Controversial issues in classrooms put teachers at risk

The events of the past year have tempted many teachers to bring these realities into their classrooms as a way of engaging students (“Bringing Politics Into the Classroom,” The Atlantic, Dec. 2020).  While I understand their intent, I remind them that doing so without prior approval can subject them to dismissal.

I’m referring now to what the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held in 2010 in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District.  It ruled that only school boards can determine the curriculum.  Therefore, no matter how much teachers want to revamp their lesson plans, they need to rethink the consequences.

The reality is that public school teachers do not have academic freedom. Courts have consistently ruled that districts essentially hire the speech of teachers.  As a result, teachers put themselves in jeopardy by ignoring the boundaries.

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Community colleges not spared from tumbling enrollment

In the past when the economy weakened, enrollment in community colleges increased as the unemployed sought new skills (“Tumbling Community-College Enrollment Highlights Pandemic’s Broad Impact,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 23). But things are different this time.

Uncertainty about which skills will pay off when the economy rebounds likely is the No. 1 reason.  But in California at least, the absence of internet service and lack of a reliable laptop also played a big role.  Whether this decline will continue is unclear because no one knows for sure how long it will take after a vaccine is available until companies begin hiring again.

The trend is disturbing since community colleges are a bargain for those wanting to use the credits as a ramp to bachelor’s degrees and for those wanting to learn new marketable skills.

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The next Secretary of Education needs to be a teacher

In any other field except education, the person chosen to head up a major department has direct experience in that area (“The type of education secretary Biden needs,” New York Daily News, Nov. 17).  The latest example is Betsy DeVos, who knows as much about the realities of the classroom as I do about the realities of an operating room in a hospital.

The usual candidates for education secretary in the past have been at best professors of education from major universities even though they lacked relevant classroom experience.  The rationale was that such people were familiar with the best research studies about education.

I submit that only recent classroom experience in a public school should be the primary basis for the next education secretary.  Such candidates know what teachers need to do their job effectively.  Yes, administrative experience is important as well, but it is secondary to classroom experience.

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Intransigent teachers unions losing parental support

As readers of this column know, I support teachers unions.  But I think they are making a mistake by opposing reopening of schools.  New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, is a case in point (“United Federation of Teachers is proving itself the enemy of New York’s parents,” New York Post, Nov. 18).

Despite scientific evidence that students in schools are relatively safe from Covid-19, UFT remains adamant in opposing reopening their doors.  As a result, taxpayers are beginning to suspect that the union is far more concerned with the narrow interests of its member than with the students they are paid to teach.

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Nothing takes place of IQ in ‘weed-out’ classes

A new study claims that enduring what are known as “weed-out’ classes in STEM has less to do with innate ability than with social connections with classmates (“Surviving Weed-Out Process May Be a State of Mind,” The New York Times, Nov. 17).  I don’t doubt that social connections are helpful in outcomes in these classes, but I submit that innate intelligence is more important.

STEM classes are notorious for their rigor – and rightly so.  The material is hard by its very nature. Therefore, no matter how many friendly classmates there are, they are no substitute for IQ, which I continue to believe is largely innate.  I’m not saying that environment doesn’t play an important role, but it is not enough to overcome intellectual deficits.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, algebra was a requirement for graduation.  I was in a class with math whizzes, who breezed through the material.  I passed the class, but there was no way I could have competed with my classmates.

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Cheating makes a mockery of college education

Cheating in college is nothing new, but the pressure to do so is (“Just How Dishonest Are Most Students?” The New York Times, Nov. 13). There are several reasons why, but I believe that the No. 1 reason is that increasing numbers of students have an entitlement mentality.

The cost of a college degree keeps rising, creating the belief in students that they are customers.  They’ve gone into heavy debt to get a degree and nothing is going to stop them from achieving their goal.  If that involves cheating on final exams or term papers, so be it. The fact that some schools ask students to sign an honor code is evidence of how bad things have become.

I don’t see matters improving.  In fact, they are only going to get worse as a degree becomes seemingly indispensable for a well-paying job. 

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Book censorship shortchanges students

When four parents in the Burbank Unified School District in California complained about five novels, middle and high school English teachers were told that they were not allowed to teach them (“Off the reading list,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 12).  Included in the banned list were “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

The parents objected not only to the language but to the way Blacks were portrayed. A protest by The National Coalition Against Censorship came to naught.  Although textbook censorship has a long history in this country, it is particularly dangerous today if we ever expect to teach critical thinking, which can only be developed when students are exposed to ideas that sometimes make them feel uncomfortable.  No one wants to deliberately make students feel uncomfortable, but sometimes that is the price to be paid.

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Most teachers didn’t quit because of Covid-19

The media raised the specter of teachers retiring because of Covid-19, but that did not happen overall (“Teachers Said Covid-19 Would Drive Them to Quit. Did They?” Education Week, Nov. 10).  There are several explanations.

First, when teachers realized how much their benefits would be reduced by early retirement, most decided to stay put.  Second, the teaching force is becoming younger, which means they are less vulnerable.  Finally, some teachers remain totally dedicated to their students.

But I don’t think teaching will ever be the same even after a vaccine is available.  The pandemic has shown that remote learning is viable.  Although it can’t replace in-person instruction, it will gain popularity as teachers become more familiar with its potential.

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Affirmative action won’t die

Despite the Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003 that affirmative action programs can pass muster only if they are “narrowly tailored” to achieve the “compelling interest” of promoting racial diversity on campus, the University of North Carolina continues to favor Black and Hispanic candidates in its admissions (“Latest Trial Over College Affirmative Action to Begin in North Carolina,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9). UNC denies the charge, saying it evaluates each applicant individually.

Apparently no matter what the high court rules, colleges and universities are determined to give academic merit a back seat to race in their admissions.  As I wrote in “The Last Refuge of Pure Meritocracy” on Nov. 6th for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, doing so does a terrible disservice to those granted admission because it stigmatizes them as incapable of competing on their own merits.

California serves as a case in point.  When Proposition 209 barred the use of race in admission to the state’s public colleges in 1998, Black and Hispanic enrollment initially fell, but then Black enrollment more than doubled and Hispanic enrollment increased nearly five times since the year before Prop. 209 went into effect.

It’s time to stop taking race into account in admissions.

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The academy is hostile to independent thinking

There was a time when admission to a college or university meant that students would be exposed to ideas different from those they brought to the classroom (“Woke Universities Lead America to a Primitive State,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 3).  But today higher education is characterized by mob rule.  Students not toeing the party line are subjected to abuse – both verbal and physical.

Few administrators have the spine to denounce what is taking place on campuses for fear of retaliation in one form or another.  As a result, what purports to be education really is nothing more than indoctrination in the social sciences and humanities. 

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s, students were there to study.  Whatever protests took place were short-lived.  I don’t remember any professor allowing personal ideology to contaminate instruction.  As a result, a bachelor’s degree meant something.  That’s more than can be said about its value today.

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