THE Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report on inner-city schools last week, and its conclusions should have surprised no one. Glimpses of the crisis in urban education - the dropouts, the terrorized teachers, the confiscated weaponry - regularly reach the public through the news media. Calls for educational reform have reverberated through the halls of politics for five years now. Tougher curricula have been drawn up, school days lengthened, merit pay begun for teachers. But as the Carnegie study points out, reform hasn't penetrated to the schools that need it most: the run-down, often embattled urban institutions that serve largely minority, largely poor communities.
In exasperation, educators and the public may be tempted to write off these city schools and the children in them. If that happens, the country will have written off an important chunk of its future.
The alternative is a national crusade to improve urban education. Communities, educators, parents, and, yes, children themselves, have to muster the courage to move forward despite well-publicized obstacles.
At present, the education being offered children from poorer neighborhoods is sliding downhill even as the numbers of those young people are multiplying. It has been estimated that up to one-third of the country's 40 million school-aged children enter school with at least one of these elements in their backgrounds: membership in a minority group that historically has been educationally deprived, a single-parent home, non-English-speaking parents, or poverty.
The Carnegie researchers - who scrutinized schools in Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans, Cleveland, Chicago, and New York - assert that mobilization at both the federal and local levels of government is needed to begin turning the situation around. Legislation, funding, and profound individual commitment are called for.
And progress is possible, despite the dreary surroundings and poor academic track records at these schools. Some inner-city schools have broken through the stereotypes and shown what inspired teaching and inspired leadership can do. Principals who value their teachers and expect more from their students often get better results. Children who are helped to understand their potential for thinking and discovery, who catch the excitement of learning, have cleared the biggest hurdle.
That hurdle is higher for inner-city kids. Scholarship may be a negative value among many of their streetwise peers; parents may have poor reading and math skills themselves. Discipline at school is a constant problem, calling for a mix of toughness and concern. The effort needed to provide an education for these youngsters, therefore, has to be extraordinary.
The Carnegie report outlines some facets of such an effort: enhanced preschool programs, nutritional programs, breaking huge schools into smaller units, more autonomy for principals and teachers, greater accountability. All are good ideas. It's in the interest of every American to support them and start moving toward truly universal education.