Timed SAT is controversial

Since its beginning, the SAT has been a timed test.  But now critics are charging that deep thinking cannot be fairly evaluated that way (“Support Builds For Making the SAT Untimed For Everyone,” Education Next, Winter 2020).  They argue that students should be able to demonstrate what they’ve learned without worrying about the clock.

I submit that it all depends on the kind of knowledge and skills being assessed.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, professors made a distinction between writing a news article and writing an editorial.  The former depended on speed because news was perishable.  The latter depended on rumination because it relied on forming opinions.  As a result, students were required to write under both conditions.

If the SAT were to become untimed, it would make it difficult to draw valid inferences about a students’ ability to work under pressure once they were admitted to college.  It would also lead to demands for accommodations by students, making it hard to compare students. So unless there is better evidence that eliminating the present timed requirement will be an improvement over what exists now, I see little reason to change.

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Cruel way to boost college rankings

In an attempt to improve their rankings, there’s a new college strategy that goes beyond anything else I’ve seen in a long time (“Enticing Letters From Harvard That Aren’t Quite What They Seem,” The New York Times, Nov. 30).  It’s called recruit-to-deny.

Here’s how it works. Colleges buy the names, ethnicities, and test scores of students within a stipulated range from the College Board and the ACT.  They then flood the students with solicitations to apply, knowing full well that most will never be admitted.  What this does is make the colleges look even more selective than before, which boosts their rankings.

This deliberate attempt to help themselves does a terrible disservice to underqualified applicants who naively believe they have a chance of being admitted because they received invitations to apply.  It creates even greater cynicism about the entire college admission process.  Yet it continues unabated.

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State seizures of local schools

When Texas passed a law in 2015 allowing the state to assume control of an entire school district even if only one school was persistently failing, it went one step further than what has occurred elsewhere in the country (“Takeover of Schools Stirs Turmoil in Houston,” The New York Times, Nov. 28). If the experience of other states is any indication, however, little will change.

 In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to assume full control of a local district when it seized the schools in Jersey City.  It followed up in Paterson and Newark.  Taxpayers overall considered the moves to be hostile takeovers.  Although scores rose slightly, more than a decade later they are still below the statewide average.

 Similar outcomes were seen in New York in 2002 when the state wrested control of the Roosevelt district on Long Island from its dysfunctional local board, and in 1993 when California intervened in Compton after test scores hit rock bottom and the district’s books were about $20 million in the red.

It’s understandable why the tendency is to look to the state for a remedy, but based on the evidence to date, they are no likely to be successful in turning around persistently failing school districts.  That’s a hard but necessary lesson to learn.

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Math proficiency begins with teachers

Students in the U.S. continue to trail far behind their peers abroad in math performance (“Why elementary school math should be taught by specialists,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21).  4:38 AM There have been many reasons offered for the disparity, but I believe that the problem begins in elementary school, where teachers lack the wherewithal that their Asian colleagues do.

Why this is so is controversial, but I submit that colleges of education are largely to blame.  They don’t provide future teachers with the same kind of pedagogy that Asian colleges of education do.  As a result, children learn how to do basic computation, but they don’t really understand what that means.  In other words, students get the right answer, but they get little else.

The problem compounds in high school, where algebra persists in being the single subject that is the cause of so many students dropping out.  It’s the predictable outcome of what had been building up for years in elementary and middle school.  If students don’t understand arithmetic, it’s unlikely that they will master algebra.

It’s time for colleges of education here to study more closely what colleges of education in Asia have been doing for decades.

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Teacher disaffection grows

I’m not a therapist, but I submit that the difficulty in recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest to the classroom has little to do with the distinction between burnout and demoralization (“Many Frustrated Teachers Say It’s Not Burnout – It’s Demoralization,” edsurge.com, Nov. 19).  I say that because the net effect is the same.

When students are in college working on their bachelor’s degree, especially today with the cost of tuition so steep, they are highly attuned to news about the career they are considering after graduation.  They know from their friends just a year or two ahead of them that teaching is not what they thought it would be.  Idealism quickly fades, as the reality of the classroom takes hold.

Trying to make a case that burnout is different from demoralization seems to be largely a matter of degree.  That’s important to keep in mind, but it does not do much to solve the problem.  The military has long made troop morale a high priority.  It does not try to parse the difference between burnout and demoralization.

