Topless teacher scandal is absurd

When a middle-school math teacher’s old topless selfie fell into the hands of a student, she was summarily fired (“That teacher’s topless selfie,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7).  At first, I thought the news was an April Fool’s Day joke. But it isn’t.

Her lawyer intends to sue the Long Island, N.Y. school district for $3 million, arguing that the photo was intended solely for viewing by her boyfriend and was not inherently prurient.  He is absolutely right. I hope that she gets her job back and that the district issues a formal apology.  Apparently, female teachers are still subjected to a different standard than are male teachers.

I wonder how many teachers, both female and male, don’t have something in their personal lives that could prove embarrassing?  I’m not talking now about criminal behavior.  I’m referring to an indiscretion.  You can be sure if it involves sex in any way, it will be an issue for teachers wishing to retain their jobs. Teachers have lives outside of school.  Unless their behavior can be shown to be directly inimical to their ability to teach, it’s none of a district’s business.

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Caution on diversity as the No. 1 educational goal

The obsession with engineering diversity in education in this country will weaken whatever standards still remain.  The best example is the controversy over who is admitted to New York City’s eight elite high schools (“New York’s Best Schools Need to Do Better,” The New York Times, Mar. 31).

A state law, the Hecht-Calandra Act, requires that New York City’s three largest schools use a single exam, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, to determine who is admitted.  But because 51.1 percent of offers went to Asian students and 28.5 percent went to white students, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza want to eliminate the test and instead grant admission to the top 7 percent of students at each middle school.

De Blasio and Carranza maintain that the test is unfair.  But it has worked for Asian students from impoverished families.  Why can’t it also work for black and Hispanic students?  Critics of the test say that these students need greater test preparation.  But the city has already spent $6 million this year doing precisely that.  What more can it do?

Admitting students of any race who lack the wherewithal to handle rigorous work will only set them up for failure.  When they find they are over their head, they will drop out.  Elite high schools were never intended to be for all students.  Those who can’t pass the test would be far better served at other high schools.  There’s no shame in that.

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Higher pay alone won’t solve teacher shortage

In the largest federal investment in teacher salaries, Sen. Kamala Harris believes she has the solution to the teacher shortage (“Kamala Harris Wants to Boost Average Teacher’s Pay by $13,500,” Time, Mar. 26).  The estimated $315 billion over ten years would mean the average teacher salary would jump by $13,500.

 Teachers deserve higher salaries in light of the increasing demands placed on them.  But surveys of teachers who leave the classroom for other careers have shown time and again that money was not the deciding factor by a long shot.  In fact, many take jobs paying less than they were making before.

What Harris and others do not understand is that the unrelenting criticism teachers receive has undermined their morale.  When coupled with concerns about their physical safety, it has led them to question their decision to make teaching a career.  For example, combat pay for teachers willing to teach in the inner cities has been a failure.  A handful of teachers may volunteer, but they rarely last more than a year or two.

Until teachers are accorded the respect they deserve and given the proper conditions to teach, there will continue to be an outflow of teachers and the reluctance of the best and the brightest college graduates to make teaching a lifetime career.

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Elite colleges no assurance of quality education

By this week, almost all colleges and universities have notified applicants who have been accepted.  Rejection can feel devastating for those who don’t get into their first choice.  But I maintain that a marquee-name school is no guarantee of anything more than a brand (“Let’s Hear It for State U.” The New York Times, Mar. 25).

The truth is that many undergraduate classes at elite schools are taught by teaching assistants, rather than by advertised professors.  As a result, students are essentially paying for the cachet of the degree they receive.  They could just as well have gone to a community college or a state university at a fraction of the cost.

I’m not saying that community colleges and state universities don’t have their problems.  But what they offer on average is equal to what elite schools offer.  I received my B.A. from an Ivy League university.  The quality of instruction there varied widely.  In fact, the most lionized professor I had was the worst teacher by far.  His lectures were enough to put students to sleep.  He was a great researcher but an incompetent instructor.

So before assuming that being denied admittance to the school of their dreams, students need to get real about what actually takes place on many campuses.

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Out-of-control schools are endemic

In an attempt to avoid accusations of racial bias, too many schools have eliminated suspensions (“Classroom chaos – de Blasio’s ‘gift’ to NY kids,” New York Post, Mar. 14).  The result has been disorder on a scale not seen before.  How did this happen?

I trace the cause of chaos to the student-rights revolution, which gave due-process protections to students for the most minor aspects of school discipline after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Goss v. Lopez in 1975.  Then one year later the high court in Wood v. Strickland held that if public school teachers or principals violated those rights, they could be held personally liable for financial damages.

Not surprisingly, teachers and administrators began to walk on eggs, lest they be held liable.  Further exacerbating matters, data showed that blacks and Hispanics were disciplined more than whites and Asians.  But when the authority of school officials is undermined, learning cannot take place for all students regardless of their race.  To avoid suspensions and lawsuits, reformers propose the use of restorative justice. School administrators claim it works, citing the drop in suspensions after it was implemented.  But correlation is not causation.

Until teachers once again are allowed to act in loco parentis, I expect further disorder.  Most students want to learn, but they are held hostage by the behavior of a few.  It’s time to remove the latter from the classroom and place them in special rooms where they cannot cause harm to others.

