Pending L.A. teachers’ strike contains lessons

When a fact-finding panel was unable to bring the Los Angeles Unified District and United Teachers of Los Angeles together, a strike seems likely on Jan. 10 (“Fact-finding at L.A. Unified,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20). UTLA’s demands are familiar: higher salaries, smaller classes, more librarians and nurses.  The district claims it does not have the money to satisfy all of the demands.

But that argument is nothing new.  I participated in the first strike in 1970 by the newly formed UTLA and once again in 1989.  Both times the money was miraculously found at the last minute, but not before the commitment of UTLA was severely tested.

The strike I remember most vividly was in 1970, which lasted almost five weeks.  I walked the picket line and tightened my belt as it dragged on.  But the lack of a collective bargaining law led the courts to declare the agreement null and void.

It was only in 1975 when the Rodda Act became law that both sides had to bargain in good faith and agree to mediation.  As a result, the 1989 strike lasted only nine days and resulted in an historic three-year contract, including successive yearly salary increases of eight percent each and school site decision-making.

Once again, the LAUSD is claiming that it lacks the money.  It’s little wonder that UTLA doesn’t believe it.  If that is ever going to change, it has to begin with greater honesty on the part of the district.  Otherwise, the adversarial situation will continue unabated.

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‘Disparate-impact’ on school suspensions is repudiated

Until now, school suspensions that show blacks and Hispanics suspended at higher rates than whites and Asians were automatically deemed discriminatory  (“The lunacy of crying ‘racism’ over school suspensions,” New York Post, Dec. 21).  But the Federal Commission on School Safety has rightly rejected that conclusion.

Although black students nationally are suspended at nearly three times the rate of white students, that does not necessarily demonstrate bias.  It may well be that more black students engage in behavior that is disruptive than whites.  I think the key factor here is whether they are suspended at higher rates than whites for the same misbehavior.

If anything, teachers and principals have become so sensitive to being called racist that they tolerate disruptions by blacks.  Look at this another way: White students are suspended more than Asians.  Does that mean teachers and principals are biased against white students?  What I find most troubling is that students who want to learn – and that cuts across all races – are held hostage by the acts of a few.

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Homework falls out of favor

Public schools find themselves caught between two contrary demands: pressure to boost test scores and pressure to maintain student wellness (“Down With Homework, Say U.S. School Districts,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13).  If the past is any indication, however, they will go to one extreme or the other rather than trying to achieve a balance.

I believe that homework done properly plays an important role in reinforcing classroom instruction.  The key to doing so is to use common sense.  The number of hours assigned each week needs to be adjusted to the age of students.  Elementary school children should not be given the same number of hours as high school students.  Moreover, homework should not be busywork.  It actually can be made enjoyable.  Too often, however, homework consists of sheets of exercises that bore students.

When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher routinely assigned daily homework that helped me master what was taught in class.  I saw the purpose and went to class the next day with renewed confidence.  I learned more in three years of Spanish in high school than I did in three years in college.  In fact, I was placed in an advanced class based on a screening test.  I owe that to how Spanish was taught, including homework.

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College degree premium is nuanced

Although it is true that the median college graduate earns more than the median high school graduate, the reality is not nearly as black and white as it appears (“The Misguided Priorities of Our Educational System,” The New York Times, Dec. 10).  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school graduates with above-average earnings earn $34,000 to $70,000 annually.  That compares with college graduates with below-average earnings of between$28,000 to $58,000.

This wage spread is given little attention.  But it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.  I’ve seen many of my former students who never went to college but who have a trade make far more money annually than my former students who went to college and majored in a non-STEM field.  Moreover, the former group has no college loan to repay.  That’s no small thing when rentals continue to rise, leaving little disposable income at the end of every month.

I’ve written often before about the need to give vocational education far more respect and support.  Not all young people have the desire or ability to go to college.  To see them drop out after having assumed so much debt is sad.  Let’s get real about the premium attached to a college degree.  Much depends on the major and the college itself.

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Evaluating teachers a different way

So much attention is focused today on identifying the best teachers.  But the effort has been placed almost exclusively on test scores.  I don’t doubt they are important, but they don’t tell the whole story, as I wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News (“Judge teachers using so-called intangibles: They matter as much or more than test scores,” Dec. 5).

Long after subject matter is forgotten, students remember the interest and kindness that their teachers showed in them.  There are teachers who do a remarkable job teaching their subject well, but who teach their students to hate the subject in the process.  That’s a pyrrhic victory, especially if the goal is to create lifelong learners.

How teachers go about bonding with their students is largely a matter of personality.  In medicine, it’s called a bedside manner.  Some teachers are naturals in this regard, while others can be taught – but only up to a point.  Non-cognitive outcomes can be measured by Likert inventories.  These consist of a series of questions, to which student anonymously reply, say, on a five-part scale.  For example, “Doing math no longer causes me to feel anxious.”  Or “I like to read a novel more now than I did before.”

It’s time to pay more attention to affective outcomes than before if students are to receive a quality education.

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History major is no assurance of critical thinking

The number of students majoring in history has dropped more steeply since 2011 than any other undergraduate degree (“Fewer Students Are Majoring in History, But We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Why,” Time, Dec. 6).

