Is college a good investment?

It won’t be long before high school seniors will have to send a check to the college that accepted them for the fall.  Before they do so, I think it’s important to ask if committing to four years of education today is worthwhile (“Why an Honors Student Wants to Skip College and Go to Trade School,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 6).

I know the argument about the wage premium attached to a bachelor’s degree.  But I question if data supporting that view are still relevant.  There was a time when a small percentage of the population had a college degree.  In those days, therefore, it mattered little what students majored in.  The mere fact that they had a degree made them exceptional in the eyes of most employers.  But today college degrees lack the same value.  That’s why one’s major means more than ever in terms of getting a job in line with one’s education. I’m not even talking about paying off student loans.  That’s another huge consideration.

But there’s a further factor given too little consideration.  If going to college is seen as more than just a credentialing post, then what about its value in teaching students to engage in critical thinking?  With the exception of a handful of colleges and universities, free inquiry and free speech are anachronisms.  For example, the treatment of Charles Murray by students at Middlebury College shows that there is an atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy.  In Academically Adrift (The University of Chicago Press, 2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that some 45 percent of college students showed no significant improvement after two years of college, and 36 percent did not improve after four years in their critical thinking skills.

Students are being shortchanged when they are not held accountable for behavior that stifles ideas they don’t agree with.  I wonder what is going to happen to them when they enter the workplace, where not everyone shares their views?  That’s something to ponder before deciding to go to college.  The so-called signaling power of a degree will also diminish as employers realize that its possession does not mean what it used to.  In fact, I see a reversal of Gresham’s Law at play.  Marquee-name schools will drive out whatever value is associated with third-tier schools.






Union fees are a fair price

Teachers will find out if what they’ve fought for over the decades can be sustained.  I’m referring now to Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which the U.S. Supreme Court is now hearing (“Public-Sector Union Fees Don’t Violate the First Amendment,” The Nation, Feb. 23).  At issue is whether requiring teachers – as well as other public-sector employees – to pay union fees violates their First Amendment rights.

I’ll restrict my comments in this column to teachers. The agency fees charged cover the cost of negotiating and implementing collective-bargaining agreements.  By law, this service must be provided to all employees.  In 1977, the high court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public employees can be charged such a fee.  But it drew a line between forced payments for a union’s strictly political activities and those for more conventional union work.

If the plaintiffs genuinely believe that they are being coerced into paying into an organization that represents views they do not support, then they should refuse to accept the raises they receive and the protections they enjoy.  In short, they can’t have it both ways.  The First Amendment says nothing about the right to get something for nothing.  I participated in three strikes during the 28 years I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  I vividly remember that some teachers crossed the picket line for what they said was “principle.”  Yet they had no qualms about accepting the benefits the strikes provided.

I believe the real motive of the Janus suit (as well as its predecessor Friedrichs v. the California Teachers Association) is to abolish public-service unions. Teachers unions in particular are being scapegoated for all the ills afflicting public schools.  The media love to headline their shortcomings.  I acknowledge them, but I hasten to point out that without strong unions, teachers would be at the mercy of abusive principals.  The New York Times exposed such matters in 2004 at Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City’s elite high schools.  Without union protection, even exemplary teachers can be harassed to the point that they request a transfer or quit. That’s a lesson the nation will learn as the best and the brightest avoid making teaching a career. Given the present makeup of the Supreme Court, I expect the plaintiffs to prevail.


Parental choice is inevitable

Today marks the debut of the EdHed. The strange spelling you no doubt noticed is journalism-speak for headline.  For the past eight years, I weighed in on controversial issues in education for Education Week under the banner of Walt Gardner’s Reality Check.  I intend to continue to do so every Monday, Wednesday and Friday based on my experience teaching for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  As past readers know, I’m not an ideologue.

I’m devoting this first column to the highly emotional issue of parental choice because I believe public education in this country is at a crossroads that will make schools unrecognizable in the years ahead. There are already clear signs pointing in that direction but none more imminent than parental choice. No matter what has already been said by both sides about vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, for example, I expect parental choice to continue to dominate the news and commentary.

I received a first-rate education from K-12 in traditional public schools on Long Island, N.Y. decades ago, and strongly support them. But times have changed. I don’t know any parents today who are willing to sacrifice their own children for the sake of a principle. Parents of all backgrounds make huge sacrifices to provide their own with a quality education.  In fact, the reputation of a neighborhood school is one of the most important factors in buying a home or renting an apartment. Parents have been driven to commit residential fraud and risk arrest in order to enroll their children in schools they alone believe best meet the unique needs and interests of their children.

For low-income parents in particular, the demand shows no indication of abating, as the long wait lists for admission to charter schools attest.  That does not mean parental choice is a panacea.  I made this point in a letter to the editor of The New York Times (“On Closing Public Schools,” Feb. 20).  On the contrary, to achieve the goal of providing all students with a solid education, parents need to be informed.  There’s no question that this constitutes a burden on many parents who lack the education and/or time to investigate the options open to them. In an ideal world, of course, all neighborhood public schools would be so exemplary that no parent would want to look elsewhere.  But this has never been the reality.

I’ve heard all arguments about the issue.  There is much conflicting evidence, which is why parental choice tends to polarize Americans.  I can cite studies that support all sides.  But in the final analysis, I believe that most students would benefit when their parents are afforded the opportunity to decide by themselves what is best.  It’s appalling to hear stories of the steps that parents take to help their children receive a sound education.


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