Tying teachers’ hands to reach students

Meeting the needs and interests of students has long been one of the ways to engage students in learning.  Yet high school teachers are given little slack in deciding how to do so.  I was reminded once again after reading the provocative article “If You Could Add One Book to the High School Curriculum, What Would It Be?” (The New York Times, Aug. 21).

The arguments for the inclusion of certain books, both fiction and non-fiction, were well argued.  But the reality is that public school teachers have little, if any, choice in deciding which books to teach.  In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District held that only boards of education can determine the curriculum.  Essentially, districts hire teacher speech.

The problem is that the list of approved books is decided by those who know very little about the students that teachers face every day.  As a result, the books are often totally irrelevant.  When I was teaching English in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I was appalled by my options for American literature.  “Ethan Frome,”and “The Red Badge of Courage” immediately come to mind.  They bored students to death.  Yet there were others that were no less deadly.

I see little hope for changing matters.  As long as teachers are forbidden to use their own professional judgment, students will continue to fall asleep or act out.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Segregated schools are allowed if they are not district policy

A lawsuit by a Latino father says that Minnesota knowingly allowed towns and cities to establish policies and zoning boundaries that resulted in segregated schools (“How Do You Get Better Schools? Take the State to Court, More Advocates Say,” The New York Times, Aug. 21).  Although it is assumed that state courts are more receptive to such legal action than those at the federal level, that is not so.

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Milliken v. Bradley that segregation is allowable as long as it is not the explicit policy of a school district.  In the present case, however, Minnesota is charged with knowingly doing so.  If lawyers for the plaintiffs can prove that is the case, they will prevail.

Of course, predicting outcomes is always risky.  For example, I never expected the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1973 that unequal school funding did not violate the U.S. Constitution.  Nor did I expect that a federal judge in Michigan would hold that “access to literacy” was not a fundamental federal right for students in the Detroit school system.

The right to what is called an “adequate” education is guaranteed in almost all state constitutions.  But exactly what such an education should look like is the basis for several lawsuits now underway.  That’s how lawyers earn their money.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

When quotas replace academics for admissions

The obsession with diversity is going to undermine excellence in schools in this country.  I say that reluctantly, but the evidence makes it hard to deny.   The New York City system is a case in point.  Mayor Bill deBlasio wants to eliminate academic screening for admissions to middle schools, replacing it with set quotas to engineer racial balance (“Park Slope is now ground zero in deBlasio’s drive to impose quotas on city schools,” New York Post, Aug. 20.)

I understand the benefits of a diverse student population.  But I think we do a disservice to all students regardless of their race if they are admitted without the proper aptitude and achievement.  How will they be able to keep up with their more able classmates?  Teachers will be forced to adjust their instruction to the lowest level.  Parents of more advanced students will complain, which will eventually result in their decision to pull them out and enroll them in private schools.

Boston is a liberal city, like New York City.  Forced desegregation resulted in many parents leaving the district, which is presently just 12 percent white.  Yet New York City refuses to learn from Boston’s experience.  It’s only a matter of time before whatever quality in public schools is undermined.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Vocational training is back in favor

With 6.6 million unfilled job openings at the end of June, which is slightly below the record set in 2000, high school vocational education is appearing far more attractive (“Vocational Training Is Back as Firms Pair With High Schools to Groom Workers,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 14).  I’ve long argued that career and technical education deserves greater respect because not all students are academically capable.  The appalling dropout rate is evidence.

The major criticism of vocational training is that it is too narrowly focused on jobs in demand today.  What happens in the years ahead when the job picture changes for reasons that are not predictable?  There is truth to that concern, but possession of a bachelor’s degree is no protection against unemployment either.  Overseas outsourcing, merger and acquisitions, and new technology have resulted in those with degrees from marquee-name schools on the unemployment lines.  Moreover, student loan debt continues unabated.

Germany, which has long sorted out students early in their education, has Europe’s lowest youth unemployment.  I think the country is more realistic than we are.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

 

 

Learning can’t always be fun

The start of the new school year will invariably include pleas by principals to make learning fun.  But the truth is learning often requires discipline that is by its very nature boring (“What I Learned in Secretarial School,” The New York Times, Aug. 12).

I’m thinking now of the importance of rote memorization.  Unfortunately, it has fallen out of favor because it is seen as antithetical to creativity.  But there are rules that need to be learned and retained if creativity is ever to develop.  Every subject taught requires memorization if mastery is to follow.  I remember having to memorize rules for spelling, for learning Spanish etc.  Students today are rarely required to do so.  Perhaps that’s why grammar is no longer taught in most schools.  Students complain that it’s boring.  Their inability to write clearly is the price paid for caving in to their demands.

Learning is a process that is built on a sequence of skills and knowledge.  Teachers can’t always make their instruction fun and enjoyable.  I’m not saying they shouldn’t try, but I am saying that students are shortchanged when they are not required to memorize.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Declining teacher college enrollment is no surprise

Between the 2007-08 and 2015-16 academic years, enrollment in teacher colleges fell by 23 percent (“Enrollment Is Down at Teacher Colleges. So They’re Trying to Change,” Education Week, Aug. 9).  According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the No. 1 reason is the perception that teaching is an undesirable career.

