School start times should be local decision

California will be the first state to mandate later school start times (“California becomes first state in the country to push back school start times,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 14).  The decision is based on research showing that teenage students who begin school later increase academic performance, attendance and overall health.

That is probably true, but in a state as geographically diverse as California, I think the decision should be left to local districts.  Needs of local communities differ. For example, rural school districts have different needs than urban school districts in terms of what is best for them.  The same thing applies to other states.

When I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I remember how tired seniors were in my first period composition class that began a few minutes after 8:00.  Whether starting school later that morning would mean that they wouldn’t stay up later the night before, however, is unclear.  Rather than make all public schools permanently comply, I suggest a one-year trial period.

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Standardized test score differences not due to bias

Whenever standardized test results don’t produce the desired results, the immediate claim is that the tests are racially biased (“Success on the SHSAT is about reading, not race,” The New York Daily News, Oct. 12).  But a closer look at the issue reveals that the more likely cause is weak literacy.

That applies not only to items strictly assessing reading comprehension but also to items assessing math competency.  The reason is that the math section contains word problems that must be understood before students can determine the answer. Therefore, students who are poor readers will almost always perform badly.  These weak readers exist in all races, which explains why bias is not the cause of disappointing outcomes.

Nevertheless, we continue to hear that all standardized tests are racially biased when they don’t provide racially equal results.  The fact is that no standardized test can ever deliver what is hoped for.

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Get real about gifted programs

We’ve become so obsessed with underperforming students in this country that we’ve forgotten about the needs of the gifted (“This Top Gifted and Talented School Is Integrated. Is It the Future?” The New York Times, Oct. 10).  Efforts at giving them proper attention is seen as elitist.

Our competitors abroad have no problem with separating students out during their education and nurturing them.  For example, Singapore, which is known for the quality of its schools, does so with its Primary School Leaving exam.  We can argue all day along that primary school is far too early, and I happen to be one who thinks that is the case.  But we need to identify gifted students at some point and support them.

All students are good at something.  But just because not all can handle rigorous academic work does not mean they have a bleak future.  On the contrary, there are many well-paying jobs for those who have ability in vocational areas. The debate should be about the age at which to make a determination and the basis for doing so.  Is a standardized test the best way?  Whatever the decision, it’s high time we accept reality when it comes to educating the young.

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Special ed services pit parents against schools

Before 1975 and the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools often denied enrollment to those with serious behavioral disorders or assigned them to segregated facilities.  But IDEA required mainstreaming, which meant putting them in the least-restrictive appropriate setting.  Unfortunately, this has created the basis for disputes (“Families endure costly legal fights trying to get the right special education services,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 6).

These disagreements are called due process cases, and they are quite costly.  For example, the San Diego Unified School District last year paid $2 million to settle 128 such cases.  To reduce the cost, some districts use alternative dispute resolution.  There are no lawyers, just the district’s special education director, parents and a third-party arbitrator.

What I’ve never understood is why the federal government is not more fully responsible for the cost of special education.  After all, IDEA is a federal law. But like so many other issues in education, the states are being saddled with the bulk of the cost.

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Race-conscious admissions apparently constitutional

In ruling that Harvard’s undergraduate admissions policy doesn’t violate federal civil rights law, the U.S. District Court upheld the need for racially diverse campuses (“Judge Rules Harvard’s Race-Conscious Admissions Policy Constitutional,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2).  The court rejected the claim that Harvard held Asian applicants to a higher standard than those of other races.

I’m not a lawyer, but I think the entire controversy can be avoided by understanding the principle of the flat maximum.  The truth is that the qualifications of all those bunched at the very top of the curve can succeed in elite colleges and universities.  Trying to rank them is a fool’s errand.  Therefore, why not use a lottery among these sterling applicants to decide who will be admitted?

Critics will say that a lottery would not produce the desired racial mix.  Quite true.  But it would be totally unbiased and offer legal protection for schools that use it.  California Institute of Technology is unique in offering admission strictly on the basis of academic qualifications.  As a result, Asian enrollment has grown steadily from 25 percent to 43 percent over the past two decades.  To date, the school has not been sued.

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College athletes can now share in wealth they create for their schools

A new law involving college athletes in California finally rights a wrong (“California Will Let College Athletes Sign Endorsement Deals,” Time, Oct. 1).  For too long colleges have been getting rich off the backs of athletes, who have up to now been prevented by NCAA rules from monetizing their talent.

California’s new law applies to students at both public and private institutions.  They can now get paid for signing endorsement deals, which can be quite lucrative.  In the past, they were forbidden from doing so by the claim that the distinction between amateurs and pros would be destroyed.   Yet tennis players have been permitted to accept up to $10,000 in prize money each year.  Moreover, many schools pay athletes cost-of-living stipends of $2,000 to $4,000.  Granted such payments are not huge, but they indicate a double standard.

