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Tales of Walruses And Education, To Taste

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All of us must have been urged at one time or another: "Try it, you'll like it.'' Whether or not we actually got up the courage to dig into the fricasseed walrus or some equally exotic dish, we probably had enough of the American sense of fair play in us to admit that, after all, we really shouldn't knock what we haven't tasted, though we might still push away our plate and leave moot the question of quality.

But this sense of fairness is noticeably lacking when it comes to criticism of American education. In the last few years, schools and teachers have taken a fearful drubbing in the media and in political forums for the academic failures of their students. The indictment is full: Test scores are too low, writing ability is atrocious, and our children's all-around achievement compared with that of children in other industrial countries is appalling.

There's no denying the sad state of learning in our country, but the accusers have hauled the wrong defendant into the dock. Schools and teachers can't in all honesty be blamed for the shortcomings of their students, because there is ample evidence that American children haven't really tried our educational system. There's no telling if they would like it or not--and there's certainly no way the mass of them could possibly be good at it.

Consider, for example, the question of attendance. To begin with, the average American school year is far shorter than those in most other industrial countries. But even with their "soft'' schedule (or, perhaps, because of it), American students routinely run up huge totals of absences and cut classes.

In 1983, a New York City Board of Education survey concluded that more than a third of the students in the city's high schools were chronically absent and missed so much class time that it was nearly impossible to teach them. Two years ago, a national study reported that the "typical'' student cut 100 classes each year.

But, as a teacher, I don't need studies to tell me the true state of things. About five or six years ago, I began to do my own informal survey of students' attendance. The pattern has been consistent. On the average, my "good'' students, that is, those who are "sort of'' functioning, are absent 10 days each term (or 20 days per academic year), a rate of more than 10 percent. I doubt if many employers could run their businesses with that kind of liability. I never include in my calculations the records of the three, four, or five chronic truants in each class whose 30 to 60 absences would send the overall average through the ceiling.

There's other evidence that American youngsters aren't very committed to their education. After regular school hours each day, countless numbers of Japanese teen-agers march off to cram schools to prepare for nationwide exams. But, in increasing numbers, their American counterparts head for part-time jobs at the neighborhood fast-food restaurant.

A 1980 study cited by the authors of When Teenagers Work showed that 59 percent of high-school sophomores and 76 percent of all seniors "are likely to be in the labor force at any given point in the school year.'' If the pattern of recent years holds, the figures now are probably much higher.

All this has nothing to do with economic necessity, since available evidence shows that most of what teen-agers earn is used on discretionary purchases--stereo equipment, recordings, concert and movie tickets, and extra clothes. Large numbers of youngsters have made their priorities clear: The latest electronic gizmo is more important than achievement in school.

Unfortunately, our youngsters don't seem to get any more serious about education after they leave high school and enter college. The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1986, a survey of more than 200,000 students at 372 colleges, recently reported on how students themselves say they spend their time each week while attending school.

  • More than 50 percent admit to spending on average less than 45 minutes a day studying or doing homework.
  • Nearly 20 percent put in less than three hours of school work a week.
  • Fewer than 10 percent claim to spend 16 or more hours on their studies.

But where does all the time fly? Acccording to the statistics, nearly 20 percent of college freshmen spend 11 or more hours a week "partying,'' which is not to be confused with the far more popular "socializing with friends.'' Fifty-eight percent of those polled spend 11 or more hours a week doing that, and more than 1 out of every 10 spends a whopping 30 or more hours "hanging out.'' Close to three-quarters of the freshmen worked during their first year in college, and over 20 percent put in more than 20 hours a week.

  • With all the demands on their time, our college students can't possibly take their academic responsibilities very seriously. According to the figures in The American Freshman, school work gets almost exactly the same dedication as "hobbies.''

All this on-site dropping out might be attributed to our educators' failure to motivate their clients, which, of course, has to be true simply on the basis of the facts before us. But to say this is to beg the question of responsibility. After all, silly or trivial people can only be motivated by silliness or triviality, and would yawn prodigiously and often in the face of serious intellectual challenges.

We should remember, too, that Japanese high schools have a graduation rate of 90 percent, compared with our 75 percent--even with the Japanese system's great emphasis on the dreariest sort of rote learning and with no effort to adjust to individual differences with tracking or special classes. Motivation is expected to come from the students.

It may well be that the most severe critics of our schools are right. Perhaps our whole school system should be scrapped. Maybe our classrooms are staffed by doddering incompetents who should have their tenure broken over their pates. It's quite possible that our curricula and texts are hopelessly inept.

But the fact is that such judgments are premature. The evidence shows that large numbers of youngsters have never seriously tried the system. The success of recent Asian immigrants in our schools reveals the astonishing truth that highly motivated students who attend regularly and work conscientiously suddenly make our schools and teachers look good. We perpetually rediscover the wheel.

The latest generation of education reformers has come up with many sensible ideas for change. But just as with the fricasseed walrus, we'll never know if what we've cooked up is any good until our "customers'' try it.

Edmund Janko is a New York City high-school teacher and free-lance writer.

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