There was a time when teachers had far more control over what transpired in their classrooms.  But pressure to boost test scores, coupled with lack of support, have resulted in a dramatic drop in job satisfaction.  This is reflected in lower enrollment in teacher preparation programs.  Programs most affected are special education, math, science, foreign language and bilingual education.

Who can blame the best and the brightest from shunning a career in teaching?  When all teachers hear is criticism about the job they are doing, they’re bound to feel demoralized.  The military has long understood the importance of keeping troop morale high.  Higher salaries are a step in the right direction, but better pay is not enough by a long shot.  Teachers have never chosen a career in the classroom to become affluent.  They want respect and appreciation for the work they do.  Until that comes, I expect to see more and more college graduates opting for other careers.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

The demise of the humanities

With the start of the fall semester, high school seniors who intend to earn a college degree will soon have to begin thinking about their major (“Oh, the Humanities!” The New York Times, Aug. 8).  In fact, some colleges and universities require applicants to state their major.  It’s little wonder that the humanities are way down on the list.

I say that because skyrocketing tuition today means most students must take out loans, which are not dischargeable in personal bankruptcy.  As a result, students are far more cost conscious than my generation was.  I realize that the value of a college degree cannot be determined solely by what its holders command in the marketplace.  But who can blame them for shunning the humanities?  They have to earn enough to pay off monthly student at the same time they have to pay the rent and other necessities.

Studies show that those majoring in the humanities earn far less at the start of their careers compared with their peers who choose technology.  That was not always the case. There was a time when college students had the luxury of majoring in whatever truly interested them, without worrying about its market value.  For example, when I was an undergraduate in the late 1950s at the University of Pennsylvania, tuition was $800, plus an additional general fee of $135.  Both were payable in two equal installments.  I spent the next 28 years as an English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Elite high school admission’s conundrum

The obsession with diversity in schools has reached a new high in New York City (“Study Shows Scores on Elite High School Test Predict Success,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 4).  A study commissioned by its Department of Education found that the controversial Specialized High School Admissions Test had predictive value, particularly in math and science.

Yet despite the conclusion, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to eliminate the exam and use a mix of course grades and state test scores in order to engineer diversity at the city’s elite high schools.  I understand the benefits of a diverse student body, but I think abolishing the test will have unintended consequences.  When students lack the wherewithal to handle rigorous material, they will become discouraged and drop out.  If their teachers attempt to adjust instruction to help them, their more advanced classmates will be shortchanged.

A better way of solving the problem is to continue to use the SHSAT as a screening device and then use a lottery to select those who surpass the cut score.  The Principle of the Flat Maximum explains why.  All applicants at the top of the curve possess the necessary qualifications for success.  Trying to distinguish among them is a waste of time.  A lottery will avoid charges of bias and favoritism.  But I seriously doubt that will ever happen.  Diversity trumps excellence as the ultimate goal.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Sex education in primary grades is risky

When is the right time to introduce sex education?  The California Healthy Youth Act, which took effect in 2016, requires schools to do so in middle and high school.  But for reasons I don’t understand, the Oceanside Unified School District board decided to jump the gun for children in K-2 (“Oceanside school district halts sex ed for K-2,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 6).

I support age-appropriate sex education, but K-2 is far too soon.  Children that young do not understand nor need to understand reproductive health education.  Predictably, parents in the district objected, and the board reversed itself on the matter. I realize that attitudes and values about sex vary widely across the nation.  What is acceptable in, say, California would be unacceptable in, say, Mississippi.  But common sense should dictate that the primary grades are far too early.

A more nebulous situation exists when students are in middle and high school.  Their exposure to graphic images, coupled with their raging hormones, make them prime candidates for sex education.  How it is done, however, will always be the source of intense controversy.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

College acceptance is no assurance of enrollment

Lost in the debate over college for all in this country is that large numbers of students who have been accepted at college never actually enroll (“Why so many poor kids who get into college don’t end up enrolling,” voc.com, Aug. 3).  Although this so-called “summer melt” affects students from low-income families the most, it also is seen among students from more affluent backgrounds.

One explanation is that high school counselors have not done their job by fully explaining the steps needed once acceptance is offered.  I’m referring now to the various financial forms that have to be completed.  Unless students have parents who can pay the full cost or are sophisticated enough to understand what is entailed when student loans are involved, many students are simply overwhelmed and never show up for enrollment.

There is much truth to that explanation, but I don’t think it is the entire story.  Community colleges provide the kind of guidance such students can turn to.  Moreover, community colleges are a financial bargain, which means that most students don’t have to saddle themselves with onerous debt to earn a degree or certificate.  I don’t understand why students do not take advantage of these services.  They don’t need their parents to guide them when counselors exist for this very purpose.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)