Parental choice pays off for students

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice even though I recognize its downsides.  The latest evidence comes from Miami-Dade, the nation’s fifth-largest school district (“Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho rides the choice wave to student success,” Education Next).

Seventy-four percent of students in K-12 in the district attend schools other than those assigned to them.  This includes charter schools, private schools and magnet schools, and makes makes Miami-Dade the district with more choices than any other.  As a result, black and Hispanic students in the district outpace the state in performance on reading and math tests.

I realize that correlation is not causation.  It may just be that other factors other than choice alone explain the impressive results. But at a time when districts across the nation have had little success shrinking the achievement gap between blacks, Hispanics and others, it’s worthwhile asking if choice is the answer.  If so, then perhaps even opponents will change their minds.

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Overdoing parental involvement in children’s learning

Parental involvement in the education of their children is one of the most important factors in learning.  But the existence of online grade books is turning out to be a mixed blessing (“The New Parental Obsession: Checking Kids’ Grades Online,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 16).

Although online grade books allow parents to detect a problem while it is still correctable, it has also led to parents becoming compulsive.  That creates anxiety because parents fixate on a particular grade rather than overall learning.  I’m also not so sure that teachers like the idea, since it means they can become overwhelmed with queries from anxious parents. For example, some parents log in several times a day, which means teachers can expect to hear from worried parents.  I don’t know how teachers find the time to respond.

When I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, teacher-parent contact included phone calls home, progress reports and report cards that had to be signed by parents and after-school conferences. Online grade books provide greater continuity, but they also can become intrusive.

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No freedom of speech for high school teachers

In an attempt to engage students who are easily distracted by smart phones and the like, high school teachers understandably try to bring topics in the news into their classrooms (“ ‘Centrism Is Canceled’: High Schoolers Debate the Impeachment Inquiry,” The New York Times, Oct. 24).  But doing so is risky.

In Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District, the Sixth Circuit held in 2010 that only school boards of education can determine the curriculum.  In short, districts hire teacher speech.  As a result, when teachers decide on their own to introduce topics that have not been approved, they put themselves in jeopardy. High school teachers cannot claim academic freedom, as college professors can.

This puts high school teachers in a terrible position.  They want to make what they teach relevant, but they must be careful not to go beyond what the school district that hires them allows.  Although the news story cited above involves social studies teachers, the principle extends to all subject fields.  For example, biology teachers need to be cautious in discussing pre-marital sex unless that is in the approved curriculum.

There will always be some brave teachers who decide to violate the Evans-Marshall ruling, but they better be prepared for legal pushback.

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Data analysis more important than algebra

Despite dramatic data generation in just the past few years, students are not getting the kind of instruction they need. That’s because we persist in teaching algebra, trigonometry and calculus (“Modern high school math should be about data science – not Algebra 2,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 23).  As a result, they are severely shortchanged.

What all students need today is an understanding of how to analyze data.  I understand the importance of traditional math for those who intend to make a career in the field. But I fail to see how these subjects have relevance to solving real-life problems for most students.  Recognizing the need, the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2013 won approval from the University of California to allow data science to substitute for Algebra 2.

I hope school districts in other states will do the same.  There is an urgent need to modernize the math curriculum if we expect students to be prepared for the fast-changing world of data.

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All-boys schools are under attack

All-boys schools are depicted as venues for male privilege, entitlement and misogyny (“What Is the Role of an All-Boys School in 2019? How the Elite Institutions Are Trying to Adapt,” Time, Oct. 14).  That’s the only conclusion I can reach.  But I maintain that it is unfair.

There are some 780 private all-boys schools in the U.S. and some 650 private all-girls schools.  Parents enroll their children in them because they believe that they best meet their needs and interests.  It has nothing to do with developing stereotypical views of the excluded group.  Yet that is the criticism leveled at them.

