Teachers pay heavily for single act of poor judgment

If what happened to a math teacher at the Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in New York City, were not so tragic, it would be comical (“A Teacher Made a Hitler Joke in the Classroom. It Tore the School Apart,” The New York Times, Sep. 9).

Ben Frisch, who taught at the school for 34 years was using his arms to demonstrate angles when he inadvertently realized he was pantomiming the Nazi salute. Embarrassed, he said: “Heil Hitler.”  News of the incident resulted in his termination after a few parents threatened to pull their children out of the school and enroll them elsewhere.

In doing so, the administration broke with the Quaker ethos. But it also underscored how precarious the status of teachers is in all schools today.  I bet there are other teachers who have sincerely regretted a comment they’ve made in class.  Only an enlightened administration or a strong union would prevent them from being terminated.

Teachers are only human and are subject to momentary lapses in judgment that in other fields would not be controversial.  I don’t think the punishment at the Friends Seminary fitted the crime.  Frisch is not an anti-Semite.  He is well liked by students.  I’m sure he is still mortified by his action and wishes he never uttered the two words.  There is no such thing as a guaranteed “safe space” in life.  Today’s high school students are far more sophisticated than those in past generations.  I seriously doubt they have been harmed by Frisch’s words.

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An obscure SCOTUS ruling has vast implications for education

Historically, the U.S. Supreme Court has reluctantly weighed in on education.  But when it has, its decisions need to be carefully scrutinized.  Readers who follow education can recite past rulings, such as Brown v. Board of Education, for their far-reaching impact and media coverage.  But there’s a far less known case that I believe can upend our views about education (“Is Education A Fundamental Right?” The New Yorker, Sep. 5).

I’m talking now about Plyler v. Doe, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1982.  I believe it has the potential to make education a fundamental right for the first time in American history.  It involved the decision by James Plyler, the superintendent of public schools in Tyler, Texas, to bar undocumented immigrants from school in his district.  In his defense, Plyler was following state law, which allowed public schools to do so.

When fundamental rights are involved, the courts have held that a standard known as “strict scrutiny” be applied before they can be abridged.  The question is whether education is such a right.  The U.S. Constitution does not mention the right to an education.  The closest was in 1787 when the Northwest Ordinance held that “schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

I’m not a lawyer, but I think that eventually Plyler v. Doe will become the basis for making education a fundamental right.  At present, the door seems shut as a result of the high court’s ruling in 1973 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez.  But the matter is far from settled.

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Four-day week good for students and teachers

In an attempt to engage students and boost teacher morale, districts have resorted to various strategies.  But the one that seems most promising has been around since 1980 and yet curiously has received little attention: the four-day school week (“Are Four-Day Weeks Bad for Students?” National Education Policy Center, Sep. 4).

Although the practice was originally adopted to save money, it not only improved the morale of teachers but most importantly showed a positive relationship on the percentage of students scoring at the proficient or advanced levels on math and reading achievement tests. The latter may be because the non-required fifth day was devoted to tutoring and enrichment.  But it may also be because students need a break from the lockstep five-day school week.

I wonder if student performance might be greatly improved if schools were operated year-round but with more frequent breaks. Rather than the traditional two-month summer vacation, why not distribute two-week breaks throughout the entire calendar year?  That would avoid the exhaustion experienced by students and teachers under the existing school calendar. Businesses in Sweden, New Zealand and other countries have experimented with four-day workweeks and have reported promising results in the form of happier, healthier and more productive workers.

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Soical mobility not assured by college degree

A new study calls into question the assumption that possession of a college degree is the best way to end up with a better job than that of one’s parents (“Parents’ Jobs Increasingly Shape How Far Kids Get in Life,” The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 4).  At least that’s how I interpret the conclusion of the article in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

It found that what parents do for a living is an even bigger factor than originally believed.  Just over half of Americans born in the 1980s have better jobs than their parents.  That compares with two-thirds of people born in the 1940s.  Yet during the period in question far more people have graduated from college.  If a college degree is all it’s cracked up to be, then what accounts for the disparity?

I’m not saying that circumstances at birth are not important.  Certainly they are.  But higher education is supposed to be the great equalizer.  Why hasn’t it closed the gap?  I realize that the 1940s were years still clouded by the Depression.  Therefore, those fortunate enough to have a job would likely earn more than their parents.  Still I question the monetary value of a college degree when student debt is factored in.

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Truancy has no simple solution

Chronically absent students continue to increase in number despite efforts by school districts to combat the problem (“Schools Crack Down as More Students Cut Class,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 31).  Nearly 8 million, or about 16 percent of students, are chronically absent for missing at least 15 days in the 2015-16 school year.

There are many reasons for the disturbing trend.  I think the most important is that many students see little, if any, connection between what they are required to study and their lives.  But there are also students who need to take care of their younger siblings because their parents don’t have the funds to hire babysitters.  What works in the former will not work in the latter.

Incentives have a mixed track record because they are a shotgun approach.  Bribery can sometimes work for borderline cases.  But when poverty is so severe that parents must rely on their oldest children to care for their youngest, they are ineffective.  Attendance officers can identify the cause of chronic absenteeism and help parents get their children back on track.

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Physical education is not a frill

Gym in today’s standardized test era is given low priority.  But a new study indicates that is a grave mistake (“How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today,” The New York Times, Aug. 22).

Despite the passage of decades, people remember most vividly the time they spent in P.E.  If the associations are positive, they shape whether exercise is incorporated into their lives as adults.  Too often, however, P.E. in school was a time of humiliation.  So much depends on the way P.E. teachers conduct their classes.  If they stress competition over all else, those who are not natural athletes will be shortchanged.

Rather than emphasize winning through traditional sports, teachers need to consider other forms of engaging students.  I’m thinking now about yoga, dancing, spinning and the like.  These are physical activities that can be engaged in for the rest of everyone’s lives.  That can’t be said about basketball, football and baseball. Moreover, they allow all students to avoid humiliation.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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