I SPENT THE FIRST 12 years of my working life teaching fifth grade in the Baltimore City schools. I have seen about as much educational breakdown as anyone needs to see in one lifetime.
You would think, then, that I would be mightily cheered by President Clinton's new focus on "higher educational standards" - and, yes, I have been and remain an avid Clinton supporter, who cheered his re-election last fall.
But in my view, the president's State of the Union address on educational standards was an empty, worthless ball of fluff. In particular, the president's program will do nothing to address the educational chaos in our urban schools.
The problem in our urban schools is not a lack of educational standards - it is the students' inability to meet basic standards. We can "raise our standards" all we like, or make them uniform across the nation. But until someone explains how we're going to get students to meet these new standards, the president's speech to me is standard drivel.
I will focus here largely on our urban schools, because it is there that disaster is really occurring. In urban elementary schools all over the country, children are years below traditional grade level in reading, and fall further and further behind every year.
Surely, our suburban systems could do better also, but there is no real likelihood that the president's program will provide much help there. Let's take a look at what the president has proposed and see what is wrong with his "plan."
Uniform national standards
The president is proposing uniform national standards, saying, "Algebra is the same in Georgia as it is in Utah." That statement is, of course, true, and a move to create national educational standards would indeed be a break from America's past.
Traditionally, local school systems devise their own courses of study - adopt their own educational programs. Ninth-graders in Atlanta and ninth-graders in Provo do not follow the same course of study when they sign up to take Algebra I.
But if the courses of study might be somewhat different, that does not mean there is anything wrong with either city's curriculum. Meanwhile, in other subject areas - in social studies, for example - it will be much harder to get parents in different communities to agree on precisely what their kids should be taught. In these subject areas, attempting to work out a national curriculum would prove disruptive, divisive and painful - and would divert our attention from basic skill development, which is the goal that we ought to pursue.
Higher educational standards
But surely we will at least want to seek higher standards - surely there is nothing but good in that. It is generally agreed that American high schools are producing many students whose skills are unimpressive. What could be wrong, then, with raising our standards - with setting the bar a bit higher?
Again, let me focus on the urban schools, where our educational shortfall is most tragic. When I taught in the Baltimore schools, my fellow teachers and I knew what the standards were. The problem we had was getting kids to attain them. And nothing the president said in his speech tells me how we will get our students to attain - how we will meet those wonderful standards that are so easy to discuss in a speech.
For example, one of the goals President Clinton cited is that all students should be able to read by the third grade. Ignore the fact the "goal" is so vaguely stated that in practice it means virtually nothing. Can anyone think that our teachers - right now - don't have this "goal" for their children? And yet, Texas Gov. George W. Bush Jr. spoke out last week, accusing Clinton of stealing the "goal" from him. So do we see how astoundingly daft our discussion has been - and the extent to which politicians are willing to pander with pronouncements that mean nothing at all.
Setting higher standards always sounds good, but it begs the question of how we will meet them. It is as if we set the high jump bar at six feet and found that no one could jump over it. So the president comes along with a suggestion: Raise the bar to seven feet.
Perhaps most astonishing is the reverential reaction to the president's call for a voluntary national reading test at the end of the fourth grade and a similar math test in grade eight.
Anyone who has followed education knows that one of the most common complaints is that systems are testing their students too much, and too much time and energy have been invested in testing programs.
To suggest that some major improvement will be derived from some new, improved testing is to engage in fantasy of the most absurd kind - and shows how far our leaders are from grasping even the most basic facts about what's happening in America's schoolrooms.
Let me mention two major things that the nation could do to improve the performance of urban schools - the schools where our problems are most intense and where the social consequences of those problems are most devastating.
First, we could provide struggling urban students with readable textbooks and appropriate educational programming. The lack of same is an urban education nightmare that is massive, continuing and completely indefensible. It is also a problem that is completely correctable. Here's how this absurd syndrome works:
Our urban schools are filled with kids who are several years below traditional grade level in reading by the time they reach the fourth or fifth grade. Educators will generally agree that they ought to be provided with "readable" textbooks that teach age-appropriate subject matter at reading levels they can read and comprehend.
But in fact, throughout America's urban school systems, kids are being handed textbooks they cannot possibly read - or are not being handed any textbooks at all. What happens when we ask fifth-grade students reading on second-grade level to study from standard fifth-grade textbooks? Urban districts have long tTC prescribed providing below-level students with "readable" textbooks - and have long done nothing whatsoever about actually providing them. Their failure to provide for their students is criminal.
The president also called for expanding Head Start, the program by which children from low-literacy backgrounds are given compensatory experiences before starting school. Correctly or otherwise, this is a program that has long been praised as one of those "programs that work."
But even if the president's proposed funding is approved, Head Start would be available to only half of the children who qualify. My question: If Head Start works, why is the richest nation that ever existed providing it to only half of the children who need it? And if Head Start doesn't work - as some recent studies have suggested - then why are we funding it at all?
I can't settle the question of whether Head Start really works, but it is a question a serious nation would be aggressively pursuing.
In a nation that sheds crocodile tears over educational output, the president's proposed split-the-difference, 50 percent funding level doesn't seem to make much sense at all.
But then, it won't be surprising if what we do makes no sense, given the embarrassing, silly public discussion that has followed the president's hapless proposals. "Higher standards" won't help our struggling schoolchildren.
And the fact that so many of our "leaders" can't see the plain facts helps us see that massive comprehension failures don't seem to stop at the schoolhouse door.
Robert A. Somerby is a former Baltimore schoolteacher who carved a new niche as a freelance writer and humorist.
Pub Date: 2/16/97