Peer effect is overrated in student performance

The latest argument for admitting students who do not pass the entrance exam to selective high schools is the peer effect (“It’s the peer effect, stupid: What makes schools like Stuyvesant great. It’s not test-based admission, but broader culture of excellence,” New York Daily News, Feb. 20).  What advocates maintain is that being in a school where academic excellence permeates the atmosphere is enough to help all students succeed.

I don’t doubt for a second that the peer effect is a factor in how students learn, but I think it is highly overrated.  If students are admitted when they lack the skills and knowledge to handle rigorous work, they will struggle and eventually fail no matter who their classmates are.  It takes a certain IQ to deal with the kind of college-level work that elite high schools in any community offer.  Yes, being around other students who are far brighter can act as a motivation, but it is not enough to compete.

Hollywood would have everyone believe that grit is how poorly prepared students can succeed.  But the prose of textbooks used in New York’s specialized high schools requires what educators have said is an IQ of about 115.  That’s the top 16 percent of the distribution.  There will always be a few exceptions, but how can being around other smarter students help students who don’t possess the same intelligence?

There has been much coverage in the media about the mismatch when students choose a college or university.  I say the same thing applies when students are admitted to elite high schools.  We are setting them up for failure despite the best intentions.

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Elitism is a dirty word in education

Everyone talks about the importance of standards in education.  Yet when it comes to teaching English, most say that teaching correct grammar is elitist (“A Style Guide for the 1 Percent,” The New Yorker, Feb. 11). Apparently, they are content with allowing students to write without any rules.

If that’s so, then why make English a required subject for graduation from high school at all?  Let students simply write whatever they want.  By the same token, let students read whatever they want.  Who cares about exposing them to the classics, which they would no doubt find boring?

I taught English at the same high school for 28 years. During that time, I saw how dumbed down the curriculum became as pressure built to make everything relevant.  You don’t have to be a pedant or snob to realize that without standards school becomes little more than a protracted playground. We talk so often about the importance of preparing students for college or the workplace.  But by abandoning standards because they are said to be elitist, we shortchange them.

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Diversity hypocrisy in higher education

The latest twist to the diversity obsession in colleges and universities comes from an accomplished Korean-American playwright who attributes her success to affirmative action (“I’m Asian-American. Affirmative Action Worked for Me.” The New York Times, Feb. 10).  Young Jean Lee believes she was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley because Asian-Americans were underrepresented in the English department.

Lee goes on to explain how being exposed to people from different races expanded her intellect.  What she fails to mention is that diversity in higher education is limited only to race and gender.  It does not apply to thought.  That’s the supreme irony of what is happening on campuses across the country.  Political correctness prevents students from getting a real education.  Anyone doubting my view needs only to recall speakers who are shouted down by students when they attempt to present views not in line with what they want to hear.

If students are shortchanged by the disproportionate absence of people of color on campus, they are even more shortchanged by lack of exposure to diverse viewpoints.  That kind of hypocrisy makes a mockery of what a college education is supposed to be.

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Merit pay will not work

Teachers in Denver who are on strike will once again bring to the surface the issue of merit pay (“Denver Teachers to Strike Over Merit-Pay System,” Education Week, Feb. 6).  Fifteen years ago, Denver instituted ProComp as a way of rewarding teachers for their ability to raise student achievement and for teaching at schools where they are needed the most.  But it has not worked out as hoped for.

I’ve written often before why so much of any teacher’s effectiveness is the direct result of the students inherited.  Therefore, I’d like to take a closer look at ProComp’s success in inducing teachers to accept assignments in hard-to-staff schools.  Paying teachers more to do so is often called combat pay for good reason.  Students in these schools come from chaotic backgrounds that make teaching subject matter secondary to performing triage on a daily basis.

There will always be some teachers who will opt to do so.  But combat pay has not been popular.  Supporters will argue that if combat pay were increased enough more teachers would join.  I seriously doubt it.  Teachers want to teach their subject.  They’re not mercenaries looking to increase their salary.  That’s why turnover in such schools post high turnover rates.  No amount of money is going to significantly change that.

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Disruptive students require isolation

There have always been students who persist in disrupting the education of others.  For decades, the strategy has been to suspend them.  Only recently has restorative justice been used in its place (“Restorative practices may not be the solution, but neither are suspensions,” the, Feb. 5).

A new study by RAND looked at restorative practices in Pittsburgh schools and concluded they were not as effective as its proponents have asserted.  That does not mean, however, going back to suspensions, which have their own problems.  Instead, I propose removing disruptive students and placing them in special isolated classrooms that are supervised.

Once placed in these rooms, students can still be given assignments to complete but without the opportunity to deprive their peers who want to learn.  Students will quickly learn that there is no payoff for their behavior.  Yes, some will drop out of school.  But that is a small price compared to the price the vast majority of students pay when they are held captive by incorrigible students.

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Phonics is essential to teaching reading

Although the reading wars between phonics and whole language continue, increasing evidence shows that the former is winning (“Nonprofit Trains Teachers on the ABCs of Reading in the Classroom,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4). The latest evidence comes from New York City, where only 28 percent of children in public schools there in the 4th grade were proficient or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2017.

