Education Opinion

Reform, Student Style

By Edmund Janko — January 23, 1991 4 min read

The public schools have always been attractive targets for dogooders and reformers who want to implement utopian visions. And since A Nation at Risk helped quicken the impulse for educational change, we’ve had business and political leaders, professional groups, and concerned citizens busy producing a cornucopia of nostrum--merit pay, parental choice, restructuring, magnet schools, etc., etc. etc.

Everyone seems to have a laundry list of bright ideas to improve learning and save the Republic.

But all of the great national debate seems to be based on the curious assumption that students are sitting passively in their seats, pencils poised and notebooks open, waiting for the right reforms to blanket them like manna from heaven.

What never occurs to most people is that the kids might have their own “reform” agenda that has nothing to do with the lofty visions discussed in the corridors of power.

Of course, the Reform Movement has inspired interesting changes in our schools. But the evidence in the classroom suggests that it’s the Kiddie School Reform Movement that’s had a far greater impact than all the initiatives from think tanks, state capitals, and chancellors’ offices put together.

What I have seen as a high-school teacher is that, over the last decade, students have “voted with their feet” and firmly put into place a sweeping modification of all academic standards and expectations.

Back in the spring of 1980, for example, my English department voted to eliminate book reports, long a staple of our curriculum. According to the new policy, all readings would be “teacher supervised,” which meant, in effect, that we would now expect the kids to read three books a term instead of six, and nothing on their own.

This astonishing lowering of standards was not the result of a fleeting whim, but of a long-standing war weariness. The kids simply wore us down.

For at least five years prior to our new policy the majority of students absolutely refused to take book-report assignments seriously. Increasing numbers refused to hand in anything; others shamelessly cribbed from ponies. Obviously, in spite of a great expenditure of energy on our part, very few books were being read. We were looking more and more foolish in pretending that we were requiring book reports. And, of course, it was unthinkable to have failure rates of 75 to 80 percent as a result of an unworkable policy.

In retrospect, this was probably the opening salvo of the Kiddie School Reform Movement. What followed should have been predictable.

The situation now is that almost no reading homework is required. Students for the most part, for one reason or another, will simply not do it, so that teachers must prepare their lessons with the assumption that reading will mainly be done in class.

First book reports, then homework!

One of the ironies of the kids’ reform movement is that it sometimes coincides with the establishment movement. For example, one of the perennial complaints of high-school English teachers is that classes are simply too large for serious work in composition. In the past, there were too many papers to grade. One writing assignment would tie me up for days and perhaps weeks. But kiddie reform has “solved” this problem. Students just don’t do the assigned writing.

In the spring term of 1990, in a junior class with a register of 33, only 14 assigned essays based on an interview were handed in. That, of course, was homework. But the results weren’t any better with writing assignments in class. Only 16 papers were handed in when students were asked to write a brief response to a three-page short story.

This is a typical class chosen at random from my grade book. But the bottom line is this: Thanks to the Kiddie School Reform Movement, we English teachers finally have the kind of paper-grading load we always longed for. The establishment reform movement hasn’t been nearly so effective.

Another reform battle the kids have won is on the attendance front. For years, our school published an “excessive absence list,” which meant automatic failure for students whose names were on it. But with the passage of time, the absentee rate exploded, and, based on our old standards, we would have been faced with failure rates of up to 80 percent. I did an informal survey of my classes in 1984 and found that the average student (not including chronic truants) was absent nearly 20 times a term, out of approximately 80 teaching days.

The board of education eventually caved in and declared that no student could be failed simply for excessive absence. With no official policy, each teacher was on his own, which made it easy for the kids to pick us off one by one.

I have before me copies of representative final report cards. One student was absent for 29 days, yet managed to pass all subjects with a 70 average. Another ended with a 79.4 average, along with 16 absences and 19 latenesses. Interestingly (and depressingly), this same student was a chronic class-cutter, missing 22 science classes but receiving an 85 for her final grade.

Despite some lip service to the contrary, the school administration has de facto accepted the Kiddie School Reform Movement policy that attendance doesn’t matter. Just last term, I received a note from a grade adviser gently urging me to consider passing a football star who had been absent 32 times!

For the vast majority of teachers, the reforms of legislative commissions and foundation studies remain an abstraction. The reality in the classroom is that the kids didn’t wait. They did the job themselves.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as Reform, Student Style