State tests need to be used properly

Since standardized tests are not going away anytime soon, it’s time to revise the way they are used (“New York’s state English exams are a horrific waste,” New York Post, Sep. 30).  At present, most state tests are administered in April, but the results are not released until summer.  That makes no sense.

I say that because the primary purpose of standardized tests is to provide teachers with feedback about their instruction.  The sooner they get the results the sooner they can revise their lessons.  For students, the delay is even more troublesome because it’s too late to enroll in summer school.  In New York City, this year’s summer school enrollment was down by more than half since 2013.

Further, unless standardized tests are directly aligned with the curriculum, scores are relatively meaningless.  They essentially are measuring what students bring to class in terms of their socioeconomic backgrounds rather than what they learn in class through effective instruction.  That’s an important distinction given short shrift in the debate.

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Diversity in education has different meanings

Mention the term diversity to most people and chances are they will assume it refers strictly to race.  But in actuality it can also mean socioeconomic diversity or academic diversity (“NYC’s school diversity plan could lead to another ‘white flight,’ “ New York Post, Sep. 29).  The differences in meaning create different reactions from people – and for good reason.

Parents want the best education for their children. Racial and socioeconomic diversity has proved to be beneficial, which is why parents tend to support that goal.  What they don’t support, however, is academic diversity because it undermines quality.  For example, efforts are underway in New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system, to open the doors of its academically rigorous high schools to students who want to go there.  The trouble is that students who are unprepared for the tougher curriculum will fail.

What will no doubt happen then is that they will drop out or standards will be lowered to accommodate them.  If the past is any indication, it will be the latter.  As a result, parents will likely pull their children out of these schools and enroll them in either private school or in charter schools.  I don’t blame them.  They’ve made great sacrifices to provide their children with a quality education.  If academics are to be undermined in the interest of other considerations, they will do what’s best for their own.

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College students deserve due process in sex-assault cases

Until recently, the fate of college students who were accused of sexual misconduct was determined by campus disciplinary bodies.  But the federal Sixth Circuit appeals court correctly ruled that they have a right to due process (“Thank the courts for rescuing college kids from unfair sex-assault charges,” New York Post, Sep. 28).

The truth is that campus courts were kangaroo courts, which favored accusers.  They did not allow cross-examination.  Without it, those accused were unable to mount a defense.  As a result, being accused of sex assault was tantamount to being found guilty.  It was a travesty of justice.

Victims of sexual assault should be required to file a complaint with off-campus police.  Disciplinary systems on campus have long been tilted in favor of accusers.  Yes, they have rights, but so too do the accused.  Too much is at stake to return to the old system.

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For-profit schools don’t belong in education

Although the focus today is on for-profit schools that have defrauded students, I submit that they have no place whatsoever in education (“What Betsy DeVos Thinks She Can Get Away With,” The New York Times, Sep. 24).  That’s because producing a profit is fundamentally incompatible with education’s basic mission.

Let me explain.  In an ideal world, schools and students would equally benefit. But I don’t think that’s possible in for-profit schools.  Finding themselves caught between the interests of students and those of financial stakeholders, for-profit schools will invariably choose the latter or soon find themselves out of business.  For example, studies show that students learn more effectively when classes are small.  But hiring more teachers will always cut into profits.

Worse, for-profit schools have engaged in a pattern of lying about career opportunities.  That’s not surprising because they are always under pressure to boost profits.  In order to keep their financial backers happy, they must always produce ever greater returns.  What better way to achieve that objective than by misrepresenting facts about gainful employment.

Education is by its very nature extremely labor-intensive.  The steps that companies in the private sector have taken to please financial backers will shortchange students.  That’s why I maintain that education should remain non-profit at all levels.

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The charitable-industrial complex

When Jeff Bezos announced that he is donating $2 billion to create a network of free Montessori-inspired preschools, he was praised for not following in the footsteps of other titans who have chosen to financially support top-down charter schools (“How to Realize Preschool Dreams,” The New York Times, Sep. 21).

That’s because recent research conducted at the University of Virginia found that children from low-income families in public Montessori programs were more likely to catch up to their advantaged peers than those who attended programs elsewhere.

But the study did not specify what those other programs were.  That’s an important omission because it leaves unanswered if the other programs were charter schools or traditional public schools.  For example, how did children in Montessori schools compare with children in Success Academy?  How did they compare with children in public schools in affluent suburban areas?

Montessori schools may be a godsend for some children but a disaster for others.  So much depends on what parents believe their own children need.  The Montessori model emphasizes child-directed learning in multiage classrooms.  It individualizes instruction. I vividly remember the media hoopla given to Summerhill School in Suffolk, England in the 1960s.  It appealed to parents who saw traditional British and American schools as rigid, joyless places.

I’m glad that Bezos is going to invest in a Montessori network.  His funding will give parents even more options than they have now.

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The race of teachers and student learning

Do students learn best when their teachers are of the same race? (“Teacher Diversity and Learning,” The New York Times, Sep. 23). That seems to be the widespread assumption. But I question it.

It’s based on the belief that all teachers of the same race bring the same  attitudes to class about their students, whether of the same race or of a different race. Stereotyping teachers is the real problem. The truth is that no race is a monolith.  Students of color are no more alike than white students.  By the same token, black teachers are no more alike than white teachers.

