‘Disparate impact’ will destroy standards

In attempting to diversify schools, reformers claim discrimination when a test does not produce the desired racial composition of students (“Richard Carranza’s black and white approach is ruining city schools,” New York Post, Apr. 10).  But different outcomes among different groups are not by itself proof of discrimination, which is known as “disparate impact.”

I’ve never understood why the issue ever arose.  Disparities will always exist in outcomes that have nothing whatsoever to do with discrimination.  They occur because people are different, regardless of race.  Some students work harder than others.  Some are simply smarter than others.  Yet reformers refuse to accept this reality.  They persist in seeing discrimination unless results conform to a predetermined pattern.

No race is a monolith.  Just because blacks and Hispanics do not constitute the same percentage of students from other races does not mean prejudice is the reason.  If anything, there is reverse prejudice at work.  I’m thinking now of the suit against Harvard University filed by Asian students claiming that they are the victims of discrimination since they must score much higher on the SAT to be admitted than blacks and Hispanics.

Rather than blaming the messenger, reformers need to ask why blacks and Hispanics do not perform as well on tests.  It’s likely that the test is not to blame.

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Bringing education to the streets

For young people who never received their high school diploma and have given up on ever getting it, the Five Keys Charter School in the poorest neighborhood of San Francisco offers hope (“You Got Your High School Diploma?” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7).  While nothing can ever replace a traditional curriculum on a campus where students interact, Five Keys is doing a commendable job.

Using a dilapidated bus, Five Keys administers a placement test and then through one-on-one instruction its teachers helps students qualify for a high school diploma. The school first opened in a San Francisco jail and now has about 2,000 active students.  Students come from chaotic backgrounds that have been made worse by the choices they’ve made since dropping out of high school.  Nevertheless, most persevere, realizing that Five Keys is their last chance to improve their lives.

The emotional support provided by teachers there often is the difference between success and failure.  I hope the model provided by Five Keys can be replicated in other cities across the nation.  The need is acute and the benefits are incalculable.

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Racial quotas for admissions are still outlawed

It’s easy to forget amid the controversy that efforts to diversify student admissions must be subject to the strict scrutiny standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court (“A Timeline of Key Supreme Court Cases on Affirmative Action,” The New York Times, Mar. 30).

The first time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action was in Marco DeFunis Jr. v. Odegaard.  But since the plaintiff was already in his third year of law school, the suit was moot.  It was not until 1978 in the landmark Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that the high court established the strict scrutiny standard.  It meant that race could be a factor in determining admissions, but racial quotas went too far.  Since then it has consistently upheld that position.

The implications are felt more than ever today, with New York City being the latest venue.  Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza are determined to diversity student enrollment at the city’s eight elite high schools.  They insist that the percentage of those admitted reflect the percentage of students in the city racially.  I fail to see why what they want is not a quota, no matter how justified in their minds their goal is.

Even if the mayor and the chancellor can somehow convince the state Legislature to repeal the Hecht-Calandra Act that requires the schools in question to rely strictly on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in determining admissions, I believe the decision will eventually wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.  When it does, I hope that the high court will not reverse itself on the issue.

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The class-size debate

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed that students learn better in larger classes and President Trump seconded her words, their remarks renewed the debate about the issue (“Class Sizes Will Be the Biggest Ever’ Boasts President Trump,” National Education Policy Center, Apr. 1).

The irony, of course, is that DeVos sent her two sons to Grand Rapids Christian High School, which has an average class size of 24, and Trump’s son is enrolled in St. Andrews, which has a median class size of 15.  Moreover, most politicians’ children have attended schools with equally small class sizes.

I don’t doubt that it’s possible to get a solid education in large classes.  For example, Catholic schools are known for that.  But they are outliers.  Most young people learn more effectively when they are more than just a number to their teachers.  That’s particularly the case with students from chaotic backgrounds who have never experienced a close relationship with an adult before.

During the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I rarely had a class with fewer than 33 students.  Not only was it impossible to spend more than a minute or two grading their essays, but it was hard to get to know them individually.  That’s why I question the assertion that larger classes mean better learning.

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Topless teacher scandal is absurd

When a middle-school math teacher’s old topless selfie fell into the hands of a student, she was summarily fired (“That teacher’s topless selfie,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7).  At first, I thought the news was an April Fool’s Day joke. But it isn’t.

Her lawyer intends to sue the Long Island, N.Y. school district for $3 million, arguing that the photo was intended solely for viewing by her boyfriend and was not inherently prurient.  He is absolutely right. I hope that she gets her job back and that the district issues a formal apology.  Apparently, female teachers are still subjected to a different standard than are male teachers.

I wonder how many teachers, both female and male, don’t have something in their personal lives that could prove embarrassing?  I’m not talking now about criminal behavior.  I’m referring to an indiscretion.  You can be sure if it involves sex in any way, it will be an issue for teachers wishing to retain their jobs. Teachers have lives outside of school.  Unless their behavior can be shown to be directly inimical to their ability to teach, it’s none of a district’s business.

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Caution on diversity as the No. 1 educational goal

The obsession with engineering diversity in education in this country will weaken whatever standards still remain.  The best example is the controversy over who is admitted to New York City’s eight elite high schools (“New York’s Best Schools Need to Do Better,” The New York Times, Mar. 31).

