Coronavirus bodes ill for the class of 2020

Until the coronavirus, graduating seniors seemed to have it made because of the white-hot job market (“The Class of 2020 Was Headed Into a Hot Job Market. Then Coronavirus hit,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 30). But the entire picture has dramatically and rapidly changed until many have given up even looking.

Which brings me to the reason for today’s column. Although it’s risky to generalize, I believe that job security will be a far more important factor in the years ahead not only for college grads but for all workers as well.  As bad as things are now, no federal, state or local employees have been laid off or have had their benefits cut.

That’s no small thing to consider going forward because I don’t think we’ve seen the last of such catastrophes.  They may not always be biological, but I think they are inevitable.  Yes, college grads in certain fields can certainly make far more money in the private sector, but they lack job security.  With health insurance and apartment rents showing no signs of curtailment, salaries alone will not be enough to attract and retain college grads.

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Coronavirus makes parents appreciate teachers

With the likelihood that schools will not reopen until the fall at the earliest, parents are learning firsthand just how hard it is to teach children (“California classrooms will not reopen this school year due to the coronavirus, superintendent says,” San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 31). That’s a lesson way long overdue in the wake of charges by reformers that teachers have it easy.

I’m reminded of the series of op-eds by Jason Richwine and Andrew G. Biggs in several newspapers claiming that teachers are not underpaid.  Even though teachers are walking away from the profession at the highest rate on record, Richwine and Biggs join other critics in arguing that the number of hours in front of a class, coupled with the summers off, make teaching a plum.

I say tell that to parents who are trying to teach their own children. The energy needed to keep children on task is enormous.  If they think it’s hard to teach their own children, can they possibly imagine how hard it is to teach a roomful of children from diverse backgrounds?

If there is one good thing to come out of the present pandemic, it’s that it will give parents and others a realistic sense of the difficulty of educating the young.

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Disparate impact on teachers’ exam

When the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, which was required to teach in New York City, disproportionately weeded out black and Hispanic teachers, a federal judge ruled it was discriminatory (“Judgements over discriminatory NYC teachers exam raise possibility of $3 billion case,” New York Daily News, Mar. 28).  The decision meant that up to $3 billion could be awarded to those teachers.

If the exam could be shown to have little relevance to the ability of teachers to be effective in the classroom, that would be one thing. (That was the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. in 1971 when it held that test results must be reasonably related to the job.)

But to label the exam discriminatory solely because fewer black and Hispanic teachers passed than whites and Asians is contrary to what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ricci v. DeStefano in 2009.  In that landmark case, the high court decided that although white firefighters scored higher than minority firefighters, the City of Grand Haven, Conn. had no right to decertify the exam results.  If it were allowed to do so, the white firefighters would be the victims of reverse discrimination.

There will always be differences in outcomes on all exams that have nothing to do with discrimination.  They may be due to the fact that some test takers study harder or are smarter than others.  The same thing holds true for the teachers’ exam in New York City.  Just because black and Hispanic test takers did not score as high as white and Asian test takers is no reason to throw out the results.

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Better way to admit applicants to elite colleges

Some of the most selective colleges have become somewhat less selective this year in the percentage of those who were admitted (“Acceptance Rates at Harvard, Other Ivy League Schools Edge Up,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 28).  The change will no doubt be applauded by reformers who want to diversify the student bodies at these schools.

But rather than agonizing over whose credentials are more impressive and therefore deserve admission, I propose that the fairest solution is application of the principle of the flat maximum.  It holds that the qualifications of people bunched at the very top of the curve are all good enough to succeed at elite schools.  Hair splitting is a fool’s errand.

If adopted, a lottery would be used to determine those among this elite group who are admitted.  That would eliminate countless hours of trying to distinguish among applicants.  I submit that such a policy would also result in virtually no lawsuits because a lottery plays no favorites.

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Pass-fail grading is controversial

Several colleges and universities have instituted pass-fail grading during the coronavirus pandemic (“A lot to worry about besides school grades,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. Several colleges and universities have instituted pass-fail grading during the coronavirus p 29).  It’s unclear whether the new system will remain in place when classes eventually resume.

Whatever happens, however, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at pass-fail.  UC Santa Cruz decided to eliminate pass-fail grading decades ago because graduate schools complained that it did not allow them to rank students.  Moreover, pass-fail tends to be pass-pass regardless of the work done by students. I think that a little competition among students motivates most of them to study harder and learn more.  I’m not talking now about cutthroat competition, which I believe is counterproductive.

