When Students Run the Classroom

Here’s an easy question: What would happen if children were allowed to come up with their own grading rules?

Common sense -- not an immediate recollection of the plot of Lord of the Flies -- is all one needs to possess in order to know that rudderless kids just might come up with a system that puts immediate gratification before, say, scholarship. It’s not unlikely, for example, that 20 5th graders  could put aside their feuds to  agree on the following:

  • Homework grades should be given only when the grades will “raise a student’s average, not lower it."
  • Students who flunk tests can retake the exam and keep the higher grade.
  • Teachers cannot give a zero on an assignment unless they call parents and make “efforts to assist students in completing the work.”
  • Teachers must accept overdue assignments.
  • High school teachers who fail more than 20 percent of their students will need to develop a professional improvement plan and will be monitored by their principals.

Thank goodness grownups are in charge of our schools, right? Before you breathe a sigh of  relief, I should point out that these five commandments weren’t written by angry 10 year olds during detention.  They come to us courtesy of the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), the twelfth largest school district in the country.

The Dallas Morning News reports that the rules are the latest step by DISD to standardize instruction across the district. Slacker kids in Dallas already had it pretty good thanks to a policy that prevents students from getting a grade lower than a 50 for any one grading period. Trustees reaffirmed that rule last year for this reason: students who fall below 50 have no motivation to bring up their grades.

The obvious fact that the new “get out of jail free” policies offer an incentive for children to do poorly in school (the opportunity cost of playing video games goes down as homework becomes optional) seems to have escaped those entrusted with the education of Dallas students. If there’s one thing I learned during my seven years as a teacher in South Los Angeles, it’s that kids aren’t dumb -- especially when it comes to taking advantage of grown-ups. From the article: “One student thought that some students would exploit the rules knowing that doing so would come with light or no penalties.” A high school senior, also able to put two and two together, said, “This seems to teach procrastination.” You don’t say!

Unfortunately, American students seem to have already mastered the art of procrastination.

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, recently gathered together some shocking statistics:

  •  The 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement found that 55 percent of high school students spent less than one hour per week "Reading/studying for class." Only 10 percent exceeded ten hours per week.
  • The University of Michigan reported in 2004 that homework time for 15-17-year-olds reached only 24 minutes on weekend days and 50 minutes on weekends. Weekday TV time was one hour, 55 minutes.
  • In 2004, the Horatio Alger Association found that 60 percent of teenagers logged five hours of homework per week or less.

There’s no doubt our nation’s public school are a disaster, and I wholeheartedly support school reform options, including vouchers, merit pay, and charter schools. But should it be verboten to think that even the worst school could improve dramatically if students were expected to work hard and not granted an inordinate amount of power relative to teachers? Although teachers’ unions usually do all they can to stand in the way of education improvement, I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement when I read the reaction to the DISD polices from  Aimee Bolender, head of the Alliance/AFT teachers' organization. "There is a constant shift of accountability away from the students and onto the teachers," she said.

Indeed, a closer look at the DISD policies reveals that if any Dallas student were to decide to turn off their Wii and hit the books for a couple of hours one night, their teachers would be … at fault! Middle school teachers are told to assign “no more than 1.5 hours per night or seven hours per week.” Meanwhile, Dallas school superintendent Michael Hinojosa claimed the new rules were aimed at curbing the district's alarming ninth-grade failure rate. So let me see if I’ve got this right. Eighth graders who very well may be at risk of dropping out of school shouldn’t be assigned more than an hour and a half of homework, even though “in 2007 80 percent of [ninth graders] scored below the 40th percentile in reading on the Iowa Test of Educational Development.”

Has assigning “too much” homework become the equivalent of grading exams in red ink? You’ll remember that teachers across the country retired red pens a few years ago after color psychologists said purple “calls attention to itself without being too aggressive.” What’s next -- investigating teachers for yelling? Don’t laugh. Education Department officials are already doing just that in Australia.

What’s missing from so many public schools today is old-fashioned authority. As all good teachers know, it’s more important that kids respect you than “like” you. I can’t wait to get my copy of David Whitman’s new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, which seems to support what I’m saying. Whitman explains what makes the high-achieving schools he profiles in the book work:

By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance.

School districts across the country take note. The first way to turn your struggling schools around is to not force teachers to take a student at her word when she says her dog ate her homework.