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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Learning can’t always be fun

The start of the new school year will invariably include pleas by principals to make learning fun.  But the truth is learning often requires discipline that is by its very nature boring (“What I Learned in Secretarial School,” The New York Times, Aug. 12).

I’m thinking now of the importance of rote memorization.  Unfortunately, it has fallen out of favor because it is seen as antithetical to creativity.  But there are rules that need to be learned and retained if creativity is ever to develop.  Every subject taught requires memorization if mastery is to follow.  I remember having to memorize rules for spelling, for learning Spanish etc.  Students today are rarely required to do so.  Perhaps that’s why grammar is no longer taught in most schools.  Students complain that it’s boring.  Their inability to write clearly is the price paid for caving in to their demands.

Learning is a process that is built on a sequence of skills and knowledge.  Teachers can’t always make their instruction fun and enjoyable.  I’m not saying they shouldn’t try, but I am saying that students are shortchanged when they are not required to memorize.

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Declining teacher college enrollment is no surprise

Between the 2007-08 and 2015-16 academic years, enrollment in teacher colleges fell by 23 percent (“Enrollment Is Down at Teacher Colleges. So They’re Trying to Change,” Education Week, Aug. 9).  According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the No. 1 reason is the perception that teaching is an undesirable career.

There was a time when teachers had far more control over what transpired in their classrooms.  But pressure to boost test scores, coupled with lack of support, have resulted in a dramatic drop in job satisfaction.  This is reflected in lower enrollment in teacher preparation programs.  Programs most affected are special education, math, science, foreign language and bilingual education.

Who can blame the best and the brightest from shunning a career in teaching?  When all teachers hear is criticism about the job they are doing, they’re bound to feel demoralized.  The military has long understood the importance of keeping troop morale high.  Higher salaries are a step in the right direction, but better pay is not enough by a long shot.  Teachers have never chosen a career in the classroom to become affluent.  They want respect and appreciation for the work they do.  Until that comes, I expect to see more and more college graduates opting for other careers.

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The demise of the humanities

With the start of the fall semester, high school seniors who intend to earn a college degree will soon have to begin thinking about their major (“Oh, the Humanities!” The New York Times, Aug. 8).  In fact, some colleges and universities require applicants to state their major.  It’s little wonder that the humanities are way down on the list.

I say that because skyrocketing tuition today means most students must take out loans, which are not dischargeable in personal bankruptcy.  As a result, students are far more cost conscious than my generation was.  I realize that the value of a college degree cannot be determined solely by what its holders command in the marketplace.  But who can blame them for shunning the humanities?  They have to earn enough to pay off monthly student at the same time they have to pay the rent and other necessities.

Studies show that those majoring in the humanities earn far less at the start of their careers compared with their peers who choose technology.  That was not always the case. There was a time when college students had the luxury of majoring in whatever truly interested them, without worrying about its market value.  For example, when I was an undergraduate in the late 1950s at the University of Pennsylvania, tuition was $800, plus an additional general fee of $135.  Both were payable in two equal installments.  I spent the next 28 years as an English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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Elite high school admission’s conundrum

The obsession with diversity in schools has reached a new high in New York City (“Study Shows Scores on Elite High School Test Predict Success,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 4).  A study commissioned by its Department of Education found that the controversial Specialized High School Admissions Test had predictive value, particularly in math and science.

Yet despite the conclusion, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to eliminate the exam and use a mix of course grades and state test scores in order to engineer diversity at the city’s elite high schools.  I understand the benefits of a diverse student body, but I think abolishing the test will have unintended consequences.  When students lack the wherewithal to handle rigorous material, they will become discouraged and drop out.  If their teachers attempt to adjust instruction to help them, their more advanced classmates will be shortchanged.

A better way of solving the problem is to continue to use the SHSAT as a screening device and then use a lottery to select those who surpass the cut score.  The Principle of the Flat Maximum explains why.  All applicants at the top of the curve possess the necessary qualifications for success.  Trying to distinguish among them is a waste of time.  A lottery will avoid charges of bias and favoritism.  But I seriously doubt that will ever happen.  Diversity trumps excellence as the ultimate goal.

