Alternative schools no substitute for traditional schools

In an attempt to polish their transcripts, students are taking AP classes and the like at alternative schools that are not nearly as rigorous (“Students Use Tactic to Lift GPA,” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 19).  They get the same credit, but they are kidding themselves if they think they are learning as much.

I say that despite claims from alternative schools to the contrary.  I taught summer school for many years during my 28-year career in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  It was impossible to offer the same instruction during a six-week summer course as during the regular school year.

 I have nothing against online courses offered in either venue.  Properly designed, they have the potential to help students learn.  It all depends on the time it takes to complete the material.  There are no shortcuts in learning.  I hope accreditation bodies will take a harder look into the growing trend of bypassing traditional instruction.

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Closing failing schools

The brouhaha surrounding the closing of high schools after years of appalling underperformance and fiscal irresponsibility is hard to understand.  I have specific reference now to Benton Harbor High School in Michigan, but the situation exists in other places across the nation as well (“The End for a Michigan City’s High School? ‘It Would Kill the Whole Community,’“The New York Times, Jun. 16).

According to the state, only three percent of third graders read at grade level and fewer than three high school juniors have been identified college-ready in each of the last five years.  Moreover, the system is $18.4 million in debt.  In light of this dismal data, why is there resistance?  You’d think that stakeholders would welcome the opportunity to give students a better education at other schools.

Similar reactions have been seen elsewhere. For example, Jamaica High School in the New York City system was once the largest high school in the country.  But persistent violence and a graduation rate of about 50 percent finally led the New York City Department of Education to decide to close it.  The news angered students, parents, the community, and alumni. But because all high schools to date have been overwhelmingly black, racism has been raised as the real reason.

Yet so many black parents are on the wait list to enroll their children in charter schools.  Why wouldn’t they keep their own children in the same failing schools if racism were indeed the reason?

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The diversity obsession

In an attempt to increase racial diversity at New York City’s seven specialized high schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio established the Discovery program, which offers seats and free summer tutoring to disadvantaged students scoring just below the cut-off score (“Students Admitted to Elite Schools Through Diversity Push Do Well Academically, City Data Show,” The Wall Street Journal, June 4).

Although the intent is laudable, it has discriminated against students with higher scores.  Seven students have filed an appeal arguing that Discovery unfairly denied them seats.  Beyond the legal merits, there is another factor given little attention.  The principle of the flat maximum holds that all students at the top of the curve can succeed.  Trying to differentiate among them is a fool’s game.

No one denies that students who just miss the cut-off score can’t handle the material in these rigorous schools.  Of course they can.  They are all good enough. But by admitting them, officials are denying students with higher scores seats in these coveted schools.  Moreover, New York State law prohibits Discovery from interfering in any manner with the academic level of the sought-after schools.

Diversity is a worthy goal, but it has its limits.

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The beauty of performance assessment

The use of written standardized tests to determine admission to elite schools is under attack for failing to produce desired diversity (“The ‘Fame’ High School Is Known for the Arts. Should Algebra Matter There?” The New York Times, June 3).  But there is more to the story.

Schools that specialize in the performing arts should continue to use auditions before a panel of trained judges rather than cave in to pressure to use traditional standardized tests.  I have reference now to LaGuardia High School in the New York City system.  It is the only one of nine specialized high schools that does not use a single standardized test.  And it so happens it has greater racial diversity than its counterparts, with about half of the 2,800 students white, 20 percent Asian and a third black and Hispanic.

The arts by their very nature are virtuosic endeavors.  As a result, judging them will always be inherently subjective.  That’s why auditions remain the most realistic way of determining admission.

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School shooter drills

With school shootings becoming more common, many districts have mandated that schools have a stipulated number of drills each school year to prepare students (“School shooter drills terrorize our kids pointlessly,” New York Post, June 3).  The rationale is that doing so will lessen the possibility of harm.

Yet critics argue that such soft—lockdown drills unnecessarily create severe anxiety in children.  Moreover, they say that the odds of being killed by a gun in school is roughly 1 in 614,000,000.  By comparison, the odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 103.  As a result, critics ask why we react so differently to the two threats.

I don’t doubt that these drills are capable of making young children in particular anxious.  But what are overlooked are the legal implications of abolishing the drills, which in today’s litigious society would leave districts open to lawsuits claiming negligence.  It’s a little like doctors practicing defensive medicine in order to protect themselves against malpractice suits.  Both strategies may seem unnecessary at first glance, but are necessary.

It’s impossible to make all schools 100 percent safe.  But there are things that schools can take to lessen the possibility.  Stationing screening agents at the front door is a step in the right direction.  Critics will complain that doing so violates the privacy rights of students.  Yet that’s a small price to pay.

