Questioning the value of a college degree

The obsession with getting a college degree may finally be getting a reality check (“College Still Pays Off, but Not for Everyone,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 9).  According to a TD Ameritrade study, 49 percent of young people said their degree was “very or somewhat unimportant” to their current job.

I wonder if even more will say so in the years ahead as it becomes evident that what is taught in college has little relevance to what is needed in the workplace.According to a paper released by the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances, “the college wealth premium weakens to the point of insignificance with the single exception of white bachelor’s-degree holders, which remains positive but much smaller than that enjoyed by previous cohorts.”

I’ve long believed that far too many students are not college material and would be far better served by a vocational education beginning in high school and continuing in community college.  With average student debt now at $37,000, I think more high school students will rethink whether a four-year degree is worth the price.

The truth is that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn.  It is not an absolute determinant.  Yet we persist in the fiction that the future is bleak for all those who do not have a sheepskin.

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Making admission to elite high schools fairer

Rather than abolish the standardized test used as the sole basis for admission to New York City’s elite high schools, as Mayor Bill de Blasio is determined to do, two philanthropists will spend an additional $1.5 million to provide free test preparation and advertisements so that more talented low-income students can qualify (“Philanthropists Putting $1.5 Million Toward Prep for Specialized High Schools’ Test,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 8).

That will go a long way to creating equal opportunities for disadvantaged students.  The Education Equity Campaign, which has already spent $860,000, is not a panacea, but it is a much needed step.  Nevertheless, critics will not be satisfied.  They want to engineer equal racial outcomes one way or another.

The argument is that poverty is the reason so few black and Hispanic students pass the test.  But how to explain why Asians from low-income families do so well on the same tests?

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Unions mean good schools

When schools are persistently failing, reformers look for scapegoats (“An Education Horror Show,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 8).  This was last seen in Providence, where the teachers union was blamed for the fact that the longer students remain in schools there the worse their performance.

But if teachers unions are indeed responsible for the appalling outcomes of some schools, then why do nine of the top-ten ranked states have strong teachers unions?  Conversely, why do eight of the 10 states ranked at the bottom have weak teachers unions?

I’m aware that correlation is not causation, but in this case the situation is too striking to be dismissed as such.  The Coleman Report that was released in 1966 confirms my belief.  It concluded that the quality of schools attended has little to do with the difference on average in achievement between black and white students.  Instead, Coleman pointed the finger at the socioeconomic backgrounds of students as the reason.

If teachers unions were abolished tomorrow, there would be little, if any, difference in outcomes.  But they make such easy targets.

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The middle school transition

Middle school has always been the most difficult segment of a student’s education (“These Academics Spent $1.35 To Make Middle School Less Awful. Here’s How,” Time, Aug. 3).  Not only do they have to adjust to the physical move from a familiar neighborhood elementary school to a larger place, but they are also dealing with the effects of puberty.

Once hormones begin to make their presence felt, young people find trying to handle school work much more difficult than ever before.  That’s why it’s so important for them to have teachers who can help them adjust. Positive relationships can make a huge difference in how students navigate.  The trouble is that middle school teachers don’t spend nearly as much time with their students as elementary teachers do.  As a result, it’s harder for them to get to know their students and vice versa.

Middle school is also when young people sharpen their study habits. Material is not spoon fed to them as it was in lower grades.  Unless parents step in to reinforce the importance of doing homework, too many students fall behind, which sets them up for dropping out.

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Diversity of thought absent in higher education

Diversity in higher education is Tan obsession that exists on nearly all colleges and universities (“The Downside of Diversity,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 3).   The trouble is that it applies only to race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation – rather than to ideas.

Yet the latter is supposed to be the No. 1 reason that students pursue tertiary education in the first place.  As things stand, they are being shortchanged.  One of the reasons is the existence of tenure.  It’s rare that it is given to those who break with prevailing dogma.  As a result, students in turn are not exposed to divergent ideas. Speakers who hold unpopular views are either disinvited or booed.

The pursuit of truth on college campuses used to be taken for granted decades ago.  But today, students and teachers who express ideas that run counter to what the majority believe pay a heavy price.  I question if critical thinking skills can ever be developed under the circumstances.