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Sex education in primary grades is risky

When is the right time to introduce sex education?  The California Healthy Youth Act, which took effect in 2016, requires schools to do so in middle and high school.  But for reasons I don’t understand, the Oceanside Unified School District board decided to jump the gun for children in K-2 (“Oceanside school district halts sex ed for K-2,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 6).

I support age-appropriate sex education, but K-2 is far too soon.  Children that young do not understand nor need to understand reproductive health education.  Predictably, parents in the district objected, and the board reversed itself on the matter. I realize that attitudes and values about sex vary widely across the nation.  What is acceptable in, say, California would be unacceptable in, say, Mississippi.  But common sense should dictate that the primary grades are far too early.

A more nebulous situation exists when students are in middle and high school.  Their exposure to graphic images, coupled with their raging hormones, make them prime candidates for sex education.  How it is done, however, will always be the source of intense controversy.

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College acceptance is no assurance of enrollment

Lost in the debate over college for all in this country is that large numbers of students who have been accepted at college never actually enroll (“Why so many poor kids who get into college don’t end up enrolling,” voc.com, Aug. 3).  Although this so-called “summer melt” affects students from low-income families the most, it also is seen among students from more affluent backgrounds.

One explanation is that high school counselors have not done their job by fully explaining the steps needed once acceptance is offered.  I’m referring now to the various financial forms that have to be completed.  Unless students have parents who can pay the full cost or are sophisticated enough to understand what is entailed when student loans are involved, many students are simply overwhelmed and never show up for enrollment.

There is much truth to that explanation, but I don’t think it is the entire story.  Community colleges provide the kind of guidance such students can turn to.  Moreover, community colleges are a financial bargain, which means that most students don’t have to saddle themselves with onerous debt to earn a degree or certificate.  I don’t understand why students do not take advantage of these services.  They don’t need their parents to guide them when counselors exist for this very purpose.

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The college degree paradox

If a four-year college degree is the key to a well-paying job, then why are far fewer Americans making less than their parents?  “The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940” found that the share of children with higher inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents declined from about 90 percent for those born in 1940 to just 50 percent for those born in 1984 (“Fewer Americans are making more than their parents did – especially if they grew up in the middle class,” Brookings, Jul. 25).

Yet during this same period, the percentage of Americans of both sexes earning a bachelor’s degree skyrocketed.  According to Statista, 3.8 percent of females and 5.5 percent of males in 1940 earned a bachelor’s degree.  In 1984, 15.7 percent of females and 22.9 percent of males did. This data call into question the assumption about the overall monetary value of a college degree.  Moreover, the data challenge the assumption that the affluent are those most likely to benefit.  According to the study, the bulk of the decline was concentrated toward the top of the income distribution.  Equally startling was that those born into the very bottom of the income distribution were still highly likely to earn more than their parents.

You don’t have to be a statistician to realize that something vital is being overlooked in the debate about the indispensability of a college degree.  I’ve written often about this assumption.  So much of the marketability of a degree depends on when it was earned, from which institution and in which major.  Yet we ignore these essential questions, preferring instead to make sweeping generalizations about the indispensability of a college degree for the financial future.  I continue to believe that when student loan debt is factored in, a college degree today is worth far less than believed.

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High standards and student enjoyment clash

Teachers can teach their subject well but teach their students to hate the subject in the process.  There’s now evidence to support that adage (“What Do We Know About Teacher Quality?” National Education Policy Center, Jul. 26).

A recent study in the peer-reviewed Education Finance and Policy found that “teachers who are skilled at improving students’ math achievement may do so in ways that make students less happy or less engaged in class.”  In other words, it’s a pyrrhic victory.

This conclusion has far-reaching implications for how teachers are rated. One of the most important goals of instruction is to make students lifelong learners. That means trying to inculcate positive attitudes about a particular subject.  If all we focus on is the ability of teachers to boost test scores, however, we will never know if they have been effective in non-cognitive areas.

One of the ways to get feedback is to ask students to complete a Likert inventory.  Students anonymously respond to a series of statements to which they register their agreement or disagreement.  Typically, their responses are on a five-choice agreement scale.  For young children, three response options (e.g. agree, don’t know or disagree) can be used.  Unfortunately, we give short shrift to students’ affective status.

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