YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Valley Perspective

On Giving Them What They Want

If public schools offered students more choices, classrooms just might shape up.

September 06, 1998|JACK SOLOMON | Jack Solomon is a professor of English at Cal State Northridge

Recently I spent eight hours in traffic school.

(All right, let's get this out of the way: I made a U-turn in a business district that I didn't know was illegal. I do now.)

There I was on a Sunday morning, with 40 other sleepy, cranky adults who would rather be almost anywhere else than in traffic school, wondering how I'd survive an entire eight hours of this. I did survive, of course, both because the instructor was unusually good and because I badly wanted that traffic school certificate.

Indeed, early on the instructor reminded us of why we were there. "You want something from me, and I have the power to give it to you or not." He made this comment to accomplish his most difficult job that day: keeping us in that dingy room for eight hours without a mutiny.

As a fellow teacher, I appreciated what he was up against. And as a fellow teacher, it got me thinking about teaching in the California public schools.

For you see, there's one of the keys to our current educational dilemmas: On any given day, some children don't want to be in school. That's universal. But on every given day, there are also some children who don't want what their schools have to offer. Under such circumstances, a teacher needs everything he or she can get to keep such reluctant scholars under control. That includes the skills to engage and amuse unengaged and unamused students, but it also includes the power to discipline unruly students and the knowledge that one's school administration will back one up.

From what I hear from one of my Cal State Northridge students who teaches in the Los Angeles Unified School District--and who, I am certain, is both engaging and entertaining in the classroom--such support from administrators is not always to be counted on. This student, whose life has been threatened by one student and who has been assaulted by another, has found that when he reports such episodes, the official response tends to be that the incident is probably his fault and, no, the school can't do anything about it, especially if the offending student has been already classified as an offending student.

This teacher is just about at the end of his tether, and (trust me on this) he is exactly the kind of teacher we don't want at the ends of their tethers. We want them in the classroom, not back in the high-paying jobs they left to become teachers and make a contribution to their communities.

Now, if such teachers could tell their classes what my traffic school teacher told my class, they might not need so much administrative support. If they could say, in effect, "Look, I have something you want very much and you're going to have to cooperate with me to get it," then maybe our public school classrooms would shape up a bit. There's nothing like desire to motivate someone.

That's why I like teaching in a university. My students want to be there because they have a choice in determining what they are there for, what career paths they have laid out for themselves.

Trouble is, students don't have many choices before college. With the exception of a few magnet programs, our schools basically offer a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Actually, there are two sizes: college-prep and non-college prep. But I don't count the non-college prep course as a curriculum. It is a holding tank for students who bother to wait for the legal age to drop out.

So long as we offer such a limited curriculum, teachers will not be able to motivate students who are not college-bound. We need to realize that our diverse student body has diverse desires, and college, for many, is not among those desires.

Don't get me wrong. I have often advocated a college education for everyone who wants one. But the key phrase is "for everyone who wants one." Some students would prefer training in a skilled trade to preparation for college. There are plenty of private trade schools that offer such training; why not offer it in our public schools?

Such a curriculum once existed. It was called (and this is now a dirty word in educational circles) "vocational education."

Vocational education today doesn't have to mean training for auto assembly lines (it better not), but it could be for computer programming, or auto repair, or any trade that requires complex skills but not a college diploma.

If the schools were allowed to offer students choices as to the kind of schooling they'd receive, we might find more students who actually wanted what the teacher had to offer. We can't turn our classrooms into eight-hour traffic schools where one only needs to grit one's teeth for a day and then get that "diploma," but we can try to provide different educations for different desires. This is educational heresy, I know, but it's worth thinking about.

And, yes, I did get my traffic school certificate. That will be me going 35 mph in a 35 mph zone and holding up traffic next time you see a long line of cars crawling down Tampa.

Los Angeles Times Articles