Teacher tenure needed more than ever

Teacher tenure is depicted by critics as the villain in attempts to improve education.  Yes, there have been abuses, but there’s another side of the story that deserves telling (“Dear Mr. Chancellor, please stop the grade-fixing in NYC schools,” New York Post, Apr. 14).  The latest example is the wholesale grade-fixing fraud orchestrated by the principal at John Dewey High School in the New York City system.

When Kathleen Elvin became principal in 2012, she launched “Project Graduation” in an attempt to boost the graduation rate.  Aside from shortchanging students through credit recovery courses, she retaliated against unwilling teachers by giving them the lowest rating of “ineffective.” Two teachers blew the whistle, which eventually led to an audit by the state Education Department confirming the fraud.  But the Board of Regents has never held any guilty party accountable.

Here’s my point: If the teachers who exposed this scandal did not possess tenure, they would have been fired under some trumped-up charge. Even with the existence of tenure, teachers are still harassed by abusive principals.  But at least they still have their jobs.  Exemplary reputations do not protect teachers from such abuse.  What puzzles me in this case is that the two whistleblowers say the United Federation of Teachers failed to support their cause.  Bully principals are nothing new.  I’ve written before about the situation several years ago at Brooklyn Tech, an elite high school in the New York City system.

If tenure were abolished, how many teachers would be willing to expose similar scandals?  Tenure merely guarantees that teachers receive due-process protection.  It’s important to keep that in mind as pressure mounts to eliminate it or gut it.  As Sir William Blackstone wrote in 1765: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

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Student loan forgiveness for teachers

One of the disincentives in recruiting college graduates to become teachers is the mismatch between starting salaries and loan repayments. After all, who wants to take a job that pays so little and still be saddled with onerous monthly loan repayments?  That’s why the public service loan forgiveness program offers hope (“A Student Loan Fix for a Teacher, and Many Other Public Servants,” The New York Times, Mar. 30).  The rules are complex, but the payoff is worthwhile.

The program allows people working full time for qualified employers, which includes school districts, to apply for tax-free federal student loan forgiveness after 10 years of on-time payments. So far so good.  But much depends on two other conditions.  The loan has to be a direct loan from the government and the payment has to be income-based.  Perkins loans and Federal Family and Education Loans do not qualify.

There was a time when graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree could be done without going into hock.  But today, most families can’t afford the skyrocketing tuition.  As a result, students take out loans without giving enough thought to the terms and conditions.  I think it’s time to change the rules to make it easier for college graduates to make teaching a career.  They’ll never get rich doing so, but with the burden lifted off their shoulders they may be more attracted to the classroom.

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Community colleges are best buy

Once considered a refuge for high school graduates who were rejected by four-year institutions, community colleges today are increasingly the destination for those wanting to spend less for a quality education (“Middle-Class Families Increasingly Look to Community Colleges,” The New York Times, Apr. 8).

I completely understand their appeal.  The truth is that enrollment in an elite college or university is no assurance of effective instruction.  Professors are more concerned with their publications than with their pedagogy.  In contrast, community college instructors have no such pressure.  As a result, they can focus on teaching without fear of being dismissed.  For students who have graduated from high school with deficits in particular, community college is a cost-effective way of getting back on track to graduation.

But even students who have graduated from high schools with excellent reputations are rethinking their decisions.  For example, Pasadena City College had a 320 percent increase in the number of students whose parents make more than $100,000 a year.  It’s a trend seen in other community colleges as well.

For high school graduates who want to learn a well-paying trade, community colleges are a bargain.  Classes are taught by professionals who bring their expertise from years of experience in their respective fields to the classroom.  Rather than pay thousands of dollars to for-profit trade schools, students get the same benefit for a fraction of the cost.

When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA in 1964, these schools were called junior colleges.  The name change reflected their wider mission, which today is well deserved.

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Education v. training

One of the criticisms of high school is that it doesn’t prepare students for the real world (“I learned nothing at one of NYC’s elite high schools,” New York Post, Mar. 31).   There is some truth to that complaint, but it confuses education with training.

Although they sometimes overlap, they are not synonymous.  Education is concerned with concepts; training is concerned with techniques. If students want to learn the skills and knowledge that are immediately useful for getting a job, they should choose a vocational curriculum.  I’ve long maintained that many students would be better served not going to college.  Apprenticeship programs would be a far better fit for them. A new kind of post-secondary education is also proving popular.  It’s billed as a college alternative for the digital age.  Students enroll in a one-year program requiring 40 to 50 hours a week of studying.  They agree to pay the school a percentage of their income for three years after graduation.

