The school day schedule needs revision

Tradition dies hard in education, but nowhere more so than in the hours of a typical school day (“The Curse of America’s Illogical School-Day Schedule,” The Atlantic, Sep. 19).  Classes begin too early and end too soon to meet the needs of most students and working parents.

The usual start time for public high schools is 8:00.  The trouble is that most teenagers don’t naturally fall asleep until 11:00 or so.  As a result, they arrive at school half awake.  I vividly remember the semester when I had two classes of senior composition.  The first began at 8:15, and the second after lunch period at about 1:00.  Both classes were composed of students of equal ability.  But the difference in performance between the two was dramatic.

Working parents whose children are in elementary school also find the present schedule to be a burden, but for a different reason.  They are forced to find caretakers until they arrive home from work.  During the long winter months, they worry about their children walking home in inclement weather.

Eventually, I foresee public schools providing wraparound services that begin with breakfast and end with supper.  That would be costly, but I think pressure is building for such a radical change.  For one thing, The RAND Corporation estimates that starting school after 8:30 would contribute at least $83 billion to the national economy within a decade.  That’s no small thing to consider.

Unfortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown of California vetoed a bill that would have required middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.  He said such decisions are best handled at the local school level.

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In-class presentations can actually be enjoyable

The latest protest by students involves in-class presentations, which they say are discriminatory (“Teens Are Protesting In-Class Presentations,” The Atlantic, Sep. 12).  According to them, this traditional practice creates anxiety in those prone to the condition.  I think that eliminating such presentations actually does a disservice.

One of the most effective ways of reducing anxiety is to gradually expose students to precisely what they fear the most.  The key to success is how it is done.  If teachers provide students with appropriate practice, I submit that anxiety will be eliminated or at least greatly reduced.  Let me explain how.

When I began my 28-year teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I was assigned an introductory speech class.  I decided to throw away the textbook and instead try a different approach.  After introducing myself the first day, I asked each student to come to the front of the room and introduce oneself in two or three sentences.  Nothing else.

It was quite apparent that almost all students were nervous and self-conscious.  But the mere act of standing in front of their peers immediately helped them to see that their fears were greatly exaggerated.  I used their first appearance as a baseline from which their progress would be compared over the semester.

My point is that how teachers prepare their students for the assignment is the key to success.  Avoiding what we fear the most only reinforces the fear, even though it may be initially uncomfortable.  By the way, the approach I used resulted in several of my students winning state speaking tournaments, with trophies still on display in the school’s showcase.

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College rankings mean very little

When U.S. News &World Report first published the “Best Colleges” issue in 1983, it had no idea what impact it would have on college applicants (“What college rankings really measure – hint: It’s not quality or value,” the conversation.com).  Since then other magazines and newspapers have weighed in with their rankings.  But I maintain that far greater attention needs to be paid to the criteria used before reaching a conclusion about what the various rankings really mean.

Perhaps the most egregious example is using SAT and ACT scores to rank schools.  These two standardized tests do not allow valid inferences to be drawn.  The first to question their predictive value was Bates College, which in 2004 released the results of its 20-year study finding virtually no differences in the four-year performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and non- submitters. Today, some 1,000 schools have instituted a test-optional policy.

In light of the skyrocketing cost of tuition, a more defensible way of ranking colleges is to determine what the money buys in terms of student learning, which after all is why students ostensibly go to college in the first place.  I think this avoids penalizing liberal art colleges that largely focus on the liberal arts, rather on more immediately marketable subjects.  According to the 2011 book “Academically Adrift,” however, college students don’t learn much because they don’t study much.

So why do rankings continue to get the coverage they do?  I think it’s because Americans are obsessed with differentiation.  For example, they study the standings of athletic teams.  Everybody wants to be No. 1 in order to have bragging rights.  College presidents and their boards of trustees are no different in this regard, particularly when a high ranking results in greater alumni giving.  Follow the money trail and it will almost always lead to the answer.

