College grad underemployment was predictable

Despite a new report by labor analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies that 43 percent of college graduates today are underemployed, the myth about the marketability of a bachelor’s degree refuses to die (“Some 43% of College Grads Are Underemployed in First Job,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27).  That’s not at all surprising because the wage premium attached to a four-year degree is based on evidence from the past.

When a college degree was a rarity, holders could major in whatever they wanted without concern about finding a job commensurate with their education.  But today, a bachelor’s degree is so common that what students major in is far more important.  For example, I question the market value of a degree in gender studies.  Yet students do opt for that major despite evidence that is virtually useless in the job market.

When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s, employers were not particularly interested in my liberal arts major.  Perhaps that was because the mere possession of a B.A. from an Ivy League school signaled that I had the wherewithal to be an asset.  But that was then.  Today, so many young people have degrees from such a variety of schools that employers seek concrete evidence about what they can immediately contribute.

I think what we are seeing is a variation of Gresham’s Law, which said that cheap money drives dear money out of circulation.  The easy availability of a degree from some colleges in some majors today will make the possession of a degree in STEM from a marquee-name school so much more valuable.

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Teachers provoked by students

When a black music teacher in Maywood Academy High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District asked a 14-year-old student to leave the classroom because he wasn’t wearing a proper uniform, the boy repeatedly used a racial epithet and threw a basketball at the teacher. The teacher initially walked away but then punched the boy in the face and continued the beating as the insulting persisted.  The teacher was arrested for child abuse (“Teacher arrested after fight with student,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 5).

I’m not at all surprised by what happened. I blame the present situation on the student-rights revolution that began in 1965.  Until then, teachers were expected to act in loco parentis.  But lawyers, backed by philanthropic behemoths, started suing schools for disciplining students.  Since then, disrespect on the part of students has grown.  The present incident is different only in that it involved a teacher who retaliated.  In most cases, teachers are assaulted by students.

I don’t condone what the teacher did.  But he was deliberately provoked by the student.  How much abuse can any teacher be expected to take before lashing out?  Apparently, I’m not alone in this belief.  More than 2,600 people have donated more than $65,000 for his legal defense.  Critics will be quick to argue that there is no excuse whatsoever for a teacher hitting a student, maintaining that it is child abuse.  Would they say that if the student threw the first punch?   What about the student in the present case?  Will he be merely suspended or rightly expelled?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Goss v. Lopez in 1975 gave all students the right to contest in court any decision made by their teachers.  What we’re seeing now is the predictable outcome of that decision.  As then Justice Lewis Powell correctly said, students who do not learn the necessity of rules will be handicapped for life.

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Remote teachers are no match for traditional teachers

With growing shortages in science, math and special education in all states and the District of Columbia, many school districts are relying on remote instruction beamed into classrooms (“In More High School Classes, the Teacher Is on a Screen,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26).  When designed well, such instruction can be effective.

But I submit that even then, remote teachers are a poor substitute for traditional teachers because of the role that personality plays in learning.  Although it is fiction, “Dead Poets Society” is an example.  The impact that John Keating, who was played by Robin Williams, had on his students can never be duplicated, let alone surpassed, by a remote teacher.

Years after subject matter is forgotten, students remember the way their favorite teachers instilled in them enthusiasm for their subjects.  I’ve made it a point to attend the class reunions of the same high school where I taught for my entire 28-year career.  The students still vividly recall how they were inspired by certain teachers.  No electronic lesson can ever leave that kind of indelible impression.

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Diversity obsession will destroy excellent schools

In a school system not noted for its overall quality, New York City can still be proud of eight exceptions.  But if Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza have their way, the eight top high schools will be undermined (“De Blasio’s war on excellent schools,” New York Post, Oct. 22).

The plan is to grant admission to the top seven percent of students in every public middle school in the name of diversity and equity.  The trouble is that some 318 students who don’t demonstrate basic proficiency in the eighth grade would get in.  What will happen is that these students will be placed in remedial classes or drop out.  There is no way they can compete with their more highly qualified classmates.

I understand the argument about diversity.  But all that should matter is the ability of students to do the work.  If that results in a student population that is disproportionately racially imbalanced, so be it.  I fail to see how we help students by enrolling them in classes far beyond their ability.  All we do is set them up for failure.

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Homeless students swell in number

When public schools post abysmal test scores, efforts to explain the causes are dismissed as making excuses.  But I challenge critics to deny the impact of homelessness (“Homelessness in New York Public Schools Is at a Record High: 114,659 Students,” The New York Times, Oct. 16).

Although New York City has one of the highest populations of homeless students, with about 10 percent, it is hardly alone.  Chicago has about 5 percent and Los Angeles just above 3 percent.  In all three cities, homelessness is concentrated in schools serving the most disadvantaged students.

