Do you think your school system has problems? Try Boston's

The Boston public schools have been through a shattering year. Since last summer the system has had three superintendents and is now negotiating for a fourth. It has endured a bus drivers' strike, a budget crunch, and a near-shutdown for lack of funds. Two school committee members have been indicted (one convicted and jailed) for taking bribes. Two courts still control its affairs: A federal judge oversees desegration, and a state judge monitors special education.

And still the schools muddle through.

Or do they?

Any assessment must begin, however, by slapping aside the numerous excuses for the plight of the schools. We are told that the system has been damaged by the flight of the middle class (which it has); that it is 65 percent minority (which it is); that if faces an influx of non-English-speaking students (which it does); that it has been ignored by city politicians (which it has been); and that it is caught in a cross fire of federal, state, municipal, judicial, and union interests (which is so).

It is time to stop mincing words. Consider a few statistics:

* The system graduates only about half its pupils.

* The longer students are in school, the worse they do against national norms.

* In 1979-80, 26 percent of the high school students dropped out -- perhaps because Boston provides occupational education for only 36 percent of its students.

* Many students are reading below grade level, with median reading achievement scores still declining in Grades 4, 6, and 9.

And how much are the people who support the system paying for these results? A few more numbers:

* Budgeted at $210 million, the schools will have spent about $240 million when all bills are in. Even without double-digit inflation, that is well beyond a 10 percent overrun.

* There is one staff member for every six students -- a figure nearly 90 percent above an average of 20 other US urban districts.

* The cost per pupil greatly exceeds the 20-city average. Boston University president John R. Silber is only the most prominent of those whose hand-held calculators display some appalling truths. In 1970-71, he notes, 95,000 students and a $103 million budget produced per-pupil costs of $1,100. In 1981, with 60,000 pupils and a $240 million budget, that cost is $4,000.

What about the solutions?

Several major efforts have been made in the past few months.

But the most provocative (though least plausible) suggestion came from President Silber. At a seminar in May he threw out a challenge: Let Boston University run the schools. It could be done, he said, for precisely the budget the mayor had proposed ($210.6 million), with no overruns.

Dr. Silber's proposal has already born fruit: He is now chairman of a group of higher educators asked by the school committee to look into its budget. So he is able, with the help of a school department staff he describes as "open and forthright," to find why money is being spent as it is.

The process begins by examining daily attendance figures (a more useful figure than official enrollment). If BU were at the helm, the next step would be to determine the number of teachers needed, and how best to assign them. Then would come the trimming of staff in line with declining enrollments. His goal: competence. His proposal: Administer college-freshman-level tests to all the teachers in their respective fields.

He admits there are problems, but he claims they are solvable. The unions? You budget for severance pay agreements -- and you trust that teachers, like the auto workers who voted to take pay cuts in order to help Chrysler survive, want to see the system succeed. The courts? It is an insult to the black community, he says, to imagine that it wants black teachers regardless of their ability.

Will it work? Probably not, for one lesser and one greater reason. First, while Dr. Silber insists that the school committee "is ready to say goodbye to patronage," the issue remains political.

The greater reason goes beyond politics, beyond finance, into morality. Aspects of the present system are, in Dr. Silber's words, immoral and incompetent. Why immoral? "It contributes to the delinquency of minors."

But the immorality lies not primarily in the school committee's traditional failure to flush out its abhorrent racial vanities -- which, to their credit, the current members may be willing to do.

Nor does it lie in its increasingly pungent odor of corruption. Neither is it centered in its historic inability to come to grips with its budget. The real vacuum surrounds its unwillingness to answer the one question most central to the problem: What, precisely, does it want the schools to teach?

It is here that excuses most abound. One hears it said that schools are so complex, society so various, the times so convulsed, that no one can define what the schools ought to teach. That is arrant nonsense. It is the last resort of pettiness to excuse the failure to educate by pleading confusion of purpose.

The fact is that teachers -- or so I think after 10 years myself as a classroom teacher -- are not permanently mired in confusion. Asked to define their goals, and given curricular support to achieve them, good teachers do not draw a blank. For at bottom, there are three basic things we want our school system to teach. First, reasoning. Second, inspiration. Third, the demonstration of knowledge in practical ways.

The renewal of the schools must start, in short, with a broad statement of purpose -- which can only be given them by a school committee willing to lift its head out of detailed decisions over personnel and breathe the more rarefied air of policymaking. From that will flow benefits long sought in other ways. A renewal of credibility in the schools, an upsurge of hope for minorities, an awakening of a spirit of genuine understanding among neighborhoods, a return to the city of its middle class, a more stable tax base, a sense of participation in civic affairs -- these are not unrealistic goals, given a strong school system.

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