Sensitive speech inoculates high-schoolers

High school is supposed to prepare students for the world beyond graduation.  Yet in avoiding controversial topics, schools are doing just the opposite (“Stop shielding high-schoolers from sensitive speech,” New York Post, Jun. 26).

There are always several sides to any issue.  The sooner young people learn that reality the better able they will be to handle diverse opinions.  Unfortunately, some parents and some special interest groups believe that only their views on a given issue should be allowed.  They are unwittingly doing a disservice to students.

Today’s young people have been regularly exposed to images and words that previous generations lacked.  As a result, they are not naïve children.  They also physically mature earlier than ever before.  It’s one reason that so many high school students are bored to death by the curriculum and instruction.

I realize that public schools don’t have the same freedom to teach as private and religious schools.  But they need to be given greater latitude if they are expected to engage students and provide them with the wherewithal to handle life after graduation.

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Academics are more important than athletics

Only in this country are athletics given such high priority.  A class-action lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court in New York says that black and Hispanic students have far less access to teams and sports than other races (“New York’s Playing Fields Aren’t Level, Students Say,” The New York Times, Jun. 29).

I don’t doubt this is true, but I question if it is a problem.  During the past two decades, New York City, like so many other cities across the country, has opened scores of small high schools in order to provide students with more personal support.  The unavoidable downside is that most sports require large numbers of students.

In an ideal educational world, there would be no conflict between academics and sports.  But in light of the dismal academic performance of so many public schools in New York City, I submit that academics should get priority.  I don’t doubt the benefits of team sports.  But they pale when compared with the benefits of a sound academic program.

Moreover, there is a difference between team and individual sports.  Small high schools are still able to field students, say, for tennis and golf.  I think these are far more likely to be pursued later in life than basketball and football.  But given the obsession with team sports that characterizes this country, I expect the plaintiffs to prevail.

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Student loan-debt forgiveness has unintended consequences

Student debt now amounts to about $1.5 trillion, which is more than credit card and auto loan debt combined.  But abolishing it is not the solution (“Americans are drowning in student-loan debt. The U.S. should forgive all of it,” The Washington Post, Jun. 19).

I say that because it will merely encourage students who are not college material for one reason or another to pursue a degree in a field that is not in demand.  If the argument for going to college is primarily to qualify for a well-paying job to accelerate upward mobility, then loan forgiveness, coupled with free tuition going forward is counterproductive.

The assertion that a four-year college degree is indispensable for a comfortable future fails to take into account the major.  Why does a degree in gender studies, for example, prepare its holders for a job better than a certificate in, say, plumbing?  There are so many college graduates who are underemployed.  They would have been far better served by attending a community college, where they learned a marketable skill.  Moreover, they would not be burdened with debt because community college is a bargain.

Our competitors abroad are far more realistic about education.  They begin sorting out students early in their education.  While we can argue that doing so too soon is harmful, we cannot deny that not everyone should be going to college.  Germany, for example, sends only a small percentage of young people to university.  The rest attend schools in line with their ability and interest.  As a result, Germany has the lowest youth unemployment in Europe.

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Get real about student achievement

It’s one thing for school boards to establish educational goals and quite another to lose sight of reality in doing so (“Here’s the problem with L.A. Unified’s latest pie-in-the-sky ideas – they’re likely to fail,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 12).  The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, is a case in point.  A new resolution originally called for all third-graders to meet standards on the state’s annual standardized tests, for all eighth-graders to earn at least a C in English and math, and for all high school graduates get a C or better in all courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University.

I can understand if the board had stipulated a realistic percentage who would achieve these objectives.  But instead it said 100 percent.  That’s impossible in a district as large and diverse as the LAUSD.  The large number of students from impoverished backgrounds alone would make this impossible.  In fact, even the best school districts can’t be expected to do so.

What will surely happen is that widespread cheating by teachers and principals will follow.  That’s because of the existence of Campbell’s Law: the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.  We saw that happen in other school districts.  Why would the LAUSD be any different?  The best any district can hope for is that scores will improve over time.  Even then, not all students will show improvement for one reason or another.

