Behemoth school districts are unmanageable

Within weeks of each other, New York City and Los Angeles, the nation’s first and second largest school systems, respectively, in the nation, named new leaders (“L.A.’s new schools chief Beutner pledges to learn and to take action,” Los Angeles Times, May 2).  Both Richard Carranza in New York City and Austin Beutner in Los Angeles face uncannily similar challenges.  If history is any guide, neither will be able to achieve anywhere near what they promise.

I say that because both systems have been struggling financially and academically for years.  Much of the problem is the result of similar demographics.  The large percentage of students from low-income homes bring huge deficits in socialization and motivation to the classroom through no fault of their own.  It’s hard to find a solution, but when the districts are huge it’s impossible.  Yet no one dares talk about breaking up the two behemoths into a more manageable size.  I made this point in a letter to the editor published in the Los Angeles Times on May 3 (“Another experiment”).

This has nothing to do with ideology.  Instead, it has everything to do with management.  I don’t believe that diversity and excellence can exist simultaneously when schools are faced with overwhelming numbers of students who are so needy.  I wish Carranza and Beutner well, but I remain highly skeptical about their ability to turn their respective systems around.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Teacher protests symbolize desperation

After stoically accepting increasing demands without commensurate salary increases for years, teachers are fed up (“Arizona Teachers Are Out On the Largest Strike in State History. Here’s Why,” In These Times, Apr. 26). They’re showing their disaffection by engaging in more work stoppages so far this year than in any full year since 1993, according to the Bureau of Labor.

The combination of accountability demands, coupled with lack of adjustment in their salaries as adjusted for inflation, has resulted in revolts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.  Critics of such demonstrations say that if teachers don’t like what has happened since 1992, they can always quit.  That’s the same argument used when workers attempt to organize in any field: No one is forcing them to stay.

But there’s one difference. It’s one thing to recruit workers in factories and quite another to recruit college graduates to become teachers.  If the situation doesn’t improve, who will teach the young?  We’re already seeing this happen.  According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the number of people entering teacher preparation programs dropped by more than 55 percent between 2008 and 2012.  Nationally, the drop was 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to federal data. If teaching is such a plum, as some charge, why aren’t college grads flocking to the field?

Critics of strikes by teachers counter that college grads avoid making teaching a career because of the lack of opportunity to advance professionally.  But nothing has changed in this regard.  What has changed, however, is the growing gap between salaries and the cost of living.  Teachers are often forced to moonlight in order to make ends meet.  Dedication doesn’t pay the bills.

What about the argument that there is no money to pay teachers more? For example, Arizona hands out approximately $14 billion in tax exemptions, while taking in $9.8 billion in its general fund.  The latter is how the state pays for its schools. The difference accounts in large part for the state’s present situation regarding schools. Teachers there want per-student spending to reach the national average. I don’t think that demand is unreasonable.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)




Non-college grad future is hardly bleak

Repeating something often enough does not make it true.  I have reference now to the assertion that lack of a four-year college degree means a lifetime of low earnings (“Jobs for the working class: Raising earnings among non-college graduates,” Brookings, Apr. 23). I’ve yet to see a study that compares salaries broken down by college major with those broken down by vocational specialization.

Students who receive a bachelor’s degree in the humanities, for example, find no labor market reward compared to students who complete a vocational curriculum concurrent with an apprenticeship. Not only are the latter immediately employed, but they are not burdened by onerous debt.  Yet we persist in the fiction that some associate degrees and certificates are not as marketable as bachelor degrees. It’s a myth.

I’m not saying that the value of a college degree should be measured solely by what its holders earn.  There are indeed other benefits.  But going to a four-year college or university today costs a small fortune.  No one is going to believe this, but when I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s, tuition for the full academic year was $800, which could be paid in two equal installments.  There was also a general fee of $135, which provided for services not covered by the tuition.  It too was payable in two equal installments when tuition was due.  The cost of 400-page required textbooks rarely exceeded  $11.

