Mental health days off are vital

Oregon and Utah are the first two states to allow students to take mental health days off from school (“Oregon approves ‘mental health days’ for students,” New York Post, Jul. 22).  It’s about time in light of the high incidence of anxiety and depression among young people.

But I say that teachers also deserve the right to take days off for their mental health.  The incidence of burnout among teachers is alarming.  I don’t think that it existed nearly as much in the past because the pressure on teachers today is unprecedented.  As a result, teachers slowly develop all the signs and symptoms of burnout.  Even though burnout is a recognized clinical condition, there is still a stigma attached to those who ask for help.

I knew teachers at the high school where I taught for 28 years who turned to alcohol and other drugs to get through the year.  I wonder if they would have needed to do so if they had been able to take a few mental health days off.

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Summer learning loss

Despite widespread belief that children lose much as a month of school learning over the course of the summer, the evidence is decidedly mixed (“5 things parents need to know about ‘summer loss,’” The Conversation, Jul. 17).  That is particularly so for elementary school students.

Only a small percent of students loses the equivalent of one month of school year learning in reading and math.  Yet I wonder if the traditional school-year calendar doesn’t need altering.  I think that learning is maximized when vacations are spread out, rather than massed.  For example, instead of the typical three-month summer vacation, why not cut it in half and use the rest of the time during the school year?  When I was teaching, I remember that by the time August arrived, most students were bored.  By the same token, most students were exhausted during the spring semester because they had only one week off during spring break.

I taught summer school twice during my 28-year career in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The school day ended by noon, which meant students had the time off to relax at play.  I never had students disrupting instruction with that schedule.  Why can’t we adjust the regular school year to incorporate a similar schedule?

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Dress codes are not worth enforcing

Public schools across the country are increasingly abolishing dress codes  (“Schools Relax Dress Codes in Bid to End Body Shaming,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 13). Although the ostensible reason is that they inordinately targeted females, I believe there is another more pragmatic one.

The reality is that enforcement is a nightmare, even when parents buy into the policy.  The time and effort involved in measuring the length of clothing and the style of clothing are simply not worth it.  What I see as a far more troublesome issue is the display of offensive language and images.  The U.S. Supreme Court rules that students do not lose their right to free speech when they step on school grounds.  As a result, school officials will find themselves on legal thin ice if they try to prevent slogans and other expressions of free speech.

Religious and private schools are a different story.  They have long had dress codes, without the same problem as public schools. (I’m not talking now about charter schools, which are public schools but are allowed to operate by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools.)

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Hope for liberal arts majors

The skyrocketing cost of a four-year college degree has understandably forced high school students and their parents to question the wage premium attached to a liberal arts degree.  Yet there may be an answer as a result of what Amazon intends to do with a third of its U.S. workforce by 2025 (“Amazon’s Education for Bernie,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 12).

Recognizing that many jobs today won’t exist in a few years, Amazon intends to retrain about 100,000 employees at a cost of $700 million in “high-demand occupations.” What’s noteworthy is that employees who possess the wherewithal to make the transition, in my opinion, are most likely to be liberal arts majors, rather than necessarily STEM majors.

I say that because thinking flexibility is the key to learning new material.  It’s not that STEM majors are incapable.  On the contrary. But their knowledge and skills are extremely narrow.  As a result, they may find themselves at a distinct disadvantaged compared with their fellow workers who are more flexible.

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Teacher recruitment remains daunting task

Despite the long summer vacation, recruiting teachers continues to be a Sisyphean task (“Most College Students Interested in Teaching Never Make It to the Classroom,” Education Week, Jul. 10).  A new study entitled “Baccalaureate and Beyond” of about 29,000 students who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2015-16 found that of the 41 percent who had considered teaching as a career, only 17 percent actually ended up in the classroom a year later.

That’s not at all surprising.  The truth is that despite what critics say about teachers having a plum job, few college graduates choose teaching as a career.  The more they learn about the reality of the profession, the less likely they are to go on to earn a credential.  I don’t blame them at all.  Teaching today bears little resemblance to teaching in the past.  The incessant pressure to boost standardized test scores has effectively stripped teachers of the freedom to devise lessons that they alone believe meet the needs and interests of their students.

Moreover, teachers no longer possess the authority they once had when they were allowed to act in loco parentis.  The U.S. Supreme Court held in Goss v. Lopez that students have the right of due process for even the most routine disciplinary decisions.  As a result, teachers find themselves having to walk on eggs, lest they be sued.  That’s especially the case when discipline involves students of color.  It’s little wonder that chaos exists in so many classrooms.

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Migrant children education reality check

When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that all children, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to a free K-12 education, it had no idea what that would mean for school districts (“Engulfed by Migrant Children, and Straining to Teach Them,” The New York Times, Jul. 10).  Only now is the full picture emerging.

School districts across the country are inundated with newcomers who lack even the most rudimentary education.  Moreover, many are traumatized by events they have been through in their native countries.  As a result, school officials are hard pressed to find enough certified teachers to meet their needs and interests.

These newcomers deserve a basic education, but Congress needs to step up to the plate and find sufficient funds to provide it.  So far, they have not done so, leaving states on their own.  Even when they have been able to come up with the funds, many residents worry that their own children are being shortchanged.  This is not xenophobia.  It is a reasonable reaction to what is happening.They have compassion for migrant children, but they also don’t want to see education standards dragged down by the influx of so many undocumented newcomers.

