Social studies are stepchild of standards movement

States are not required to produce evidence that their schools meet academic standards in teaching social studies (“ ‘We are committing educational malpractice’: Why slavery is mistaught – and worse – in American schools.” The New York Times, Aug. 19):  It’s not surprising, therefore, that controversial subject like slavery are shortchanging students.

But it’s important to remember that even if such standards were established, there is no guarantee matters would change because history textbooks are assembled by committees. As a result, special interest groups attempt to get their agendas included at the price of accuracy.

It’s not just that history textbooks for the most part whitewash American history.  The opposite is also true.  For example, “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn, has been rightly accused of turning our history into a comic-book melodrama in which people are constantly abused by their “rulers.”

How can impressionable young people be expected to know the truth under present circumstances?  It takes brave teachers to ignore curricular guidelines because they can be fired for deviating.  In the final analysis, the best hope is for social studies to be treated with the same importance as math and reading.

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Blaine Amendments are on the ropes

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue if the state’s Blaine Amendment can be used to prevent tuition tax credit programs from using dollars to help students attend religious schools (“Consign James Blaine to Memory Lane,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 16).  Its ruling will affect the 3.8 million students enrolled in religious schools across the nation.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice, but I draw a line when it comes to the use of tax dollars for religious schools.  Yes, religious schools can provide a quality education, especially for low-income children trapped in terrible public schools.  But if the high court strikes down the Blaine Amendment, it will open the door to further support of religious schools.  We’ve already seen the slow erosion of the wall between church and state, but I think it is nothing compared with what will ensue.

Yeshivas in New York State, for example, are supposed to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that provided by public schools.  But many do not, claiming religious liberty.  Either we believe in public schools or we don’t.  If public dollars were allowed to pay for tuition at religious schools, enrollment would jump, draining funds for traditional public schools.  That happened in Cleveland a decade ago.

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Teacher demoralization v. burnout

With the fall semester now begun, it’s a good time to ask if teachers are ready to return to the classroom (“Are You Demoralized or ‘Just’ Burnt Out?” National Education Policy Center, Aug. 15).  I say that because people believe that the long summer vacation is more than enough time for teachers to recharge.

That’s not necessarily the case in light of what is now known about the difference between demoralization and burnout.  Although both are related, they are not the same.  Burnout occurs most often when teachers find themselves in a situation with too much pressure and too little support.  It can be relieved or eliminated by rest, as occurs over the summer months off.

Demoralization, however, occurs when teachers feel a fundamental conflict between their professional values and their working conditions.  It’s accompanied by a strong sense of humiliation.  Rest will do little, if anything, to alleviate it.  When teachers are constantly scapegoated as the cause of all the ills afflicting public education, they begin to ask if they have made the classroom the correct choice.

I don’t see things improving for teacher morale.  On the contrary, as attacks on the profession intensify, I believe more of the best and brightest college graduates will shun the classroom, or at best stay just a few years before departing.

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‘Culturally responsive’ training for teachers

In an attempt to engage students, teachers in New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, are being urged to make their instruction more culturally sensitive (“New York City Teachers Get ‘Culturally Responsive’ Training,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 14). The rational is that as schools become increasingly diverse, doing so has the potential to increase learning.

But I wonder if the move will not lead to victimization.  California is poised to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in high school and at Cal State universities.  The high school requirement, which will be the first in the nation, has already drawn criticism as a way of detracting attention away from the failure of schools to graduate students with basic skills.

When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the board of education made all teachers take a brief course in cultural sensitivity, in the belief that doing so would make students feel more welcome in integrated classrooms.  The hours spent in the class turned out to be a waste of time because it became a venue for complaints about racial suffering.

Yes, teachers need to be aware of their students’ backgrounds.  But sound pedagogy has always been characterized that way.

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Children need play, but only up to a point

Preschool readiness has become an obsession in this country in the belief that it will reduce achievement gaps and improve our position in international education rankings (“To Really Learn, Our Children Need the Power of Play,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10).  But it hasn’t worked.  Which is why reformers like to look to Finland, where letting children be children is thought to be responsible for the quality of its schools.

But Finland’s success is the result of a host of other factors that simply do not exist in the U.S.  Its culture and politics can’t be transferred.  Moreover, Finland is a small country that is racially homogeneous.  This is the opposite of the situation in the U.S.  Therefore, assuming that Finland’s philosophy about childhood play is the reason for its reputation is simplistic.