It’s unlikely that costs will diminish in the years ahead, as so many more people buy into the college mania.  By the time graduates pay off their student loans, however, they might wish they had learned a trade instead.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)



Dress codes need flexibility

It never ceases to amaze me how common sense in enforcing school rules is lacking. Consider dress codes  (“Is Your Body Appropriate to Wear to School?,” The New York Times, Apr. 19). Even when parents buy in to the policy, it is no guarantee of its success.

I have in mind now the case of a 17-year old at Braden River High School in Bradenton, Fla. who didn’t wear a bra because of a painful sunburn.  Realizing that she was in violation of the school’s dress code, she wore an oversized T-shirt to conceal her nipples.  Rather than accept her reasonable explanation, school administrators humiliated her.

This is another example of how zero tolerance policies have backfired when schools have refused to back down in the face of plausible excuses. The girl in question used sound judgment, but that was not enough to get her off the hook.  When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I remember vividly the result of a ban on short skirts that did not meet the stipulated length.  All it did was create countless hours of work for administrators, who summoned the girls to their offices and used a ruler to determine if the girls were in violation.

I have nothing against school dress codes, including uniforms, but I think they have to be reasonable in light of changing fashions.  In the final analysis, they can succeed when flexibility is used.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Teacher tenure needed more than ever

Teacher tenure is depicted by critics as the villain in attempts to improve education.  Yes, there have been abuses, but there’s another side of the story that deserves telling (“Dear Mr. Chancellor, please stop the grade-fixing in NYC schools,” New York Post, Apr. 14).  The latest example is the wholesale grade-fixing fraud orchestrated by the principal at John Dewey High School in the New York City system.

When Kathleen Elvin became principal in 2012, she launched “Project Graduation” in an attempt to boost the graduation rate.  Aside from shortchanging students through credit recovery courses, she retaliated against unwilling teachers by giving them the lowest rating of “ineffective.” Two teachers blew the whistle, which eventually led to an audit by the state Education Department confirming the fraud.  But the Board of Regents has never held any guilty party accountable.

Here’s my point: If the teachers who exposed this scandal did not possess tenure, they would have been fired under some trumped-up charge. Even with the existence of tenure, teachers are still harassed by abusive principals.  But at least they still have their jobs.  Exemplary reputations do not protect teachers from such abuse.  What puzzles me in this case is that the two whistleblowers say the United Federation of Teachers failed to support their cause.  Bully principals are nothing new.  I’ve written before about the situation several years ago at Brooklyn Tech, an elite high school in the New York City system.

If tenure were abolished, how many teachers would be willing to expose similar scandals?  Tenure merely guarantees that teachers receive due-process protection.  It’s important to keep that in mind as pressure mounts to eliminate it or gut it.  As Sir William Blackstone wrote in 1765: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Student loan forgiveness for teachers

One of the disincentives in recruiting college graduates to become teachers is the mismatch between starting salaries and loan repayments. After all, who wants to take a job that pays so little and still be saddled with onerous monthly loan repayments?  That’s why the public service loan forgiveness program offers hope (“A Student Loan Fix for a Teacher, and Many Other Public Servants,” The New York Times, Mar. 30).  The rules are complex, but the payoff is worthwhile.

The program allows people working full time for qualified employers, which includes school districts, to apply for tax-free federal student loan forgiveness after 10 years of on-time payments. So far so good.  But much depends on two other conditions.  The loan has to be a direct loan from the government and the payment has to be income-based.  Perkins loans and Federal Family and Education Loans do not qualify.

There was a time when graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree could be done without going into hock.  But today, most families can’t afford the skyrocketing tuition.  As a result, students take out loans without giving enough thought to the terms and conditions.  I think it’s time to change the rules to make it easier for college graduates to make teaching a career.  They’ll never get rich doing so, but with the burden lifted off their shoulders they may be more attracted to the classroom.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)



Community colleges are best buy

Once considered a refuge for high school graduates who were rejected by four-year institutions, community colleges today are increasingly the destination for those wanting to spend less for a quality education (“Middle-Class Families Increasingly Look to Community Colleges,” The New York Times, Apr. 8).

