Recently I visited an English class as students were asked to turn in their essays on Julius Caesar. As the papers students had been working on for weeks drifted toward the teacher's desk, one young man leaned back in his chair, arms crossed, obviously paperless. The instructor politely inquired as to the whereabouts of his work.
"I don't do essays," was the boy's response.
He doesn't "do" essays? Though an accidental witness to this exchange, I was livid. In a high school English class, essays are not optional. What upset me was that this student felt within his rights to declare that he would not complete the assignment.
Should he pass the class? Should the teacher design alternative avenues for this student to demonstrate what he knows about Shakespeare? I used to think yes, but I have changed my mind.
With the right to free public education comes the responsibility to do the work. Of course we want teachers to provide support for struggling students and to offer them many different ways of acquiring basic skills. Of course we want to furnish extra assistance for children who can't get help at home. But lowering expectations beyond all recognition of what high school work looks like helps no one. And allowing students to slip through school, passing while doing almost nothing, is educational malpractice.
For a decade, high schools have beat themselves up over high dropout rates, doing anything to keep kids in school. The effort has been wasted. According to the US Bureau of the Census, Hispanic students are dropping out of high school at the highest rate in more than a decade and at more than twice the national average. More than 11 percent of Hispanic students in grades 10 to 12 dropped out in 1995. The rate was nearly twice what it was just two years before, when there were nearly 200,000 fewer Hispanic students.
About 6 percent of African-American students dropped out, continuing to close the gap with white students. More than 5 percent of white 10th- to 12th-graders also quit school that year. The average dropout rate among the nation's 10 million students was 5.4 percent in 1995, up from 5 percent the previous year.
Instead of fighting this trend, maybe we should encourage students who don't want to work in high school to drop out. Some Ivy League colleges allow undergraduates who have fallen off the rails academically to "stop out" (notice the euphemism) for up to a year and then return without having to reapply for admission. Counselors trust that the distraction is temporary and that students will soon come to their senses and get back to their studies. Or not. But at least for a time the door remains open.
We could do the same for high school students. If, like Bartleby the Scrivener, they would prefer not to when it comes to schoolwork, they will be asked to stop out. Only those who demonstrate a willingness to participate in their own educational processes would be allowed on campus.
Imagine how productive class time could be if teachers did not have to wrestle with kids who have no interest in being there. It seems to me that working a few months at minimum-wage jobs might persuade these teens that school wasn't such a bad deal.
I believe every child has a right to a high school education. I also believe that a diploma should represent more than seat time. It has to be earned.
* Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica (Calif.) High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA.