Vocational education is in high demand

No other country in the industrialized world treats vocational education as shabbily as the U.S.  It’s a huge mistake (“Perks for Plumbers: Hawaiian Vacations, Craft Beer and ‘a Lot of Zen,’ “The Wall Street Journal, May 24).

Consider the market for plumbers.  Job openings reached a record 6.6 million in March.  The annual median pay for plumbers was nearly $53,000 a year in 2017, but far higher wages are routine, with six figures not uncommon.  Vocational education in high school and in community college, combined with apprenticeships, prepare young people for a gratifying career without the onerous student debt that four-year degrees create.

Yet the U.S. persists in the fiction that college is for everyone.  It is a delusion.  The appalling failure of so many students to complete their education for a bachelor’s degree should be a rude reminder, but it isn’t.  As a result, we have a generation of young people whom we have shortchanged.

The usual argument about the premium attached to possession of a bachelor’s degree compared with a high school diploma does not take into account the kind of major studied.  I seriously question whether a B.A. in gender studies, say, is as valuable in the market as a certificate in, say, plumbing.  Let’s not forget that a degree almost always comes with student debt.  Nevertheless, I doubt anything will change.  We are obsessed with college for all.

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Keep elite schools elite

In a misguided attempt to help disadvantaged students, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to change the admission rules to New York City’s specialized high schools (“New York City Mayor Alters Exam-School Admissions,” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 2).  What will happen is that the very students he wants to help will be precisely the ones who will be harmed.

When students lack the wherewithal to succeed in academically rigorous schools, the curriculum will be diluted, the students will be placed in easier classes, or they will be flunked.  But de Blasio is determined to engineer a racially acceptable mix of students regardless of the damage he will do.  Not only will ill- prepared students suffer, but parents whose children are succeeding will likely pull them out to go elsewhere when they realize that rigor is undermined.

A far better way of increasing the number of disadvantaged students in elite high schools is to intervene early in their lives through wraparound services. Unfortunately, by the time these children enter kindergarten, they are already months behind.  When intervention is done properly, the payoff will be reflected in the number of students who can qualify on their own merits for admission to elite schools.

It would be a shame if New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, caves in to pressure and destroys its best schools without considering the consequences.  Nations with the best schools have no problem in differentiation beginning at an early age.  For example, Singapore, which consistently ranks near the top on tests of international competition, begins the sorting out process with its Primary School Leaving Exam.

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Workplace needs trump academics

Despite increasing attention to preparing students for the workplace, too many courses are still promoted as essential for success when, in fact, they are hard to defend.  I’m thinking now of calculus (“Who Needs Calculus? Not High-Schoolers,” The Wall Street Journal, May 15).

Since the 1980s, the number of high schools teaching calculus has grown dramatically.  For students who intend to major in math, physics, or engineering, calculus is indispensable.  But I wonder if most students would not be better off learning statistics or computer science?  Analyzing data in all their various forms is far more likely to be useful.

The argument against aligning courses with the reality of the workplace is that doing so turns schools into training camps for business.  But students and their parents are entitled to know if what is being studied has relevance.  There is some truth to the claim that it’s impossible to know the answer beforehand.  Yet the cost of going to college today is so exorbitant that few are willing to wait to find out.  They demand to see a direct connection between what they are studying and its marketability.

I remember when Latin was defended as essential.  But time has shown that its benefits were wildly oversold.  Latin is certainly academic, but I think students would be far better off learning Mandarin or Arabic as a foreign language.  It all comes down to its value in the workplace.

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Higher spending no guarantee of higher results in schools

The media love to point out that spending more per-student has not resulted in improved outcomes (“Why New York schools spend so much for such mediocre results,” New York Post, May 24).  New York State, which spends more to educate students than any other state, serves as a case in point.

Despite an outlay of $22,366 per student – nearly twice the national average of $11,762 – students in the Empire State perform worse than average on the National Assessment for Educational Progress.  According to critics, this disconnect is evidence that increased expenditures do not assure better results.

