For-profit colleges have immunity from borrower-defense rule

If Betsy DeVos has her way, for-profit colleges that used fraudulent claims to lure students will get off virtually unscathed (“DeVos Again Tries to Limit Loan Relief,” The New York Times, Dec. 11).  That’s because student debt will only be totally forgiven if they earned far less than other students in similar programs.

That’s outrageous.  The intent of the rule known as the “borrower defense to repayment” was to protect students who assumed debt to attend colleges that published misleading statements about future employment.  By preventing students from receiving relief, DeVos is giving the schools the equivalent of diplomatic immunity.

It should matter not one whit that some of these students are earning the median earnings of students from other programs the Education Department considers comparable.  The fact remains that the colleges engaged in fraudulent activity.  By giving them a get-out-of-jail card, DeVos will only encourage others schools to engage in similar practices, viewing the possible punishment as a cost of doing business.

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Apprentice programs offer bright future

As the cost of a four-year college degree continues to soar, apprentice programs are appealing to more and more young people (“Want a White-Collar Career Without College Debt? Become an Apprentice,” The New York Times, Dec. 11).  Not only do they lead to well-paying jobs, but they don’t burden enrollees with heavy student debt.

Most apprentice programs are still in skilled trades, but in the past two years more than 700 programs have been created in white-collar fields.  Once trained, graduates are quickly hired.  Yet opposition remains.  Critics claim that they create a two-tier system: those graduating from elite schools who establish connections and those in apprentice programs who lack such ties.  But we already have a two-tier system.  I question if graduates from third-tier universities can ever hope to compete with graduates from the Ivies.

I say it’s time to give vocational education the respect it deserves.  The new apprentice programs are a step in the right direction.

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SAT and ACT face relentless criticism

The lawsuit against the University of California alleges that it discriminates against students by requiring SAT or ACT test scores (“Students, Community Groups Sue University of California to Drop SAT, ACT,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 11).  The plaintiffs say the tests act as a proxy for wealth, race and privilege.

I have no brief for either test, but I base my opinion on the way the tests are constructed, rather than on their outcomes.  Both tests appeal to colleges and universities because they allow students to be ranked against each other.  If the tests were loaded up with items that measured only the most important material taught effectively by teachers, scores would likely be bunched together, making comparisons extremely difficult.

To avoid that probability, test makers include items that measure what students bring to class, instead of what they learn in class.  They do so because they’ve found it produces score spread.  That is not fair, but it is not illegal.  Yet plaintiffs charge that disparate impact is illegal.  I maintain that they won’t be happy unless all students post equal scores.

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Ethnic studies shortchanges students

During the 2015-16 session, the California Legislature passed AB2016, which formalized an ethnic studies curriculum for public middle and high schools in the state.  Fortunately, it was subsequently rejected and tabled until next year (“Why ethnic studies is essential for a realistic California education,” The San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 25).

I say that because what all students need today are the knowledge and skills that have helped other generations succeed.  Telling students that they are not to blame for their situation is certainly well meaning, but it conveys the message that they are victims.  I question if a victim mentality serves students well after graduation.

There are ways to engage students that do not portray them as victims.  For example, what about teaching students about those who have overcome their disadvantages and have gone on to succeed in their respective fields?  There are many such case studies.  But instead, most ethnic studies do just the opposite and dwell on injustices.

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The overhyped bachelor’s degree

It’s good to know that someone finally sees through the claims made about the pecuniary value of a four-year degree (“The Overhyped College Dropout ‘Scandal,” the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Dec. 6).  George Leef exposes the truth about what goes on in higher education today, refusing to accept the claim that colleges aren’t doing enough to get students “across the finish line.”

The fact is that far too many young people are not college material.  They lack the intelligence, motivation, and study habits to handle real college-level work.  They’ve been misled by just about everyone in their lives.  The wage premium attached to a degree depends on the major for the most part.  Even those who graduate don’t earn as much as many high school graduates when the cost of paying back loans is factored in.

But because students are seen as consumers, colleges lean over backward to push them through.  As a result, a sheepskin today doesn’t mean what it did decades ago when we were more realistic about higher education.  For most high school students, vocational education, coupled with an apprenticeship, is a better choice than incurring heavy debt in the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

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Teaching reading correctly

The reading wars may finally be at an end as a result of events in Mississippi (“There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It,” The New York Times, Dec. 6).  The state has made sure that its teachers understand the science of reading.