A state law, the Hecht-Calandra Act, requires that New York City’s three largest schools use a single exam, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, to determine who is admitted.  But because 51.1 percent of offers went to Asian students and 28.5 percent went to white students, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza want to eliminate the test and instead grant admission to the top 7 percent of students at each middle school.

De Blasio and Carranza maintain that the test is unfair.  But it has worked for Asian students from impoverished families.  Why can’t it also work for black and Hispanic students?  Critics of the test say that these students need greater test preparation.  But the city has already spent $6 million this year doing precisely that.  What more can it do?

Admitting students of any race who lack the wherewithal to handle rigorous work will only set them up for failure.  When they find they are over their head, they will drop out.  Elite high schools were never intended to be for all students.  Those who can’t pass the test would be far better served at other high schools.  There’s no shame in that.

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Higher pay alone won’t solve teacher shortage

In the largest federal investment in teacher salaries, Sen. Kamala Harris believes she has the solution to the teacher shortage (“Kamala Harris Wants to Boost Average Teacher’s Pay by $13,500,” Time, Mar. 26).  The estimated $315 billion over ten years would mean the average teacher salary would jump by $13,500.

 Teachers deserve higher salaries in light of the increasing demands placed on them.  But surveys of teachers who leave the classroom for other careers have shown time and again that money was not the deciding factor by a long shot.  In fact, many take jobs paying less than they were making before.

What Harris and others do not understand is that the unrelenting criticism teachers receive has undermined their morale.  When coupled with concerns about their physical safety, it has led them to question their decision to make teaching a career.  For example, combat pay for teachers willing to teach in the inner cities has been a failure.  A handful of teachers may volunteer, but they rarely last more than a year or two.

Until teachers are accorded the respect they deserve and given the proper conditions to teach, there will continue to be an outflow of teachers and the reluctance of the best and the brightest college graduates to make teaching a lifetime career.

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Elite colleges no assurance of quality education

By this week, almost all colleges and universities have notified applicants who have been accepted.  Rejection can feel devastating for those who don’t get into their first choice.  But I maintain that a marquee-name school is no guarantee of anything more than a brand (“Let’s Hear It for State U.” The New York Times, Mar. 25).

The truth is that many undergraduate classes at elite schools are taught by teaching assistants, rather than by advertised professors.  As a result, students are essentially paying for the cachet of the degree they receive.  They could just as well have gone to a community college or a state university at a fraction of the cost.

I’m not saying that community colleges and state universities don’t have their problems.  But what they offer on average is equal to what elite schools offer.  I received my B.A. from an Ivy League university.  The quality of instruction there varied widely.  In fact, the most lionized professor I had was the worst teacher by far.  His lectures were enough to put students to sleep.  He was a great researcher but an incompetent instructor.

So before assuming that being denied admittance to the school of their dreams, students need to get real about what actually takes place on many campuses.

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Out-of-control schools are endemic

In an attempt to avoid accusations of racial bias, too many schools have eliminated suspensions (“Classroom chaos – de Blasio’s ‘gift’ to NY kids,” New York Post, Mar. 14).  The result has been disorder on a scale not seen before.  How did this happen?

I trace the cause of chaos to the student-rights revolution, which gave due-process protections to students for the most minor aspects of school discipline after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Goss v. Lopez in 1975.  Then one year later the high court in Wood v. Strickland held that if public school teachers or principals violated those rights, they could be held personally liable for financial damages.

Not surprisingly, teachers and administrators began to walk on eggs, lest they be held liable.  Further exacerbating matters, data showed that blacks and Hispanics were disciplined more than whites and Asians.  But when the authority of school officials is undermined, learning cannot take place for all students regardless of their race.  To avoid suspensions and lawsuits, reformers propose the use of restorative justice. School administrators claim it works, citing the drop in suspensions after it was implemented.  But correlation is not causation.

Until teachers once again are allowed to act in loco parentis, I expect further disorder.  Most students want to learn, but they are held hostage by the behavior of a few.  It’s time to remove the latter from the classroom and place them in special rooms where they cannot cause harm to others.

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Career choice pressure on students is counterproductive

High school students today are under the gun to decide the kind of work they want to do after graduation or the major they should choose in college (“Let’s stop stressing out our kids with career choice pressure,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 11).  As a result, many are filled with needless anxiety.

The truth is that most young people change their minds before settling into a career.  In fact, about 30 percent of college students change majors before graduating.  Whether that’s because they discover they lack the wherewithal for a particular field or because they discover it doesn’t pay the rent.

Ideally, students would know at an early age what they want to do with their lives.  But those who do are outliers.  Most young people need to test their wings before committing.  Rather than add to their anxiety about the future, counselors and parents need to provide them with a reality check.  One of the best ways of doing so is to find them apprenticeships while they are still in school. Even volunteering for a few hours a week can help them immensely.

Other countries are far more demanding.  For example, Singapore begins tracking children on the basis of its Primary School Leaving exam. Germany sorts out students into vocational or academic tracks early on as well.  Whether such differentiation lessens stress or exacerbates it is hard to know.  But schools abroad have no compunction about doing so.

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