Catholic schools and the pandemic

Catholic schools in Boston opened for in-person instruction in the fall without the dire predictions that opponents made (“How Boston-Area Catholic Schools Opened for In-Person Learning Amid the Pandemic,” EducationNext, Dec. 17). Despite a population of 35,500 students, teachers and staff, only a tiny fraction of one percent has been infected.

The superintendent attributed the results to adhering strictly to CDC guidelines.  If so, why can’t public schools in Boston and elsewhere do the same thing?  Is it because teachers’ unions are using the pandemic as the justification for higher salaries?  As readers of this column know, I support teachers’ unions.  But there is a limit to what I believe are demands that will backfire.

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Worst teacher shortage since 2000

Public school employment is now at its lowest level since 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“Teacher Shortage Compounds Covid Crisis in Schools,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 16).  Although the pandemic is largely responsible, it is not enough to explain what is occurring.

Burnout and demoralization have been slowly building for years, as the demands made on teachers have shown no signs of abating.  As a result, the pipeline of college students studying to become teachers has been unable to keep pace with retirements and attrition.

I think the situation will only get worse.  The classroom has become too stressful for even the most dedicated teachers.  Nevertheless, there are those who persist in arguing that teachers are overpaid.  I submit that substantial raises will be insufficient to recruit and retain the best and the brightest to the classroom.

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The private school advantage

When the mother of a Black ninth grader at a private school in Charlotte, N.C. complained that her son’s English class would be reading “Fences,” he was expelled (“A Black Student’s Mother Complained About ‘Fences.’ He Was Expelled.” The New York Times, Dec. 15). Apparently, the school felt it was easier doing that than defending the play.

Public schools, of course, cannot expel a student except for the most serious behavior.  As a result, they have to deal with parents making outrageous demands about the curriculum.  “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was an approved novel for use in 11th grade English classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District when I was teaching there.  When one parent complained about the “N” word, the district issued a lengthy apology that was embarrassing to read.

Private and religious schools operate by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that outcomes are also so different.

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Education degrees in the limelight

Degrees in education have never had the same cachet as those in other fields because they lack the same intellectual rigor.  (“Dr. Jill Biden and the problem with education degrees,” New York Daily News, Dec. 15). The reason is that the demand for teachers to fill public school classrooms has meant standards could not be raised too high. 

Whether higher salaries would change that is questionable because teaching is becoming increasingly more stressful.  When I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the job was far different than now.  Yet even then, burnout was common. Since then, so-called combat pay has not significantly increased the number of college graduates who volunteer to teach in troubled schools.

I seriously question whether quality and quantity can exist simultaneously.

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Higher education flight from teaching will continue

A new book by an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania charges that research rather than teaching is rewarded in higher education, and that needs to change (“ ‘The Amateur Hour’ Review: Hire Teachers for Higher Education,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 15).  Yet there is absolutely nothing new about this indictment.  In 1988, Charles J. Sykes made the same point in “Prof Scam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education.”

The fact is that lecturing, which is the least effective way of teaching, remains the predominant method.  Pedagogy is derided as beneath the dignity of professors, who believe that telling is teaching.  That’s a pity because hearing a professor drone on while paying thousands of dollars to be subjected to the ordeal is outrageous.

Little will change until instruction is given equal weight to research.  Until then, salaries will continue to rise in inverse proportion to teaching loads at virtually all elite schools.

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Mismatch is threat in elite colleges

It’s heartening to learn that children of immigrants and the first in their families to attend college have been accepted at the Ivies (“ ‘Their future is bright:’ Bronx high-schoolers celebrate Ivy League acceptances,” New York Daily News, Dec. 12).  I wish them all the best for their success.

But their ability to flourish there is not assured.  Even if they have been prepared to handle rigorous academic work by their public high schools, they may not be as well prepared socially.  Many students in the Ivies come from tony prep schools where they have been socially interacting for most of their young lives.  As a result, the transition to college is far less daunting than it is for students from low-income families.

I saw that first-hand when I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s.  Although Penn in that era had many students from public schools, they never fit in as well as students from legendary prep schools.  I hope things have changed in that regard, but it remains to be seen if social interaction is less important today than in the past.

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Teachers unions are losing their supporters

The Chicago Teachers Union asserted that pressure to reopen schools is rooted in “sexism, racism and misogyny” (“Chicago story exposes the rank selfishness of US teachers unions, New York Post, Dec. 11).  That’s an absurd charge.

If teachers unions want to retain their support, they have to convince taxpayers that they genuinely care about students.  Wild accusations will only alienate their allies.  There will always be those who oppose them in principle.  The ones teachers unions can’t afford to lose are those on the fence

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Humanities on the rocks for good reason

The decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities these days comes as no surprise (“Dear Humanists: You Have Done That Yourself,” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Dec. 9).  The blame lies with its marketability.

When students assume heavy debt to finance a bachelor’s degree, they understandably want some assurance that their choice of a major will pay off in a well-paying job. Unfortunately, the humanities can’t compete with other majors.  You can’t blame them. 

Studies show that in the long run humanities majors do catch up with other majors. The problem is that college graduates can’t wait that long.  They have expenses today.  There will always be a handful of students who chose to major in the humanities for various reasons, but they are outliers.

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Parental involvement no assurance of outcomes

A recent study of parental involvement in Mexican schools found no evidence of improved student performance (“When parents get involved in schools, kids did no better,” The Hechinger Report, Nov. 30).  The results served as a cautionary tale for researchers who had not expected the outcomes.

There is nothing magical about parental involvement.  It pays off only when such programs are carefully designed.  In Mexico, trust between parents and teachers eroded because teachers and parents were not treated as equal partners. The same thing is taking place in this country when the issue is whether schools should be reopened. 

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When dress codes go too far

Unlike almost all private and religious schools that have a dress code, public schools vary widely in their policies. The latest example is what happened to a gay student in Texas who painted his nails and was given an in-school suspension when he refused to remove the nail polish (“Texas high school suspends male teen over painted nails,” New York Daily News, Dec. 5).

I fail to see why the school made an issue of what is such a minor violation.  In fact, I wonder if dress codes are worthwhile in the first place in public schools.  I stress the latter because parents who opt for private or religious schools knowingly accept the rules as a small price to pay for what they consider a superior education for their children.

Public schools by their very nature serve a far more socioeconomically diverse group of students.  As a result, not all parents have the means to buy school uniforms. Moreover, the time it takes to enforce dress codes could be far better used elsewhere. 

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