The operative word is “science.”  In 2013, the state’s legislators provided funding to train its teachers what that means.  It comes down to a formula: decoding ability x language comprehension = reading comprehension.  Phonics encompasses decoding, but it alone is not enough.  Children can learn how to sound out letters but still not understand what the word means.  To do the latter, children need to be given activities that widen their meaning.

Since training teachers, Mississippi has seen its 4th graders now reading at the national average, while every other state’s 4th graders made no significant progress on this year’s test or actually lost ground.  I realize that correlation is not causation, but I submit that the science of reading warrants far greater attention by other states.

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Free speech for teachers gets boost

When an English teacher tweeted to President Trump that her Texas high school was filled with students in this country illegally and urged his help, she was fired (“Teacher Wins Appeal After Being Fired Over Immigrant Tweet,” The New York Times, Dec. 1).  Her appeal to the state education commissioner resulted in her reinstatement.

Nevertheless, the Fort Worth Independent School District intends to fight the ruling, claiming that it was based on a technicality.  I doubt it will prevail because in 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Pickering v. Board of Education that statements by public school teachers about issues of public importance are protected speech.  In my opinion, illegal immigration clearly meets that standard regardless of the Board members’ individual views on the matter.

The only way the district will prevail is if it can prove that the teacher spoke as part of her public duties.  In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the high court ruled that statements by public employees pursuant to their employment have no First Amendment protection.,

Regardless of the outcome, it’s still risky for teachers to express themselves openly about matters of grave importance.  That’s because freedom of speech does not exist in K-12 in the same way that it exists in higher education.

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Timed SAT is controversial

Since its beginning, the SAT has been a timed test.  But now critics are charging that deep thinking cannot be fairly evaluated that way (“Support Builds For Making the SAT Untimed For Everyone,” Education Next, Winter 2020).  They argue that students should be able to demonstrate what they’ve learned without worrying about the clock.

I submit that it all depends on the kind of knowledge and skills being assessed.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, professors made a distinction between writing a news article and writing an editorial.  The former depended on speed because news was perishable.  The latter depended on rumination because it relied on forming opinions.  As a result, students were required to write under both conditions.

If the SAT were to become untimed, it would make it difficult to draw valid inferences about a students’ ability to work under pressure once they were admitted to college.  It would also lead to demands for accommodations by students, making it hard to compare students. So unless there is better evidence that eliminating the present timed requirement will be an improvement over what exists now, I see little reason to change.

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Cruel way to boost college rankings

In an attempt to improve their rankings, there’s a new college strategy that goes beyond anything else I’ve seen in a long time (“Enticing Letters From Harvard That Aren’t Quite What They Seem,” The New York Times, Nov. 30).  It’s called recruit-to-deny.

Here’s how it works. Colleges buy the names, ethnicities, and test scores of students within a stipulated range from the College Board and the ACT.  They then flood the students with solicitations to apply, knowing full well that most will never be admitted.  What this does is make the colleges look even more selective than before, which boosts their rankings.

This deliberate attempt to help themselves does a terrible disservice to underqualified applicants who naively believe they have a chance of being admitted because they received invitations to apply.  It creates even greater cynicism about the entire college admission process.  Yet it continues unabated.

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State seizures of local schools

When Texas passed a law in 2015 allowing the state to assume control of an entire school district even if only one school was persistently failing, it went one step further than what has occurred elsewhere in the country (“Takeover of Schools Stirs Turmoil in Houston,” The New York Times, Nov. 28). If the experience of other states is any indication, however, little will change.

 In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to assume full control of a local district when it seized the schools in Jersey City.  It followed up in Paterson and Newark.  Taxpayers overall considered the moves to be hostile takeovers.  Although scores rose slightly, more than a decade later they are still below the statewide average.

 Similar outcomes were seen in New York in 2002 when the state wrested control of the Roosevelt district on Long Island from its dysfunctional local board, and in 1993 when California intervened in Compton after test scores hit rock bottom and the district’s books were about $20 million in the red.

It’s understandable why the tendency is to look to the state for a remedy, but based on the evidence to date, they are no likely to be successful in turning around persistently failing school districts.  That’s a hard but necessary lesson to learn.

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