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Rethinking higher education

There was a time when possession of a four-year degree meant something (“PC insanity may mean the end of American universities,” New York Post, June 1).  That was because relatively few people continued their education beyond high school.  But it was also because indoctrination was alien to academe.  Today, however, what’s going on is a travesty.

With the exception of science, technology, engineering and math courses, the social sciences and humanities have become venues for grievance studies of one kind or another.  Free speech is a one-way street, where only those expressing the views of the majority are allowed to be heard.  Others are either shouted down or disinvited.

The widely publicized premium attached to a bachelor’s degree is always stated in terms of averages.  I’d like to see more attention given to the premium attached to specific majors.  I question if majoring in the humanities, for example, has a greater payoff than majoring in STEM.  Moreover, I doubt that once student debt is factored in, those majoring in the humanities earn significantly more than those vocationally trained.

We’ve been wildly oversold on the value of a college degree.  In the final analysis, college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn.  It is not an absolute determinant.  Young people and their parents will undoubtedly continue to be attracted to brand name colleges and universities.  But lesser brand names will lose enrollment and eventually shut down.

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Student loan solution

The obsession in this country with college for all has led to one million borrowers who default on their student loans each year (“A universal bailout is the wrong fix for student loans,” New York Post, May 28).  Rather than argue about the various proposals to bail them out, I’d like to suggest another solution.

The reality is that not all students are college material.  They lack the wherewithal to handle college-level work, but they have been brainwashed into believing that without a four-year degree their future is bleak. That’s because the estimated premium attached to the degree is approximately 15 percent.  When they hear this time and again, they do not consider another pathway to a well-paying job.

I’m referring specifically to vocational education.  Students who take vocational courses in high school and combine them with apprenticeships find themselves in demand.  Not only do they earn low six-figure incomes but they have no student debt to pay off.  Nevertheless, vocational education in this country continues to be seen as inferior to an academic education.

I’d like to see average salaries earned by college graduates that are broken down by major.  Then I’d like to see average salaries earned by vocationally-trained graduates also broken down by specialization.  I submit that once student loans are included, the differences would not be nearly as dramatic as believed.

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College dropout rate is predictable

Repeating something often enough does not necessarily make it true.  I have reference now to the mantra about the value of a bachelor’s degree (“More on the College Dropout Crisis,” The New York Times, May 26).

The present dropout rate at less elite colleges is more than 40 percent.  As a result, these students leave with no degree but with debt.  There is no single reason they drop out.  But I submit that they were not college material in the first place. By that I mean they lacked the wherewithal to handle college-level work – or at least what used to be college-level work.

The remediation they receive is not enough.  I liken their situation to athletics.  No amount of coaching and practice will turn all students into varsity athletes.  Yes, there will be some improvement in both cases.  But it will not be sufficient to make a real difference in outcomes.

Rather than persist in the fiction that college is for everyone, a myth which will only exacerbate matters, I urge giving far greater respect and importance to vocational education starting in middle school.  Germany serves as a model.  It begins sorting out students early in their education.  Those deemed able to handle academic work go to universities.  Others make a solid living based on the training they received through apprenticeships.

But the U.S. views vocational education as inferior to academic education.  As a result, we treat it as a stepchild.  The monetary value of a college education depends largely on the major. Rather than tell young people that without a college degree they have a bleak future, let’s tell them the truth about vocational education, where welders earn $100,000 annually and have no student debt to pay off.

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Tell students the truth about success

How many times have students been told that if they work hard enough they can achieve any goal they want (“We Tell Our Kids That Hard Work Always Pays off. What Happens When They Fail Anyway?” Time, May 23)?  It’s all a matter of effort.

But reality is quite different.  There are no guarantees in life.  The problem is that when young people learn the hard truth, they become depressed or angry.  From an early age, they’ve been conditioned to believe the myth of fairness.  That’s why when they are not accepted at the college of their choice, they feel devastated.

The best way to prepare them for life is to tell them to do the very best they can, and then let go.  Yes, hard work and determination are important.  But they cannot assure success.  That goes for all fields.  In fact, some of the most valuable lessons come from failure.

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No race is a monolith

The disparity between the NAACP’s position on charter schools and the Democrats for Education Reform’s poll of black primary voters should come as no surprise (“Sanders Chooses Teachers Unions Over Black Voters,” The Wall Street Journal, May 22).  The former opposes charter schools, while the latter supports them.

But blacks are no more a monolith than any other racial group.  The split among Asians regarding the use of a single test for admission to New York City’s elite high schools is an example.  Yet we continue to think only in terms of groups, rather than in terms of individuals.  It’s why there is so much frustration and anger.

Charter schools serve as a lightning rod for the divide. The fact that black primary voters don’t agree with the NAACP should be no more news than if any national organization takes a position different from that of many of its members.

Parents of all races deserve the right to send their children to any school that they alone believe meets their unique needs and interests.

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