If children ran the nation's public schools, teachers would be fired, homework would be abolished, and calculus and analytics would be replaced by "Music Video Appreciation 101."
Wrong. Big time.
"I would try to improve the security, because a lot of kids, their parents can't come to pick them up," says Toussaint Tingling-Clemmons, an eighth-grader at Stuart-Hobson Magnet School in Washington. "Walking to and from school, it's tough."
For Toussaint, the recipe for better schools is fairly simple: good teachers, smaller classes, and discipline. Overall, he gives his school a B-plus, and says "the teachers are the best." And he can't wait to get back to school on Sept. 22, when the district expects to complete massive repairs on Stuart-Hobson and dozens of other district schools.
Such practicality and enthusiasm may come as a surprise to the adult world of politics. These days, every pundit is a revolutionary, with grand plans for sweeping away the existing school system and starting from scratch. Some, like President Clinton, would impose a nationwide system of standardized tests. Others would abolish teacher tenure or privatize public schools. Children, however, are focusing on the essentials.
This practicality is highlighted in a random survey of youngsters around the country. And it also dovetails with a study of nearly 1,000 8- to 17-year-olds, conducted by the polling group Roper Starch Worldwide.
When asked to prioritize a list of 10 ways to make schools better, 44 percent of respondents told Roper they would keep troublemakers out of class, 41 percent said they would hire better teachers, and 33 percent said they would make classes smaller. New computers and better school facilities in general also gained favorable mention, with 28 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
"Since everyone argues about how to change schools, we said, 'Let's go to the kids,' " says Joan Chiaramonte, who directed the Youth Survey for Roper Starch Worldwide, a New York polling group. "Kids can be remarkably realistic and practical when it comes to getting an education, and this is clearly borne out in many of their answers."
For Nikki Kilbride, small class size was an important enough factor for her parents to pull her out of the standard school system in Boulder, Colo., and send her to a charter school.
"I know the teacher a lot better because there are only 19 kids in the class," says the eighth-grader, now attending Summit Charter School in Boulder. "Parents come in to volunteer, so sometimes it's like we have two or three teachers in the class at one time. That helps."
In the Ozark mountain town of Eldon, Mo., Erica Manselle says her school is doing everything just right. Teachers at Eldon High School are qualified and helpful, the computer lab is large and up-to-date, and classes average about 25 students. Her largest class is French II, with 30 students, but "the teacher is really good about calling people in the back of the room."
The only thing Eldon could use is more variety, she says, especially in science. "It's just basic. There's biology, chemistry, advanced chemistry, anatomy, and that's it. And the advanced chemistry is the only science class offered for senior year."
To be sure, students like Erica who call for more academic choices and tougher classes are not in the majority. Only 15 percent told Roper they wanted more homework, only 10 percent endorse stricter discipline at home, and only 6 percent want a longer school year.
Aki Yamada, for instance, wishes the teachers at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Edison, N.J., would loosen up a bit.
"If you have car trouble in the morning, you need a note from your mom to say why you were late," says the sixth-grader. "You need a pass to go to the bathroom, and usually they won't let you go except ... between classes."
In any case, "most kids don't break rules because if you do something really bad you could be suspended for up to 21 days," he says, adding, "We just had an assembly today about discipline."
His younger brother, Yuki, gives his teachers and his school high marks.
"Sometimes, the teacher gives really, really easy homework, which I can get done in a whip," says Yuki, a third-grader at Lindeneau Elementary in Edison. "But sometimes it takes half an hour."
"I'd say my school is almost the best school I've ever been to," Yuki adds. "But then, I haven't been to another school. I started here in kindergarten."
For his part, Toussaint says his middle school in Washington would be a lot better if only it had funding.
"In science, we have basically everything we need, but all the materials come out of the pockets of the teachers," he says. "They had to buy with their own money, because you can't hold up the class just because someone in government isn't doing their job."
"It upsets me," he adds. But "it says a lot to me that they take from their own pocket."
* Vince Winkel in Boulder, Colo., contributed to this article.