Teacher exodus is poorly understood

Teachers are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate on record (“Teachers Quit Jobs at Highest Rate on Record,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29).  Contrary to popular belief, low salaries are not the No. 1 reason.

According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities that investigated unprecedented low enrollment in colleges of education, it is the lack of professional autonomy.  When coupled with constant scapegoating, teaching is seen as an undesirable career.

The long summer vacations and alleged short working days may be enough to recruit the best and the brightest to the classroom, but they are not enough to retain them.  That’s particularly the case with minority teachers who are leaving the profession the fastest. Attempts to show that teachers are fairly paid compared to other workers with similar education fail to change their minds.

The military has long understood the importance of morale.  Unless the same attention is paid in education, I expect to see an acceleration of the exodus. Unfortunately, the situation is best summed up this way: The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

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The reading wars continue unabated

Despite evidence showing that phonics instruction is the key to learning how to read, there seems to be no end to the debate (“Schools Seen as Falling Short in a Pillar of Teaching Reading,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 27). That’s because supporters of the “whole language” approach insist that learning to read is a natural process that children can pick up from being immersed in appealing books.

That’s a little like saying children can learn about the Archimedes Principle by playing with duckies in the bathtub. Maybe some children can do so, but I doubt it is an effective way.  Likewise the “whole language” technique.  Maybe some children will look at the first letter in a word and correctly guess from a picture cue how to pronounce it, but it’s not nearly as productive as learning how to sound out words. The National Reading Panel’s report that was commissioned by Congress in 2000 confirmed this.  It said that systematic phonics instruction is an essential part of an effective reading program, much to the disappointment of “whole language” supporters.

What’s so disheartening is that too many teachers have not learned how to teach reading.  That’s because many teacher-preparation programs nationwide completely ignore, or give little attention to, the science behind how children learn to read.  When I was in elementary school, teachers used colorful charts to teach how to sound out words and then had us read small passages aloud.  Even in high school, I found that students liked to hear me read to them while they followed.

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School aid increases but not test scores

If spending more per student resulted in higher test scores, taxpayers would likely not object to paying higher taxes.  But New York State already spends $23,000 per student, which is more than any other state and has little to show for it (“New York taxpayers don’t need to pay any more school aid,” New York Post, Dec. 23).

On the latest National Assessment for Educational Progress tests, for example, students in the state posted scores that were “not significantly different” from the national average in math and reading.  In fact, fourth graders did worse in math.  I realize that test scores alone do not capture overall educational quality, but the situation in New York State can’t be dismissed.  Taxpayers deserve an explanation.

That’s particularly so in New York State, where funding has skyrocketed 80 percent from $15 billion in 2005 to $27 billion today.  I question if spending more per student will improve test scores.  Granted, there are other outcomes to look at.  For example, has the on-time graduation rate improved?  Has the achievement gap between the races been narrowed?  But in the final analysis, taxpayers persist in focusing on test scores.  Unless they rise, taxpayers are going to resist being taxed more heavily.

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Education should be a right

Although the U.S. Constitution does not specifically mention education as a right, several lawsuits recently have attempted to make it so (“Is the Time Right to Make Education a Constitutional Right?” Education Week, Dec. 11).  Based on court rulings in the past, I doubt it will ever gain that status.

The closest was in 1976 in Peter W. v. San Francisco Unified Court District.  The Court of Appeal, First District, California ruled that school districts cannot be held responsible for graduating students without fundamental skills.  In short, there is no basis for an educational malpractice claim.

In 1973 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the equal protection clause did not extend to school district finance inequities. The rest of the claims were dismissed.

In 2016, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in Martinez v. Malloy ruled that the state’s policy of limiting charter schools and magnet schools violated students’ due process and equal protection rights did not deny students protection.  It held only that the state had failed to fulfill its duty of public administration.

In 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Gary B. v. Snyder dismissed the lawsuit claiming that the U.S. Constitution contains an implied right of access to literacy instruction.

The latest lawsuit to make education a right is pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island in A.C. v. Raimondo.  It argues that there is an implied right for an education to prepare students to be capable citizens.

I doubt that plaintiffs will prevail in light of the past record.  Perhaps there will be a victory on some narrow ground but not enough to make education a broad right.  I hope I’m wrong, but I keep coming back to the Peter W. case as evidence.

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Pending L.A. teachers’ strike contains lessons

When a fact-finding panel was unable to bring the Los Angeles Unified District and United Teachers of Los Angeles together, a strike seems likely on Jan. 10 (“Fact-finding at L.A. Unified,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20). UTLA’s demands are familiar: higher salaries, smaller classes, more librarians and nurses.  The district claims it does not have the money to satisfy all of the demands.

But that argument is nothing new.  I participated in the first strike in 1970 by the newly formed UTLA and once again in 1989.  Both times the money was miraculously found at the last minute, but not before the commitment of UTLA was severely tested.

The strike I remember most vividly was in 1970, which lasted almost five weeks.  I walked the picket line and tightened my belt as it dragged on.  But the lack of a collective bargaining law led the courts to declare the agreement null and void.

It was only in 1975 when the Rodda Act became law that both sides had to bargain in good faith and agree to mediation.  As a result, the 1989 strike lasted only nine days and resulted in an historic three-year contract, including successive yearly salary increases of eight percent each and school site decision-making.

