Higher education is a travesty of learning

The politicization of academic life has made learning through debate impossible on most campuses (“How college students today go against everything universities stand for,” New York Post, Sep. 1).  Speech codes are a one-way street, allowing only politically-correct ideas to be heard.

The most egregious example was Middlebury College.  On Mar. 2, 2017, Charles Murray, who had been invited to speak, was unable to utter a word before nearly 400 students booed him off the stage claiming he was a bigot.  Yet those responsible were given a mere slap on the wrist as punishment.

How do colleges and universities justify their existence under the present situation?  I fail to understand how students are being truly educated if they are permitted to continue to intimidate the views of those who disagree with theirs.  Yet most administrators are spineless, viewing students as customers who must not be offended.

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Gifted programs must be protected

Only in this country are gifted children treated so shabbily.  The latest evidence comes from New York, which is in the process of considering dismantling gifted p-rograms because their enrollment does not reflect the proper racial mix (“Desegregation Plan: Eliminate All Gifted Programs in New York,” The New York Times, Aug. 27).

The reality is that gifted children are the ones most likely to make significant contributions in their respective fields.  At a time when the U.S. is in competition with other nations, it’s hard to understand why gifted programs are anathema.  Perhaps it’s because we believe in democratization, rather than in differentiation in education.

Our competitors have no problem whatsoever in separating children out early in their education.  For example, Singapore, which is known for the quality of its schools, begins the process with its Primary School Leaving exam and continues it for the rest of schooling.  Germany also has long sorted out students by its tracking.

We can argue all day long about the proper age to begin identifying the gifted, but I think it’s a huge error to abolish such programs.  Unfortunately, the obsession with diversity is too strong to have much hope.

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Self-selection is key to school success

Whenever standardized test scores are released, charter schools invariably outperform traditional public schools (“Charter Schools’ Success Is an Illusion,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27).  That leads to further condemnation of the latter.

But the truth is that parental choice is the reason charter schools excel.  When parents apply for their child’s admission, it’s prima facie evidence that they are involved in their education.  It’s little wonder that charter schools post such impressive results.

In sharp contrast, traditional public schools remain the schools of last resort, legally required to enroll all who show up at their door regardless of ability, interest or motivation.  Moreover, they can’t be expelled except for the most egregious behavior.  Charter schools can and do push out students who for one reason or another are seen as a liability.

So before concluding that charter schools are inherently superior, we need to take a hard look at reality.

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Emotional readiness for college

Academic ability and extracurricular achievements are not always enough to make the transition to college a smooth process (“Is Your Child Emotionally Ready for College?” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 24).  If they were, then mental illness on college campuses wouldn’t be nearly as high, with a third receiving treatment at campus counseling centers.

Going off to college has always been fraught with the possibility of emotional disorders because it is the first time that young people live without adult supervision.  But what is new today are the numbers of students who seek out treatment.

There are many factors, including high rates of divorce among parents and income insecurity.  Yet I think the major cause is the unrelenting pressure to excel that so many young people have felt since the time they entered preschool. Parents have a hard time finding a healthy balance between hovering and neglect.  As a result, students are at a loss when left to their own devices.

Colleges and universities today recognize that the old sink-or-swim policy is unnecessarily harsh, particularly when they enroll so many students from diverse backgrounds.  I hope they continue to recognize how counterproductive the former philosophy is.

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Fraudulent high school diplomas

The fall semester has begun across the nation, which means that high school counselors will soon advise nearly all their charges to apply to college.  I believe that essentially amounts to malpractice (“Accuracy in Academia,” the Alex Nitzberg Show, Aug. 21).

When nearly half of college freshmen require remedial courses despite possessing a high school diploma, something is terribly wrong. The truth is that too many students are simply not college material.  Either they lack the necessary IQ to handle college-level work or they lack the necessary study habits.  In either case, professors have had to severely dumb down their instruction or face criticism for their pedagogy.

When Charles Murray made similar points in “Real Education,” he was blasted for being a racist.  But race has nothing to do with the situation.  It has everything to do with the wherewithal that individuals of any race possess.  The problem is that a high school diploma is now considered a right – not a reward.  There is enormous pressure to guarantee that every student receives a diploma regardless of attendance or ability.  The result is a travesty.

I’ll go a step further and submit that a bachelor’s degree is heading in the same direction.  There was a time when a sheepskin meant something.  Today, it is virtually meaningless.  In “Academically adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that critical-thinking skills of college seniors showed little difference from those of college freshmen.  The situation is only going to get worse.

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Social studies are stepchild of standards movement

States are not required to produce evidence that their schools meet academic standards in teaching social studies (“ ‘We are committing educational malpractice’: Why slavery is mistaught – and worse – in American schools.” The New York Times, Aug. 19):  It’s not surprising, therefore, that controversial subject like slavery are shortchanging students.