Teachers in those schools are forced to perform triage on a daily basis before they can begin to teach subject matter.  It’s one of the reasons that so many teachers quit the profession altogether or transfer to suburban schools.  The price that teachers pay is called compassion fatigue, and it’s cumulative.  Social workers provide some help. But they are overwhelmed.  For example, in New York City there is one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students.

Homelessness is particularly hard on children because they are most vulnerable to the hardships.  Expecting them to do homework and come to school rested and nourished every day is a fantasy.  That’s why I question the ability of the most dedicated teachers to do the job they were hired to do.

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College athletics and academics are incompatible

College athletics are a big business, generating $1 billion in revenue in 2017.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that football and basketball players are treated quite differently from their classmates (“It’s naïve to think college athletes have time for school,” the conversation.com).

Only in the U.S. is this the case.  Other countries make academics the No. 1 priority.  As a result, the media have exposed a series of scandals ranging from fraudulent classes, to unethical tutoring, to administrative stonewalling.  There is simply too much money on the line to expect anything different.

Athletes are shortchanged by this travesty because they fail to get a college education while they are exploited.  Only a small handful of them ever get into the National Football League or the National Basketball Association.  Since that is so, it’s time to pay them a portion of the revenue they generate for their schools.  That would be far more honest than the present charade.

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Home-schooling continues to grow in popularity

With 2.2 million children now being home-schooled, compared with 850,000 in 1999, it’s time to ask why (“Parents are giving up on public schools to home-school their kids,” New York Post, Oct. 12).  Contrary to widespread belief, religious fundamentalism is not the reason.

Most parents say they want to avoid the lockstep education provided by public schools, citing the role that standardized tests play in shaping what is taught.  But  no matter how motivated and committed parents are, they can’t provide the socialization that traditional schools do.  That doesn’t mean home-schooling is inferior.  Some parents are better suited than others.  In the final analysis, therefore, the success of home-schooling rests on the individual qualifications of parents.

The parents I’ve known who have home-schooled their children say they underestimated the time and effort involved to provide a complete education.  Unfortunately, too many parents don’t realize this until it is too late.

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Combat pay for teachers won’t work

In an attempt to recruit and retain teachers in struggling schools, bonuses are being used as a lure (“Bonuses of Up to $8,000 to Teach in Struggling New York Schools,” The New York Times, Oct. 12).  The latest example involves paying teachers in New York City between $5,000 and $8,000.

I seriously doubt that the Bronx Plan, as it is called in New York City for the borough where many of the 180 public schools are located, will do the job.  For one thing, the bonuses alone are not that attractive in light of the challenges facing teachers in the targeted schools.  Moreover, the bonuses are not tied to success in the classroom.  As a result, the few teachers who will bite will not necessarily be the system’s best.

The truth is that teachers are not mercenaries or missionaries.  They simply want to be able to teach their subject as they were trained to do.  When they have to perform triage on a daily basis because of the disadvantages that so many students in failing schools bring to class every day, they soon experience burnout and quit.

Would increasing the amount of the bonuses make a difference?  Perhaps for some, but even then the bonuses would have to be stepped up dramatically.  I personally would not be interested.

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Civic education’s limitations

The latest criticism of public schools today is that they have largely failed to prepare students to be good citizens (“Educate to unify: The urgent need for better civic education in our dangerously divided nation,” New York Daily News, Oct. 7).  Yet I wonder if greater emphasis on citizenship in schools will change matters.

I say so because current events demonstrate that this country is a democracy in name only.  In reality, it is an oligarchy.  America is divided for good reason.  The top one percent exert a stranglehold on virtually all issues.  Even if teachers were allowed to honestly focus on controversial subjects in the news, which in most cases they may not, I question what difference that would make. For example, the protests about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court did not succeed.

In the final analysis, there is growing cynicism on the part of the public about how democracy works in reality.  We should certainly try to change that attitude in young people while they are in public school.  But I seriously doubt anything significant will come of it.

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The writing skills needed for the workplace

It comes as no surprise that employers are hard pressed to find workers who can effectively communicate (“What Skills Do Students Really Need for Work? Education Week, Sep.26).   I say that because I taught English for 28 years in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  During that time, I saw the disconnect between the kind of writing curricular guides required and what I knew the workplace demanded.

I have nothing against creative writing.  But I question if the skills required are transferable.  Employers need workers who can clearly and succinctly express themselves.  I seriously doubt that courses in creative writing will provide students with that wherewithal.

Journalists are criticized for being mental lightweights.  But they are successful in making sense of even the most arcane subject.  I attribute their ability to do so by having their writing scrutinized by their editors.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism from UCLA, I learned how to take even the most complex subject and make sense of it for readers through constant practice followed by immediate feedback.

Creative writing certainly has its place.  But if the goal is to prepare students for the job market, it will not be seen as an asset.

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