Recognizing its unrealistic thinking, the LAUSD board reversed itself by saying that the goal was to “prepare” all high school graduates to be eligible to apply to a California four-year university.  I still maintain that the board is living in a dreamworld.

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SAT has little predictive value

At first glance, defenders of the SAT and ACT seem to have a solid case.  They say schools vary so widely in their grading that it’s impossible to know with any certainty who will be successful in handling college-level work. That’s why these two measurement icons must not be eliminated (“The War on Admissions Testing,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 2).

But that’s not what the best evidence shows.  In 1984, Bates College decided to engage in a pioneering experiment.  It made the submission of SAT scores optional for admission.  In 2004, it announced the results of its 20-year study.  It found virtually no differences in the four-year academic performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and nonsubmitters.  Since then, hundreds of other colleges and universities have followed suit, with similar results.

The roots of the controversy go back to the start of World War I when the country was faced with the urgent need to quickly identify officer candidates.  Finding itself ill equipped for the task at hand, the military turned to the American Psychological Association for help. Working out of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, a special committee came up with the Army Alpha, which allowed recruits to be ranked according to their intellectual abilities.

In all, some 1,750,000 men the Army Alpha.  It proved so successful that its designers decided to apply the same approach to whatever subject content was being measured.  This eventually led to the design of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926 by psychologist Carl Brigham, who believed that it assessed innate ability.  But there is a distinct difference between an aptitude test and an achievement test.  Although they may be related, they do not necessarily correlate.

Unfortunately, this distinction is completely lost in the continuing controversy over the use of both the SAT and ACT.  To most people, a test is a test.  That’s a misleading conclusion, as the experience of so many colleges and universities today shows.

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Janus decision undermines teachers’ unions

In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited mandatory public-employee labor organization union fees (“Supreme Court Deals Blow to Public-Sector Unions,” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 27).  It also held that workers must expressly opt into the union before fees can be taken out of their paychecks.

Prior to Janus v. American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees Council 31, teachers who didn’t want to join the union were required to pay agency fees when those fees were used for collective-bargaining.  The ruling was cheered by some as a corrective to the high court’s decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977.

I’ll restrict my comments to the effects that the decision will have on teachers.  Their unions will continue to exist, but they will be severely undermined.  With the exception of diehards, many teachers will let their membership expire because they will get the same benefits as if they had paid.  These free riders will have it both ways: They will pay nothing to their union but will get full benefits. Teacher union membership in the Los Angeles Unified School District has already declined from 42,000 to 31,000 since 2007.

If those teachers genuinely believe in what they are doing is right, they should refuse to accept whatever benefits their unions provide.  I vividly remember when some teachers at the high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught for 28 years crossed the picket lines during the three strikes I participated in.  They said they did so because they believed in the “right to work.”  Well, no one was preventing them from working.

As teachers in public schools across the nation continue to be attacked from all sides and their unions are hamstrung, who will want to make a career in the classroom?  It’s a bleak picture.

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Tracking benefits are poorly understood

The U.S. continues to resist tracking in the belief that it is elitist.  Any attempt to differentiate among students is seen as anathema to democratization.  The latest example is New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system (“The Complex Disadvantages Underlying New York City’s Specialized-High-School Dilemma,” The New Yorker, Jun. 15).

The pride of the district are the nine high schools that are known for their rigor.  Although the system is two-thirds black or Hispanic, less than a tenth of the spots went to them.  According to critics, the culprit is the Specialized High School Admissions Test that is administered once a year to middle schoolers across the city who apply to eight of the high schools. (The city’s ninth such school uses auditions.)

Yet blaming SHSAT for the situation forgets that the specialized high schools were not always so segregated.  In the 1980s, the three oldest and most prestigious such schools had sizable black and Hispanic enrollment.  For example, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant were 67, 22 and 16 percent black and Hispanic, respectively. That compares with 14, 9 and 3 percent, respectively, today.

