Teacher personality plays big role in student learning

The obsession with measuring what students have learned fails to account for the importance of a teacher’s relationship with them (“Students Learn From People They Love,” The New York Times, Jan. 18).  Teachers can know their subject matter, but if they can’t connect with their students on an emotional basis, learning suffers.

Researchers are beginning to understand how students’ brain activity meshes with teachers’ brain activity. That’s a step in the right direction.  But if you ask veteran teachers why the same lesson works so well with one group of students but not with another, they’ll likely tell you that their personalities were not in sync.  The goal, therefore, is to try to find ways to overcome that mismatch.

When I was teaching English, I tried to engage students in all my classes.  Yet as hard as I tried to tweak the lesson to fit what I perceived as the unique personality of a particular class, too often the lesson was a flop.  Perhaps that was because I didn’t give proper weight to cultural factors.  When Third World immigration resulted in an influx of students from around the globe in my high school, the district gave teachers little support in preparing us.

In the dating scene, two people click when the “chemistry” is right. I maintain that the same thing applies to successful instruction and learning in schools.

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Los Angeles charter school scene

The recently settled teachers strike in Los Angeles contains lesson for other large cities (“A rift over charter schools,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24).  When charter schools first began there, they were welcomed because the Los Angeles Unified School District at the time was bursting with students.  But that is no longer the case, as they continue to siphon off students whose parents for one reason or another are disaffected with traditional schools in the district.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I’ve written repeatedly that comparing outcomes of charter schools with traditional schools is unfair.  A new study confirms this.  Researchers sent emails from fictitious parents to 6,452 charter and traditional schools in 29 states.  The email asked if any student was eligible to apply.  It randomly assigned attributes about the student.  For example, disability status, poor behavior record, high or low academic achievement.  The goal was to determine if such schools discriminate against certain groups of students.

Even though federal law prohibits all public schools from discriminating on the basis of race, religion and disability status, charter schools enroll a smaller proportion of such students than traditional public schools. It’s interesting to note that so called no-excuses charters were 10 percent less likely to respond.  What are they hiding?  I maintain that if charter schools had to play by the same rules as their counterparts, there would be little differences in outcomes.

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Community schools for neediest students

Students who are poor, homeless or learning English are finding hope in what are called community schools (“The Community School Comes of Age,” The New York Times, Jan. 10).  These students have huge deficits that few traditional public schools are equipped to handle. But longer days, longer school years, combined with wraparound services from psychologists, optometrists and dentists, have resulted in an increase in graduation and attendance.

There are presently some 5,000 community schools across the country, with New York City alone the home to 247.  Whether they will grow in number is unclear because of the obsession with test scores as the No. 1 measure of success.  I say that since spending on public schools has increased without a significant improvement in student performance.  I hope I’m wrong, particularly for disadvantaged students who deserve a better opportunity in life.

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Teacher pensions are threatened

Traditional pensions paid to teachers are greater in value than even an idealized 401 (k) plan (“New Study Analyzes Teacher Pension Plan in Six States,” The National Institute on Retirement Security, Jan. 9).  Moreover, they play a critical role in retaining teachers.

Nevertheless, these traditional plans are not being fully funded, which puts them at great risk.  The best example is Chicago. In April 2009, the Illinois General Assembly allowed the Chicago Public Schools to pay a fraction of the dollars owed and extended by 14 years the district’s contribution.  As a result, funding of the pension plan was heading toward 50 percent instead of 100 percent.

This is a clear case of kicking the can down the road.  But eventually there will be a day of reckoning.  One way of solving the problem is to institute front-loaded compensation for teachers.  That is the opposite of what now exists. For example, pay teachers much higher salaries in their early years and pay for it by reducing pensions.  This might appeal to veteran teachers who are burned out but stay in the classroom.

I would not be interested in such a change because I knew from the start that I wanted to make teaching my lifetime career.  But not all teachers want to do the same.  Under current plan structures, teachers accrue almost no retirement wealth in their first several years. In Pennsylvania, for example, about 80 percent of teachers leave the system before their pension benefit is worth a single dollar.

If the goal is to recruit and retain the best and the brightest, it’s worthwhile giving teachers a choice between front-end loaded and back-end loaded pensions.  The outcome may be surprising.

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Poor judgment is no excuse for firing

When does the punishment not fit the crime?  I have reference now to a lawsuit filed by a white public school teacher in New York City who was canned because of a lesson she prepared on slavery for her middle school students (“Teacher fired for making black students play slaves plans $1B lawsuit,” New York Post, Jan. 11).

There’s no doubt that Patricia Cummings used atrocious judgment when she had black students lie on the floor while she allegedly stepped on their backs to teach them about slavery conditions. That’s like having Jewish students wear black-and-white striped pajamas to teach them about the Holocaust.  In both cases, students would feel humiliated.

But unless Cummings has a record of using similar practices or was otherwise ineffective, I think she should be given another chance.  First offenders in criminal cases are routinely placed on probation for a stipulated number of years and ordered to comply with other conditions.  Cummings did not commit a crime. Why is she different, particularly because she is now unemployable as a result of the publicity surrounding her dismissal?

