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Why Work?

Easy online credits undermine the intellectual rigor of our high schools.

By Laura Preble
As someone who loves books and language, I felt a bit intimidated and excited about taking on the class that no one at my school wanted: make-up English, or, as I euphemistically referred to it, Opportunity

English. My challenge: to inspire 48 seniors who’ve failed English once, probably don’t like the subject, and need the credit to graduate.

I began full of optimism and determination to make this class as interesting, relevant, and rigorous as any I have ever taught. The fact that they absolutely had to pass this class should at least ensure my students’ participation, I reasoned.

Of course, I was wrong. Six weeks in, fully one-third were failing simply because they didn’t do the work.

I met with counselors to warn them that these kids were risking their diplomas; I talked to the kids individually and to their parents, to try to forestall a spring full of tears, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. One of my least enthusiastic students, a girl I’ll call Alice, came to me six weeks before school was over to let me know she’d dropped her other English class, so she’d probably be able to pass mine.

“But don’t you need the credit for that one too?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t worry,” was her reply. “I’m doing an online school.”

I’d never heard this before, but then several other students told me the same thing, so I consulted a counselor who told me that this correspondence school was an option for “kids who don’t have any other options.” I was assured that it was used only in extenuating circumstances.

Apparently, those circumstances included not doing work in your regular high school, because several students were suddenly relieved to find that they would, in fact, be graduating with their friends even though they’d blown off a major core class all semester.

This bothered me; why should I make myself crazy trying to get these kids to work hard, to learn, to think, if they could simply pay a fee and do some mountain of paperwork in a correspondence school?

Two weeks later, Alice asked if I could read over something she’d done for her correspondence class because she wanted to be sure she’d done it right. She handed me a worksheet on which she had to underline topic sentences.

“So, is this what you’re getting semester credit in senior English for?” I asked incredulously.

Alice said she felt bad, actually, because the work was so easy. She offered to bring the packet to me so I could see it.

What I saw made me angry, frustrated, and sad. Her packet consisted of eight worksheets. One was on capitalization. One was on comma use. One was on topic sentences. As Alice put it, “this is stuff I did in elementary school.”

Something is wrong with this system. This girl’s diploma reads that she got an A in senior English (as a transfer credit, but the transcript doesn’t say where the transfer came from).

So, the message here is that if you have $100 and you want to pay for it, you can trade in your C or D grade in English for an A, and you won’t even have to break an intellectual sweat to do it.

In our panic to make sure we leave no child behind, we’re dragging them along without giving them the proper tools to succeed.

I checked online and found hundreds of these schools. At my high school, these courses appear on your transcript as a transfer credit from the other school. If that school’s name sounds legitimate, which college will ask whether this is a correspondence school or a brick-and-mortar school with teachers and standards and rigorous work?

I take some comfort from the fact that Alice had a conscience, and knew that, despite her lack of interest in school, it just wasn’t right that she get credit without working for it.

It’s too bad the educational system doesn’t feel that same sense of shame.

Laura Preble teaches English at West Hills High School in Santee, California, near San Diego. She’s also a writer, singer, and former band leader.

Photo: Fred Greaves    

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