Supporters of pass-fail grading say that students are already under enough pressure without adding to it.  They have a point. But employers still want to be able to sort out applicants for jobs, and they tend to look at traditional grades as the best way to do so. As a result, what seems a good idea at the moment may shortchange students later on.

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Respect for teachers still lacking

To understand why respect for teachers in this country remains so low, it’s necessary to rewind the tape to the mid-Seventies (“Teachers Deserve More Respect,” The New York Times, Mar. 20).  Prior to 1975, teachers were allowed to act in loco parentis. That meant they had the authority to discipline students who were disruptive for one reason or another.

But in 1975 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Goss v. Lopez that students had the right to due-process protection for even the most minor aspects of day-to-day discipline.  One year later, the high court held in Wood v. Strickland that if teachers knowingly violated a student’s due-process rights they could be held personally responsible for financial damages.

It’s not surprising that once their authority was undermined, morale plummeted.  I saw that when I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District at the high school where I taught for 28 years before retiring.  Teachers at my school felt intimidated.  As a result, they were reluctant to do anything that might lead to a confrontation with parents.

It was a short walk from that to near total chaos in classrooms.  Students knew their new-found rights and intended to use them.  We’re seeing the effects today and will continue to see them until teachers are once again allowed to exercise their authority.

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Diversity obsession trumps academic wherewithal

When only 10 black students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s elite schools with a worldwide reputation for excellence, critics once again called for elimination of the standardized test that is the sole basis for enrollment (“This Year, Only 10 Black Students Got Into N.Y.C.’s Top High School,” The New York Times, Mar. 19.)

Diversity is indeed a worthy goal, but admitting students who lack the aptitude to compete with their classmates sets them up for failure.  They then drop out, with their self-esteem severely damaged.  Yet critics persist in demanding the admission of more black students in proportion to their number in New York City.

The best way to increase racial diversity in elite high schools is to begin working with black students early in their education.  Waiting until they are in middle school is way too late.

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Online learning challenges traditional instruction

The Covid-19 virus has forced colleges and universities to move instruction from the lecture hall to videoconferencing.  The change is an opportunity to compare the two approaches to student learning (“School’s Out for the Coronavirus,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 18).

I realize that what students learn is not limited solely to what their professors lecture about.  Often it’s the interaction in dorms and elsewhere on campus that is equally valuable.  But in today’s obsession with measurable outcomes, there is no substitute for subject matter knowledge.

That’s why I wonder if online instruction is not as successful as traditional instruction.  In fact, it may prove to be even more so in the final analysis because lecturing is the least effective way of teaching.  I say that since students sit passively while their professors talk at them.  Online learning, in contrast, engages students by requiring them to make active responses.

Only by comparing outcomes between the two approaches can the issue be settled.  But tradition dies hard in academe, which is why I doubt anything substantial will change.

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Coaches of children need greater screening

Participation in sports can be an invaluable experience for children.  But too often they drop out because their coaches don’t know how to treat them (“Your Kids’ Coach Is Probably Doing It Wrong,” The New York Times, Mar. 11).  That’s not surprising in light of the requirements for becoming a coach.

In an attempt to produce winners, some coaches forget that they are dealing with children.  Their emphasis should be on learning and developing good habits in their young charges.  If that means a losing season, so be it.  In the final analysis, the important thing is to inculcate in children lifelong enjoyment of physical activity.

I’ve seen coaches at games yelling at their players.  Even if such behavior results in winning the game, it is a Pyrrhic victory.  Children need encouragement and support from their coaches if we expect them not to drop out.  That’s why it’s time to consider national training and standards for anyone who wishes to be a coach.

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The education school scam

Teaching in a traditional public school in this country requires a license.  To get it in most states means having to attend a school of education. What transpires there, however, is nothing short of a scandal (“The Burden of Bad Ideas,”  by Heather MacDonald).

The problem is that schools of education have become centers of political indoctrination rather than venues for inculcating effective pedagogy.  I vividly remember when I was working on my California teaching credential in 1964 how disappointed I was with the courses I had to take at UCLA before beginning my student teaching.

One course was educational psychology, which was totally irrelevant.  The second was educational philosophy, which was even more so.  The one exception was a course in curriculum and instruction in secondary schools, which was outstanding because it provided a viable paradigm that could be immediately used in the classroom.

Matters have gotten only worse since I was working on my credential.  Today, courses serve as venues for victimization. When the Los Angeles Unified School District was under court order to integrate, teachers were required to take an in-service class about cultural differences.  Instead of providing knowledge about how to reach students from diverse backgrounds, it focused solely on cultural grievances.  I sat through the class, counting the minutes until the bell rang but no more prepared to teach these new arrivals.

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