But the issue is not quite as simple as it seems.  To understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at school budgets.  About $8 of every $10 is used to pay for staff salaries and benefits. The purchasing power of salaries in most states has not kept pace with inflation.  As a result, teachers can’t be expected to produce better outcomes under the circumstances.  They’re barely hanging on.  For example, although New York City spends more than the nation’s other 10 biggest cities, the cost of living in New York City is also the highest.

Unions are blamed for driving up salaries while protecting underperforming teachers. That argument will be tested in the years ahead if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiff in the Janus case, as it is expected to do.  I’ll bet weakening unions will do little – if anything – to improve student performance, which in the final analysis is what is most important.

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The charter school advantage increases

Once considered an innovation, charter schools are now outranking even selective public schools (“Why it Matters That Public Charters Dominated the 2018 US News Best High School Rankings,” progressivepolicy.org, May 9).  As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I’ve also written often about the tilted playing ground on which charter and traditional public schools play.

Let’s start with funding.  Although charters technically are public schools, they are exempt from financial oversight.  They are free to do virtually almost anything they want in awarding contracts on everything pertaining to their operation.  Traditional public schools lack such freedom.  In fact, some things that charters do would be considered criminal.

Charters in most states also can hire non-certified teachers.  Traditional public schools by law cannot do the same.  The best they can do is to issue temporary, emergency credentials when they can demonstrate the need.  I realize that a credential is no assurance of classroom effectiveness, but it is better than no evidence of competency.

Charters also retain the right to push out students who are disruptive.  They do so by subtly counseling parents to look elsewhere for the education of their children.  Traditional public schools must enroll all who show up at their door regardless of motivation or interest.  Once enrolled, expulsion becomes almost impossible.

Despite these unfair advantages, I expect to see charter schools proliferate in the years ahead.  Anger and frustration over the glacial pace of improvement in traditional public schools will fuel the change. The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings will only accelerate the growth of charter schools.

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Do school closures work?

When schools are persistently failing despite efforts to help them, reformers argue that they should be shuttered. The strategy has great intuitive appeal, but does it do what it is supposed to? (“School Closures: When a School is More than Just a School,” National Education Policy Center, May 15).

A study that looked at Chicago, which five years ago closed roughly 50 schools housing 12,000 students, concluded that it didn’t work.  Putting aside the loss of a sense of community that schools foster, the move failed to help students.  Those who moved to schools with higher test scores posted lower achievement the first year and improved only slightly afterward.

Let’s take a closer look at the findings.  High test scores alone do not mean a school is good.  Such scores could be the result of turning classrooms into test preparation factories.  If so, it’s doubtful the school offers an improvement.  But there’s another factor given short shrift in the debate.  Students don’t always transfer to better schools, as assumed.  They may enroll in schools that are a better fit for one reason or another than those they left.

That’s why I support parental choice.  Parents differ widely in what they seek for their children.  The only common factor that I see is safety.  If a school cannot provide that, it needs to be closed.  I’m talking about repeated incidents.  No matter how academically outstanding, any school can be the venue for an isolated act of violence. But when students are subjected to repeated incidents, letting those schools remain open constitutes child endangerment.

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Compassion fatigue takes toll on teachers

The psychological and emotional strain on teachers brought on by ever- increasing demands affects students in ways that are not fully appreciated (“Who Is Taking Care of Teachers?” Education Week, May 8).  This compassion fatigue is insidious, slowly but surely undermining morale.

Chronic stress, which 46 percent of teachers report, forces them to call in sick.  The more absences teachers rack up, the less time they spend with their students.  It’s not surprising that teachers in schools with a large percentage of disadvantaged students are out more than their colleagues in other schools.  That’s because those students bring huge deficits to the class through no fault of their own.  Teachers have to attend to their needs before teaching subject matter. Excessive absences are then reflected in student underachievement in the former.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Burnout results in disengagement, which means merely going through the motions. A 2015 poll found nearly two-thirds were “not engaged.”  How can they be helped?  Unfortunately, schools and districts fail to provide the support teachers badly need.  The media pile on by focusing only on negative news.  Telling teachers about the importance of exercise and diet is important, but I question if that is nearly enough.