It’s time to accept that athletics are big business in college. I’m glad that athletes  will now be able to get part of the money .

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College acceptance rates are misleading

Charter schools love to boast about the percentage of their graduates who are accepted at college.  But what they don’t talk about is the percentage who actually graduate (“The Unmet Promises of a New Orleans Charter School,” The Nation, Sep. 30).  If they did, they would be embarrassed.

The latest example is the graduating class at Sci Academy in New Orleans.  Despite its efforts to help students make the transition to handle college-level work, they have failed miserably.  It proudly announced that 49 of its 52 graduates were headed to college.  But by Christmas of their freshmen year, 12 percent had either dropped out or transferred to a community college.  In contrast, some of its graduates who went directly to work had reached the middle class working in various government jobs.  Only six of Sci’s first graduates finished college within six years, which is the federal standard for on-time graduation.

But Sci is not alone.  KIPP, the nation’s largest nonprofit charter school network, said that only one third of its alumni have earned a bachelor’s degree.  That may be above average for low-income students but a long way from its goal of 75 percent.  I haven’t seen data from Success Academy in New York City yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if its graduates do not fare better either.

Charter schools’ claim to fame is the percentage of their graduates who are accepted at college. But college is not for everyone.  It takes a certain IQ, motivation, and grit to succeed.  Advising everyone to apply to college is destructive.  Students quickly realize they are over their head.  So they drop out, with onerous student debt.  I continue to believe that they would be far better served by pursuing a vocational course of study, coupled with an apprenticeship.

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Let all public schools play by same rules

So much has been written about Success Academy’s ability to post results with disadvantaged children on a par with affluent children from the New York suburbs that people are wondering if the outcomes are too good to be true (“The Parent Trap,” The New York Times, Sep. 29).  Yet a closer look reveals that there is no miracle there.  It’s that Success Academy functions essentially as a private school, albeit supported by taxes like traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools by law must enroll all who show up at their door regardless of motivation, ability or interest.  Moreover, they can’t expel problem students except for the most egregious behavior.  As a result, they can’t possibly compete with Success Academy, which requires parents to sign a contract to agree to read aloud six books to their children every week through second grade and monitor their children’s reading and homework through high school.  Parents of students with behavior problems are pressured to withdraw them.  Other public schools can do none of the above.

It’s little wonder, therefore, that Success Academy is in a league of its own, operating by its own rules.  That’s why I continue to believe that if all public schools were allowed to do what Success Academy does, there would be no significant differences in outcomes.

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Thank teachers before it’s too late

At a time when morale among teachers is at an all-time low because of unrelenting criticism, anything that uplifts their spirit is welcome (“I Should Have Thanked My Teachers,” The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 23).  I’m referring now to the remarks made by Fay Vincent, the commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992.

Belatedly, he realizes the debt he owes to two of his former teachers and sadly his failure to thank them when they were still alive.  The truth is that teachers never make the classroom their career to become affluent.  They do so to try to leave an indelible imprint on their students. Of course, not all succeed. But those who do deserve every student’s gratitude.  Doing so would uplift teachers’ spirits more than anything else.

Like Vincent, I had two great teachers in high school.  I owe my fluency in Spanish to Anne Phillips, who taught me more in three years with her than several professors did in college.  Fortunately, I wrote her a letter before she died expressing my appreciation.  I still have her reply in my safe deposit box.  I’m glad I did.

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De facto segregation not school board responsibility

The tiny Sausalito Marin City School District, which consists of two schools, is being sued by California Att. Gen. Xavier Becerra for maintaining unequal treatment (“First desegregation order in 50 years hits Marin schools,” Los Angeles Times, Sep. 22). Yet I maintain that the district is not legally responsible for de facto segregation that is a result of conditions beyond its control.

At issue is the racially mixed enrollment of Willow Creek in Sausalito and the racially imbalanced enrollment of Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Marin City.  Yet in the 1960s, the school board voted to put black children from Marin City and white children from Sausalito in the same schools. In other words, its intent was to have integrated schools.  But when several local military bases closed in the 1990s, enrollment declined and white flight ensued.  Parents then stepped in to create a new charter school in Sausalito, which remains a gem.

Nevertheless, if Becerra persists in his lawsuit, he runs the risk of the community seceding to form its own even tinier school district.  That has happened in Gardendale, Alabama, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Memphis, Tennessee.  I grant that Sausalito is far more progressive than these other three places, but there’s always the possibility of parents becoming angry and frustrated enough to do so.

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