Will school be better or worse this year?

The sign on the side of the road read: "Only one more week . . . then school!" The groans from the school-age youngsters in the back of the station wagon were in earnest.

Similar "groans" have been coming from the education establishment -- from financial officers (unpaid school bills of last year); superintendents (emotion- laden strikes, racial strife, changing enrollment patterns, fuel bills out of sight, poor test scores); teachers (Is it worth the hassle?); and parents (Will this be a good school year for our child?).

And then there has been the wide publicity given a study of children from one- parent families, jointly sponsored by two education giants: the I/D/E/A/ division of the Kettering Foundation and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). The so-called results are most disturbing:

* One-parent children on the whole show lower school achievement than do their two-parent peers.

* They are consistently more likely to encounter behavior and discipline problems.

* They are suspended from elementary school at three times the rate of two-parent children and double the rate from secondary school.

It seems that I/D/E/A/ and the NAESP asked only the negative questions about truancy, suspension, dropouts, etc., and that the suspension figure is based on a statistical sample of only 11 elementary school children. Also, the data came via questionnaire given out only to school principals and does not reflect views or data from parents.

As the National Committee for Citizens in Education points out, a study that purports to conclude that some sub set of schoolchildren will fail -- due to circumstances beyond the control of schools -- is "unfair to children and their families and may reinforce a tendency for schools to expect learning and behavior problems from these children."

Teachers' organizations, as well as groups of administrators, have kept up a steady stream of "data" about school failures that they claim to come from "outside" their control, such as class size, home environment, native intelligence, even racial characteristics.

For example, early discussions about desegregating de jure-segregated Southern school districts focused on what have turned out to be unfounded fears that standards would plummet. They did, in the earliest years, but as teachers and administrators have adjusted to their new clientele, achievement scores have run about the same as before forced integration.

A Cleveland assistant superintendent of schools (in charge of programs for the gifted) explained in a phone interview that the "rough patch" is over and that about the same percent of students are now participating in gifted enrichment programs as before.

And there is growing evidence that "excuses" for school failures may, in fact , be causing those failures. Educational researchers now insist that how teachers treat their pupils, and what their expectations are for them, are fundamental to achievement records. That is, if those who work with the children are convinced that they are capable of doing good work, getting good grades, and succeeding in all school activities, then academic scores and school behavior parallel these expectations.

But a negative expectation, and so- called "proof" that certain conditions spell failure, tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies.

Early signs for the 1980-81 school year indicate that both parents and school personnel are looking on the brighter side; are expecting this to be a good school year; and are demanding that school districts offer alternative ways to reaching a high school diploma and that effort spent be directly connected to achievement earned.

The new US Department of Education, for example, has set itself a goal -- to share with school districts nationwide the "good news," to find what "works" and to share that information with all so that any and all may solve school problems. And these range from ways to help left-handed first-graders learn good penmanship to fiscal accountability systems for such giants as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

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