Popularity contests favor neither kids nor teachers

November 18, 1997|By SUSAN REIMER

WORD HAS IT that the man who teaches ninth-grade government at the high school in my town is, like, way tough.

He is demanding, grumpy and deaf to the lexicon of lame student excuses and alibis, according to the grapevine.

He piles on reading assignments and bleeds red ink all over the miserable scribble that passes for writing by his students, says the rumor mill.

Future freshmen and their parents have heard the same scary stories about this teacher for years. But the same message falls differently on each set of ears.

While incoming ninth-graders would give this guy a wide berth, some of their parents would march them into his class by the collars on their shirts.

If students could choose their teachers, this one might be lecturing to 30 empty desks. If parents could choose their children's teachers, he might be lecturing in a football stadium.

I suspect that students -- when given a choice -- are likely to choose the path of least resistance through their education, so I read with alarm a newspaper report that a school superintendent in Virginia has proposed that high school students be permitted to pick their own teachers.

Edward L. Kelly of Prince William County schools suggested at a recent county-wide staff meeting -- among a great many other topics, he would like to point out -- that if his high school principals wanted to test this method of matching students with teachers, his office would help them set it in motion and evaluate its results.

What he did not propose was a popularity contest in which fun, easy teachers are rewarded with full classrooms and demanding teachers are voted out of a job. But that's what a lot of people heard, and you can just imagine the clamor. Just what we need -- a further emasculation of teachers by allowing students to judge them.

This is not unlike what happens at colleges and universities. If students don't sign up, you don't teach. But I must admit that I am among those who assume that if you give high school kids a choice, they will choose all-day lunch. Kelly gives them much more credit.

"We do so many mindless things in teaching," he says from his office in Manassas, Va. "And this is another example. Matching students with teachers is one of the most important things we do in education. Why would we let a computer do it?"

This change in the way students are scheduled for their classes would require a lot more work on the part of students, their parents, guidance counselors and school administrators. But Kelly makes the point that it is just the kind of homework that should be done in preparation for the most important element in teaching -- the relationship between the student and teacher.

"This would change the way business is done, no question," he said. "Right now we assign kids in a way that is administratively efficient, with no thought to what is in the best interest of the kids instructionally."

Student-choice scheduling would require more of a role for parents than showing up at the office in the chaos of the first week of school to try to wheedle a change of teachers. There is no question that involved parents would do the reconnaissance on next year's teachers and lean on their kids to make sensible choices.

But too many parents are not so involved, and there is a danger that students already handicapped by their parents' indifference would end up grouped by default with the least effective teachers.

"That concern is legitimate," says Kelly. "We would have to be pro-active. A student would have to have representation in making his selections and if his parents aren't willing to be involved, the school staff will have to step in.

"It has been my experience that demanding teachers will be more than full, no matter how you define demanding," Kelly says.

As a parent, I would love to have solid, comparative data on teachers and a role in choosing them for my children. But even if I had that information about a teacher -- which, as an aside, I think would be impossible to gather -- I still don't think I would give the decision-making over to my child.

You can't ask kids to find their best match in a teacher and decide what is best for their academic development. That is for the adults to decide.

"I don't think this is an example of a principal and his department heads abdicating their responsibility, but it is close to it," says Steve Plank, associate research scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools.

Plank suspects that such a system would corrupt the atmosphere in the classroom. "Teachers implicitly make treaties with students in the name of peaceful relations at the expense of academic rigor," is Plank's take. A student role in his teaching load would only accelerate a teacher's compromises.

Also, schools would sacrifice their ability to establish a diverse and healthy balance of students in each classroom according to things like gender, race and family background.

"If most of the girls or most of the white students choose one English teacher while most of the boys or most of the African-American students choose another, is the school going to honor these choices?"

Kelly's plan is well-intended. On the face of it, it makes sense that students should have as much say in their education as they have a stake in its outcome. And it is true that they are only a step away from college students, who regularly choose their teachers.

But the educational environment in high schools is as fragile and as combustible as the students who roam the halls. It does not make sense to put in these hands a decision for which there is so little quantifiable information -- a decision run through the rumor mill.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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