Elite colleges no assurance of quality education

By this week, almost all colleges and universities have notified applicants who have been accepted.  Rejection can feel devastating for those who don’t get into their first choice.  But I maintain that a marquee-name school is no guarantee of anything more than a brand (“Let’s Hear It for State U.” The New York Times, Mar. 25).

The truth is that many undergraduate classes at elite schools are taught by teaching assistants, rather than by advertised professors.  As a result, students are essentially paying for the cachet of the degree they receive.  They could just as well have gone to a community college or a state university at a fraction of the cost.

I’m not saying that community colleges and state universities don’t have their problems.  But what they offer on average is equal to what elite schools offer.  I received my B.A. from an Ivy League university.  The quality of instruction there varied widely.  In fact, the most lionized professor I had was the worst teacher by far.  His lectures were enough to put students to sleep.  He was a great researcher but an incompetent instructor.

So before assuming that being denied admittance to the school of their dreams, students need to get real about what actually takes place on many campuses.

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Out-of-control schools are endemic

In an attempt to avoid accusations of racial bias, too many schools have eliminated suspensions (“Classroom chaos – de Blasio’s ‘gift’ to NY kids,” New York Post, Mar. 14).  The result has been disorder on a scale not seen before.  How did this happen?

I trace the cause of chaos to the student-rights revolution, which gave due-process protections to students for the most minor aspects of school discipline after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Goss v. Lopez in 1975.  Then one year later the high court in Wood v. Strickland held that if public school teachers or principals violated those rights, they could be held personally liable for financial damages.

Not surprisingly, teachers and administrators began to walk on eggs, lest they be held liable.  Further exacerbating matters, data showed that blacks and Hispanics were disciplined more than whites and Asians.  But when the authority of school officials is undermined, learning cannot take place for all students regardless of their race.  To avoid suspensions and lawsuits, reformers propose the use of restorative justice. School administrators claim it works, citing the drop in suspensions after it was implemented.  But correlation is not causation.

Until teachers once again are allowed to act in loco parentis, I expect further disorder.  Most students want to learn, but they are held hostage by the behavior of a few.  It’s time to remove the latter from the classroom and place them in special rooms where they cannot cause harm to others.

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Career choice pressure on students is counterproductive

High school students today are under the gun to decide the kind of work they want to do after graduation or the major they should choose in college (“Let’s stop stressing out our kids with career choice pressure,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 11).  As a result, many are filled with needless anxiety.

The truth is that most young people change their minds before settling into a career.  In fact, about 30 percent of college students change majors before graduating.  Whether that’s because they discover they lack the wherewithal for a particular field or because they discover it doesn’t pay the rent.

Ideally, students would know at an early age what they want to do with their lives.  But those who do are outliers.  Most young people need to test their wings before committing.  Rather than add to their anxiety about the future, counselors and parents need to provide them with a reality check.  One of the best ways of doing so is to find them apprenticeships while they are still in school. Even volunteering for a few hours a week can help them immensely.

Other countries are far more demanding.  For example, Singapore begins tracking children on the basis of its Primary School Leaving exam. Germany sorts out students into vocational or academic tracks early on as well.  Whether such differentiation lessens stress or exacerbates it is hard to know.  But schools abroad have no compunction about doing so.

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Cognitive skills not enough for teacher effectiveness

The quest for the key to teacher effectiveness never ends.  The latest is the assertion that high cognitive skills result in high student performance (“Do Smarter Teachers Make Smarter Students?” Education Next, Spring 2019).

The study found that teachers who come from the top third of their academic peers in college are more likely to be successful in the classroom than others.  In other words, smarter teachers make for smarter students.  I think this conclusion is out of touch with reality. It assumes that mere possession of subject matter, as evidenced by high grades, is enough to get through to students.

If that were the case, then every Phi Beta Kappa professor who possesses a Ph. D. would automatically be a star teacher in K-12.  But knowing one’s subject matter does not necessarily mean knowing how to teach it.  That’s where pedagogy comes into play. State licensing has been rightly criticized for erecting too many needless obstacles to teach in a public school.  But done correctly, such courses can mean the difference between success and failure.

Moreover, the study makes no mention of the importance of affective skills.  So much depends on the ability of teachers to connect with their students.  Personality plays an indispensable role in that regard.  Because it is not as easily measured as cognitive factors, it is too often minimized.  But anyone who has observed in a public school knows that students are easily turned off by cold, aloof pedants.  I’m not saying that personality trumps expertise.  Instead, I believe that the former warrants far greater attention.  It’s like the importance of a bedside manner in a physician.

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Free speech in college is a farce

The one place where free speech is supposed to flourish is the college campus.  Yet sadly it has become almost impossible for those with unpopular views to be heard because of various restrictions.  That’s why withholding federal funds from institutions of higher learning who violate free speech is long overdue (“Students, taxpayers should cheer Trump’s bid to stop campus censorship,” New York Post, Mar. 7).

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, more than 90 percent of colleges and universities restrict speech.  They do so by imposing speech codes, empowering bias squads and the like. College once was where young people went to be exposed to new ideas that forced them to develop critical thinking.  That’s no longer the case.  Not only are speakers shouted down, but they are also physically attacked.

Free inquiry also is limited among faculty.  Despite the existence of tenure, professors are reluctant to pursue research into taboo subjects out of fear of retaliation. If that is the case, what is the justification in the first place?  I submit that what constitutes a college education today is a travesty.