I’m not saying that greater efforts shouldn’t be made to increase teacher diversity.  As I pointed out in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on Sep. 23, nonwhite teachers leave the classroom at a higher rate than other teachers because of a lack of support and collegiality.

In the final analysis, however, knowledge of subject matter and excellence in pedagogy are more likely to translate into instructional effectiveness than race alone.

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The school day schedule needs revision

Tradition dies hard in education, but nowhere more so than in the hours of a typical school day (“The Curse of America’s Illogical School-Day Schedule,” The Atlantic, Sep. 19).  Classes begin too early and end too soon to meet the needs of most students and working parents.

The usual start time for public high schools is 8:00.  The trouble is that most teenagers don’t naturally fall asleep until 11:00 or so.  As a result, they arrive at school half awake.  I vividly remember the semester when I had two classes of senior composition.  The first began at 8:15, and the second after lunch period at about 1:00.  Both classes were composed of students of equal ability.  But the difference in performance between the two was dramatic.

Working parents whose children are in elementary school also find the present schedule to be a burden, but for a different reason.  They are forced to find caretakers until they arrive home from work.  During the long winter months, they worry about their children walking home in inclement weather.

Eventually, I foresee public schools providing wraparound services that begin with breakfast and end with supper.  That would be costly, but I think pressure is building for such a radical change.  For one thing, The RAND Corporation estimates that starting school after 8:30 would contribute at least $83 billion to the national economy within a decade.  That’s no small thing to consider.

Unfortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown of California vetoed a bill that would have required middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.  He said such decisions are best handled at the local school level.

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In-class presentations can actually be enjoyable

The latest protest by students involves in-class presentations, which they say are discriminatory (“Teens Are Protesting In-Class Presentations,” The Atlantic, Sep. 12).  According to them, this traditional practice creates anxiety in those prone to the condition.  I think that eliminating such presentations actually does a disservice.

One of the most effective ways of reducing anxiety is to gradually expose students to precisely what they fear the most.  The key to success is how it is done.  If teachers provide students with appropriate practice, I submit that anxiety will be eliminated or at least greatly reduced.  Let me explain how.

When I began my 28-year teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I was assigned an introductory speech class.  I decided to throw away the textbook and instead try a different approach.  After introducing myself the first day, I asked each student to come to the front of the room and introduce oneself in two or three sentences.  Nothing else.

It was quite apparent that almost all students were nervous and self-conscious.  But the mere act of standing in front of their peers immediately helped them to see that their fears were greatly exaggerated.  I used their first appearance as a baseline from which their progress would be compared over the semester.

My point is that how teachers prepare their students for the assignment is the key to success.  Avoiding what we fear the most only reinforces the fear, even though it may be initially uncomfortable.  By the way, the approach I used resulted in several of my students winning state speaking tournaments, with trophies still on display in the school’s showcase.

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College rankings mean very little

When U.S. News &World Report first published the “Best Colleges” issue in 1983, it had no idea what impact it would have on college applicants (“What college rankings really measure – hint: It’s not quality or value,” the conversation.com).  Since then other magazines and newspapers have weighed in with their rankings.  But I maintain that far greater attention needs to be paid to the criteria used before reaching a conclusion about what the various rankings really mean.

Perhaps the most egregious example is using SAT and ACT scores to rank schools.  These two standardized tests do not allow valid inferences to be drawn.  The first to question their predictive value was Bates College, which in 2004 released the results of its 20-year study finding virtually no differences in the four-year performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and non- submitters. Today, some 1,000 schools have instituted a test-optional policy.

In light of the skyrocketing cost of tuition, a more defensible way of ranking colleges is to determine what the money buys in terms of student learning, which after all is why students ostensibly go to college in the first place.  I think this avoids penalizing liberal art colleges that largely focus on the liberal arts, rather on more immediately marketable subjects.  According to the 2011 book “Academically Adrift,” however, college students don’t learn much because they don’t study much.

So why do rankings continue to get the coverage they do?  I think it’s because Americans are obsessed with differentiation.  For example, they study the standings of athletic teams.  Everybody wants to be No. 1 in order to have bragging rights.  College presidents and their boards of trustees are no different in this regard, particularly when a high ranking results in greater alumni giving.  Follow the money trail and it will almost always lead to the answer.

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School security is not just about safety

The start of the school year sees many districts taking “target hardening” steps to protect students and staff from physical harm (“The False Comfort in School Security,” The New York Times, Sep. 7).  Whether they make any difference is debatable.  But missing from the debate is another factor that is not arguable.

I’m referring now to the threat of lawsuits.  If school officials did not do everything reasonable to protect students, they would soon find themselves the subject of a lawsuit for negligence.  In today’s litigious society, doctors practice defensive medicine by ordering tests that they ordinarily would not based strictly on their clinical judgment.  I maintain that school officials would also be sued.

Yes, it’s expensive to implement such target hardening steps.  But it’s a lot more expensive to defend oneself in a court of law.  There is no way to guarantee the absolute safety of students.  But I believe that courts will rule in favor of school districts if they have taken reasonable measures.

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