Higher ed won’t ever be the same again

Covid-19 has forced colleges and universities to embrace digital learning (“Transforming Higher Ed?” The New York Times, Apr. 24). Whether the transformation will persist once the pandemic abates remains to be seen.

But strictly from a pedagogical point of view, I maintain that the change will be beneficial in the long run.  I say that because so much of traditional instruction in higher education is not effective.  I’m referring now to lecturing, where students sit passively while professors talk.

 In contrast, well-designed digital programs engage students by forcing them to make active responses followed by immediate feedback.  As a result, students move at their own speed and tend to retain what they have learned.  I’d be most interested in seeing the results of an experiment in which one group of students was taught by lecturing and a second group of students was taught digitally.

Even if the results proved that lecturing was inferior, I seriously doubt that much would change in higher education.  Tradition dies hard there.

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Homeschooling is viable option now more than ever

A Harvard law professor wants to ban homeschooling because she maintains it gives parents authoritarian control over their children (“Harvard professor wants to ban homeschooling because it’s ‘authoritarian,’ “ New York Post, Apr. 23).  She cites the possibility that parents can expose their children to such things as white supremacy and misogyny.

Of course that could happen.  But with schools closed because of Covid-19, parents are already doing homeschooling. I see no evidence that they are abusing their position.  Some four percent of children were educated at home before the coronavirus because parents were disaffected with public and private schools. I expect to see more parents opting for homeschooling as the lockdown continues.

There was a time when most parents who homeschooled their children were religious ideologues, but that is changing.  Some want to avoid the bullying and violence that exist. Others are dissatisfied with the overall curriculum.

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Dire summer for children

With school cancelled, pools shuttered and beaches closed, this summer will test the patience of parents (“All the Reasons This Will Be a Bleak Summer for N.Y.C. Children,” The New York Times, Apr. 23).  For young people in the city in particular, the conditions will be worse because they have no place to escape the heat.

No one knows how long such changes will exist.  But what is predictable is that boredom, isolation and learning slippage will definitely make their appearance felt.  Youth employment programs that used to provide jobs for teens paying about $3,000 have been cut back or cancelled, further disappointing them.

When the lockdown is eventually lifted, the effects will be reflected in plummeting test scores.  The only positive thing I foresee is increased appreciation on the part of the public for the work that teachers do.

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Meritocracy still needed in college admissions

I try to be open to views that contradict what I’ve learned from teaching in both high school and in university.  But the No. 1 reason given for opposing meritocracy today totally flies in the face of reality (“Goodbye Meritocracy, Hello …What?” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Apr. 20).

The argument is that meritocracy is rigged against the lower and middle classes.  Therefore, reformers want to give greater weight to non-cognitive factors such as extracurricular activities, life experiences and ethnic backgrounds than to innate intelligence and academic performance.

I don’t deny that non-cognitive factors are important, but they are no substitute.  The consensus is that it takes an IQ of about 115 to handle college-level work.  By admitting applicants who don’t possess such wherewithal, we set young people up for failure.  We talk about the importance of self-esteem.  How is their self-esteem improved when they find out they can’t do the rigorous work required?


still maintain that the importance of a four-year degree is blown way out of proportion.  People are not equal in talents and interests. Why do we persist in encouraging all students to go to college regardless of their aptitude or inclination?  I think we do a terrible disservice to the young by not according vocational education the respect it deserves.

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The deaths of teachers affect students

With schools closed because of the coronavirus, the emphasis has been on providing students with the instruction they otherwise would have received.  But forgotten is the relationship that so many students counted on in the past.  That is particularly the case when teachers have died as a result of the pandemic (“Grieving At Home, Kids Face Their Teachers’ Deaths,” Huffington Post, Apr. 18).

For many young people, the departure of their favorite teachers is their first experience with death, and it is all the more tragic because they never had a chance to say goodbye.  We tend to forget that teachers often are the only adult figures in the lives of children from broken homes.

According to the American Federation of Teachers, 65 teachers and 10 retirees have fallen victim to the coronavirus.  In New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, 50 staff members have passed away due to the coronavirus. Until a vaccine is developed, we can expect to hear of many more teachers who have perished.

