Helping America’s Struggling Students

More from our inbox:

  • Presidential Centers’ Warning About Democracy
  • Assault and Rage
  • Tommy Tuberville and the ‘Way of the Senate’

Credit…Jerome Gorin/PhotoAlto — Brand X Pictures, via Getty Images

To the Editor:

Re “We Can Fight Learning Loss Only With Accountability and Action,” by Michael J. Petrilli (Opinion guest essay, nytimes.com, Sept. 5):

Mr. Petrilli warns that U.S. students “are falling farther behind,” emphasizing that “this should be a national emergency.” He cites issues that stemmed from No Child Left Behind, the pandemic and the failure of politicians to act.

Yet Mr. Petrilli leaves out two of the biggest factors explaining why our students are struggling: the increase in mental health issues and social media addiction. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned that social media is the driving force in students’ mental health issues, calling it “the defining public health crisis of our time.”

As a public high school English teacher, I can attest to Dr. Murthy’s declaration. Unless you are in the classroom every day with students, it is difficult to understand the barriers that teachers face.

Mr. Petrilli writes that we need leaders willing to say “education matters” and “achievement matters,” and “educators who are willing to act as if these simple propositions are true.” Educators want this too. We want it more than anything.

What we don’t want is more people who are not in K-12 classrooms telling us what we are doing wrong without fully understanding the circumstances we are in.

Liz Shulman
The writer is a high school English teacher and an instructor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.

To the Editor:

I would suggest that Michael J. Petrilli look at Finland, where the state screens high school students for teaching aptitude and academic achievement, pays for their training and provides classroom support in their early years. There is an esprit de corps that exists between the government, the school administrators and the teachers that is lacking in U.S. schools.

Teaching is a calling with an economic disincentive. If you want the best minds with creative problem-solving abilities to be in front of your children, you have to lure them away from careers that have higher pay and shorter hours. You have to bolster the calling with compensation.

Another idea would be to make the year-round school model universal. Have schools teach for 10-week sessions, with short breaks in between with mini-enrichment opportunities, so students come back without suffering the learning losses evident in the current system.

Finally, stop age promotion. If a student is not meeting the required benchmarks, have a special class to bring him or her up to par. The most obvious areas are reading and math.

And yes, by all means, teach to the test. Just be sure that the test requires critical thinking skills, not just fact regurgitation.

Carmany Thorp
Mullett Lake, Mich.

To the Editor:

This article pinpoints what most of us already know: Our kids are in serious educational trouble. We can lay some of the blame on the pandemic, but certainly not all of it. Student learning has been going downhill for some time. And can we please stop blaming the teachers? Please.

My partner is a college admissions administrator at a small private liberal arts college. The stories he tells me about students’ inability to even write a literate sentence on an admissions essay are horrifying. I see the same deficiencies at my own work arena in law enforcement.

I grew up, as did my partner, in lower-middle-class surroundings where our fathers went off to work and our mothers stayed home. The emphasis in the home was always on education and achievement as a way to a better life. And we read books! And guess what? When we did not know a word, we looked it up. In an actual dictionary.

Students today have every imaginable educational resource in the classroom, and access to information on their phones and computers, yet still don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re.

Maybe a focus on basics? Call me crazy, but it just might be the ticket.

John Douglas Cameron
Hamburg, N.J.

To the Editor:

Michael J. Petrilli’s claim that teachers have “enjoyed a vacation from accountability” is breathtakingly counter to my daily experience as a veteran elementary school teacher.

In my own district, the relentless drive to raise test scores has forced schools to spend every waking minute on tested subject instruction at the expense of the time it takes to cultivate personal relationships, nurture the emotional well-being of students, and engage kids’ natural curiosity about the world and how it works.

Because we are sacrificing these crucial prerequisites to learning, children are showing up with unprecedented levels of anxiety and emotional dysregulation. They need love that is anything but “tough.”

The real education crisis is that teachers are fleeing in droves from misguided mandates. As a result, the threat of “stern consequences” to underperforming schools raises the question: Who will replace us if nobody wants our jobs?

Karen Engels
Cambridge, Mass.

Presidential Centers’ Warning About Democracy

The idea originated earlier this year at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes the Bush Institute, in Dallas.Credit…Alpha Stock, via Alamy

To the Editor:

Re “From Hoover to Obama, Presidential Centers Issue Rare Call to Protect Democracy” (news article, Sept. 9):

The fact that 13 presidential centers felt the need to issue a warning to the American people that our very democracy is at risk is a clarion warning if ever there was one.

Their statement tries to be nonpolitical, but any reader knows the message: Donald Trump and the MAGA-controlled Republican Party are a clear and present danger to the continued existence of the United States as a democratic republic.

The struggle has started, and no one can avoid the consequences should we fail to uphold our founding fathers’ vision.

Robert S. Carroll
Staten Island

Assault and Rage

Credit…Nicole Rifkin

To the Editor:

Re “Beware the Men Who Double Down” (Opinion guest essay, Sept. 11):

Elizabeth Spiers captured the wave of emotions that can overwhelm you after a fleeting assault by a stranger: freezing, then raging, then rationalizing what happened. While Ms. Spiers was grabbed on the breasts, I was grabbed in the crotch while running one day along the Charles River in Boston.

A young boy on a bike, probably no older than 8, thought it hilarious that he could grab me between my legs as he cycled past me going the other way. I stopped dead in disbelief. But within 10 seconds, a blazing fury rose inside me, and I tore after that boy. Then a competitive runner full of strength and swagger, I chased him for at least a mile, determined to punch his baby face and toss his bike in the river. He escaped.

That afternoon, still jangly over the violation, I realized that carrying out my revenge would have hurt me more than him; adults can’t sock kids without consequence. Thirty years later, I still think about that boy, and wonder if he grew up to do far worse to other women in his way.

Linda Flanagan
Summit, N.J.

Tommy Tuberville and the ‘Way of the Senate’

Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, has held up military nominations in protest of a Pentagon policy created to ensure that service members have access to abortions and reproductive health care.Credit…Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Abortion Stand by One Senator Stalls Pentagon” (front page, Sept. 14), about Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama:

It isn’t just one senator; it’s also the 99 other senators who let him get away with it. The excuse that it’s the “way of the Senate” begins to sound like an Edith Wharton novel. The senators could change the rules, but the rules are more sacred than all other considerations.

Fredrick Cotton
Irvington, N.Y.

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