If literacy is not a right, what is?

Of all the things public schools are supposed to teach, literacy has to be the most important.  Yet a Federal District Court in Michigan ruled that it is not a fundamental right (“ ‘Access to Literacy’ Is Not a Constitutional Right, Judge in Detroit Rules,” The New York Times, Jul. 5).  Public Counsel, which led the legal team representing the students in the class-action suit, intends to appeal.

It’s hard to understand the judge’s thinking.  He agreed that giving students the opportunity to learn to read was “of incalculable importance.”  He also said that conditions at some Detroit schools were “nothing short of devastating.”  Yet despite these acknowledgments, he dismissed the suit. I’d like to know what would persuade the judge to reverse himself?

It’s important to note that the state had been managing Detroit’s schools when such an outrage took place.  I stress that fact because there is widespread belief that states are better at operating failing schools than local authorities.  Clearly, this is not the case in Michigan.  I intend to closely follow the case as it is appealed.

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Teachers’ summer jobs are essential

One of the myths that refuses to die is that teachers spend the entire summer relaxing (“ ‘It’s the Only Way.’ These teachers Are Working Summer Jobs to Make Ends Meet,” Money, Jul. 12).  But teachers are 30 percent more likely to have second jobs than non-teachers.  And summer is particularly when they try to make ends meet.

I realize that the cost of living varies enormously across the nation.  Yet $59,660, which is the average salary earned by the 3.1 million public school teachers during the 2016-17 school year, isn’t very much.  In Los Angeles, for example, housing takes a huge bit out of monthly income, with a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Santa Monica typically going for $2,800.

It’s not unusual for teachers to hold second jobs during the regular academic year, as well as during the summer.  In Texas, 31 percent did so during the academic year.  I remember being taken aback as a child when I saw one of my teachers working as a bartender.  Today, they’re more likely to be Uber drivers.

Moonlighting for teachers is not new, but the percentage of teachers doing so is unprecedented.  It’s little wonder that the best and the brightest college graduates shun teaching as a career.  They may teach for a few years before moving on, but few make it a lifelong commitment.

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The New Orleans charter school paradox

It’s hard to understand the reaction of residents of New Orleans to the Recovery School District, which was created after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city’s public schools (“Charter schools’ progressive promise for the future of US education,” New York Post, Jul. 4).

Prior to the creation of the state-controlled entity, the city’s schools were among the worst in the nation.  Since taking over all but a handful of city schools, the Recovery School District has improved student performance.  In 2017, for example, 59 percent of public high school students there graduated in four years.  That compares with just 54 percent in 2004, an improvement rate almost three times as fast as the state’ average.

Yet many New Orleans residents have resented the Recovery School District from the very start.  Black residents in particular, who constitute the majority of the population, don’t think the schools are better after Katrina.  Perhaps that is because the black teaching force decreased from about 71 percent to less than 50 percent.  Moreover, over 7,000 other school employees lost their jobs, and 60 percent of the charter board members are white.

Attitudes about schools anywhere are dependent on so many factors that can’t be quantified.  New Orleans is no different in that regard.  At first glance, I would have thought residents would be pleased with the improvements there.  But that is not the case.

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High school journalism advisors are on thin ice

Advisors to high school newspapers have long found themselves caught between their duty to their students and their responsibility to their school district (“Hard News. Angry Administration. Teenage Journalists Know What It’s Like,” The New York Times, Jul. 2).  Although in 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school administrators do not violate the First Amendment when they exercise control over student speech in school activities, the ruling did not specifically apply to newspaper advisors.

Recognizing their precarious position, California in 2009 passed the Journalism Teacher Protection Act, which prohibits administrators from retaliating against advisors for helping to ensure free speech.  At the time, it was the most stringent in the nation.  Yet to this day, many teachers are highly reluctant to become newspaper advisors.  It’s not their job that they fear.  Instead it’s their uneasy feeling about censorship, and the pressure they feel trying to balance their duties.

I understand their hesitation.  Most high school principals view school newspapers as house organs, existing primarily as public relations vehicles.  Anything remotely controversial alarms them.  During the height of the Vietnam War, the principal of the high school where I spent my entire 28-year career confiscated The Warrior, the school newspaper that expressed views he deemed unpatriotic.  To get around his veto, student published an off-campus version titled The Worrior that they distributed on the street surrounding the campus.

To this day, the rights of newspaper advisors are murky because of local customs and state laws.  I wouldn’t want to be an advisor under those conditions.

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Sensitive speech inoculates high-schoolers

High school is supposed to prepare students for the world beyond graduation.  Yet in avoiding controversial topics, schools are doing just the opposite (“Stop shielding high-schoolers from sensitive speech,” New York Post, Jun. 26).

There are always several sides to any issue.  The sooner young people learn that reality the better able they will be to handle diverse opinions.  Unfortunately, some parents and some special interest groups believe that only their views on a given issue should be allowed.  They are unwittingly doing a disservice to students.

Today’s young people have been regularly exposed to images and words that previous generations lacked.  As a result, they are not naïve children.  They also physically mature earlier than ever before.  It’s one reason that so many high school students are bored to death by the curriculum and instruction.

I realize that public schools don’t have the same freedom to teach as private and religious schools.  But they need to be given greater latitude if they are expected to engage students and provide them with the wherewithal to handle life after graduation.

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Academics are more important than athletics

Only in this country are athletics given such high priority.  A class-action lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court in New York says that black and Hispanic students have far less access to teams and sports than other races (“New York’s Playing Fields Aren’t Level, Students Say,” The New York Times, Jun. 29).

I don’t doubt this is true, but I question if it is a problem.  During the past two decades, New York City, like so many other cities across the country, has opened scores of small high schools in order to provide students with more personal support.  The unavoidable downside is that most sports require large numbers of students.

