by Carol Jago

Carol Jago teaches at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA.

Students who can't keep up with math and literacy skills could opt for remediation or an apprenticeship program.

Watching friends' children applying to private high school wait nervously for their acceptance letters, it dawned on me that this is what public school students should be doing as well. Why is entrance to high school automatic? If every eighth-grader had to demonstrate minimum competency in math, reading and writing before being allowed to enroll in high school, more students might pay attention in middle school. Some might get the message that taking up space at a desk doesn't equal learning. A few might even begin to realize that free public education is a privilege.

       Seventy percent of any public high school administrator's time is spent tending to discipline problems caused by 10% of the students. One of the most obvious reasons teenagers disrupt class is that they simply can't keep up with the course work. The troublemakers figure that it's better to play the fool and cover up what they don't know. These ninth-graders then bring home a bouquet of Ds and Fs on the first report card, setting a pattern for the next four years. It seems to me that screening and remediation does these students a greater justice than punishing them for acting out.

       I am not suggesting that youngsters who cannot meet standards remain in middle school. If three years in an institution had little impact on their learning, a fourth is unlikely to either. Students who do not qualify for high school entrance should be offered two alternatives. The first would be the option to enroll in an accelerated program focusing on basic skills. Small, intensive classes would help students catch up, pass the entrance test and get on with their education.

       The second option would be for students who have no interest, at least at the moment, in education. These 14-year-olds would be able to enroll in apprenticeship programs where they could learn job skills in a field of their choice. Attendance would be mandatory until they are 16, but once they demonstrate their worth to an employer, there would be no reason why they couldn't be paid as they learn. The option to go back for the accelerated program would always be open and from there the door to high school or community college.

       High school is no place for students who don't know their multiplication tables. Can you picture Harvard Westlake accepting a student who didn't know fractions? I believe it is a reasonable expectation that entering freshmen should be able to read and write. It also is reasonable to expect that students will carry books and pencils and paper. Depending on when you last visited a public high school, you may or may not be surprised to see how many teenagers don't. The problem with this stance is that, unencumbered by the accouterments of a scholar, let alone his habits of mind, there is little incentive to behave like one.

       English teachers turn themselves inside out trying to figure out innovative ways of teaching a novel to students who won't read 10 pages for homework. Can you imagine reading all of "Lord of the Flies" aloud in class? No wonder both teachers and students are yawning.

       Rather than redesign curricula, let's first make sure everyone in class has the skills necessary to complete the work assigned. Once this has been ascertained, expect performance of each and every one. No coach would do less.

       When eighth-graders apply for entrance to high school, they and their parents should be asked to sign a contract. The agreement would spell out both what the student can expect from the school and what the teachers can expect from the student. Repeated failure to meet these terms on the part of the child would end not with rancor and an ugly expulsion but with admission to the internship program. If the evidence is that the teenager isn't in the mood for school, he shouldn't be there.

       A public education, while free, is expensive. We should start treating it as such.

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