Why tracking is controversial

Ability grouping of students is coming under fire once again (“It’s The Lower Ability Students Who Lose Out Through Streaming,” Forbes, Mar. 22).  The latest charge is that low-ability students are being shortchanged because their teachers adhere to a narrower curriculum and inferior instruction.  As a result, students fall behind by one or two months a year on average compared with students of similar levels of attainment in mixed ability classes.

But what would be the effect on other students if low-ability students were not tracked?  Don’t the former have the right to curriculum and instruction geared to their needs and interests?  What about the effect on teachers who would be saddled with preparing different lessons during the same class period?

I had several remedial English classes during the 28 years that I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  I was far more effective with them than I was when they were included in regular classes.  I say that because I was able to design lessons specifically in line with their capabilities.  There are few things more demoralizing than to see students struggling and failing.  They tend to be those who drop out of school.

I see nothing wrong with placing students in classes in line with their needs and interests.  After all, don’t educators constantly talk about the importance of doing precisely that?  Tracking is a strategy that serves them well.

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Equality of group outcomes is a fantasy

Whether it’s in school or in the workplace, the U.S. is obsessed with engineering equal patterns of results for all groups (“The University of Denial,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 23).  When the goal is not achieved, charges of discrimination in one form or another are blamed.

But the truth is that no group is a monolith.  Some members are smarter or work harder than others.  To attribute differences to anything else denies reality.  I’ll restrict my comments to schools in this column, although I submit that they apply elsewhere as well.

Differences among groups of students are referred to as the achievement gap.  Whenever it occurs, these differences are said to be ipso facto evidence of discrimination. Yet so many disparities happen because people make different choices.  No matter how hard we try to provide equal opportunities, there will always be unequal outcomes.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t do more to help students be the best they can be (the old Army recruiting slogan), but we need to accept reality.

In 2006, Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder published a paper whose title summarized my view: ‘Proficiency for All’ – An Oxymoron.  “No goal can simultaneously be challenging to and achievable by all students across the entire achievement distribution.”  No standard can do both.  In short, we can’t have it both ways. Yet we persist.  I submit that diluting standards eventually harms those it purports to help.

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Student assaults on teachers

As if teachers don’t already have enough to contend with beside teaching their subject matter, they are increasingly worried about their own physical safety (“Student faces sentencing in attempted sex assault on teacher,” The New York Post, Mar. 14). I’m not talking about outsiders. According to federal data, 5.8 percent of the nation’s 3.8 million teachers were physically attacked by a student in the 2015-16 school year.  Almost 10 percent were threatened with injury. Yet more is written about students’ rights.

How did things get so bad?  I trace the root of the problem to the student rights revolution of the 1960s. Prior to that time, teachers acted in loco parentis.  But in 1965, lawyers began suing schools for disciplining students in a move backed by the federal government and philanthropic behemoths.  In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Goss v. Lopez that students had the right to due-process protections for even the most minor aspects of school discipline. Not surprisingly, schools began to walk on eggs when student misbehavior was involved.

We are reaping the results.  When I was in public school, teachers were always respected, even if they were not especially liked.  That meant following instructions and never talking back.  Assaulting a teacher was unheard of. The criticism aimed at discipline policies is that they allegedly create a school-to-prison pipeline, particularly for black students who are suspended or expelled at higher rates than white students.  But white students are disciplined at higher rates than Asian students.  Does that mean schools are anti-white?

I believe that without decorum, learning is almost impossible.  That goes for students of all races.  When teachers fear for their own safety, they can’t possibly do their job.  Even if they recover from physical injuries, they are psychologically damaged.  According to the American Psychological Association, the nationwide costs of victimization of teachers exceeds $2 billion annually, which is why disruptive students must be immediately removed from classrooms without fear of a lawsuit.

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Teacher licensing reform is needed

With shortages looming as veteran teachers retire, it’s time to take a closer look at present licensing (“A Model for Licensing Reform,” The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 4).  Although most states still require possession of a bachelor’s degree plus a year of student teaching for certification, alternative pathways exist.  Whether they undermine classroom effectiveness largely depends on how the programs are structured.

Colleges of education and teachers’ unions maintain that only traditional programs can produce quality teachers.  There is much truth to their argument because mere knowledge of subject matter is not enough.  But a study by Paul Peterson and Daniel Nadler of states with quality alternative pathways to teaching found test-score gains on NAEP in 4th and 8th-grade math and reading over students in other states between 2003 and 2007.

The key word here is “quality.”  For example, Texas is the only state that allows for-profit companies not affiliated with higher education institutions to offer teaching certificates.  Such programs can take as little as three months to complete and cost about $4,000.  I seriously doubt that these programs can prepare its students for the realities of the classroom.  Yet they exist.