Whether a traditional academic education is worth pursuing depends on personal factors.  Students have been brainwashed into believing that without a four-year degree from a marquee-name school they have a bleak future.  That is a total distortion of reality.  Welders, for example, are in short supply and earn close to $100,000. I had students in my high school English classes who were clearly not college material.  Those who went on to learn a trade today make a solid middle-class income.  I question if a degree would have made any difference in their satisfaction.

Germany and other countries are more realistic than we are about sorting out students.  As a result, they have the lowest unemployment rate among young people in Europe.  Only the most intellectually able are admitted into university.  But this differentiation is anathema to our belief in democratization.  I say we do our young people a grave disservice by persisting in the fiction that college is for everyone.

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Yeshivas don’t have legal immunity

Like all private and religious schools, yeshivas are required to provide students with “equivalency of instruction.”  But those in New York City at least have failed to do so for many years (“Why Is New York Condoning Illiteracy?” The New York Times, Apr. 4).

I support the right of parents to send their children to schools they alone believe meet their unique needs and interests. The U.S. Supreme Court first affirmed this right in Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925 and then again in Wisconsin v. Yoder almost 50 years later. However, this does not exempt such schools from complying with the law.  Allowing yeshivas as well as any other private and parochial schools to do so leaves children ill prepared for the realities of life.

Fearful of the charge that they are foes of religious freedom, lawmakers have dragged their feet on forcing compliance.  In the meantime, students in these schools are being shortchanged at a time when they are most in need.  It’s a scandal that deserves immediate correction.  Each passing day leaves students behind their contemporaries in other schools.

What will happen if regular inspections of yeshivas show that the law is being violated?  Will they be forced to shut down?  The issue is now on display in New York State, where recent legislation carved out special standards for schools with long school days, bilingual programs and nonprofit status in determining if they complied with the law.  For the first time, the state education commissioner was given the authority to make that decision.

Adding to the outrage is that yeshivas receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding through Title I and Head Start, as well as by state programs like Academic Intervention Services and universal pre-K.  The high birth rate among the ultra- Orthodox will only increase the burden on taxpayers.  It’s a situation that I believe will lead to litigation.

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Why tracking is controversial

Ability grouping of students is coming under fire once again (“It’s The Lower Ability Students Who Lose Out Through Streaming,” Forbes, Mar. 22).  The latest charge is that low-ability students are being shortchanged because their teachers adhere to a narrower curriculum and inferior instruction.  As a result, students fall behind by one or two months a year on average compared with students of similar levels of attainment in mixed ability classes.

But what would be the effect on other students if low-ability students were not tracked?  Don’t the former have the right to curriculum and instruction geared to their needs and interests?  What about the effect on teachers who would be saddled with preparing different lessons during the same class period?

I had several remedial English classes during the 28 years that I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  I was far more effective with them than I was when they were included in regular classes.  I say that because I was able to design lessons specifically in line with their capabilities.  There are few things more demoralizing than to see students struggling and failing.  They tend to be those who drop out of school.

I see nothing wrong with placing students in classes in line with their needs and interests.  After all, don’t educators constantly talk about the importance of doing precisely that?  Tracking is a strategy that serves them well.

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Equality of group outcomes is a fantasy

Whether it’s in school or in the workplace, the U.S. is obsessed with engineering equal patterns of results for all groups (“The University of Denial,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 23).  When the goal is not achieved, charges of discrimination in one form or another are blamed.

But the truth is that no group is a monolith.  Some members are smarter or work harder than others.  To attribute differences to anything else denies reality.  I’ll restrict my comments to schools in this column, although I submit that they apply elsewhere as well.

Differences among groups of students are referred to as the achievement gap.  Whenever it occurs, these differences are said to be ipso facto evidence of discrimination. Yet so many disparities happen because people make different choices.  No matter how hard we try to provide equal opportunities, there will always be unequal outcomes.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t do more to help students be the best they can be (the old Army recruiting slogan), but we need to accept reality.

In 2006, Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder published a paper whose title summarized my view: ‘Proficiency for All’ – An Oxymoron.  “No goal can simultaneously be challenging to and achievable by all students across the entire achievement distribution.”  No standard can do both.  In short, we can’t have it both ways. Yet we persist.  I submit that diluting standards eventually harms those it purports to help.

