Parents Rebel as An Oklahoma Teacher Fails Her First Grade Class for Acting Like Children

updated 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He has just turned a tender 7, but it's been a rough year for Eric Gray. He was repeatedly reprimanded by his teacher for talking too much in class, for breezing through assignments, for following directions only "sometimes." Nor was the year a hayride for Lori Wilemon, who "still needs to learn to mind and not be a pest to others." Nor for Melissa George, who was "up and out of her chair much too much." Nor, indeed, for any of the other 12 spirited children in Madeline Duncan's gaily decorated public school classroom in Henryetta, Okla. Improbable as it may seem, all 15 of them flunked first grade.

There is no question in Duncan's mind that Eric, Lori, Melissa and the rest are bright. In fact, she acknowledges, "They probably read as well or better than other first graders at their maturity level." Their problem, she feels, is the problem of most 6-and 7-year-olds everywhere: "immaturity and self-discipline."

As might be imagined, Duncan's mass "re-placement"—her euphemism for flunking—has caused an uproar in this rural town (pop. 6,432), 45 miles south of Tulsa. Says Samuel Gray, Eric's father, "You don't flunk an entire first grade class for some vague reason like immaturity."

Duncan's fellow teachers stand behind her. One reason is that they have taken a comparably tough line. All told, 41 out of the Webster School's 102 first graders were kept back this year.

"She's an outstanding teacher," contends the Henryetta public school superintendent, who ought to know, since he's married to her. Max and Madeline Duncan came to Henryetta from Washington, Mo. three years ago, and the first thing Max did was scrap the Open Classroom program, a byproduct of '60s liberalism, which moved the teacher from the front of the room and encouraged a looser, individual-oriented style of education. Oklahoma State Superintendent of Schools John Folks, who supports the Duncans, suggests that they are part of a conservative tide in education currently sweeping the country. He says that schools are going to start to "expect and demand" more of students before they're promoted. Indeed, in the 40 letters she and the school have received, Madeline and Max have been greeted as heroes. "Hooray for teachers like you!" wrote an instructor from Scottsdale, Ariz. "Mr. Reagan should get you two for Co-Secretary of Education," said another from North Carolina.

Each day during the school year, Duncan says, she would take one half of the class to the front of the room for reading. The sessions were scheduled for 40 minutes, but she says she could squeeze no more than 30 minutes worth of attention from the children. "Those who were not in the reading class had seat work to do," she says. "They must be able to sit in their chairs and do that while I teach reading. Instead, they would get up and ask me questions." Rushing their work so they could play, the kids also failed to pass muster in addition and subtraction.

Ironically, many of the parents fault Duncan for not being more of a disciplinarian. "She didn't make them work," says Debbie Wilemon, Lori's mom. "If they got restless in class she allowed them to get up and move around." The parents also say they were discouraged from tutoring their children at home. "I told her," says Patty Gray, "I was helping Eric an hour after school with his ABCs and his coloring. And she told me to stop, that he was doing enough in school." In addition, the parents point out that Duncan wrote them at the beginning of the school year, indicating that their little "wigglers" would probably be kept back; thus, they argue, the kids' chances for promotion were doomed at the outset.

To this Duncan responds, "There isn't anything you can do about maturity." To Harvard psychiatrist and educator Robert Coles, that statement is "absolute baloney. There's a lot you can do to have children become more responsible and grown up," he argues. "Every teacher does affect a child's emotional development." Dr. Frances Stott of Chicago's Erikson Institute for Early Education says Duncan was "not entirely wrong" in retaining the class, but, she says, "the action reminds me of birth control by abortion. It's so extreme."

Angry parents have not been able to find solace at the Board of Education, which claims it is in no position to "judge the student-teacher relationship." Taking matters into their own hands, six parents have pulled their kids out of Webster to avoid a similar "fate."

Come the fall Madeline Duncan herself will be switching—to school librarian. Max Duncan describes his wife as "burned-out," but she quickly corrects him. "I'm not getting out of teaching because of this happening," she insists. "I just want to try something different for a while. I just need a change."

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