I’m open to alternative licensing programs as long as they produce evidence that they don’t shortchange their graduates.  One promising approach is to have a panel of well-trained judges observe a candidate teach a class.  Auditions have long been used with great success in the performing arts.  I fail to see why they can’t be used in identifying qualified teachers. So far, however, the innovation has not caught on. I realize that it takes time to develop the wherewithal to be effective in the classroom. But some college graduates are “naturals” who should not be forced to sit through classes of pedagogy.

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Homeless students overwhelm schools

When persistently failing schools try to explain that there are factors beyond their control for their situation, they are accused of making excuses.  But I ask critics to consider the growing number of homeless students before leveling that indictment (“New York City Is Failing Homeless Students, Reports Say,” The New York Times, Mar. 16).

While it’s true that every large city has its share of homeless children, New York City is in a league of its own.  According to two new reports, there were 111,500 in the 2016-17 school year.  That compares with 100,000 in the previous school year.  They miss an average of 41.6 days during a 178-day school year.  How in the world can teachers do their job when they face such odds?  Family-assistance workers who are responsible for helping the 32,243 students in city shelters have an average caseload of 293 children each.

The closest I came to teaching a homeless student involved a young man in my first-period senior composition class.  Several times each week he asked if he could go to the school library.  When I asked why, he told me that he worked on the waterfront late into the night and needed to take a nap.  The reading room of the library was ideal for that purpose. How he managed to graduate on time is beyond me.  But because he was able to double up in the apartment where the rest of his family lived, he was actually better off than other students who don’t have even that.

Public schools by law must enroll all who show up at their door.  They can’t refuse admission.  Yet they are not given the resources they need to face new realities.  No teacher can teach students who are not in school, and few can teach students who attend without proper rest and nutrition. These are explanations – not excuses.

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Early-decision benefits schools

By the time you read this, high school seniors have learned if they were accepted at the schools they applied to (“The Decision That Hurts Your Chances of Getting Into Harvard,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 29).  What they don’t know is that they have been used as pawns.

I say that because of the importance since 1983 of U.S. News & World Report’s annual college ranking issue.  Although schools take great pride in being selective, they’re actually more concerned about yield.  That’s the percentage of students offered admission who actually attend.  Selectivity and yield are related, but they are not synonymous. The former is the percentage of students that a college rejects.  Yield is the percentage of students who accept a college. No college or university wants to be rejected after they say yes.  By publicizing early-decision, which is binding, schools shield themselves from that possibility.  (Early-action also is to the advantage of schools, but it is not binding.)

The downside to early-decision is that once locked in, high school seniors who need financial aid – and they are growing in numbers – don’t have the freedom to explore opportunities.  As a result, the most affluent students from the most exclusive schools are the ones most rewarded.  The odds of being accepted at a marquee-name school are high enough without making them even higher through early-decision.  But as long as admissions officers live or die by rankings in U.S. News & World Report, with yield being a heavily weighted factor,

the game will continue,

Yet it’s hard to change the mindset of high school seniors.  They know what the data show.  For example, Dartmouth expects students admitted through early-decision next fall to comprise nearly half of its freshman class.  With that in mind, few applicants are willing to apply through regular-decision.  I don’t blame them under the circumstances.  But I think they need to be aware of the financial downsides.

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Telling is not teaching

Lecturing remains the staple of college classes despite evidence that it is the least effective method of instruction.   Recently, some professors have banned laptops, which has forced students to take notes the old -fashioned way by handwriting (“I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read my Notes,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 13). Professors see this as a victory for engagement.  I see it differently.

Students are complaining about the change – except for the wrong reasons.  What they should be doing instead is questioning lecturing itself.  I say that because lecturing confuses telling with teaching.  Lecturing essentially reduces students to stenographers.  Whether they do so by cursive or by laptop is beside the point.  Real learning requires active responses by students.  Students learn by doing. Lecturing does just the opposite, forcing them to be passive.

If the goal is to develop critical thinking skills, lecturing by its very nature undermines that objective.  How can students be expected to think about material being presented if they are focused exclusively on taking notes in one form or another?  The truth is that most professors are woefully ignorant about pedagogy.  They certainly know their subject matter because of their advanced degrees and numerous publications.  But they don’t know how to impart their expertise other than by lecturing.

All teachers have certain instructional objectives in mind.  These overwhelmingly incorporate the most important material that they want their students to learn.  But they have not given much – if any – thought to how their students will demonstrate mastery.  The usual way is by a mid-term and a final exam.  But these instruments come too late in the school semester to provide feedback to professors.  It would be far better if they designed their instruction to give students the opportunity to exhibit their learning on an on-going basis.  Yet I remain extremely pessimistic.  Professors see little to be gained by breaking with tradition.  Let’s not forget that exemplary teaching is given little weight when it comes to granting tenure.