I completely understand their appeal.  The truth is that enrollment in an elite college or university is no assurance of effective instruction.  Professors are more concerned with their publications than with their pedagogy.  In contrast, community college instructors have no such pressure.  As a result, they can focus on teaching without fear of being dismissed.  For students who have graduated from high school with deficits in particular, community college is a cost-effective way of getting back on track to graduation.

But even students who have graduated from high schools with excellent reputations are rethinking their decisions.  For example, Pasadena City College had a 320 percent increase in the number of students whose parents make more than $100,000 a year.  It’s a trend seen in other community colleges as well.

For high school graduates who want to learn a well-paying trade, community colleges are a bargain.  Classes are taught by professionals who bring their expertise from years of experience in their respective fields to the classroom.  Rather than pay thousands of dollars to for-profit trade schools, students get the same benefit for a fraction of the cost.

When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA in 1964, these schools were called junior colleges.  The name change reflected their wider mission, which today is well deserved.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

Education v. training

One of the criticisms of high school is that it doesn’t prepare students for the real world (“I learned nothing at one of NYC’s elite high schools,” New York Post, Mar. 31).   There is some truth to that complaint, but it confuses education with training.

Although they sometimes overlap, they are not synonymous.  Education is concerned with concepts; training is concerned with techniques. If students want to learn the skills and knowledge that are immediately useful for getting a job, they should choose a vocational curriculum.  I’ve long maintained that many students would be better served not going to college.  Apprenticeship programs would be a far better fit for them. A new kind of post-secondary education is also proving popular.  It’s billed as a college alternative for the digital age.  Students enroll in a one-year program requiring 40 to 50 hours a week of studying.  They agree to pay the school a percentage of their income for three years after graduation.

Whether a traditional academic education is worth pursuing depends on personal factors.  Students have been brainwashed into believing that without a four-year degree from a marquee-name school they have a bleak future.  That is a total distortion of reality.  Welders, for example, are in short supply and earn close to $100,000. I had students in my high school English classes who were clearly not college material.  Those who went on to learn a trade today make a solid middle-class income.  I question if a degree would have made any difference in their satisfaction.

Germany and other countries are more realistic than we are about sorting out students.  As a result, they have the lowest unemployment rate among young people in Europe.  Only the most intellectually able are admitted into university.  But this differentiation is anathema to our belief in democratization.  I say we do our young people a grave disservice by persisting in the fiction that college is for everyone.

(To post a comment, click on the link of this blog.)

Yeshivas don’t have legal immunity

Like all private and religious schools, yeshivas are required to provide students with “equivalency of instruction.”  But those in New York City at least have failed to do so for many years (“Why Is New York Condoning Illiteracy?” The New York Times, Apr. 4).

I support the right of parents to send their children to schools they alone believe meet their unique needs and interests. The U.S. Supreme Court first affirmed this right in Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925 and then again in Wisconsin v. Yoder almost 50 years later. However, this does not exempt such schools from complying with the law.  Allowing yeshivas as well as any other private and parochial schools to do so leaves children ill prepared for the realities of life.

Fearful of the charge that they are foes of religious freedom, lawmakers have dragged their feet on forcing compliance.  In the meantime, students in these schools are being shortchanged at a time when they are most in need.  It’s a scandal that deserves immediate correction.  Each passing day leaves students behind their contemporaries in other schools.

What will happen if regular inspections of yeshivas show that the law is being violated?  Will they be forced to shut down?  The issue is now on display in New York State, where recent legislation carved out special standards for schools with long school days, bilingual programs and nonprofit status in determining if they complied with the law.  For the first time, the state education commissioner was given the authority to make that decision.

Adding to the outrage is that yeshivas receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding through Title I and Head Start, as well as by state programs like Academic Intervention Services and universal pre-K.  The high birth rate among the ultra- Orthodox will only increase the burden on taxpayers.  It’s a situation that I believe will lead to litigation.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

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.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)