That was before a nonprofit called Early Reading Matters began coaching  teachers in 34 high-poverty schools how to use phonics.  The approach has resulted in raising reading proficiency from 29 percent to 38 percent. Sadly, too many teacher-preparation programs don’t give teachers the wherewithal on how to teach reading.

I learned how to read by teachers who used phonics.  We learned how letters represented sounds by being asked to follow teachers as they read aloud to us, periodically stopping and asking us to pick up where they left off.  The strategy was most effective.  I never understood why whole language replaced phonics.

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Education can’t always be fun

If there’s one thing that teachers hate to hear, it’s: “I’m bored.” That’s because teachers have been indoctrinated with the belief that learning must always be fun.  If it isn’t, then they must be doing something wrong (“Let Children Get Bored Again,” The New York Times, Feb. 3).

But I submit that learning in the classroom is not that much different from learning in the workplace.  Boredom is an inescapable part of both.  The role of teachers is not to entertain but to educate.  If that sometimes involves boredom, so be it.  Yet teachers are often given poor evaluations if students complain that they are bored.

Some of the most valuable education I received in high school and college required sheer memorization.  Today, memorization is frowned on because it doesn’t develop critical thinking.  But I reject that assertion.  Without certain facts, which require memorization, how can students develop critical thinking skills?  Is memorization boring?  It depends on how it is presented.

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Vocational education gets toehold in colleges

Finally, there’s some good news about higher education.  A growing number of private and religiously affiliated colleges and universities are making vocational education an integral part of t he curriculum (“One Way to Make College Meaningful,” The New York Times, Feb. 3).

They’re doing so because they correctly understand that a vocation is not only a calling but also a means to a well-paying job.  Not surprisingly, these schools have seen their graduation rates increase at a significantly higher rate of growth than in a random sample of peer institutions.  When students see a direct connection between what they are studying and their future, they become immediately engaged.

Critics assert that vocational education will harm academic education. Even if that is true, I submit that the cost of a four-year degree today calls into question the pecuniary value of a liberal arts degree when student loan debt is factored in.  Learning for learning’s sake no longer is enough.  Students rightfully demand more.

Further, I question if higher education is where the disinterested pursuit of pure knowledge actually occurs.  We see evidence of this on a regular basis.  Professors teach only politically correct material, lest they find themselves vilified by students and administrators.

There was a time when few young people continued their education beyond high school.  As a result, a bachelor’s degree in any subject was enough to virtually guarantee a good job.  But the proliferation of degrees today means that what is studied is more important.  That’s why I hope vocational education continues to invade colleges and universities.

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Third-rail books in the classroom

High school teachers often wish they enjoyed the academic freedom of university professors.  But apparently even the latter find their careers in jeopardy if they teach controversial books (“The Risk in Teaching ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Commentary, Feb. 1).

An acclaimed professor at Augsburg University in Minnesota found that out when one of his students quoted a sentence that included the n-word from James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.”  In a discussion that followed, the professor raised the question if it was appropriate High school teachers often wish they enjoyed the academic freedom of university to use the author’s word in an academic context.  What followed was hard to believe.  After some students complained, the professor issued an apology.  But that was not enough.  He was suspended from teaching pending an investigation.

The main reason that tenure exists in higher education is to protect teachers from being penalized for exploring taboo subjects.  Yet time and again, they find themselves in peril if they dare do so.  As a result, students are deprived of the opportunity to develop critical thinking.  Instead, they are fed only bowdlerized material.

In high school, of course, teachers have no freedom whatsoever to assign books that are not on an approved list.  The U.S. Supreme Court made that clear in 2010 in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District when it held that only school boards can determine the curriculum.  So maybe teachers and professors are not that different after all.

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LA teachers strike’s real lesson

Now that the dust has settled on the teachers strike in Los Angeles, it’s a propitious time to see what it has actually accomplished (“Some Teachers Say Deal to End Strike ‘Is Not What I Picketed for,’ “LAWeekly, Jan. 29.)  Although UTLA is boasting that it won, the truth contains less cause for celebration.

I say that since so much of the final agreement was what the district offered in the first place.  Yes, teachers will see the size of their classes reduced by one student, but that is hardly a major victory.  And yes, teachers will get a fraction of a percentage point increase in pay, but that too does not qualify as anything to crow about.

Instead, I think the real victory is less obvious.  Teachers showed that they no longer would remain passive in the face of deteriorating conditions for learning. Put another way, they would now be worthy of more respect for standing up for what they considered essential.

When I participated in the first strike in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1970, many of my colleagues were reluctant to join because striking was not “professional.”  They crossed the picket line.  But in 1989, the same teachers had changed their mind.  I’m not sure exactly why, but I venture that they realized how they had been used by the district.

Teachers unions face an uphill battle across the country.  Critics say that if teachers are so disaffected, they should quit.  I say that if teachers have it so good, critics should become teachers.

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