Do sex education right

Despite evidence that abstinence-only education actually increases rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections, only 13 states require such education to be medically accurate (“As Colorado Moves to Bar Abstinence-Only Sex Education, Teenagers Take the Lead,” The New York Times, Feb. 21).  That’s appalling when the consequences are fully understood.

Unfortunately, too many parents incorrectly assume that teaching the truth about sex will result in their children engaging in intimate practices.  California passed the Healthy Youth Act in 2016, which required schools to teach the truth about the subject, even though some parents attacked the act as being pornographic.

It’s amazing that the U.S. persists in its prudishness about sex, particularly because kids mature much earlier than in past generations and are exposed to sexual images on an unprecedented scale.  Other countries are far more realistic.  For example, Sweden treats sex as important as other subjects.  It insists on truthfulness.  Too bad the U.S. does not follow Sweden.  Our young people would be better served and tragedies could be avoided.

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Vouchers still are viable despite setbacks

Although events in several states seem to indicate that vouchers in their various forms have no future, the U.S. Supreme Court still remains to be heard (“Has the Tide Turned Against Vouchers?” National Education Policy Center, Feb. 21).  The closest it came in that regard was in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, when the high court held that Cleveland’s vouchers did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment even though parents were permitted to use them for religious schools.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I’ve also stressed time and again that public money should not be used for religious schools.   SCOTUS disagrees.  I still don’t understand the rationale for the Zelman ruling.  Late last year, the Montana Supreme Court agreed in part, when it struck down the state’s three-year old neovoucher program because it funded private and religious education.

I don’t believe that voters are willing to completely give up on traditional public schools.  The closest they are can be seen in the popularity of charter schools, which are publicly funded. But even charter schools are facing pushback by a cap placed on their growth by some school districts.  As things stand, charter, private and religious schools play by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools. As a result, comparing outcomes is totally unfair.

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Peer effect is overrated in student performance

The latest argument for admitting students who do not pass the entrance exam to selective high schools is the peer effect (“It’s the peer effect, stupid: What makes schools like Stuyvesant great. It’s not test-based admission, but broader culture of excellence,” New York Daily News, Feb. 20).  What advocates maintain is that being in a school where academic excellence permeates the atmosphere is enough to help all students succeed.

I don’t doubt for a second that the peer effect is a factor in how students learn, but I think it is highly overrated.  If students are admitted when they lack the skills and knowledge to handle rigorous work, they will struggle and eventually fail no matter who their classmates are.  It takes a certain IQ to deal with the kind of college-level work that elite high schools in any community offer.  Yes, being around other students who are far brighter can act as a motivation, but it is not enough to compete.

Hollywood would have everyone believe that grit is how poorly prepared students can succeed.  But the prose of textbooks used in New York’s specialized high schools requires what educators have said is an IQ of about 115.  That’s the top 16 percent of the distribution.  There will always be a few exceptions, but how can being around other smarter students help students who don’t possess the same intelligence?

There has been much coverage in the media about the mismatch when students choose a college or university.  I say the same thing applies when students are admitted to elite high schools.  We are setting them up for failure despite the best intentions.

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Elitism is a dirty word in education

Everyone talks about the importance of standards in education.  Yet when it comes to teaching English, most say that teaching correct grammar is elitist (“A Style Guide for the 1 Percent,” The New Yorker, Feb. 11). Apparently, they are content with allowing students to write without any rules.

If that’s so, then why make English a required subject for graduation from high school at all?  Let students simply write whatever they want.  By the same token, let students read whatever they want.  Who cares about exposing them to the classics, which they would no doubt find boring?

I taught English at the same high school for 28 years. During that time, I saw how dumbed down the curriculum became as pressure built to make everything relevant.  You don’t have to be a pedant or snob to realize that without standards school becomes little more than a protracted playground. We talk so often about the importance of preparing students for college or the workplace.  But by abandoning standards because they are said to be elitist, we shortchange them.

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Diversity hypocrisy in higher education

The latest twist to the diversity obsession in colleges and universities comes from an accomplished Korean-American playwright who attributes her success to affirmative action (“I’m Asian-American. Affirmative Action Worked for Me.” The New York Times, Feb. 10).  Young Jean Lee believes she was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley because Asian-Americans were underrepresented in the English department.

Lee goes on to explain how being exposed to people from different races expanded her intellect.  What she fails to mention is that diversity in higher education is limited only to race and gender.  It does not apply to thought.  That’s the supreme irony of what is happening on campuses across the country.  Political correctness prevents students from getting a real education.  Anyone doubting my view needs only to recall speakers who are shouted down by students when they attempt to present views not in line with what they want to hear.

If students are shortchanged by the disproportionate absence of people of color on campus, they are even more shortchanged by lack of exposure to diverse viewpoints.  That kind of hypocrisy makes a mockery of what a college education is supposed to be.