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Making high school diplomas meaningless

If New York State’s Board of Regents goes ahead with the proposal to eliminate the Regents exams, it will be the last straw in destroying public confidence in the value of a high school diploma (“The push to make New York high school diplomas completely meaningless,” New York Post, Jul. 26).  These standardized exams that for more than a century were administered to students in academic subjects were a minimal check on what teachers taught and what students learned.

But because the tests didn’t result in more than 80.4 percent of students graduating, reformers want to abolish them.  Doing so will no doubt boost graduation rates, but at what cost?  There was a time when a high school diploma was a sign of real achievement.  If the Regents exams are eliminated, a diploma will cease to have any value.

When I was in high school in Long Island, N.Y., Regents exams were a rite of passage.  They measured basic skills and knowledge in such subjects as English, foreign languages, math and science.  Past copies of the exams were readily available.  In fact, I still have “Reviewing Spanish” by Amsco School Publications, Inc, (copyright 1939).  Anyone who was even a mediocre student would have no trouble passing.

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Victimization trumps teaching reading and math

The latest scandal affecting the New York City school system involves revising the curriculum to focus on racial privilege (“Forget reading and math – Carranza wants to focus on racial privilege, activism,” New York Post, Jul. 24).  Evidently that is more important than teaching students basic reading and math.

Under the “Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education” program, students will be taught how to end societal inequities.  But if they can’t do math or English, how in the world is that going to benefit them?  K-12 is not the place for teaching students to become activists.

I see the move as a way to distract attention away from the failure of schools to properly educate students.  I hope the measure will be rejected by the Panel for Educational Policy in New York City.  But based on what I’ve seen before, I wouldn’t count on it.

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Mental health days off are vital

Oregon and Utah are the first two states to allow students to take mental health days off from school (“Oregon approves ‘mental health days’ for students,” New York Post, Jul. 22).  It’s about time in light of the high incidence of anxiety and depression among young people.

But I say that teachers also deserve the right to take days off for their mental health.  The incidence of burnout among teachers is alarming.  I don’t think that it existed nearly as much in the past because the pressure on teachers today is unprecedented.  As a result, teachers slowly develop all the signs and symptoms of burnout.  Even though burnout is a recognized clinical condition, there is still a stigma attached to those who ask for help.

I knew teachers at the high school where I taught for 28 years who turned to alcohol and other drugs to get through the year.  I wonder if they would have needed to do so if they had been able to take a few mental health days off.

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Summer learning loss

Despite widespread belief that children lose much as a month of school learning over the course of the summer, the evidence is decidedly mixed (“5 things parents need to know about ‘summer loss,’” The Conversation, Jul. 17).  That is particularly so for elementary school students.

Only a small percent of students loses the equivalent of one month of school year learning in reading and math.  Yet I wonder if the traditional school-year calendar doesn’t need altering.  I think that learning is maximized when vacations are spread out, rather than massed.  For example, instead of the typical three-month summer vacation, why not cut it in half and use the rest of the time during the school year?  When I was teaching, I remember that by the time August arrived, most students were bored.  By the same token, most students were exhausted during the spring semester because they had only one week off during spring break.

I taught summer school twice during my 28-year career in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The school day ended by noon, which meant students had the time off to relax at play.  I never had students disrupting instruction with that schedule.  Why can’t we adjust the regular school year to incorporate a similar schedule?

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Dress codes are not worth enforcing

Public schools across the country are increasingly abolishing dress codes  (“Schools Relax Dress Codes in Bid to End Body Shaming,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 13). Although the ostensible reason is that they inordinately targeted females, I believe there is another more pragmatic one.

The reality is that enforcement is a nightmare, even when parents buy into the policy.  The time and effort involved in measuring the length of clothing and the style of clothing are simply not worth it.  What I see as a far more troublesome issue is the display of offensive language and images.  The U.S. Supreme Court rules that students do not lose their right to free speech when they step on school grounds.  As a result, school officials will find themselves on legal thin ice if they try to prevent slogans and other expressions of free speech.

Religious and private schools are a different story.  They have long had dress codes, without the same problem as public schools. (I’m not talking now about charter schools, which are public schools but are allowed to operate by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools.)

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