My point is that teachers do more than teach knowledge and skills.  They form bonds with their students that can often mean the difference between graduation and dropping out.  The coronavirus will afflict more teachers and deprive more students of much needed role models.

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Reopening schools poses unique challenge in K-12

There is no science presently available that helps school officials know when the time is right to reopen schools.  That goes for all institutions of learning, including colleges and universities.  But the problem is most acute in K-12 (“States Face Thorny Issues in Deciding When to Reopen Schools Post-Pandemic,” Education Week, Apr. 15).

Unlike higher education, where almost everything takes place in a single classroom or lecture hall, K-12 must contend with lunch service, busing, and physical education classes.  By their very nature, such things create large clusters of students.  As a result, school officials will be forced to come up with innovative ways of handling matters.

Their No. 1 concern must be the health of students.  In today’s litigious society, there will always be the threat of a lawsuit if any student dies as a result of reopening classes.  I don’t think education in this country will be recognizable until a coronavirus vaccine is developed.

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The SAT-ACT controversy persists

Despite overwhelming evidence that grades and courses taken possess far greater predictive value than scores on the SAT and ACT, their use continues (“Students May Be Able to Take SAT, ACT at Home Due to Coronavirus,” The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 16). I’m referring now to the 20-year landmark study conducted by Bates College.

In 2005, Bates found virtually no difference in four-year grades and on-time graduation rates between 7,000 submitters and non-submitters. Since then, more than 1,000 colleges and universities that have followed the same test-optional policy have reported similar outcomes.

It’s hard to understand why the SAT and ACT continue to be used in light of this overwhelming evidence.  But tradition dies hard in academe, which is why the debate will go on.  The only beneficiaries are the companies that design the tests.

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Standardized tests are misused

Critics want to eliminate standardized tests because they say the tests don’t provide a fair picture of learning.  New York State serves as a case in point, since passing its Regents exams is necessary for a state high school diploma (“Will Regents exploit coronavirus crisis to end meaningful testing in New York?” New York Post, Apr. 12).

Local control of education makes it hard to get valid feedback about what public schools are actually doing, and even harder to justify spending millions of dollars on public schools. When I was in high school on Long Island, N.Y. in the early 1950s, Regents exams were required in most academic subjects. (I still have my Regents diploma.)  Past exams were readily available as a study guide.  I saw nothing on the exams that did not measure what my teachers had taught.

But because the Regents exams today do not produce the desired racial outcomes, critics want to abolish them completely.  Rather than do so, I suggest using the results primarily for diagnostic purposes instead of for punitive purposes.  Finland, which is known for the quality of its schools, has done this for many years.  There is no naming and shaming.

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Student learning styles still matter

I believe in empirical evidence.  But there is often a difference between what studies show and what teachers know from experience. I’m referring now to a controversial study concluding that lessons designed to appeal to different student learning styles do not accelerate their learning (“The Stubborn Myth of ‘Learning Styles,’ “ Education Next, Summer 2020).

If that’s the case, then why pay attention to individual differences in the first place? We know that so much of what makes teachers effective is their ability to connect with their students.  That’s why class size is important.  Large classes do not allow teachers to get to know their students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Yet in 2019, a newsletter published by the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University concluded: “There is no practical utility in knowing students’ learning styles.”  I find that hard to believe. If so, why not just treat all students as a monolith and proceed to design lessons accordingly?

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Skill shortage rather than degree shortage

The Center for Education and the Workplace at Georgetown University provides a much needed reality check about today’s obsession with a bachelor’s degree (“ ‘Some College. No Degree’ Jobs and the Trouble with the Credential Treadmill,” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Apr. 3).  Its latest report  once again emphasized that a four-year degree is not needed for many good careers.

I’ve been arguing for years that we’ve been wildly oversold on the necessity of a bachelor’s degree for a rewarding career.  The wage premium attached to such a degree fades out when the cost of acquiring the degree is factored in.  I’ve also been stressing that what students major in is more important than mere possession of the degree itself.

The CEW report confirms my views.  In fact, it goes so far as to say that college degrees alone are not conferring any wage advantage over high school diplomas.  Nevertheless, we persist in the fiction that young people without a bachelor’s degree face a bleak future.

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