Allowing young people the freedom to do what they want was the basis for Summerhill School in Suffolk, England in the 1960 when it caught the fancy of reformers.  Educational theorists extolled the open style of Summerhill.  But children there soon began to ask their teachers for direction.  Further, by discarding old-fashioned lessons, Summerhill graduated students who knew little about the basics.

In an attempt to correct the faults of preschool readiness, we run the risk of swinging too far the other way.  Children need direction.  Turning schools into extended playgrounds will shortchange them in the long run.  Unfortunately, education in the U.S. goes from one extreme to the other.

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Questioning the value of a college degree

The obsession with getting a college degree may finally be getting a reality check (“College Still Pays Off, but Not for Everyone,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 9).  According to a TD Ameritrade study, 49 percent of young people said their degree was “very or somewhat unimportant” to their current job.

I wonder if even more will say so in the years ahead as it becomes evident that what is taught in college has little relevance to what is needed in the workplace.According to a paper released by the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances, “the college wealth premium weakens to the point of insignificance with the single exception of white bachelor’s-degree holders, which remains positive but much smaller than that enjoyed by previous cohorts.”

I’ve long believed that far too many students are not college material and would be far better served by a vocational education beginning in high school and continuing in community college.  With average student debt now at $37,000, I think more high school students will rethink whether a four-year degree is worth the price.

The truth is that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn.  It is not an absolute determinant.  Yet we persist in the fiction that the future is bleak for all those who do not have a sheepskin.

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Making admission to elite high schools fairer

Rather than abolish the standardized test used as the sole basis for admission to New York City’s elite high schools, as Mayor Bill de Blasio is determined to do, two philanthropists will spend an additional $1.5 million to provide free test preparation and advertisements so that more talented low-income students can qualify (“Philanthropists Putting $1.5 Million Toward Prep for Specialized High Schools’ Test,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 8).

That will go a long way to creating equal opportunities for disadvantaged students.  The Education Equity Campaign, which has already spent $860,000, is not a panacea, but it is a much needed step.  Nevertheless, critics will not be satisfied.  They want to engineer equal racial outcomes one way or another.

The argument is that poverty is the reason so few black and Hispanic students pass the test.  But how to explain why Asians from low-income families do so well on the same tests?

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Unions mean good schools

When schools are persistently failing, reformers look for scapegoats (“An Education Horror Show,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 8).  This was last seen in Providence, where the teachers union was blamed for the fact that the longer students remain in schools there the worse their performance.

But if teachers unions are indeed responsible for the appalling outcomes of some schools, then why do nine of the top-ten ranked states have strong teachers unions?  Conversely, why do eight of the 10 states ranked at the bottom have weak teachers unions?

I’m aware that correlation is not causation, but in this case the situation is too striking to be dismissed as such.  The Coleman Report that was released in 1966 confirms my belief.  It concluded that the quality of schools attended has little to do with the difference on average in achievement between black and white students.  Instead, Coleman pointed the finger at the socioeconomic backgrounds of students as the reason.

If teachers unions were abolished tomorrow, there would be little, if any, difference in outcomes.  But they make such easy targets.

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The middle school transition

Middle school has always been the most difficult segment of a student’s education (“These Academics Spent $1.35 To Make Middle School Less Awful. Here’s How,” Time, Aug. 3).  Not only do they have to adjust to the physical move from a familiar neighborhood elementary school to a larger place, but they are also dealing with the effects of puberty.

Once hormones begin to make their presence felt, young people find trying to handle school work much more difficult than ever before.  That’s why it’s so important for them to have teachers who can help them adjust. Positive relationships can make a huge difference in how students navigate.  The trouble is that middle school teachers don’t spend nearly as much time with their students as elementary teachers do.  As a result, it’s harder for them to get to know their students and vice versa.

Middle school is also when young people sharpen their study habits. Material is not spoon fed to them as it was in lower grades.  Unless parents step in to reinforce the importance of doing homework, too many students fall behind, which sets them up for dropping out.

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Diversity of thought absent in higher education

Diversity in higher education is Tan obsession that exists on nearly all colleges and universities (“The Downside of Diversity,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 3).   The trouble is that it applies only to race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation – rather than to ideas.

Yet the latter is supposed to be the No. 1 reason that students pursue tertiary education in the first place.  As things stand, they are being shortchanged.  One of the reasons is the existence of tenure.  It’s rare that it is given to those who break with prevailing dogma.  As a result, students in turn are not exposed to divergent ideas. Speakers who hold unpopular views are either disinvited or booed.

The pursuit of truth on college campuses used to be taken for granted decades ago.  But today, students and teachers who express ideas that run counter to what the majority believe pay a heavy price.  I question if critical thinking skills can ever be developed under the circumstances.

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