Once again, the LAUSD is claiming that it lacks the money.  It’s little wonder that UTLA doesn’t believe it.  If that is ever going to change, it has to begin with greater honesty on the part of the district.  Otherwise, the adversarial situation will continue unabated.

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‘Disparate-impact’ on school suspensions is repudiated

Until now, school suspensions that show blacks and Hispanics suspended at higher rates than whites and Asians were automatically deemed discriminatory  (“The lunacy of crying ‘racism’ over school suspensions,” New York Post, Dec. 21).  But the Federal Commission on School Safety has rightly rejected that conclusion.

Although black students nationally are suspended at nearly three times the rate of white students, that does not necessarily demonstrate bias.  It may well be that more black students engage in behavior that is disruptive than whites.  I think the key factor here is whether they are suspended at higher rates than whites for the same misbehavior.

If anything, teachers and principals have become so sensitive to being called racist that they tolerate disruptions by blacks.  Look at this another way: White students are suspended more than Asians.  Does that mean teachers and principals are biased against white students?  What I find most troubling is that students who want to learn – and that cuts across all races – are held hostage by the acts of a few.

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Homework falls out of favor

Public schools find themselves caught between two contrary demands: pressure to boost test scores and pressure to maintain student wellness (“Down With Homework, Say U.S. School Districts,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13).  If the past is any indication, however, they will go to one extreme or the other rather than trying to achieve a balance.

I believe that homework done properly plays an important role in reinforcing classroom instruction.  The key to doing so is to use common sense.  The number of hours assigned each week needs to be adjusted to the age of students.  Elementary school children should not be given the same number of hours as high school students.  Moreover, homework should not be busywork.  It actually can be made enjoyable.  Too often, however, homework consists of sheets of exercises that bore students.

When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher routinely assigned daily homework that helped me master what was taught in class.  I saw the purpose and went to class the next day with renewed confidence.  I learned more in three years of Spanish in high school than I did in three years in college.  In fact, I was placed in an advanced class based on a screening test.  I owe that to how Spanish was taught, including homework.

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College degree premium is nuanced

Although it is true that the median college graduate earns more than the median high school graduate, the reality is not nearly as black and white as it appears (“The Misguided Priorities of Our Educational System,” The New York Times, Dec. 10).  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school graduates with above-average earnings earn $34,000 to $70,000 annually.  That compares with college graduates with below-average earnings of between$28,000 to $58,000.

This wage spread is given little attention.  But it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.  I’ve seen many of my former students who never went to college but who have a trade make far more money annually than my former students who went to college and majored in a non-STEM field.  Moreover, the former group has no college loan to repay.  That’s no small thing when rentals continue to rise, leaving little disposable income at the end of every month.

I’ve written often before about the need to give vocational education far more respect and support.  Not all young people have the desire or ability to go to college.  To see them drop out after having assumed so much debt is sad.  Let’s get real about the premium attached to a college degree.  Much depends on the major and the college itself.

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Evaluating teachers a different way

So much attention is focused today on identifying the best teachers.  But the effort has been placed almost exclusively on test scores.  I don’t doubt they are important, but they don’t tell the whole story, as I wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News (“Judge teachers using so-called intangibles: They matter as much or more than test scores,” Dec. 5).

Long after subject matter is forgotten, students remember the interest and kindness that their teachers showed in them.  There are teachers who do a remarkable job teaching their subject well, but who teach their students to hate the subject in the process.  That’s a pyrrhic victory, especially if the goal is to create lifelong learners.

How teachers go about bonding with their students is largely a matter of personality.  In medicine, it’s called a bedside manner.  Some teachers are naturals in this regard, while others can be taught – but only up to a point.  Non-cognitive outcomes can be measured by Likert inventories.  These consist of a series of questions, to which student anonymously reply, say, on a five-part scale.  For example, “Doing math no longer causes me to feel anxious.”  Or “I like to read a novel more now than I did before.”

It’s time to pay more attention to affective outcomes than before if students are to receive a quality education.

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History major is no assurance of critical thinking

The number of students majoring in history has dropped more steeply since 2011 than any other undergraduate degree (“Fewer Students Are Majoring in History, But We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Why,” Time, Dec. 6).

There are several explanations for the trend, but none more convincing than the cost-benefit analysis.  In short, students are rightly asking if a history major will enhance their earnings potential. There was a time when possession of a B.A. in any major distinguished the holder when entering the job market.  But today that’s no longer true.  What matters far more is one’s major.

Defenders of the history major maintain that students develop writing skills and critical thinking skills, which are vital in getting a decent salary.  The only evidence I’ve seen to support that argument is The Concord Review, which publishes research papers by high school students. College professors, on the other hand, complain that their students are unable to write a coherent essay, as I wrote about recently.

How to explain the disparity between the two?  Will Fitzhugh, publisher of TCR, says it’s the result of students being required to read extensively.  Unfortunately, too many college students have never done so.  As a result, they not only lack factual knowledge about their subject but also lack the wherewithal to express themselves in writing.

I wish that college professors would make TCR required reading for their history courses.  Doing so would be far more effective than lecturing about how to demonstrate critical thinking.

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