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Merit pay will not work

Teachers in Denver who are on strike will once again bring to the surface the issue of merit pay (“Denver Teachers to Strike Over Merit-Pay System,” Education Week, Feb. 6).  Fifteen years ago, Denver instituted ProComp as a way of rewarding teachers for their ability to raise student achievement and for teaching at schools where they are needed the most.  But it has not worked out as hoped for.

I’ve written often before why so much of any teacher’s effectiveness is the direct result of the students inherited.  Therefore, I’d like to take a closer look at ProComp’s success in inducing teachers to accept assignments in hard-to-staff schools.  Paying teachers more to do so is often called combat pay for good reason.  Students in these schools come from chaotic backgrounds that make teaching subject matter secondary to performing triage on a daily basis.

There will always be some teachers who will opt to do so.  But combat pay has not been popular.  Supporters will argue that if combat pay were increased enough more teachers would join.  I seriously doubt it.  Teachers want to teach their subject.  They’re not mercenaries looking to increase their salary.  That’s why turnover in such schools post high turnover rates.  No amount of money is going to significantly change that.

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Disruptive students require isolation

There have always been students who persist in disrupting the education of others.  For decades, the strategy has been to suspend them.  Only recently has restorative justice been used in its place (“Restorative practices may not be the solution, but neither are suspensions,” the conversation.com, Feb. 5).

A new study by RAND looked at restorative practices in Pittsburgh schools and concluded they were not as effective as its proponents have asserted.  That does not mean, however, going back to suspensions, which have their own problems.  Instead, I propose removing disruptive students and placing them in special isolated classrooms that are supervised.

Once placed in these rooms, students can still be given assignments to complete but without the opportunity to deprive their peers who want to learn.  Students will quickly learn that there is no payoff for their behavior.  Yes, some will drop out of school.  But that is a small price compared to the price the vast majority of students pay when they are held captive by incorrigible students.

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Phonics is essential to teaching reading

Although the reading wars between phonics and whole language continue, increasing evidence shows that the former is winning (“Nonprofit Trains Teachers on the ABCs of Reading in the Classroom,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4). The latest evidence comes from New York City, where only 28 percent of children in public schools there in the 4th grade were proficient or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2017.

That was before a nonprofit called Early Reading Matters began coaching  teachers in 34 high-poverty schools how to use phonics.  The approach has resulted in raising reading proficiency from 29 percent to 38 percent. Sadly, too many teacher-preparation programs don’t give teachers the wherewithal on how to teach reading.

I learned how to read by teachers who used phonics.  We learned how letters represented sounds by being asked to follow teachers as they read aloud to us, periodically stopping and asking us to pick up where they left off.  The strategy was most effective.  I never understood why whole language replaced phonics.

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Education can’t always be fun

If there’s one thing that teachers hate to hear, it’s: “I’m bored.” That’s because teachers have been indoctrinated with the belief that learning must always be fun.  If it isn’t, then they must be doing something wrong (“Let Children Get Bored Again,” The New York Times, Feb. 3).

But I submit that learning in the classroom is not that much different from learning in the workplace.  Boredom is an inescapable part of both.  The role of teachers is not to entertain but to educate.  If that sometimes involves boredom, so be it.  Yet teachers are often given poor evaluations if students complain that they are bored.

Some of the most valuable education I received in high school and college required sheer memorization.  Today, memorization is frowned on because it doesn’t develop critical thinking.  But I reject that assertion.  Without certain facts, which require memorization, how can students develop critical thinking skills?  Is memorization boring?  It depends on how it is presented.

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Vocational education gets toehold in colleges

Finally, there’s some good news about higher education.  A growing number of private and religiously affiliated colleges and universities are making vocational education an integral part of t he curriculum (“One Way to Make College Meaningful,” The New York Times, Feb. 3).

They’re doing so because they correctly understand that a vocation is not only a calling but also a means to a well-paying job.  Not surprisingly, these schools have seen their graduation rates increase at a significantly higher rate of growth than in a random sample of peer institutions.  When students see a direct connection between what they are studying and their future, they become immediately engaged.

Critics assert that vocational education will harm academic education. Even if that is true, I submit that the cost of a four-year degree today calls into question the pecuniary value of a liberal arts degree when student loan debt is factored in.  Learning for learning’s sake no longer is enough.  Students rightfully demand more.

Further, I question if higher education is where the disinterested pursuit of pure knowledge actually occurs.  We see evidence of this on a regular basis.  Professors teach only politically correct material, lest they find themselves vilified by students and administrators.

There was a time when few young people continued their education beyond high school.  As a result, a bachelor’s degree in any subject was enough to virtually guarantee a good job.  But the proliferation of degrees today means that what is studied is more important.  That’s why I hope vocational education continues to invade colleges and universities.

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