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Filing isn't learning

Using students to help teachers with paperwork, and calling it a class, is part of what is stunting education.

September 12, 2007

Of all the useless classes foisted on California's high school students, few are as academically irrelevant as service class. Never heard of it? Maybe it's called "teacher's assistant class" at your neighborhood school, or perhaps it's listed as "independent study."

Students' duties in these electives are, by and large, similar: making copies, running errands, taking attendance, sometimes grading papers. Other electives are borderline irrelevant -- manicuring and cosmetology come to mind, particularly when they fail to prepare students to obtain licenses in those fields. But service classes are universally without instructional value.

So if they don't benefit students, why do schools offer them? Because they benefit adults.

Teachers are inundated with paperwork -- it's the No. 1 reason they abandon the profession -- and service classes provide unpaid aides. But students shouldn't be denied an hour of learning so that they might work, for free if for class credit, to lighten the load on those paid to teach. That's a particularly grim life lesson to give a teenager, and it's made worse by the shortage of substantive electives. Not all schools have sewing machines for fashion design classes or computers for programming, but there's always attendance to take.

There's more. An Oakland-based research organization has looked into these so-called classes and found, at least initially, that low-performing schools with poor and minority students offer them disproportionately. So the students who most need education are grading papers instead. And what is the No. 1 reason cited by high school dropouts for leaving school? They're bored.

At least, you are no doubt thinking, the Los Angeles Unified School District is chagrined by this problem and is rushing to solve it. Nope.

Board President Monica Garcia, a former guidance counselor at Foshay Learning Center, says she once thought service classes should be banned. Now, she says, the district has bigger fires to put out: Schools built for hundreds serve thousands; children land in the ninth grade with second-grade reading skills. In other words, some problems are just too low priority.

It is precisely that defeatism and lack of imagination that has stunted the educational lives of Los Angeles' children for far too long. Here's an alternative: Solve problems, starting with dead-end electives. Replace them with hours of learning. Teach kids, don't just house them. And yes, address overcrowding and reading too. It's not too much to expect the district to take on more than one problem at a time, and it's not too soon to ask it to start solving the ones it has.

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