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Books: Grades and Payoffs: On Students Lack of Commitment

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In Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School, Samuel G. Freedman follows a New York City teacher, Jessica Siegel, through a year at Seward Park High School.

Mr. Freedman here describes the "acceptance of inadequacy" common among the school's students--many of them children of recent immigrants--and its debilitating effects on both pupils and teachers:


The same faces return to [Ms. Siegel's] class two or three terms in a row, smiling faces, faces of houseguests who do not realize they have overstayed their invitation.

And many of those who do not fail settle for such a meager measure of success. It is rare for a student to argue about a grade with Jessica, the way students at elite high schools routinely dicker over the difference between an 88 and a 91. When Jessica returns tests, the question she hears classmates asking one another is not, "What'd you get?" but "Did you pass?" Passing is sufficient; passing is enough. ...

What have these students learned? What have they mastered? They have learned the uses of image. They have mastered mirrors.

Who has taught them? In part, their teachers. They understand from experience that if you show up (most of the time), hand in homework (every so often), and keep quiet (this is paramount), you will receive your 65 and be permitted to shuffle on toward a diploma and a mortarboard. Appearance is all. ...

[A]ny student knows that what is important is not comprehending the material; what is important is taking notes so the teacher can see you taking notes; what is important is less being a student than resembling one. The kids call the technique "brain checking," the mental equivalent of racking a coat when you enter a restaurant.

For Jessica, the prevailing metaphor is Liquid Paper. So many Seward Park students carry Liquid Paper that a visitor might think he or she had wandered by mistake into the sort of secretarial academy that advertises in matchbooks. The gifted carry Liquid Paper; the dim carry Liquid Paper; the gang members carry Liquid Paper, stowing it along with their beepers and knives.

Jessica hands out a test. It contains two essay questions, plenty of work for a 40-minute period. She looks across the room, sees two or three kids applying Liquid Paper to their prose as gingerly as debutantes painting their nails.

"Just cross out!" she shouts.

"But I want it to be neat," comes the answer.

"I don't care. I'm interested in your ideas."

How many times can you insist before you bore even yourself?


Harper & Row, Publishers, 10 East 53rd St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 431 pp., $22.95 cloth.

Whether in privileged or disadvantaged settings, teachers report that a discouragingly large number of students lack commitment to "real learning," Susan Moore Johnson, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, notes in the following excerpts from Teachers at Work: Achieving Success in Our Schools:


Teachers believe that their prospects for success are increased when students believe in the promise of formal education. For economically privileged children, the payoff of school success is readily apparent in the lives of their friends and neighbors.

For children living in communities where few adults finish high school, and even those who do remain unemployed, the value of a sustained personal investment in schooling is far less obvious. When a high-school teacher tried to convince a student not to drop out of school, the student argued, "My sister has a high-school diploma. What is she doing? She has an ordinary job." ...

Students may see little purpose in schooling and receive double messages about the worth of regular attendance and serious work, though teachers try to persuade them that school success is important. Sometimes teachers can compensate for their students'4lack of commitment to schooling, but they seldom compete successfully with influential peers who consider school a waste of time.

Some students demonstrate their disdain for education by physical absence or lack of effort. An urban high-school teacher said that the greatest source of stress in her work is students who do not "seem to even care. Students are satisfied with a D-minus. 'Give me a D-minus and let me get out of here.' No one cares about striving to be excellent any more."

In some suburban schools, where students competed aggressively for grades, teachers observed that many of their students respected the power of formal credentials, but had lost their interest in real learning. A suburban physics teacher described her frustrations:

"They all want to go to the good colleges, and they want to get good grades, and they want to do whatever they have to do to get a good grade, but they don't really equate that with understanding material or working--just whatever little tricks they might do that would get them a good grade without working too hard. That's what they're looking for."


Basic Books Inc., Publishers, 10 East 53rd St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 395 pp., $22.95 cloth.

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