The Common Core debate

When a task force recommended a set of standards in 2009 that came to be known as the Common Core, it did so in the belief it was time to replace the hodgepodge of standards in place in the 50 states.  Little did the members know how controversial the standards would become (“ ‘Common Core’ Review: Standards Put to the Test,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 12).

I understand the frustration and anger that many people feel about the Common Core.  But I think there’s another side of the story that needs telling.  Although the U.S. has a long history of local control of education, the existence of national standards does not mean abolishing this tradition.  Despite rumors, nothing prohibits developing and implementing locally developed standards.

The fixation on local control forgets that in a mobile society those students who move from one state to another are shortchanged. Prior to the Common Core, high school diplomas could- and did – mean very different things from state to state and district to district.  I don’t think we can afford that in the global economy. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress make it painfully clear the price we pay for failing to change.

I’m not saying that national standards are a panacea for the ills afflicting public education in this country.  But I submit that they are indispensable.  It’s how the standards are used that should be our concern.  If they are used strictly for diagnostic purposes, they provide invaluable feedback to all stakeholders.  Unfortunately, they’re used for punitive purposes.  Quite naturally, they are resented and resisted.  Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, I think it’s time to use the Common Core more fairly.

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Discipline disparities reveal misunderstanding

One of the more troubling headlines in education is that black students are suspended three times as often as their white peers (“Why Are Black Students Punished So Often? Minneapolis Confronts a National Quandary,” The New York Times, Mar. 19).  The reflexive explanation is that teachers are racially biased.

There are some teachers who fall into that category.  But I think there is a far better explanation.  I maintain that the variations mostly arise from differences in student behavior.  If prejudice is indeed the reason, then why are white students disciplined at higher rates than Asian students?  Are schools also anti-white as well?

The lack of respect for teachers among students of all races today is appalling.  When I was in public schools on Long Island, N.Y. decades ago, teachers acted in loco parentis.  If any student continued to misbehave after a warning, the teacher took the miscreant by the arm and marched the offender out of the classroom. Maintaining order was essential to teaching.  No one question their authority.

I attribute the change largely to the student-rights revolution of the 1960s.  Supported by philanthropic behemoths, students began to challenge even minor discipline rules.  Stung by lawsuits, schools began to walk on eggs.  The landmark case in this regard was Goss v. Lopez.  In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court gave “every schoolchild the power to contest in court any decision made by his teacher.”  Only Justice Lewis Powell understood the consequences when he warned that students who fail to learn the necessity of rules will be handicapped throughout life.

We’re now reaping what the high court’s decision sowed.  The sad part is that black students who want to learn – and they are in the overwhelming majority – are denied their right to do so by the behavior of the few.  I think it’s time to focus on that injustice.

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Are teachers underpaid?

For as long as I can remember, teachers have complained about their pay.  The recent statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia and the threat of another in Oklahoma are the latest examples.  Whether teachers are indeed underpaid depends to a large extent on regional differences in the cost of living (“The Fight Over Teacher Salaries: A Look At The Numbers,”, Mar. 16).

Consider Indiana and California.  The average salary in the former is $50,715, while in the latter it is $72,842.  But when the cost of living is factored in, the two states’ salaries are within $100.  The Los Angeles Unified School District, where I taught for my entire 28-year career, has increased salaries over the last decade, with the maximum salary now $80,116.  But housing eats up a disproportionate portion of that.  For example, the rent for a typical one-bedroom apartment in West Los Angeles is $1,900.

Nevertheless, there are those who argue that teachers are not underpaid.   They say that total compensation amounts to about $1.50 for every $1 their skills could garner in a private sector job.  Put differently, a teacher earning $51,000 would receive another $51,480 in present or future fringe benefits.  In contrast, an employee in the private sector with the same salary would receive only about $22,185 in fringe benefits.  In short, salaries alone are a misleading gauge.  Fringe benefits and job security need to be taken into account.

Then there is the old argument that teachers teach fewer days and shorter hours than workers in the private sector.  They see teachers leaving school at 3:00 and assume that their day is over. They forget that teachers need to prepare lessons and correct papers even if they don’t do so on school grounds. Summer vacations are often spent taking classes or working a second job.