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Afrocentric schools’ appeal

New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, remains one of the most segregated.  But rather than demand integration, some black parents are opting for schools that are specifically designed for their children (“ ‘I Love My skin!’ Why Black Parents Are Turning to Afrocentric Schools,” The New York Times, Jan. 8).  These Afrocentric schools tend to post high test scores and high graduation rates compared with other public schools in the city.

I understand the reason that some black parents – not all by any means – have chosen to enroll their children in Afrocentric schools.  But I wonder if abandoning integration serves these students well in the long run.  One of the most persistent goals in education is promoting diversity. But these schools by their very nature do not do so.  Yes, there are some Hispanic students enrolled but few, if any, whites.  In an increasing diversified workforce, will black students who have self-segregated be shortchanged?  Nevertheless, as readers of this column know, I support parental choice.

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Teacher strikes will hit charter schools next

Whatever the outcome of the strike by teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one thing is inevitable:  Charter schools will be next in line.  I say that because the first-ever charter school strike in the nation already took place in Chicago (“A Labor Strike at a Charter School?” The Nation, Jan. 7).

Until now, teachers in charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have overwhelmingly not belonged to a union.  But conditions are slowly changing as a result of disaffection with the status quo.  Chief among these is resentment over the lack of autonomy accorded teachers and salaries that are 20 to 30 percent less than teachers at traditional public schools.

It’s true that wait lists for admission to charters in many cities are already long and growing longer.  Yet I wonder if exasperated parents will feel the same way about the hype surrounding their alleged superiority once teachers threaten a strike and go through with it.  The fact is that teaching today is much harder than it was in the past, whether in public, private or religious schools.  Sooner or later, teachers will flee the classroom unless they are given greater respect and support.

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Ministerial exception rule is being abused

When a teacher at St. James Catholic School in Southern California requested a leave of absence to receive treatment for her breast cancer, she was subsequently fired (“Teacher with cancer can sue,” San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 19).  The school said it would be unfair to students to have two teachers in one year.

A lower court held that the school had the right to fire her because she was effectively a minister. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals correctly overruled that decision. Putting aside the fact that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the claim is ridiculous on its face since the teacher had no training in Catholic pedagogy and the school had no religious requirements for the position.  Would the same school claim that an observant Jew or Muslim was a minister as well?

It’s necessary to look back to 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC that the First Amendment allows religious employers to discriminate against their employees without any court review.  (EEOC is the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.)  By doing so, the high court permitted religious schools to enjoy absolute freedom to choose their ministers.  It wasn’t long after that they began to abuse the right.

For example, a Catholic school district in Montana in 2014 fired a teacher for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. Ten other teachers in Catholic schools across the nation were fired for the same reason.  The schools all said they had the right to do so because of ministerial exception.  I realize that there is a distinct difference between becoming pregnant and developing breast cancer.  But I submit that religious schools will take advantage of the ministerial exception shield.

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Intelligence is more than literacy and numeracy

Whether nature or nurture is largely responsible for the outcomes on IQ tests is an ongoing debate (“James Watson Won’t Stop Talking About Race,” The New York Times, Jan. 1).  James Watson, who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize for describing the double-helix structure of DNA, still maintains that “all the testing” shows that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites.

Watson bases his view about intelligence on tests that assess only literacy and numeracy.  Of course, they are important, but they are not the only kind of intelligence.  In 1983, Howard Gardner (no relation) identified multiple intelligences.  During the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw the truth of his contribution.

I had students who could barely write a one-paragraph essay and yet played various musical instruments.  I also had students who struggled to spell but were expert in diagnosing and repairing a car engine problem.  Critics will argue that such skills are evidence merely of talent but do not constitute intelligence.  I disagree.  I don’t know where they developed such abilities, but they certainly were not from my English class.

If Watson took the time to investigate other areas of human ability, I think he would see that blacks on average are no less intelligent than whites.

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Apprenticeships won’t work here

When only 37 percent of students enrolled in college graduate in eight years, there’s something terribly wrong (“Looking for an Alternative to College? U.S. Studies German Apprenticeships,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29).  The usual explanation is that high schools are not doing their job.  But there is another side of the story that warrants a closer look.

The truth is that not everyone is college material.  They lack either the aptitude or the interest, or both.  Yet we persist in counseling them to apply to a four-year college or university, when they would be far better served taking a vocational course of study in high school, combined with an apprenticeship.  I submit that the main reason is our aversion to differentiation in education at any age. Our competitors abroad have so such problem separating students into tracks based on their ability.

Even though student debt is at an all-time high, students persist in believing that without a four-year college degree they can’t make a decent living.  If they had been better counseled, they would quickly see that is not the case.  For example, welders now command salaries of $100,000.  And they are not burdened with student debt.  I see many of my former students, who never went to college but took a vocational education, doing what they like and leading a gratifying life.  It’s time to get real about the obsession with college for all.

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