I see little hope that today’s college graduates will choose the classroom as a lifetime career.  Why should they when they can make far more money with far less stress in other fields?

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Free college tuition exacerbates the problem

Free college tuition is being promoted as the solution to the high dropout rate (“Free college tuition will just make matters worse,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 15).  It is predicated on the assumption that the high cost of earning a degree is the reason.

But the real problem is that not all students are college material.  It takes a certain IQ to handle college-level work.  Other nations understand and accept that reality.  That’s why they accord vocational education in high school the respect it deserves. Unfortunately, we are obsessed with democratization.  Differentiation is anathema.

I fail to see why we persist in the fiction that college is for everyone.  What’s wrong with learning a trade through courses and an apprenticeship?  The widely cited premium attached to possession of a college degree does not take into account one’s major.  I question if a degree in, say, gender studies carries with it the same wage premium as a certificate in, say, plumbing.  Other trades also command attractive salaries.  For example, at last count welders commanded annual salaries exceeding $100,000.

If free college tuition becomes a reality, more students will be shortchanged than ever before.  Their self-esteem will be crushed, and they will be left behind their peers who chose a curriculum more in line with their true aptitude and ability.

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The downside of parental choice

As long-time readers of this column know, I support parental choice, even though I’ve repeatedly stressed its shortcomings.  The latest evidence is seen in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest (“LAUSD guide: How to get into a magnet school or specialized programs in Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 5).

Although every K-12 student is guaranteed a seat in a school within their attendance zone, parents who are unhappy with that particular school must jump through a series of hoops requiring the skills of a Philadelphia lawyer. There are deadlines, applications and rules that are complex enough to frustrate most parents.  As a result, many parents simply give up and enroll their children in a private or religious school.

In an ideal world, of course, every neighborhood school would be so good that few, if any, parents would look elsewhere.  But that is never going to happen.  In fact, I don’t think that public education in this country will be recognizable a decade from now.  We’re already seeing evidence of that in the form of tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and vouchers.  Blaine amendments are being challenged in court, with the likely result that public dollars will be legally spent at religious schools.

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The active-shooter school drills

Although the threat of an active shooter on school grounds is exceedingly rare, many districts continue to carry out drills that in many cases are extremely graphic (“The Needless Trauma of Active-Shooter Drills,” National Review, Nov. 11).  That has raised the question whether schools are acting with prudence or in panic.

I understand the intense anxiety that conducting such drills can create, especially in young children.  But in today’s highly litigious society, I believe such drills are a necessary evil.  I submit that it’s better to be sued by an irate parent than to mourn a dead child.

When I was teaching high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the policy was to have a stipulated number of fire drills each semester.  During my 28 years, there was never a fire.  But had there been one and teachers and students had not been trained what to do, there could have been tragic results.

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School spending accountability badly needed


 For as long as I can remember, school districts have been demanding more money to properly educate students.  But unless the extra funding is carefully monitored, disadvantaged students in particular will be shortchanged (“California’s poorest kids aren’t getting the school funding they’ve been promised,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7).  California serves as a case in point.

The Local Control Funding Formula that became law in the 2005-06 school year provided 20 percent more in supplemental dollars for each low-income student, foster student and English learner – plus an additional 50 percent in concentration funds for schools with large proportions of such students.

On paper, LCFF sounds great.  But because of a lack of oversight, too much of the funds have gone into general spending and basic expenditures. A state audit recommended that greater transparency is needed so that the funds are used for whom they were intended.

My point is that simply throwing more money at underperforming schools by itself will do little to change outcomes.  Yes, the additional money will make us feel good, but in the final analysis it is not enough.

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Colleges should focus on learning

At a time when colleges and universities are spending a disproportionate amount of money on student amenities, it’s heartening to know that Occidental College is charting a different course (“When Admissions Adviser Rick Singer Called, This School Said, ‘No Thanks,’ “ The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 7).  Rather than chase affluent applicants, it decided to put its money into scholarships for low-income minorities.

But It has paid a steep price for its decision, losing roughly $70 million in its endowment. That’s because it has rejected wealthy students with questionable academic track records in favor of admitting low-income qualified students who are not as likely to support the school financially after graduation.

I’ve never understood why lavish amenities are needed on campus in the first place.  Students are supposed to go to college for an education.  That has nothing to do with climbing walls etc.  Let’s focus instead on academic learning, which is really the No. 1 reason colleges and universities exist.

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