But I think the strongest rebuttal to the charge that teachers aren’t underpaid is the growing shortage.  If teaching is such a plum, then why aren’t more college graduates entering the field and making it a career?  In a real marketplace, supply and demand find a balance.  Somehow, that law doesn’t apply to teaching.

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Teachers deserve their pensions

A defined-benefit pension has long been a staple of the teaching profession.  But lately it is coming under fire as responsible for huge deficits in state budgets (“Pensions Under Pressure,” Education Next, Spring 2018).

Rather than rehash the failure of state legislatures to uphold their end of the bargain or argue for slashing pensions, I’d like to suggest another solution.  Teacher pensions at present are heavily back-loaded.  Salaries in the early years are kept low.  It’s only when teachers stay for 25 or 30 years do they get a payoff.  In other words, pensions plans are designed to favor the minority who teach in a single system for a working lifetime, while penalizing those who leave before then.  For example, the Pennsylvania Public School Retirement System estimates that about 80 percent of teachers will leave before their pension benefit is worth a single dollar.

There are talented college graduates who would like to teach if beginning salaries were higher.  Why not offer all new teachers the choice of bigger increases in the early years in exchange for a reduced pension at the end?  Personally, I prefer the traditional plan, even though I recognize its shortcomings.  But there are other teachers who for one reason or another would like to have a choice.  They might also favor a defined-contribution pension.

Finally, it’s time to consider making pensions portable.  Teachers are reluctant to leave their state’s plan if it means forfeiting what they’ve accrued. No one wants to leave money on the table. It’s here that charter schools are worth studying. Some 68 percent of charter schools opt out of state plans, offering a portable, defined-contribution plan.  That might appeal to young teachers fresh out of college who wish to teach for a few years before moving on to another career. With looming teacher shortages in science, math and special education already a concern, anything that can help alleviate the problem is worthwhile studying.

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Elite schools need no defense

Only in this country are schools dedicated to educating gifted students subject to unrelenting criticism (“Elite Schools Make Few Offers to Black and Latino Students,” The New York Times, Mar. 8).  That’s because differentiation in educating the young is anathema to America’s system of democratization. To put it differently, elitism is a pejorative term.

Critics of these so-called exam schools want them to be representative of the overall population of a community’s school system.  Therefore, if a city or town’s schools are, say, 67 percent black and Hispanic, then the elite schools should also mirror the same.  Or that these schools should enroll the same percentage of girls who live in the areas served. I don’t agree.  I don’t believe that excellence is distributed evenly or fairly in life.  Yes, we should try to provide equal opportunities for all students. But even if we succeed in achieving that goal, it does not necessarily follow that we will have equal representation.

Our competitors abroad have no compunction about separating out students early in their education.  For example, Singapore, which is known for the quality of its schools, begins the process with its primary school leaving exam and continues the process throughout the entire education years. Germany, which has the lowest rate of youth unemployment, evaluates children in the fifth grade to set them on a track that will largely determine their future careers.

No country can afford to neglect its most promising young people and be expected to prosper in the global economy.  There are some three million gifted students in the U.S. – about six percent of the student population.  The only initiative to specifically address their unique needs is the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act that was passed in 1988.  It has languished in the shadows ever since, receiving a congressional appropriation of a paltry $12 million in fiscal 2017.

Ironically, our aversion to elitism does not apply to sports.  The U.S. spends more tax dollars per high school athlete than per high school math student.  Further, critics do not demand that teams reflect diversity.  Yet they do in exam schools.  Apparently, athleticism has immunity.

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Stress takes a toll on teachers

With school shootings commanding the headlines, it’s easy to overlook another factor that affects the ability of teachers to do their jobs (“The hidden threat of teacher stress,” The Conversation, Mar. 2).  Nearly half of all teachers say they experience high-level stress on a daily basis.  That puts them in a tie with nurses.

Every job has stress, and not all stress is bad.  But when it remains intense for a protracted time, it extracts a price not only on teachers but on students as well.  When I began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1964, I was advised by my colleagues to take a “mental health” day off from time to time.  At first, I didn’t understand why that would be necessary.  But I soon began to appreciate their recommendation as demands increased.

Teachers today no longer have the freedom I had so many decades ago.  Pressure to post stipulated test scores and hit other targets has reduced them to virtual robots.  Whatever creativity they would like to employ has taken a back seat to quantifiable outcomes.  Even if teachers don’t quit, their morale suffers.  It’s little wonder that of those who stay, nearly two-thirds were “not engaged,” according to a 2015 poll.

