Cuba’s literacy is model for U.S.

Efforts to improve literacy in this country as measured by scores on tests of international competition have been largely unimpressive.  That’s why it may be instructive to look to Cuba (“Bernie’s Cuba Illiteracy,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 25).  Prior to the 1959 revolution, the illiteracy rate for those over the age of 10 was 23.6 percent. At last count, only 3 percent of Cubans over age 15 are illiterate.

The dramatic turnaround was the result of making teaching a highly desirable profession, with wages only somewhat lower than what physicians earn and about the same as in other professions.  Hundreds of university students were mobilized to reach out to the lowest-income and most marginalized groups in Cuban society.  Special teacher-training schools were created to produce teachers to work in isolated rural areas under difficult conditions.

The paradox, of course, is that although more Cubans are literate, they can read only what the state dictates. But I wonder what would happen if we adopted some of the instructional reforms that have been so effective in improving literacy.

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Excellence is not limited to academics

Everyone agrees that a quality education should be the right of all students.  But what they disagree about is its definition (“A way forward for top-tier high schools: Expand the number of academic options in Queens, introduce an admissions lottery,” New York Daily News, Feb. 23).

What I mean is that a quality education is being restricted solely to an academic curriculum.  But what about a vocational curriculum?  Why doesn’t it qualify?  Only in this country does vocational education occupy such a low status.  In Germany, for example, students who lack the interest or aptitude for university are accorded great respect when they pursue an apprenticeship as part of their secondary education.

The bias against vocational education does a grave disservice to countless students who have been told that without a four-year college degree they have a bleak future.

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History textbooks undermine love of country

There was a time in this country when teaching patriotism was an important goal.  But today’s public schools teach only the ugliest parts of our history (“Public schools are teaching our children to hate America,” New York Post, Feb. 22).

A healthy democracy depends on an informed citizenry.  That means teaching students all sides of controversial issues.  But unfortunately, they are being taught only the negative side.  I don’t know if that is an overreaction brought about by decades of dissatisfaction with the way history used to be taught.  What I do know, however, is that students are being shortchanged when they are not presented with a balanced picture of our past.

There’s no question that racism and oppression exist in the U.S.  But these blights do not constitute the sum and substance of our present and our past.  Too bad history textbooks don’t make that clear.

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Vocational education needed now more than ever

Millions of college graduates are seeing little return for their degrees, even in today’s hot job market (“This job market is hot. So why are half of college grades missing out?” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 23). Yet despite the shrinking wage premium attached to a four-year degree compared with a high school vocational diploma, career and technical education still gets little respect.

That’s a national scandal because the job market is totally saturated with degree holders, leaving those with trade skills in high demand.  I’m talking now, for example, about plumbers, electricians and welders.  For the first time in decades, college grads are likely to be either unemployed or underemployed than the population as a whole.  Meanwhile, they are saddled with student debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

There was a time when graduation from any college with any major meant a well-paying job. But that was because so few people had a four-year degree. Today, the situation is totally different.  High school grads have seen a sharp increase in earnings, while the lower-half of college grads have not.  In fact, the gap is now the smallest in 15 years.

Yet we persist in college for all.

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The 1619 Project is indoctrination

Revisionist history about the founding of this country is bound to be controversial at any level of education, but nowhere more so than as part of the curriculum in grades 7 through 12 (“The Philosophical Force Driving the Fight to Rewrite History,” the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Feb. 21).

I say that because students of that age are extremely impressionable due to their immaturity.  As a result, they take as gospel whatever their teachers and textbooks say.  When prominent historians charge that the 1619 Project is fundamentally flawed, I believe them.  Yet school boards in Buffalo, New York and Washington D.C. quickly voted to incorporate the 1610 Project in their schools’ curriculum.

Why they have done so in light of their responsibility to present a balanced view of history is unclear.  Unlike in higher education where activist faculty members make decisions about what is to be taught, local school boards of education are supposed to take into account the views of all stakeholders.  But when race is involved, apparently it’s a different story.  I think students are being shortchanged when they are taught that the 1610 Project is gospel.

