bad enough that few colleges and universities refunded tuition when they sent students home last spring because of Covid-19, but even worse that many are charging full freight now to have them on campus without real classrooms (“The Coronavirus College Scam,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2).

The matter is more outrageous because administrators and professors are being paid in full despite the fact they refuse to have contact with the students they are supposed to be serving.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these schools find themselves at the other end of a class action lawsuit for fraud.

If I were these parents, I’d have my child take a leave of absence and find a job.  Sitting in front of a screen while paying full tuition is outrageous.

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Unschooling is tempting, but beware

With so many schools closed due to the pandemic, unschooling has its advocates (“Can We Take the Schooling Out of Home Schooling?” The New York Times, Sept. 25). It shuns curriculums, textbooks, tests and grades, instead lets children learn by following their natural curiosity.

That may be true for some children, but I don’t think it works for most. Most kids want direction from teachers. Left alone to discover what interests them, it’s unlikely they will receive anything close to a full education.

Unschooling is an extreme form of the child-centered approach to education promoted by Maria Montessori and John Dewey.  It assumes that passion comes first, and competence will necessarily follow. But that is a huge stretch. 

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The pandemic questions the value of a degree

Until the Covid-19 crisis, few questioned whether a four-year college degree was a good investment.  But that has all changed (“The End of The University,” The New Republic, October 2020).  I submit a debate is long overdue.

Only in this country is postsecondary education considered to be essential for a bright future.  Our competitors abroad harbor no such delusions.  They begin the process of differentiation early in the lives of students.  Those who lack the wherewithal for handling rigorous academic material are directed toward vocational education. 

But we persist in the fiction that everyone is doomed without a college degree. That’s patently false.  Young people who follow a vocational curriculum in high school, coupled with an apprenticeship, go on to earn a solid living, without the burden of student debt.

Free and open college, on the other hand, has been a disaster.  In 1970, City University of New York guaranteed admission to all students who graduated high school.  By 1978, two out of three students required remedial work in writing, reading or math, and one in five needed it in all three.  By 1998, the board of trustees had had enough and ended open-admissions at four-year colleges, requiring applicants to pass proficiency tests to gain entry.

We do young people a disservice by giving them degrees that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. They would be far better off learning a lucrative trade. It’s finally time to accord vocational education the respect it deserves.

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Affirmative action for affluent applicants

Voters in California will be asked to decide if the ban on affirmative action should be lifted just weeks after the state auditor said that the UC system admitted dozens of well-connected applicants over their better qualified peers (“University of California Admitted Dozens of Less Qualified but Well-Connected Students, State Auditor Finds,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 23). The majority of the 64 such students were white and at least half came from families with average annual incomes of $150,000 or more.

The audit continues the debate over fairness and the role of money in the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal. It’s hard to know if the latest report will change attitudes.  Supporters of affirmative action have long maintained that the rich and famous have been the beneficiaries of preferential treatment in admissions.  The state audit seems to reinforce their argument. In other words, privilege prevails over merit.

I see no way of satisfying both sides of the issue.  Even relying strictly on standardized test scores will not settle the debate because disadvantaged students don’t have the same wherewithal to prep for the tests.

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Dual credit is unfairly criticized

The 68 percent increase in the number of high school students taking college courses for credit between 2002-3 and 2010-11 is being assailed by critics (“The Rise of Dual Credit,” Education Next Weekly, Sept. 23).  They charge that when the courses are taught by high school teachers, rigor is lost.

The criticism assumes that introductory courses taught by graduate students in college automatically are superior.  I disagree. In fact, I submit that certified high school teachers are far better at instruction because they are trained in pedagogy. Graduate students who teach the bulk of introductory college courses lack such training.

Even when introductory courses are taught by professors there is no assurance that students learn more than they would if the same courses were taught by certified high school teachers.  When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, some of the worst classes I took were by full professors.  They were solely interested in publishing rather than in teaching. I learned far more from my high school teachers.

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Online curriculum adoption warrants scrutiny

School districts across the country are purchasing online programs too hastily, with predictable results (“Schools Drop an Online Curriculum After Teacher, Parent Complaints,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 23).  The Acellus Learning Accelerator at two-thirds of Hawaii schools covering 80,000 students is a case in point.

As long as schools are allowed to choose their own online content, the risk of incorrect or inappropriate material will always remain.  That was certainly the case with Acellus. It charged $100 per student for six courses.  That compares with competitors charging $300 to $400 a course.  As a result, districts too eagerly decided to use its curriculum.

It’s understandable why districts moved so rapidly. They were under intense pressure due to Covid-19.  As a result, they lacked the time and resources to adequately review material.  But they are now paying a steep price.  Public schools in this country have been criticized for the way they adopt textbooks. Yet until a better way is found to speed up the process, I say better safe than sorry.

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