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The Common Core debate

When a task force recommended a set of standards in 2009 that came to be known as the Common Core, it did so in the belief it was time to replace the hodgepodge of standards in place in the 50 states.  Little did the members know how controversial the standards would become (“ ‘Common Core’ Review: Standards Put to the Test,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 12).

I understand the frustration and anger that many people feel about the Common Core.  But I think there’s another side of the story that needs telling.  Although the U.S. has a long history of local control of education, the existence of national standards does not mean abolishing this tradition.  Despite rumors, nothing prohibits developing and implementing locally developed standards.

The fixation on local control forgets that in a mobile society those students who move from one state to another are shortchanged. Prior to the Common Core, high school diplomas could- and did – mean very different things from state to state and district to district.  I don’t think we can afford that in the global economy. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress make it painfully clear the price we pay for failing to change.

I’m not saying that national standards are a panacea for the ills afflicting public education in this country.  But I submit that they are indispensable.  It’s how the standards are used that should be our concern.  If they are used strictly for diagnostic purposes, they provide invaluable feedback to all stakeholders.  Unfortunately, they’re used for punitive purposes.  Quite naturally, they are resented and resisted.  Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, I think it’s time to use the Common Core more fairly.

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Discipline disparities reveal misunderstanding

One of the more troubling headlines in education is that black students are suspended three times as often as their white peers (“Why Are Black Students Punished So Often? Minneapolis Confronts a National Quandary,” The New York Times, Mar. 19).  The reflexive explanation is that teachers are racially biased.

There are some teachers who fall into that category.  But I think there is a far better explanation.  I maintain that the variations mostly arise from differences in student behavior.  If prejudice is indeed the reason, then why are white students disciplined at higher rates than Asian students?  Are schools also anti-white as well?

The lack of respect for teachers among students of all races today is appalling.  When I was in public schools on Long Island, N.Y. decades ago, teachers acted in loco parentis.  If any student continued to misbehave after a warning, the teacher took the miscreant by the arm and marched the offender out of the classroom. Maintaining order was essential to teaching.  No one question their authority.

I attribute the change largely to the student-rights revolution of the 1960s.  Supported by philanthropic behemoths, students began to challenge even minor discipline rules.  Stung by lawsuits, schools began to walk on eggs.  The landmark case in this regard was Goss v. Lopez.  In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court gave “every schoolchild the power to contest in court any decision made by his teacher.”  Only Justice Lewis Powell understood the consequences when he warned that students who fail to learn the necessity of rules will be handicapped throughout life.

We’re now reaping what the high court’s decision sowed.  The sad part is that black students who want to learn – and they are in the overwhelming majority – are denied their right to do so by the behavior of the few.  I think it’s time to focus on that injustice.

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Are teachers underpaid?

For as long as I can remember, teachers have complained about their pay.  The recent statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia and the threat of another in Oklahoma are the latest examples.  Whether teachers are indeed underpaid depends to a large extent on regional differences in the cost of living (“The Fight Over Teacher Salaries: A Look At The Numbers,” npr.com, Mar. 16).

Consider Indiana and California.  The average salary in the former is $50,715, while in the latter it is $72,842.  But when the cost of living is factored in, the two states’ salaries are within $100.  The Los Angeles Unified School District, where I taught for my entire 28-year career, has increased salaries over the last decade, with the maximum salary now $80,116.  But housing eats up a disproportionate portion of that.  For example, the rent for a typical one-bedroom apartment in West Los Angeles is $1,900.

Nevertheless, there are those who argue that teachers are not underpaid.   They say that total compensation amounts to about $1.50 for every $1 their skills could garner in a private sector job.  Put differently, a teacher earning $51,000 would receive another $51,480 in present or future fringe benefits.  In contrast, an employee in the private sector with the same salary would receive only about $22,185 in fringe benefits.  In short, salaries alone are a misleading gauge.  Fringe benefits and job security need to be taken into account.

Then there is the old argument that teachers teach fewer days and shorter hours than workers in the private sector.  They see teachers leaving school at 3:00 and assume that their day is over. They forget that teachers need to prepare lessons and correct papers even if they don’t do so on school grounds. Summer vacations are often spent taking classes or working a second job.

But I think the strongest rebuttal to the charge that teachers aren’t underpaid is the growing shortage.  If teaching is such a plum, then why aren’t more college graduates entering the field and making it a career?  In a real marketplace, supply and demand find a balance.  Somehow, that law doesn’t apply to teaching.

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