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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College readiness misleads taxpayers

Public schools are largely being evaluated on the percentage of students who are prepared for college (“DeBlasio’s empty boasts about graduation rates,” New York Post, Jan. 30).  The latest example is New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district.

Although 75.9 percent of students who started in public schools there graduated, only half met CUNY’s standards for admission. The disparity between the two is seen as evidence of failure.  But where is it written that college is for everyone?  What about taking into account students who have no interest or aptitude for college?

More specifically, I’m referring to vocational education.  Students who want to learn a trade and take courses in line with that goal should be given equal weight to students who want to go to college in evaluating schools.  But vocational education continues to take a back seat to an academic curriculum. This does a terrible injustice to both students and their schools.

I’ll bet that the percentage of students who graduate on time after taking a vocational curriculum would far exceed the percentage of students who graduate on time after pursuing an academic curriculum.  Yet we completely ignore vocational education in this country.  Our competitors abroad are far more realistic.  For example, Germany accords vocational education the same respect it confers on academic education.  It’s little wonder that Germany has the lowest unemployment rate among young people in the industrialized world.

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Black dialect shortchanges students

It’s not enough to maintain that non-standard English hinders opportunities for young people in the workplace.  It also is a handicap in the judicial system (“Speaking Black Dialect in Courtrooms Can Have Striking Consequences,” The New York Times, Jan. 27).

Researchers found that even certified court reporters regularly made errors in transcribing sentences spoken in what linguists term African-American English.  On average, they did so in two out of every five sentences.  Such errors have serious consequences by confusing jurors about what defendants say.  It’s not just white court reporters who blunder but black court reporters as well.

The results of the study have widespread implications for public schools, where not that many years ago Ebonics was being considered.  Because blacks are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, their very freedom from prison hangs in the balance.

When busing began at the high school where I taught for 28 years, I had trouble understanding what many students were saying.  But trying to point out the need to speak standard English was frowned on by the district as being insensitive.

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Evaluating teachers fairly

In eliminating test scores to evaluate teachers, New York State has taken a step in the right direction (“New York Lawmakers Pass Bill to Drop Student Test Scores From Teacher Reviews,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24).  Although the action will be attacked for lowering the quality of education, it reflects reality.

So much of instructional effectiveness is dependent on the students that teachers happen to inherit.  Teachers who are assigned a group of Talmudic scholars will shine in spite of, not because of, their expertise.  Conversely, teachers who are assigned a group of future felons will fail in spite of, not because of, their expertise.

The only way to get around the issue is to randomly assign students. That eliminates the inherent advantage or disadvantage teachers have in producing results. But such a policy will never happen because principals want to reward certain teachers and punish others.

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Engineering diversity will undermine excellence

The latest venue for the obsession with diversity in public schools is New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio is hellbent on giving 20 percent of seats at the city’s elite high schools to disadvantaged students (“De Blasio Lawyers Say Change for Elite Schools Isn’t Biased Against Asian-Americans,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19).

A state law allows the city to offer spots to disadvantaged eight-graders who miss the cutoff score but agree to summer tutoring under a program called Discovery.A suit filed in federal court by Asian-American civil rights groups and parents argues that Discovery discriminates against their children because it is limited only to the highest poverty middle schools, whereas in the past applicants citywide were eligible to sign up.

I support efforts to diversity schools – but with one caveat.  Diversification must not negatively impact excellence.  If students cannot handle the work at these elite schools, they will either drop out or standards will be lowered.  In both cases students will be shortchanged.  Asian-American students disproportionately comprise enrollment at these schools.  But they do so because they have demonstrated the aptitude to achieve.  Enrolling students to meet a quota, which is precisely what de Blasio is doing, will mean an end to the academic jewels of the New York City system.

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Teacher personality plays big role in student learning

The obsession with measuring what students have learned fails to account for the importance of a teacher’s relationship with them (“Students Learn From People They Love,” The New York Times, Jan. 18).  Teachers can know their subject matter, but if they can’t connect with their students on an emotional basis, learning suffers.

Researchers are beginning to understand how students’ brain activity meshes with teachers’ brain activity. That’s a step in the right direction.  But if you ask veteran teachers why the same lesson works so well with one group of students but not with another, they’ll likely tell you that their personalities were not in sync.  The goal, therefore, is to try to find ways to overcome that mismatch.

When I was teaching English, I tried to engage students in all my classes.  Yet as hard as I tried to tweak the lesson to fit what I perceived as the unique personality of a particular class, too often the lesson was a flop.  Perhaps that was because I didn’t give proper weight to cultural factors.  When Third World immigration resulted in an influx of students from around the globe in my high school, the district gave teachers little support in preparing us.

In the dating scene, two people click when the “chemistry” is right. I maintain that the same thing applies to successful instruction and learning in schools.

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Los Angeles charter school scene

The recently settled teachers strike in Los Angeles contains lesson for other large cities (“A rift over charter schools,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24).  When charter schools first began there, they were welcomed because the Los Angeles Unified School District at the time was bursting with students.  But that is no longer the case, as they continue to siphon off students whose parents for one reason or another are disaffected with traditional schools in the district.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I’ve written repeatedly that comparing outcomes of charter schools with traditional schools is unfair.  A new study confirms this.  Researchers sent emails from fictitious parents to 6,452 charter and traditional schools in 29 states.  The email asked if any student was eligible to apply.  It randomly assigned attributes about the student.  For example, disability status, poor behavior record, high or low academic achievement.  The goal was to determine if such schools discriminate against certain groups of students.

Even though federal law prohibits all public schools from discriminating on the basis of race, religion and disability status, charter schools enroll a smaller proportion of such students than traditional public schools. It’s interesting to note that so called no-excuses charters were 10 percent less likely to respond.  What are they hiding?  I maintain that if charter schools had to play by the same rules as their counterparts, there would be little differences in outcomes.

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Community schools for neediest students

Students who are poor, homeless or learning English are finding hope in what are called community schools (“The Community School Comes of Age,” The New York Times, Jan. 10).  These students have huge deficits that few traditional public schools are equipped to handle. But longer days, longer school years, combined with wraparound services from psychologists, optometrists and dentists, have resulted in an increase in graduation and attendance.

There are presently some 5,000 community schools across the country, with New York City alone the home to 247.  Whether they will grow in number is unclear because of the obsession with test scores as the No. 1 measure of success.  I say that since spending on public schools has increased without a significant improvement in student performance.  I hope I’m wrong, particularly for disadvantaged students who deserve a better opportunity in life.

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