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Career choice pressure on students is counterproductive

High school students today are under the gun to decide the kind of work they want to do after graduation or the major they should choose in college (“Let’s stop stressing out our kids with career choice pressure,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 11).  As a result, many are filled with needless anxiety.

The truth is that most young people change their minds before settling into a career.  In fact, about 30 percent of college students change majors before graduating.  Whether that’s because they discover they lack the wherewithal for a particular field or because they discover it doesn’t pay the rent.

Ideally, students would know at an early age what they want to do with their lives.  But those who do are outliers.  Most young people need to test their wings before committing.  Rather than add to their anxiety about the future, counselors and parents need to provide them with a reality check.  One of the best ways of doing so is to find them apprenticeships while they are still in school. Even volunteering for a few hours a week can help them immensely.

Other countries are far more demanding.  For example, Singapore begins tracking children on the basis of its Primary School Leaving exam. Germany sorts out students into vocational or academic tracks early on as well.  Whether such differentiation lessens stress or exacerbates it is hard to know.  But schools abroad have no compunction about doing so.

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Cognitive skills not enough for teacher effectiveness

The quest for the key to teacher effectiveness never ends.  The latest is the assertion that high cognitive skills result in high student performance (“Do Smarter Teachers Make Smarter Students?” Education Next, Spring 2019).

The study found that teachers who come from the top third of their academic peers in college are more likely to be successful in the classroom than others.  In other words, smarter teachers make for smarter students.  I think this conclusion is out of touch with reality. It assumes that mere possession of subject matter, as evidenced by high grades, is enough to get through to students.

If that were the case, then every Phi Beta Kappa professor who possesses a Ph. D. would automatically be a star teacher in K-12.  But knowing one’s subject matter does not necessarily mean knowing how to teach it.  That’s where pedagogy comes into play. State licensing has been rightly criticized for erecting too many needless obstacles to teach in a public school.  But done correctly, such courses can mean the difference between success and failure.

Moreover, the study makes no mention of the importance of affective skills.  So much depends on the ability of teachers to connect with their students.  Personality plays an indispensable role in that regard.  Because it is not as easily measured as cognitive factors, it is too often minimized.  But anyone who has observed in a public school knows that students are easily turned off by cold, aloof pedants.  I’m not saying that personality trumps expertise.  Instead, I believe that the former warrants far greater attention.  It’s like the importance of a bedside manner in a physician.

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Free speech in college is a farce

The one place where free speech is supposed to flourish is the college campus.  Yet sadly it has become almost impossible for those with unpopular views to be heard because of various restrictions.  That’s why withholding federal funds from institutions of higher learning who violate free speech is long overdue (“Students, taxpayers should cheer Trump’s bid to stop campus censorship,” New York Post, Mar. 7).

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, more than 90 percent of colleges and universities restrict speech.  They do so by imposing speech codes, empowering bias squads and the like. College once was where young people went to be exposed to new ideas that forced them to develop critical thinking.  That’s no longer the case.  Not only are speakers shouted down, but they are also physically attacked.

Free inquiry also is limited among faculty.  Despite the existence of tenure, professors are reluctant to pursue research into taboo subjects out of fear of retaliation. If that is the case, what is the justification in the first place?  I submit that what constitutes a college education today is a travesty.

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Private schools not exempt from ‘substantially equivalent rule’

New York State requires that all private and religious schools provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that in public schools.  The rule recently was in the news after critics said that some yeshivas failed to teach enough secular subjects.  A new suit filed by the New York State Association of Independent Schools on behalf of its 192 members argues that district boards of education have too much power to judge their curriculums (“Private Schools Sue Over New York’s Push to Increase Oversight,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 7).

I’ve written often why I support the right of parents to send their children to any school they alone believe best meets their needs and interests.  If private schools are compliant, I fail to see why they would object to oversight.   In fact, I would think that they would welcome such oversight as a selling point.  Let’s not forget  that private schools are in competition with each other.  Anything that helps them distinguish themselves should be welcomed.  Oversight does not mean interference.  It just means compliance with the law.

Private schools would still be allowed to create their own curriculum.  Only if it significantly deviated from the curriculum offered by public schools would a problem arise.  That’s why I think private schools are overreacting in filing their suit.

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Coaches have too much clout in admissions

The widely publicized admissions scandal reveals the outrageous position that athletic programs occupy (“Colleges Rethink Athletic Special Admissions in Wake of Indictments,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 18).   Only in the U.S. is this the case.  Students in other countries participate in sports, but the options open to them and the weight given to them pale in comparison.

I realize that football and basketball in many schools are a cash cow.  But the obsession has so distorted academics that it makes a mockery of higher education.  For example, some 158 slots annually are reserved for use by athletic coaches.  If those admitted genuinely possessed the ability to compete with their non-athletic peers, that would be a different story.  I seriously doubt that is so. Moreover, football coaches at some schools earn several million dollars a year, more than college presidents.

The argument for the status quo is that varsity athletics contain vital lessons for real life, such as discipline and teamwork.  They also help keep participants in physical shape.  But those same goals can be achieved by intramural sports.  Of course that will never happen because alumni pressure wouldn’t allow it.  Moreover, few schools are willing to forego the money that is attached to the present system.

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