But it’s important to remember that even if such standards were established, there is no guarantee matters would change because history textbooks are assembled by committees. As a result, special interest groups attempt to get their agendas included at the price of accuracy.

It’s not just that history textbooks for the most part whitewash American history.  The opposite is also true.  For example, “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn, has been rightly accused of turning our history into a comic-book melodrama in which people are constantly abused by their “rulers.”

How can impressionable young people be expected to know the truth under present circumstances?  It takes brave teachers to ignore curricular guidelines because they can be fired for deviating.  In the final analysis, the best hope is for social studies to be treated with the same importance as math and reading.

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Blaine Amendments are on the ropes

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue if the state’s Blaine Amendment can be used to prevent tuition tax credit programs from using dollars to help students attend religious schools (“Consign James Blaine to Memory Lane,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 16).  Its ruling will affect the 3.8 million students enrolled in religious schools across the nation.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice, but I draw a line when it comes to the use of tax dollars for religious schools.  Yes, religious schools can provide a quality education, especially for low-income children trapped in terrible public schools.  But if the high court strikes down the Blaine Amendment, it will open the door to further support of religious schools.  We’ve already seen the slow erosion of the wall between church and state, but I think it is nothing compared with what will ensue.

Yeshivas in New York State, for example, are supposed to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that provided by public schools.  But many do not, claiming religious liberty.  Either we believe in public schools or we don’t.  If public dollars were allowed to pay for tuition at religious schools, enrollment would jump, draining funds for traditional public schools.  That happened in Cleveland a decade ago.

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Teacher demoralization v. burnout

With the fall semester now begun, it’s a good time to ask if teachers are ready to return to the classroom (“Are You Demoralized or ‘Just’ Burnt Out?” National Education Policy Center, Aug. 15).  I say that because people believe that the long summer vacation is more than enough time for teachers to recharge.

That’s not necessarily the case in light of what is now known about the difference between demoralization and burnout.  Although both are related, they are not the same.  Burnout occurs most often when teachers find themselves in a situation with too much pressure and too little support.  It can be relieved or eliminated by rest, as occurs over the summer months off.

Demoralization, however, occurs when teachers feel a fundamental conflict between their professional values and their working conditions.  It’s accompanied by a strong sense of humiliation.  Rest will do little, if anything, to alleviate it.  When teachers are constantly scapegoated as the cause of all the ills afflicting public education, they begin to ask if they have made the classroom the correct choice.

I don’t see things improving for teacher morale.  On the contrary, as attacks on the profession intensify, I believe more of the best and brightest college graduates will shun the classroom, or at best stay just a few years before departing.

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‘Culturally responsive’ training for teachers

In an attempt to engage students, teachers in New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, are being urged to make their instruction more culturally sensitive (“New York City Teachers Get ‘Culturally Responsive’ Training,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 14). The rational is that as schools become increasingly diverse, doing so has the potential to increase learning.

But I wonder if the move will not lead to victimization.  California is poised to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in high school and at Cal State universities.  The high school requirement, which will be the first in the nation, has already drawn criticism as a way of detracting attention away from the failure of schools to graduate students with basic skills.

When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the board of education made all teachers take a brief course in cultural sensitivity, in the belief that doing so would make students feel more welcome in integrated classrooms.  The hours spent in the class turned out to be a waste of time because it became a venue for complaints about racial suffering.

Yes, teachers need to be aware of their students’ backgrounds.  But sound pedagogy has always been characterized that way.

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Children need play, but only up to a point

Preschool readiness has become an obsession in this country in the belief that it will reduce achievement gaps and improve our position in international education rankings (“To Really Learn, Our Children Need the Power of Play,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10).  But it hasn’t worked.  Which is why reformers like to look to Finland, where letting children be children is thought to be responsible for the quality of its schools.

But Finland’s success is the result of a host of other factors that simply do not exist in the U.S.  Its culture and politics can’t be transferred.  Moreover, Finland is a small country that is racially homogeneous.  This is the opposite of the situation in the U.S.  Therefore, assuming that Finland’s philosophy about childhood play is the reason for its reputation is simplistic.

Allowing young people the freedom to do what they want was the basis for Summerhill School in Suffolk, England in the 1960 when it caught the fancy of reformers.  Educational theorists extolled the open style of Summerhill.  But children there soon began to ask their teachers for direction.  Further, by discarding old-fashioned lessons, Summerhill graduated students who knew little about the basics.

In an attempt to correct the faults of preschool readiness, we run the risk of swinging too far the other way.  Children need direction.  Turning schools into extended playgrounds will shortchange them in the long run.  Unfortunately, education in the U.S. goes from one extreme to the other.

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