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Student assaults on teachers

As if teachers don’t already have enough to contend with beside teaching their subject matter, they are increasingly worried about their own physical safety (“Student faces sentencing in attempted sex assault on teacher,” The New York Post, Mar. 14). I’m not talking about outsiders. According to federal data, 5.8 percent of the nation’s 3.8 million teachers were physically attacked by a student in the 2015-16 school year.  Almost 10 percent were threatened with injury. Yet more is written about students’ rights.

How did things get so bad?  I trace the root of the problem to the student rights revolution of the 1960s. Prior to that time, teachers acted in loco parentis.  But in 1965, lawyers began suing schools for disciplining students in a move backed by the federal government and philanthropic behemoths.  In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Goss v. Lopez that students had the right to due-process protections for even the most minor aspects of school discipline. Not surprisingly, schools began to walk on eggs when student misbehavior was involved.

We are reaping the results.  When I was in public school, teachers were always respected, even if they were not especially liked.  That meant following instructions and never talking back.  Assaulting a teacher was unheard of. The criticism aimed at discipline policies is that they allegedly create a school-to-prison pipeline, particularly for black students who are suspended or expelled at higher rates than white students.  But white students are disciplined at higher rates than Asian students.  Does that mean schools are anti-white?

I believe that without decorum, learning is almost impossible.  That goes for students of all races.  When teachers fear for their own safety, they can’t possibly do their job.  Even if they recover from physical injuries, they are psychologically damaged.  According to the American Psychological Association, the nationwide costs of victimization of teachers exceeds $2 billion annually, which is why disruptive students must be immediately removed from classrooms without fear of a lawsuit.

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Teacher licensing reform is needed

With shortages looming as veteran teachers retire, it’s time to take a closer look at present licensing (“A Model for Licensing Reform,” The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 4).  Although most states still require possession of a bachelor’s degree plus a year of student teaching for certification, alternative pathways exist.  Whether they undermine classroom effectiveness largely depends on how the programs are structured.

Colleges of education and teachers’ unions maintain that only traditional programs can produce quality teachers.  There is much truth to their argument because mere knowledge of subject matter is not enough.  But a study by Paul Peterson and Daniel Nadler of states with quality alternative pathways to teaching found test-score gains on NAEP in 4th and 8th-grade math and reading over students in other states between 2003 and 2007.

The key word here is “quality.”  For example, Texas is the only state that allows for-profit companies not affiliated with higher education institutions to offer teaching certificates.  Such programs can take as little as three months to complete and cost about $4,000.  I seriously doubt that these programs can prepare its students for the realities of the classroom.  Yet they exist.

I’m open to alternative licensing programs as long as they produce evidence that they don’t shortchange their graduates.  One promising approach is to have a panel of well-trained judges observe a candidate teach a class.  Auditions have long been used with great success in the performing arts.  I fail to see why they can’t be used in identifying qualified teachers. So far, however, the innovation has not caught on. I realize that it takes time to develop the wherewithal to be effective in the classroom. But some college graduates are “naturals” who should not be forced to sit through classes of pedagogy.

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Homeless students overwhelm schools

When persistently failing schools try to explain that there are factors beyond their control for their situation, they are accused of making excuses.  But I ask critics to consider the growing number of homeless students before leveling that indictment (“New York City Is Failing Homeless Students, Reports Say,” The New York Times, Mar. 16).

While it’s true that every large city has its share of homeless children, New York City is in a league of its own.  According to two new reports, there were 111,500 in the 2016-17 school year.  That compares with 100,000 in the previous school year.  They miss an average of 41.6 days during a 178-day school year.  How in the world can teachers do their job when they face such odds?  Family-assistance workers who are responsible for helping the 32,243 students in city shelters have an average caseload of 293 children each.

The closest I came to teaching a homeless student involved a young man in my first-period senior composition class.  Several times each week he asked if he could go to the school library.  When I asked why, he told me that he worked on the waterfront late into the night and needed to take a nap.  The reading room of the library was ideal for that purpose. How he managed to graduate on time is beyond me.  But because he was able to double up in the apartment where the rest of his family lived, he was actually better off than other students who don’t have even that.

Public schools by law must enroll all who show up at their door.  They can’t refuse admission.  Yet they are not given the resources they need to face new realities.  No teacher can teach students who are not in school, and few can teach students who attend without proper rest and nutrition. These are explanations – not excuses.

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