Math proficiency begins with teachers

Students in the U.S. continue to trail far behind their peers abroad in math performance (“Why elementary school math should be taught by specialists,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21).  4:38 AM There have been many reasons offered for the disparity, but I believe that the problem begins in elementary school, where teachers lack the wherewithal that their Asian colleagues do.

Why this is so is controversial, but I submit that colleges of education are largely to blame.  They don’t provide future teachers with the same kind of pedagogy that Asian colleges of education do.  As a result, children learn how to do basic computation, but they don’t really understand what that means.  In other words, students get the right answer, but they get little else.

The problem compounds in high school, where algebra persists in being the single subject that is the cause of so many students dropping out.  It’s the predictable outcome of what had been building up for years in elementary and middle school.  If students don’t understand arithmetic, it’s unlikely that they will master algebra.

It’s time for colleges of education here to study more closely what colleges of education in Asia have been doing for decades.

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Teacher disaffection grows

I’m not a therapist, but I submit that the difficulty in recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest to the classroom has little to do with the distinction between burnout and demoralization (“Many Frustrated Teachers Say It’s Not Burnout – It’s Demoralization,”, Nov. 19).  I say that because the net effect is the same.

When students are in college working on their bachelor’s degree, especially today with the cost of tuition so steep, they are highly attuned to news about the career they are considering after graduation.  They know from their friends just a year or two ahead of them that teaching is not what they thought it would be.  Idealism quickly fades, as the reality of the classroom takes hold.

Trying to make a case that burnout is different from demoralization seems to be largely a matter of degree.  That’s important to keep in mind, but it does not do much to solve the problem.  The military has long made troop morale a high priority.  It does not try to parse the difference between burnout and demoralization.

I see little hope that today’s college graduates will choose the classroom as a lifetime career.  Why should they when they can make far more money with far less stress in other fields?

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Free college tuition exacerbates the problem

Free college tuition is being promoted as the solution to the high dropout rate (“Free college tuition will just make matters worse,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 15).  It is predicated on the assumption that the high cost of earning a degree is the reason.

But the real problem is that not all students are college material.  It takes a certain IQ to handle college-level work.  Other nations understand and accept that reality.  That’s why they accord vocational education in high school the respect it deserves. Unfortunately, we are obsessed with democratization.  Differentiation is anathema.

I fail to see why we persist in the fiction that college is for everyone.  What’s wrong with learning a trade through courses and an apprenticeship?  The widely cited premium attached to possession of a college degree does not take into account one’s major.  I question if a degree in, say, gender studies carries with it the same wage premium as a certificate in, say, plumbing.  Other trades also command attractive salaries.  For example, at last count welders commanded annual salaries exceeding $100,000.

If free college tuition becomes a reality, more students will be shortchanged than ever before.  Their self-esteem will be crushed, and they will be left behind their peers who chose a curriculum more in line with their true aptitude and ability.

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The downside of parental choice

As long-time readers of this column know, I support parental choice, even though I’ve repeatedly stressed its shortcomings.  The latest evidence is seen in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest (“LAUSD guide: How to get into a magnet school or specialized programs in Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 5).

Although every K-12 student is guaranteed a seat in a school within their attendance zone, parents who are unhappy with that particular school must jump through a series of hoops requiring the skills of a Philadelphia lawyer. There are deadlines, applications and rules that are complex enough to frustrate most parents.  As a result, many parents simply give up and enroll their children in a private or religious school.

In an ideal world, of course, every neighborhood school would be so good that few, if any, parents would look elsewhere.  But that is never going to happen.  In fact, I don’t think that public education in this country will be recognizable a decade from now.  We’re already seeing evidence of that in the form of tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and vouchers.  Blaine amendments are being challenged in court, with the likely result that public dollars will be legally spent at religious schools.

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The active-shooter school drills

Although the threat of an active shooter on school grounds is exceedingly rare, many districts continue to carry out drills that in many cases are extremely graphic (“The Needless Trauma of Active-Shooter Drills,” National Review, Nov. 11).  That has raised the question whether schools are acting with prudence or in panic.

I understand the intense anxiety that conducting such drills can create, especially in young children.  But in today’s highly litigious society, I believe such drills are a necessary evil.  I submit that it’s better to be sued by an irate parent than to mourn a dead child.

When I was teaching high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the policy was to have a stipulated number of fire drills each semester.  During my 28 years, there was never a fire.  But had there been one and teachers and students had not been trained what to do, there could have been tragic results.

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School spending accountability badly needed


 For as long as I can remember, school districts have been demanding more money to properly educate students.  But unless the extra funding is carefully monitored, disadvantaged students in particular will be shortchanged (“California’s poorest kids aren’t getting the school funding they’ve been promised,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7).  California serves as a case in point.

The Local Control Funding Formula that became law in the 2005-06 school year provided 20 percent more in supplemental dollars for each low-income student, foster student and English learner – plus an additional 50 percent in concentration funds for schools with large proportions of such students.

On paper, LCFF sounds great.  But because of a lack of oversight, too much of the funds have gone into general spending and basic expenditures. A state audit recommended that greater transparency is needed so that the funds are used for whom they were intended.

My point is that simply throwing more money at underperforming schools by itself will do little to change outcomes.  Yes, the additional money will make us feel good, but in the final analysis it is not enough.

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Colleges should focus on learning

At a time when colleges and universities are spending a disproportionate amount of money on student amenities, it’s heartening to know that Occidental College is charting a different course (“When Admissions Adviser Rick Singer Called, This School Said, ‘No Thanks,’ “ The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 7).  Rather than chase affluent applicants, it decided to put its money into scholarships for low-income minorities.

But It has paid a steep price for its decision, losing roughly $70 million in its endowment. That’s because it has rejected wealthy students with questionable academic track records in favor of admitting low-income qualified students who are not as likely to support the school financially after graduation.

I’ve never understood why lavish amenities are needed on campus in the first place.  Students are supposed to go to college for an education.  That has nothing to do with climbing walls etc.  Let’s focus instead on academic learning, which is really the No. 1 reason colleges and universities exist.

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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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