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School security is not just about safety

The start of the school year sees many districts taking “target hardening” steps to protect students and staff from physical harm (“The False Comfort in School Security,” The New York Times, Sep. 7).  Whether they make any difference is debatable.  But missing from the debate is another factor that is not arguable.

I’m referring now to the threat of lawsuits.  If school officials did not do everything reasonable to protect students, they would soon find themselves the subject of a lawsuit for negligence.  In today’s litigious society, doctors practice defensive medicine by ordering tests that they ordinarily would not based strictly on their clinical judgment.  I maintain that school officials would also be sued.

Yes, it’s expensive to implement such target hardening steps.  But it’s a lot more expensive to defend oneself in a court of law.  There is no way to guarantee the absolute safety of students.  But I believe that courts will rule in favor of school districts if they have taken reasonable measures.

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Teacher turnover is bound to increase

If teaching is such a plum, then why do 16 percent of public school teachers on average leave the profession or change schools each year? (“Teacher turnover is a problem – here’s how to fix it,” the conversation.com, Sep. 7).  Before jumping to conclusions, I think it’s important to distinguish between the two groups if a solution is ever going to be found.

Teachers tend to jump ship from inner-city schools to suburban schools because students in the former bring huge deficits in learning to the classroom through no fault of their own.  Frankly, I don’t blame them.  Teachers want to teach their subject.  If they have to attend to other factors, they become burned out.  They did not sign up to perform triage.

Teachers who quit the profession entirely do so for other reasons. Typically, it’s because they can earn far more money in the private sector.  That is particularly so with teachers who are certified in STEM.  There are other teachers who come to realize that teaching is not what they expected.

When teachers leave the classroom during the school year for any reason, it’s estimated that comes out to a loss of between 32 and 72 instructional days.  But students in high-poverty schools suffer the most because they already have the fewest resources.  Nevertheless, there’s always a loss created by the disruption.

Yet I believe that too little attention is paid to low morale.  When teachers hear nothing but criticism for what they are doing, they begin to question their decision to stay in the classroom.  I don’t see any evidence that matters are going to improve in this regard.  If anything, it’s only going to get worse.

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Teachers’ value-added scores still controversial

In August 2010, the Los Angeles Times ignited a firestorm of criticism when it published the value-added scores of thousands of teachers based on California standardized tests in reading and math (“Whatever Happened with the Los Angeles Times’ Decision to Publish Teachers’ Value-Added Scores?” National Education Policy Center, Sep. 6).  Although the brouhaha has died down, there are several lessons to be learned.

The No. 1 lesson is that so much of the effectiveness of teachers is the direct result of the students they are assigned.  Give a weak teacher a class full of Talmudic scholars and that teacher will shine.  The converse is also true.  Unless students are randomly assigned to teachers, which they rarely are, great care needs to be taken before drawing conclusions.

The other lesson is that it is unfair to compare teachers even in the same school unless they are assigned students with similar characteristics.  Yet critics continue to say that everyone knows who the best teachers are.  But what are the reasons?

Near the end of my 28-year teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the same high school, I was often given five classes of students from the inner-city who brought with them huge deficits.  If a poll had been taken, I’m sure I would have been ranked low because of the difficulty of bringing these students up to grade level.

Value-added scores also are a nightmare for principals because once the data are released parents will demand that their children be assigned only to those teachers with the highest scores.  Trying to explain the lack of validity to parents will not appease them.

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Teachers pay heavily for single act of poor judgment

If what happened to a math teacher at the Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in New York City, were not so tragic, it would be comical (“A Teacher Made a Hitler Joke in the Classroom. It Tore the School Apart,” The New York Times, Sep. 9).

Ben Frisch, who taught at the school for 34 years was using his arms to demonstrate angles when he inadvertently realized he was pantomiming the Nazi salute. Embarrassed, he said: “Heil Hitler.”  News of the incident resulted in his termination after a few parents threatened to pull their children out of the school and enroll them elsewhere.