The way the typical school day is structured leaves little time to attend to personal needs.  That’s why I think it’s worthwhile scheduling periodic pupil-free days or at least shortened days so that teachers can confer with their colleagues and receive outside assistance.  I seriously doubt that will happen, as pressure mounts for measurable outcomes.  My suggestion would be seen as time away from instruction.  But instruction is only as good as the state of the mental and physical health of the teachers who provide it.

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School integration is hard to achieve

Despite the passage of 64 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, too many schools remain largely segregated.  That’s why a lawsuit organized by the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools will be closely followed (“New Jersey Law Codifies School Segregation, Suit Says,” The New York Times, May 18).

I say that because there seems to be a direct clash between New Jersey courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.  The former has ruled since the 1960s that even de facto segregation is unconstitutional.  Yet the U.S. Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley held in 1974 that school systems are not responsible for desegregation across district lines unless it is de jure.  Curiously, the plaintiffs in the New Jersey suit admit that it is de facto.  Which side will prevail?

But let’s assume for a moment that the high court rules in favor of the plaintiffs.  What can be done to integrate schools now that hasn’t been tried before?  Busing hasn’t worked for the most part.  Magnet schools are more promising, but they too are limited in their potential.  Integration is good for all students.  But the devil is in the details. As long as present residential housing patterns remain, I see little hope for significantly integrating schools.

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Standardized tests are useful when properly used

No other issue in education is as poorly understood as testing.  And no aspect of testing is more controversial than standardized tests. That’s why it’s ironic that on the same day as schools in New York State were administering standardized math exams, the state Assembly passed legislation to bar the results of such tests as part of the teacher and principal evaluation process (“State Assembly passes bill to stop schools from linking student test scores to teacher evaluations,” New York Daily News, May 2).

If I had not taught for 28 years, I would be totally opposed to the action.  After all, shouldn’t effective instruction be reflected in how students perform on a test?  But that view is based on the assumption that all tests are created equal. The fact is that tests are measuring instruments.  How they are designed largely determines student outcomes.

Most standardized tests are created to allow students to be ranked.  If test makers loaded up their instruments with the most important material taught effectively by teachers, scores would likely be bunched together, making comparisons difficult.  To avoid that possibility, the tests contain items that have been shown in the past to produce score spread. I call those trick questions. It’s unfair, but it produces the desired outcomes.

A far better use of standardized tests is for diagnostic purposes.  I believe teachers would welcome the results as a way of providing them with invaluable feedback.  Finland, which is known for the quality of its schools, uses that approach.  It does not name and shame schools, treating test scores confidentially.  I realize that many people will view this suggestion as an excuse for poor instruction.  But I submit it’s worth a try.  That’s why I’m not opposed to what New York State has done.

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High school graduation rise not what it seems

At first glance, the increase in the on-time high school graduation rate to 83 percent from 79 percent in 2010-11 is great news (“Is the high school graduation rate really going up? Brookings, May 3).  But a closer look reveals that it is no time for celebration.

To understand why, it’s necessary to keep in mind how the rate is calculated.  It takes the number of students in a school that enters the 9th grade (the cohort) and compares that number with the number graduating four years later.  It seems so simple and so fair.  But schools have learned how to game the process.

For one thing, they are not supposed to remove a student from the cohort until they receive a request for records from another school.  In other words, they are not supposed to count students as transfers when in reality they have dropped out.  But schools violate this rule to inflate their graduation rates.  They also fail to identify students who are enrolled in adult education, further distorting the data.

Finally – and most egregiously – they resort to credit recovery as a way to make themselves look good.  According to the Education Department, 89 percent of high schools offered at least one credit recovery course and 15 percent were in some credit recovery.  As a result, some 2 million or more high school students are in credit recovery each year.  Credit recovery allows students to get full credit for a semester’s work for a course lasting only one week.

On the basis of the evidence, the real graduation rate may actually be falling – not rising.  Only a thorough audit, combined with protection for whistleblowers, can determine the truth.

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