There are several explanations for the trend, but none more convincing than the cost-benefit analysis.  In short, students are rightly asking if a history major will enhance their earnings potential. There was a time when possession of a B.A. in any major distinguished the holder when entering the job market.  But today that’s no longer true.  What matters far more is one’s major.

Defenders of the history major maintain that students develop writing skills and critical thinking skills, which are vital in getting a decent salary.  The only evidence I’ve seen to support that argument is The Concord Review, which publishes research papers by high school students. College professors, on the other hand, complain that their students are unable to write a coherent essay, as I wrote about recently.

How to explain the disparity between the two?  Will Fitzhugh, publisher of TCR, says it’s the result of students being required to read extensively.  Unfortunately, too many college students have never done so.  As a result, they not only lack factual knowledge about their subject but also lack the wherewithal to express themselves in writing.

I wish that college professors would make TCR required reading for their history courses.  Doing so would be far more effective than lecturing about how to demonstrate critical thinking.

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Teachers’ pensions at risk in California

All eyes are on California this week as the state Supreme Court hears oral arguments challenging what is known as the California Rule (“State’s justices consider pension disputes,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 6).  Three cases – the Marin, Tri-county and CalFire – relate to reductions in retirement benefits made by the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2012.

The California Rule protects only vested benefits, which cannot be reduced without mutual agreement from the employee.  (Non-vested benefits are not covered.)  But the state Legislature can still modify the promised benefits over objections from employees.

If the California Supreme Court rules in favor of the three plaintiffs, it will be the final straw in destroying attempts to recruit and retain the best and the brightest to the teaching profession.  Morale is already at an all-time low, as attacks on teachers and their unions intensify, coupled with ever growing responsibilities.

One of the attractions of making teaching a career is that practitioners can look forward to a secure retirement.  Once that security is abolished, what else is next?  Teaching is not intended for those who seek affluence.  But the reward of working with young people is not sufficient to induce college graduates to a classroom career.  I hope the court keeps the California Rule in place, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.

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Mismatch theory harms students

In a well-intentioned attempt to reach out to low-income black and Hispanic students to apply to elite college, school counselors are unwittingly setting them up for failure.  The latest example is the T.M. Landry College Preparatory School (“Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the Reality,” The New York Times, Nov. 30).

The Ivies and their ilk are brands that have great appeal.  But they are not for everyone because of their rigor.  Counselors need to be more realistic in directing students to apply to all schools after high school graduation.  Some are better served by attending a community college, while others to a state university.

I say that because when students are rejected by marquee-name schools or can’t handle the work and drop out, their self-esteem is going to be severely affected.  I understand the sex appeal of certain colleges and universities, but students need to be reminded that they can get a solid education at second-tier schools.  Moreover, they often get far greater gratification by pursuing a vocation course of study in high school, accompanied by an apprenticeship.

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Principal diversity remains elusive

Few people will deny the important role that principals play in educating students, which is why the low percentage of people of color in authoritative positions is disturbing (“School leadership: An untapped opportunity to draw young people of color into teaching,” brookings.edu, Nov. 26).  But let’s not jump to any conclusions.

Despite the opportunities for leadership in schools for blacks and Hispanics compared with leadership opportunities in other fields, principals are largely white. Reformers argue that the reason isracism.  But I submit that not everyone wants to leave classroom teaching for the front office.  That’s because principals today are saddled with unprecedented responsibilities.

When I was in public school from K-12, the principal’s job was far less stressful than it is today.  As a result, the decision to leave the classroom was easy.  Some teachers wanted higher pay and were willing to put in the additional hours.  But today, the additional pay simply is not as alluring because of the unprecedented responsibilities that go along with it.  In short, it’s a personal choice.

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Professors need basic course in pedagogy

College professors still overwhelmingly rely on lectures to teach their subject and then wonder why students don’t perform as expected.  I was reminded of this after reading an essay by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and Laurence Steinberg (“Beyond the midterms: Helping students overcome the impact of No Child Left Behind,” brookings.edu, Nov. 21).

They say they’ve been teaching and grading undergraduates for more than 35 years.  During that time, they’ve seen a decline in the ability of their students to write a coherent and well-structured essay even after distributing a series of questions in advance of the test day.  They blame the problem on No Child Left Behind, which relied heavily on multiple-choice tests.

But what about their responsibility in the matter?  They claim that with “adequate preparation” everyone should get a good grade.  I submit that unless their students are given frequent practice writing coherent and well-structured essays their students will continue to disappoint them.  I doubt the two professors do anything even close to that.

The most effective way is to give students appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback.  If the goal is to have students write an essay that meets their criteria, then it behooves them to provide their students with the opportunity to do exactly that.  Instead, they likely lecture what an acceptable essay looks like and then assume their students will miraculously produce one.

When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, we spent afternoons in a writing lab.  We were given a topic to write about and then sat down at our typewriters while the professor circled the room making suggestions as he looked over our shoulders.  It worked beautifully.

I know that lecture halls are not conducive to such a practice.  But why can’t the two professors break up the students into small groups and ask them to compose an essay on their ubiquitous laptops while they visit each group to make comments?  The best essay can then be displayed as a model.  I know this will never happen because tradition dies hard in higher education.

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