What is wrong about wanting young people to avoid the distraction posed by the presence of classmates of the opposite sex?  Yes, some students can overcome the temptation of paying more attention to them than to their studies, but they are the exception.  That’s why I hope that single-sex schools will continue to be an option for parents.

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The case for humanities majors is weak

More and more students are majoring in STEM than in the humanities because they believe they will have better employment prospects and higher earnings (“The world’s top economists just made the case for why we still need English majors,” The Washington Post, Oct. 19).  Although that is true for their first job, some argue in the long run the picture is different.

Their case rests on the assumption that a liberal arts education builds soft skills like problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability, which will be in ever- greater demand as technology evolves.  In contrast, STEM majors, they say, lack such skills.  Where’s the evidence that STEM majors don’t possess these essential skills?  By the same token, where’s the evidence that only humanities’ majors possess them?

The other weakness in the argument for the humanities is that it takes on average two decades for the wage gap to close. How are graduates in the humanities supposed to support themselves in that period?  Yes, there will always be exceptions to the rule, but I continue to believe that college students today are being far more realistic than we give them credit for.

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Evaluating teachers fairly

In almost all schools in this country, teachers are evaluated primarily by principals who observe instruction (“What Knowledge Do Principals Need?” Education Week, Oct. 16).  But I’ve long questioned if this is the best way to do so.

Unless principals are certified in the subject being taught, how can they know if teachers know their subject?  For example, does a principal understand the use of the subjunctive in Spanish when observing a lesson on that topic?  If not, the teacher could be providing incorrect information to students even though the teacher uses correct pedagogy.

I submit that the fairest and most accurate way of evaluating teachers is peer review.  Teachers who are certified in the subject being observed are in a far better position to assess instruction.  Although tradition dies hard in education, and principals are reluctant to yield on this matter, I believe my proposal is worth considering.

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Engaged parents can transform failing schools

The solution to turning around persistently failing public schools continues to perplex reformers (“How Parents Helped Transform a Los Angeles School,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 14).  Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa maintains that engaged parents is the answer by citing the example of Twentieth Street Elementary, one of the lowest-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

There’s no doubt that when parents band together to form partnerships with the schools their children attend the outcomes can be heartening.  But unfortunately not all schools have parents who are willing to get involved.  When I was teaching in the LAUSD, schools were required to have Open House night. Despite widespread publicity, turnout was abysmally low.  That was especially the case for those students who were in danger of failing.  Follow-up phone calls and registered letters did nothing to change the situation.

My point is that what worked at one elementary school will not necessarily work at another.  There still is no magic formula.

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School start times should be local decision

California will be the first state to mandate later school start times (“California becomes first state in the country to push back school start times,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 14).  The decision is based on research showing that teenage students who begin school later increase academic performance, attendance and overall health.

That is probably true, but in a state as geographically diverse as California, I think the decision should be left to local districts.  Needs of local communities differ. For example, rural school districts have different needs than urban school districts in terms of what is best for them.  The same thing applies to other states.

When I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I remember how tired seniors were in my first period composition class that began a few minutes after 8:00.  Whether starting school later that morning would mean that they wouldn’t stay up later the night before, however, is unclear.  Rather than make all public schools permanently comply, I suggest a one-year trial period.

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Standardized test score differences not due to bias

Whenever standardized test results don’t produce the desired results, the immediate claim is that the tests are racially biased (“Success on the SHSAT is about reading, not race,” The New York Daily News, Oct. 12).  But a closer look at the issue reveals that the more likely cause is weak literacy.

That applies not only to items strictly assessing reading comprehension but also to items assessing math competency.  The reason is that the math section contains word problems that must be understood before students can determine the answer. Therefore, students who are poor readers will almost always perform badly.  These weak readers exist in all races, which explains why bias is not the cause of disappointing outcomes.

Nevertheless, we continue to hear that all standardized tests are racially biased when they don’t provide racially equal results.  The fact is that no standardized test can ever deliver what is hoped for.

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