In doing so, the administration broke with the Quaker ethos. But it also underscored how precarious the status of teachers is in all schools today.  I bet there are other teachers who have sincerely regretted a comment they’ve made in class.  Only an enlightened administration or a strong union would prevent them from being terminated.

Teachers are only human and are subject to momentary lapses in judgment that in other fields would not be controversial.  I don’t think the punishment at the Friends Seminary fitted the crime.  Frisch is not an anti-Semite.  He is well liked by students.  I’m sure he is still mortified by his action and wishes he never uttered the two words.  There is no such thing as a guaranteed “safe space” in life.  Today’s high school students are far more sophisticated than those in past generations.  I seriously doubt they have been harmed by Frisch’s words.

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An obscure SCOTUS ruling has vast implications for education

Historically, the U.S. Supreme Court has reluctantly weighed in on education.  But when it has, its decisions need to be carefully scrutinized.  Readers who follow education can recite past rulings, such as Brown v. Board of Education, for their far-reaching impact and media coverage.  But there’s a far less known case that I believe can upend our views about education (“Is Education A Fundamental Right?” The New Yorker, Sep. 5).

I’m talking now about Plyler v. Doe, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1982.  I believe it has the potential to make education a fundamental right for the first time in American history.  It involved the decision by James Plyler, the superintendent of public schools in Tyler, Texas, to bar undocumented immigrants from school in his district.  In his defense, Plyler was following state law, which allowed public schools to do so.

When fundamental rights are involved, the courts have held that a standard known as “strict scrutiny” be applied before they can be abridged.  The question is whether education is such a right.  The U.S. Constitution does not mention the right to an education.  The closest was in 1787 when the Northwest Ordinance held that “schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

I’m not a lawyer, but I think that eventually Plyler v. Doe will become the basis for making education a fundamental right.  At present, the door seems shut as a result of the high court’s ruling in 1973 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez.  But the matter is far from settled.

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Four-day week good for students and teachers

In an attempt to engage students and boost teacher morale, districts have resorted to various strategies.  But the one that seems most promising has been around since 1980 and yet curiously has received little attention: the four-day school week (“Are Four-Day Weeks Bad for Students?” National Education Policy Center, Sep. 4).

Although the practice was originally adopted to save money, it not only improved the morale of teachers but most importantly showed a positive relationship on the percentage of students scoring at the proficient or advanced levels on math and reading achievement tests. The latter may be because the non-required fifth day was devoted to tutoring and enrichment.  But it may also be because students need a break from the lockstep five-day school week.

I wonder if student performance might be greatly improved if schools were operated year-round but with more frequent breaks. Rather than the traditional two-month summer vacation, why not distribute two-week breaks throughout the entire calendar year?  That would avoid the exhaustion experienced by students and teachers under the existing school calendar. Businesses in Sweden, New Zealand and other countries have experimented with four-day workweeks and have reported promising results in the form of happier, healthier and more productive workers.

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Soical mobility not assured by college degree

A new study calls into question the assumption that possession of a college degree is the best way to end up with a better job than that of one’s parents (“Parents’ Jobs Increasingly Shape How Far Kids Get in Life,” The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 4).  At least that’s how I interpret the conclusion of the article in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

It found that what parents do for a living is an even bigger factor than originally believed.  Just over half of Americans born in the 1980s have better jobs than their parents.  That compares with two-thirds of people born in the 1940s.  Yet during the period in question far more people have graduated from college.  If a college degree is all it’s cracked up to be, then what accounts for the disparity?

I’m not saying that circumstances at birth are not important.  Certainly they are.  But higher education is supposed to be the great equalizer.  Why hasn’t it closed the gap?  I realize that the 1940s were years still clouded by the Depression.  Therefore, those fortunate enough to have a job would likely earn more than their parents.  Still I question the monetary value of a college degree when student debt is factored in.

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