If students would behave better, the troubles in US public schools would disappear. Gene Maeroff, for 10 years an education writer for the New York Times, sets up this popular notion as a straw man, only to knock it down in this valiant analysis of why the kids really aren't to blame.
By examining the problems facing the schools - from busing to tax revolts - this readable book makes it ever so clear that the students are more victims than criminals.
Alert and caring readers will find that Mr. Maeroff raises a good many important issues, even though he provides few solutionc. His book just might cause some of us to get involved with the schools in a more than superficial way.
While describing many of the problems in depth, Maeroff provides some inside views not previously shown. Yet he tosses off his ideas about what needs to be done with slogans and one-liners. And then, just as he leads readers to expect discussion of an experiment that actually worked, he launches into his next topic.
For example, after giving us some horror stories about the treatment of handicapped children, dramatizing the enormous cost that would be required to accommodate their special needs rather than any efforts to alleviate the problems, Maeroff leaves that subject and moves on to racial problems.
Curiously, in this area he chooses to refer to desegregation as a ''social mandate,'' with no comment on its constitutional underpinnings but many on the divisiveness displayed in the clash between antibusing forces and desegregationists in South Boston.
Next he moves on to cross-cultural problems, reducing bilingual education to two questions: ''Who is to receive it, and for how long?'' Here again he devotes most of his attention to what's wrong, without giving much thought to just how a child might be helped to become fluent in a second language.
Reporter Maeroff might have been more effective if he had turned storyteller - walking his readers through the experiences of the youngsters whom school authorities label as problem children and then showing how such youngsters could have been treated in a caring, successful school.
Yet, I don't want to be too hard on the book, because it makes a number of important points. And the information comes in bite-size chunks, to meet today's reading tastes.
If, in fact, parents, taxpayers, legislators, and school administrators believe that the kids are to blame for either the problems in the schools or the lack of solutions, then it's high time they read this book and reconsider their position.
And anyone who feels the problems in the public schools are susceptible to easy, simple solutions also has much to learn from the book.
Some of Maeroff's prose, such as this sentence would benefit from closer editing: ''Power is the lubricant of Albert Shanker's (president of the American Federation of Teachers) soul, and he exercises it with the benign despotism of all great union leaders.''
But readers willing to overlook such shortcomings will find interesting ideas that could lead to improvement in our schools: for instance, Maeroff's insistence that the phrase ''broken home'' be removed from school records and that all reports on children go to both parents when they don't live together; or that we give up the idea that the children of single parents are somehow less able to succeed than those from two-parent families.
Some worthwhile programs are being put in effect across the United States to strengthen and improve the public schools. A number of them get at least a mention in the book.