If history is any guide, the success of schools will be decidedly mixed.  As Irving Howe wrote in “World Of Our Fathers” about the wave of immigrant children in 1905 in the New York City system: it “did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help.”

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Busing opposition is not racist

School busing is in the news as a result of the first presidential debate (“There’s a Reason We Don’t Say ‘Integration’ Anymore” The New York Times, Jul. 9). Once again those who criticize busing are depicted as racists.  I don’t agree.

In the late 1970s, the Los Angeles Unified School District, where I taught for my entire 28-year career, began forced busing after court attempts to block it failed.  Although most parents were not fans of the policy, they were willing to give it a chance in the interest of fairness.  But it soon became evident that students who were bused in brought with them huge deficits in academic achievement and socialization.

Teachers were forced to jettison lesson plans that had worked so well in the past to design new ones to meet the needs and interests of bused-in students.  Parents complained that the quality of instruction suffered to the point that their children were bored to tears.  As a result, they began to pull their children out and enroll them in private or religious schools.

At no time did I see evidence that their decision was racially motivated.  They just were concerned that their children were being shortchanged.  I don’t blame them.  How many parents are willing to sacrifice their children’s education on the altar of ideology?  Recognizing the strength of the opposition, the Legislature in 1979 placed on the ballot Proposition 1, which effectively ended forced busing.

The district subsequently stepped up its efforts to promote its magnet schools.  It instituted a program known as Permits With Transportation.  The program has had notable academic success, although it has not achieved its goal of complete integration.  I still think magnet programs deserve far greater emphasis as a reasonable compromise.

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No discipline, no learning

There are many reasons why schools are persistently failing, but when students find out there are no consequences for their behavior, teachers cannot possibly teach their subject matter (“An Education Horror Show,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 8).  The latest example is Providence, where only 5 percent of eight-graders on average scored proficient in math between the 2015 and 2017 school years.  That compares with 21.3 percent in Newark, where students have similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

In fact, the longer that students remain in Providence schools, the lower their performance drops, according to a 93-page report by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.  Why that is so will be the source of heated debates in the months ahead.  But I submit that the lack of discipline is the No. 1 factor.  Students in Providence schools terrorize teachers in ways that are shocking.  For example, one teacher was choked by a student in front of the entire class and yet that student was not expelled.

I attribute the situation to the student-rights revolution of the 1960s that effectively undermined the concept of in loco parentis.  When I started teaching in 1964, teachers were authority figures.  Students who misbehaved were subject to suspensions and expulsion, depending on the severity of their behavior.  But once the U.S. Supreme Court held in Goss v. Lopez in 1975 that students had the right to due process, the authority of teachers was severely crippled.  It was further weakened in 1976 when the high court decided in Wood v. Strickland that if teachers knowingly violated students’ due-process rights, they could be held personally liable for financial damages.

I’m not saying that factors outside of school have not contributed to the present situation.  But without order, teachers cannot possibly teach their subject matter.  I see little hope for things changing in this regard because reformers persist in blaming racism for the failure of students to learn.

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Racism is not the cause of failing schools

The cause of unequal outcomes in public schools has been the subject of a litany of studies over the decades, the most famous being the Coleman Report that was published in 1966.  Despite its finding that the quality of schools has little influence on the difference in average achievement between black and white students, some educators maintain that the root of the problem is “inherent bias” in the school system (“Carranza has no plan at all for making the city’s schools do better,” the New York Post, Jul. 6).

I don’t buy that claim.  I submit that the family backgrounds of black and white students are the reason.  Students whose parents are deeply involved in their education continue to post impressive results, regardless of their race.  Attributing differences in outcomes to racial prejudice merely deflects attention away from the hard work that needs to be done to improve education quality.

New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system, is a case in point. Instead of identifying strategies that can improve education for all students, Chancellor Richard Carranza chooses instead to cite racial bias on the part of teachers.  As evidence, he likes to point out the higher suspension rate for black and Hispanic students over white and Asian students.  But white students are suspended at a higher rate than Asian students.  Does that mean teachers are prejudiced against white students?

In the final analysis, factors outside of school play a far greater role in understanding different outcomes than Carranza and his ilk will ever admit.

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Charter schools’ built-in advantage

It’s always heartening to read that some charter schools manage to post remarkable results with disadvantaged students that traditional public schools have failed (“Entire Bronx Success Academy class aces statewide math exam,” New York Post, Jul. 2).  I have reference now to Success Academy Bronx 2 in the New York City system, where 99 percent of eighth-graders passed the New York State Algebra I Regents exam.

What makes the achievement so remarkable is that 90 percent of them qualify for a free lunch.  If poverty were indeed the cause of failing schools, then how to explain why the school was able to post such impressive results?  Part of the credit, of course, goes to their teachers.  But I submit that the No. 1 factor is that the students who were in the school are there because their parents are involved enough in their education to have applied for admission in the first place.

Compare that with the situation at traditional public schools.  All students who show up at the front door must by law be admitted, regardless of their ability or motivation.  All it takes is one miscreant to disrupt the learning of other students.  In other words, students have the right to be enrolled but not the responsibility to learn.  Teachers cannot perform miracles, no matter how competent they are in their subject.

If traditional public schools were permitted to operate like charter schools, there would be virtually no difference in outcomes.  Too bad they can’t.

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