What accounts for the change?  In a nutshell, the elimination of tracking. In the past, tracking was well funded and widely used. This strategy served as a pipeline for talented students. But in the early 1990s, New York City eliminated many of its honors programs.  As a result, the most able students were shortchanged.  Critics will argue that correlation is not causation.  They say that poverty is greater today than ever before.  There is some truth to that, but I maintain that the far greater cause is the abolishment of tracking.

Other countries with outstanding schools have no such problem with differentiation. For example, Singapore, whose students consistently finish at or near the top on tests of international competition, begins the process with its Primary School Leaving Exam and continues it throughout the school years. Singapore is not alone.

I support efforts to make specialized schools more diverse, but not if it involves the establishment of quotas.  Enrolling students who lack the wherewithal to succeed sets them up for failure.  Elite schools are not for everyone.

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College is not the place for remediation

Of the more than 3 million high school graduates this month, fewer than 40 percent enrolling in a four-year college will graduate in four years (“Too many kids are dropping out of college – here’s how to fix it,” New York Post, Jun. 11).  As pressure mounts on colleges to improve this dismal picture, some are implementing what amounts to remedial education.

But I question if four-year colleges should be doing this at all.  When high schools fail to teach students the necessary knowledge and skills, then the proper place for remediation should be community colleges. Four-year institutions were never meant for that. The truth is that not everyone is college material.  So many students would be far better served by a solid vocational education, combined with concurrent apprenticeships.

The widely cited wage premium attached to possession of a bachelor’s degree over a high school diploma fails to take into account the major.  I doubt that a degree in art history, for example, is more valuable in the marketplace than a certificate in, say, plumbing.  That’s before even considering onerous student debt.

Only in this country has college been so wildly oversold.  It’s little wonder that many students are dropping out.  They have been the victims of inept counseling and societal pressure.

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Universal parental choice worth a try

With vouchers one of the most controversial issues in education in this country, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at Chile, which instituted universal vouchers in 1981 (“What Might Happen If School Vouchers And Privatization Of Schools Were To Become Universal In The U.S.: Learning From A National Test Case – Chile,” National Education Policy Center, June).

The greatest criticism of a universal voucher system is that it favors middle-class families at the expense of low-income families.  It does so because schools primarily select students more than students select schools.  (Think of this as what takes place now when high school seniors apply to college.)  Chile proved this is the case because schools were allowed to use admissions tests and parental interviews to determine which students to admit.  Moreover, since 1993 voucher schools were allowed to charge parents an additional amount over the government voucher. As a result, universal choice really is constrained choice.

Critics of vouchers forget, however, that no educational system is perfect.  Rather than abolish vouchers, I say why not make them fairer.  Let’s not forget that low-income black parents in the U.S. constitute a disproportionate part of the wait lists for charter schools.  They demand choice. For example, in New York City’s Harlem and the South Bronx, there are nearly four applicants for each available charter seat.  Why are they denied that opportunity? Is it because charters don’t provide bus transportation or require unaffordable uniforms?

The irony is that in Chile the performance gap between the country as a whole and the poorest 40 percent was cut by one-third in just five years.  That’s a huge accomplishment given short shrift in the debate.  Let’s learn from Chile to try to improve the education offered to so many low-income black and Hispanic students.

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SAT/ACT essay is still valid

When Yale University recently announced that it will no longer require applicants to submit an essay score, it joined other elite schools in what has become a disturbing trend (“Another big-name university drops SAT/ACT essay requirement,” The Washington Post, Jun. 1). Although admissions officers say that writing is an indispensable skill, their words ring hollow in light of their new policies.

The only possible rationale for their decision is that timed writing does not permit applicants to demonstrate their true ability.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, professors told us that the ability to write under pressure was only one indication of competence.  Most reflective writing requires thought that cannot easily be expressed when time is of the essence.

Short of that caveat, I maintain that colleges and universities are hypocritical.  If they genuinely believe that the ability to put one’s thoughts on paper is so important, then they have to demand evidence.  In short, they need to assess that wherewithal. Multiple-choice items are no substitute. Both the SAT and ACT would be receptive since it means additional income for them.

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