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Combat pay for principals

A tentative agreement between New York City officials and the school administrators union includes not only a 7.5 percent pay boost but also a raise of between $10,000 and $15,000 a year for those working at schools designated as “hard to staff” (“New York City School Administrators Reach Labor Deal,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 13).

During the 28 years I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I worked with five principals.  As the student population changed over the years, so did the nature of their job.  It became increasingly adversarial, pitting faculty, parents and other stakeholders against one another.  So I can understand the need to offer principals additional money to accept an assignment at some schools.

But I doubt that more money alone will result in less turnover.  I’m referring now to New York City and other large urban districts. (It’s not that suburban schools don’t have their problems in recruiting and retaining qualified principals, but they tend to be less stressful.)  So much of a school’s performance is beyond the control of a principal.  In New York City, for example, the percentage of homeless students continues to rise.  As a result, it’s rare for principals to remain at the helm for very long.

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Parent academy helps students graduate college

The transition from high school to college can be perilous for even the best students.  But for those who are the first from their family to attend higher education, it can be overwhelming.  That’s why some colleges and universities provide parents with the opportunity to see for themselves what a typical day is like (“Sending Mom and Dad off to college for a day,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 11).

Nothing, of course, can substitute for a student’s innate ability to handle college-level work, but involving parents has the potential to make the difference between dropping out and on-time graduation.  Their emotional support is likely to be even more vital because it is based on what they experienced, even if it was only for a day.

Parents are increasingly being seen as partners in higher education. In the past, their involvement was largely limited to K- 12, but today they are being welcomed beyond.  I think it’s a promising trend.

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Homeless students are the shame of the nation

The more than 1.5 million public school students who are homeless for one reason or another – the highest number in a dozen years – pose a challenge that critics of public education do not fully understand (“Number of Homeless Students Rises to New High, Report Says,” The New York Times, Feb. 3).

Whether the cause is the lack of affordable housing, drug addiction or local economic conditions, the effect is the same: Teachers must practice triage on a daily basis before they can begin teaching their subject.  Yet criticism of the performance of their students continues unabated.

When I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I had a student in my first period composition class who regularly asked me if he could go to the library.  When I asked him why, he told me that he slept almost every night in his car.  The library was the only quiet, safe place where he could try to catch up on his sleep.

I challenge anyone to expect that particular student and others like him to learn what even the best teachers can teach.

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Get real about education reform

In a review of efforts over the decades to improve public education, Diane Ravitch attributes their failure to poverty (“The Education Reform Movement Has Failed America. We Need Common Sense Solutions That Work,” Time, Feb. 1). Neither vouchers, parental choice, nor charter schools have worked to boost test scores, she declares.

I don’t doubt that poverty is indeed a factor in the disappointing outcomes.  But I maintain that what takes place in the home is more important.  I’m talking about the values that parents inculcate in their children.  If poverty indeed is the villain, then how to explain the sterling performance of so many Asian students who come from low-income families?

Proper nutrition, available medical care and decent housing will no doubt help students learn more.  But they will do little to change the attitude that parents teach their children about the importance of education.  All the money in the world won’t do that.

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Hire vendors to grade state tests

Although state tests are federally mandated, that doesn’t mean local districts have to pull certified teachers out of class to grade reading and writing exams (“New York City Teachers Pulled From Class to Grade State Tests,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 5). In fact, I submit that given proper training outside vendors can do just as good a job, without sacrificing valuable instructional time.

The problem is finding enough qualified people in light of the meager pay to do such tedious work.  I say that because I remember how much I disliked reading and scoring essays during the 28 years I taught high school English in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  I don’t know of any English teacher who looked forward to the task.  But at least credentialed teachers were decently paid.  The pittance offered outside vendors will fail to attract enough takers.

I hope New York City will prove me wrong.

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