In an ideal educational world, there would be no conflict between academics and sports.  But in light of the dismal academic performance of so many public schools in New York City, I submit that academics should get priority.  I don’t doubt the benefits of team sports.  But they pale when compared with the benefits of a sound academic program.

Moreover, there is a difference between team and individual sports.  Small high schools are still able to field students, say, for tennis and golf.  I think these are far more likely to be pursued later in life than basketball and football.  But given the obsession with team sports that characterizes this country, I expect the plaintiffs to prevail.

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Student loan-debt forgiveness has unintended consequences

Student debt now amounts to about $1.5 trillion, which is more than credit card and auto loan debt combined.  But abolishing it is not the solution (“Americans are drowning in student-loan debt. The U.S. should forgive all of it,” The Washington Post, Jun. 19).

I say that because it will merely encourage students who are not college material for one reason or another to pursue a degree in a field that is not in demand.  If the argument for going to college is primarily to qualify for a well-paying job to accelerate upward mobility, then loan forgiveness, coupled with free tuition going forward is counterproductive.

The assertion that a four-year college degree is indispensable for a comfortable future fails to take into account the major.  Why does a degree in gender studies, for example, prepare its holders for a job better than a certificate in, say, plumbing?  There are so many college graduates who are underemployed.  They would have been far better served by attending a community college, where they learned a marketable skill.  Moreover, they would not be burdened with debt because community college is a bargain.

Our competitors abroad are far more realistic about education.  They begin sorting out students early in their education.  While we can argue that doing so too soon is harmful, we cannot deny that not everyone should be going to college.  Germany, for example, sends only a small percentage of young people to university.  The rest attend schools in line with their ability and interest.  As a result, Germany has the lowest youth unemployment in Europe.

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Get real about student achievement

It’s one thing for school boards to establish educational goals and quite another to lose sight of reality in doing so (“Here’s the problem with L.A. Unified’s latest pie-in-the-sky ideas – they’re likely to fail,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 12).  The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, is a case in point.  A new resolution originally called for all third-graders to meet standards on the state’s annual standardized tests, for all eighth-graders to earn at least a C in English and math, and for all high school graduates get a C or better in all courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University.

I can understand if the board had stipulated a realistic percentage who would achieve these objectives.  But instead it said 100 percent.  That’s impossible in a district as large and diverse as the LAUSD.  The large number of students from impoverished backgrounds alone would make this impossible.  In fact, even the best school districts can’t be expected to do so.

What will surely happen is that widespread cheating by teachers and principals will follow.  That’s because of the existence of Campbell’s Law: the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.  We saw that happen in other school districts.  Why would the LAUSD be any different?  The best any district can hope for is that scores will improve over time.  Even then, not all students will show improvement for one reason or another.

Recognizing its unrealistic thinking, the LAUSD board reversed itself by saying that the goal was to “prepare” all high school graduates to be eligible to apply to a California four-year university.  I still maintain that the board is living in a dreamworld.

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SAT has little predictive value

At first glance, defenders of the SAT and ACT seem to have a solid case.  They say schools vary so widely in their grading that it’s impossible to know with any certainty who will be successful in handling college-level work. That’s why these two measurement icons must not be eliminated (“The War on Admissions Testing,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 2).

But that’s not what the best evidence shows.  In 1984, Bates College decided to engage in a pioneering experiment.  It made the submission of SAT scores optional for admission.  In 2004, it announced the results of its 20-year study.  It found virtually no differences in the four-year academic performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and nonsubmitters.  Since then, hundreds of other colleges and universities have followed suit, with similar results.

The roots of the controversy go back to the start of World War I when the country was faced with the urgent need to quickly identify officer candidates.  Finding itself ill equipped for the task at hand, the military turned to the American Psychological Association for help. Working out of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, a special committee came up with the Army Alpha, which allowed recruits to be ranked according to their intellectual abilities.

In all, some 1,750,000 men the Army Alpha.  It proved so successful that its designers decided to apply the same approach to whatever subject content was being measured.  This eventually led to the design of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926 by psychologist Carl Brigham, who believed that it assessed innate ability.  But there is a distinct difference between an aptitude test and an achievement test.  Although they may be related, they do not necessarily correlate.

Unfortunately, this distinction is completely lost in the continuing controversy over the use of both the SAT and ACT.  To most people, a test is a test.  That’s a misleading conclusion, as the experience of so many colleges and universities today shows.

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Janus decision undermines teachers’ unions

In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited mandatory public-employee labor organization union fees (“Supreme Court Deals Blow to Public-Sector Unions,” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 27).  It also held that workers must expressly opt into the union before fees can be taken out of their paychecks.

Prior to Janus v. American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees Council 31, teachers who didn’t want to join the union were required to pay agency fees when those fees were used for collective-bargaining.  The ruling was cheered by some as a corrective to the high court’s decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977.

I’ll restrict my comments to the effects that the decision will have on teachers.  Their unions will continue to exist, but they will be severely undermined.  With the exception of diehards, many teachers will let their membership expire because they will get the same benefits as if they had paid.  These free riders will have it both ways: They will pay nothing to their union but will get full benefits. Teacher union membership in the Los Angeles Unified School District has already declined from 42,000 to 31,000 since 2007.

If those teachers genuinely believe in what they are doing is right, they should refuse to accept whatever benefits their unions provide.  I vividly remember when some teachers at the high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught for 28 years crossed the picket lines during the three strikes I participated in.  They said they did so because they believed in the “right to work.”  Well, no one was preventing them from working.

As teachers in public schools across the nation continue to be attacked from all sides and their unions are hamstrung, who will want to make a career in the classroom?  It’s a bleak picture.

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