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Private schools not exempt from ‘substantially equivalent rule’

New York State requires that all private and religious schools provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that in public schools.  The rule recently was in the news after critics said that some yeshivas failed to teach enough secular subjects.  A new suit filed by the New York State Association of Independent Schools on behalf of its 192 members argues that district boards of education have too much power to judge their curriculums (“Private Schools Sue Over New York’s Push to Increase Oversight,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 7).

I’ve written often why I support the right of parents to send their children to any school they alone believe best meets their needs and interests.  If private schools are compliant, I fail to see why they would object to oversight.   In fact, I would think that they would welcome such oversight as a selling point.  Let’s not forget  that private schools are in competition with each other.  Anything that helps them distinguish themselves should be welcomed.  Oversight does not mean interference.  It just means compliance with the law.

Private schools would still be allowed to create their own curriculum.  Only if it significantly deviated from the curriculum offered by public schools would a problem arise.  That’s why I think private schools are overreacting in filing their suit.

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Coaches have too much clout in admissions

The widely publicized admissions scandal reveals the outrageous position that athletic programs occupy (“Colleges Rethink Athletic Special Admissions in Wake of Indictments,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 18).   Only in the U.S. is this the case.  Students in other countries participate in sports, but the options open to them and the weight given to them pale in comparison.

I realize that football and basketball in many schools are a cash cow.  But the obsession has so distorted academics that it makes a mockery of higher education.  For example, some 158 slots annually are reserved for use by athletic coaches.  If those admitted genuinely possessed the ability to compete with their non-athletic peers, that would be a different story.  I seriously doubt that is so. Moreover, football coaches at some schools earn several million dollars a year, more than college presidents.

The argument for the status quo is that varsity athletics contain vital lessons for real life, such as discipline and teamwork.  They also help keep participants in physical shape.  But those same goals can be achieved by intramural sports.  Of course that will never happen because alumni pressure wouldn’t allow it.  Moreover, few schools are willing to forego the money that is attached to the present system.

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Admissions scandal is nothing new

There’s not much more that hasn’t already been written about the college admissions cheating scandal (“Bribing your way to college,” Reuters, Mar. 14). However, one thing does merit further consideration.

It’s Campbell’s Law.  More than 30 years ago, Donald Campbell, an eminent social scientist, warned about the danger of measuring ability by any single influential metric.  He said that the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.

As long as scores on the SAT and ACT are given so much weight by admissions officers, they will invariably create an atmosphere that serves as an incentive to cheat.  For example, in 2011, in what The New York Times called “one of the most conspicuous cheating scandals in memory,” five students from prominent and respected families in Great Neck, N.Y. received as much as $3,600 to take SAT and ACT tests for students with undistinguished records. They were charged with felonies, while the 15 accused of paying them faced misdemeanor charges.

The irony is the SAT was originally supposed to be a way that merit – not parentage – would be the basis for admission to college.  At least that was what James Bryant Conant, then president of Harvard, intended when he supported the test.  But over the years, his vision was corrupted.  The history was laid out in detail in “The Big Test” by Nicholas Lemann in 1999.

As long as cutthroat competition exists for admission to elite colleges and universities, I see little hope for significant change.  Money in one form or another will always play a dominant role in who is accepted.  We can eliminate legacy preferences and development cases, but money speaks louder than anything else.

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Animal therapy for special needs students

Students who have special needs can’t always get the help they deserve at even the best traditional schools.  But evidence is slowly emerging that placing them in schools where animals constitute the center of learning is paying off (“ ‘I Had Finally Found the Right Place for My Son,’ “ The New York Times, Mar. 3).

At Green Chimneys, located on a former dairy farm in Putnam County, NY., students make remarkable progress by caring for animals.  Although this fully accredited day and residential school is expensive, with tuition at $50,000 for day students and much more for boarders, the demand continues to grow. Perhaps that’s because school districts pay the tuition due to the shortage of certified special-education teachers in public schools.

But another more likely reason is that animals provide the love and support many students have never had before.  There’s an old expression that there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.  I’d expand that to include all animals, both big and small.  I expect to see new studies conducted that confirm the benefits of animal therapy. It’s not a panacea, but I submit that it is invaluable.

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More funding doesn’t mean better schools

Spending more money for each student in order to turn around failing schools has great intuitive appeal.  But doing so has not produced the desired results.  New York State serves as a case in point (“$773 Million Later, de Blasio Ends Signature Initiative to Improve Failing Schools,” The New York Times, Feb. 26).

Although New York ranks near the very top on per-pupil expenditures in the nation, many of its schools continue to fail. Consider New York City under Mayor de Blasio.  Despite spending $773 million on nearly 100 low-performing schools on his Renewal program, 75 percent have fallen far short of the hoped-for improvements. Still undeterred, de Blasio now will direct funding to the neediest schools under a new centralized data system called Edu Stat.

I don’t believe anything significantly different will emerge.  I say that because so much of any school’s success is dependent on factors beyond the control of teachers and principals.  The Coleman Report made that clear decades ago.  It’s not that schools don’t matter. But family and neighborhood play a greater role.  There will always be exceptions, but they are outliers. I’m thinking now of Jaime Escalante, who performed miracles at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

Let’s give greater support to struggling schools, but let’s also get real.  Schools are not Lourdes.

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