This often takes the form of burnout.  I don’t see matters improving.  If anything, it’s going to get worse as scapegoating intensifies.  It’s time to consider buyouts for veteran teachers who are hanging on merely to maximize their pensions, which are based on salaries earned during the three highest years.  Another way is to institute front-loaded compensation.  Under this plan, teachers could choose to receive bigger increases in the earlier years of their career in exchange for reduced pensions.  I intend to address this alternative in greater detail in a column next week.

SAT and ACT fail the test

The SAT and ACT, the two psychometric icons that continue to drive fear into the hearts of students and their parents, are still defended by those who should know better (“The Truth About the SAT and ACT,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 10).  To understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at how they are constructed.

In the final analysis, their purpose is to help admissions officers rank applicants. I understand the need because high schools differ widely in their grading standards.  But if test designers loaded up their respective tests with items measuring only the most important material taught effectively in class, which is what they should be doing, scores would run the risk of being clumped together.  In that case, their usefulness to admissions officers would be severely diminished.

To avoid that possibility, test makers need to engineer score spread.  They’ve found through experience that the best way of doing so is to include many items that largely reflect the socioeconomic backgrounds of students. I’m not accusing them of trickery.  It’s simply a proven way of keeping their college and university clients happy.  (To its credit, the ACT is more closely aligned with what is actually taught in classrooms.)

The assertion that the SAT and ACT have predictive value has been found to be false.  Bates College engaged in a pioneering experiment in this regard by making test scores optional starting in 1984.  In 2004, the college announced that its 20-year study had found virtually no differences in the four-year academic performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and non-submitters of SAT results.  Today, some 1,000 colleges and universities make standardized test scores optional.

The other major claim that these tests are not coachable has also been found to be without merit.  Stanley H. Kaplan, who went on to establish the test-preparation company bearing his name, proved otherwise by helping students in his Brooklyn neighborhood dramatically boost their scores through constant practice.  When I was in high school, the College Board did not release old copies of the SAT.  I remember being given only a thin gray pamphlet with two examples for both the verbal and math sections.

I hope students and parents who are reading this column will keep these factors in mind.  In short, the SAT and ACT largely measure what students bring to class rather than what they learn in class.  That’s an important distinction given short shrift in the ongoing debate.


The other Super Bowl

It’s little wonder that school superintendent posts are so hard to fill.  The recent fiasco in New York City serves as a case in point (“Trying Again, de Blasio Names a New Schools Chancellor,” The New York Times, Mar. 6).  Just when the nation’s largest school district seemed to have Alberto Carvalho, head of the Miami-Dade district in the fold, he backed out at the 11th hour.  Embarrassed by the televised rejection, Mayor Bill deBlasio subsequently tapped Richard Carranza, the Houston schools’ superintendent.

The real question is whether Carranza will last.  I say that because urban superintendents are known for their short tenure. With the exception of Boston’s Thomas Payzant (11 years), Long Beach, Calif.’s Carl Cohn (10 years) and a handful of others, it’s a turnstile position.  I’m not at all surprised.  No matter how enthusiastic new superintendents are, reality soon wears them down.

It’s not necessarily a question of ability.  Even those with impressive credentials learn about the difficulty of building confidence among a host of stakeholders, including teachers, parents, and business leaders.  John Deasy learned that lesson the hard way when he was superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.  He failed to build alliances and was forced out in Oct. 2014.

Nevertheless, the Harvard Graduate School of Education thinks it has the answer.  In the fall of 2010, it enrolled 25 candidates for a new program in educational leadership.  The Ed.L.D. is the first new degree in 74 years offered by the school.

But I seriously doubt if the degree will achieve its goal.  Yes, heroic leaders can sometimes perform miracles.  However, they cannot be produced on a large enough scale to meet the nation’s needs. According to Public Agenda, 96 percent of practicing principals said their colleagues were more helpful than graduate studies in preparing them for the demands of the job.  I submit that applies even more to superintendents.

Just as exemplary teaching is more art than science, I think the same can be said of leadership.  I wish Carranza well in his new post, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch that he will beat the odds.



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.