Do the nation's big-city schools - filled with disproportionate numbers of economically disadvantaged and minority youngsters - face an insurmountable educational challenge?
Chicago school superintendent Ruth B. Love says, No.
''I believe an urban renaissance in public education is possible, and I think we know how to do it,'' she insists. ''I am as convinced as I am of anything that you can make a difference by zeroing in on standards.''
The one crucial ingredient, in her view, is determination. For the moment she marks it missing.
''I don't think we can have a renaissance unless the climate is such that people see a need for it and are excited about it,'' she says. ''I hope I'm wrong, but I sense there may not be a clear philosophical understanding these days of what public education is all about.
''I sense a kind of elitist attitude and a 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you have no boots' philosophy. It's almost as if they're saying, 'Educate yourselves' or 'If you don't have an education, it's too bad.' But this society is only as strong as its schools. . . . You cannot say you're going to educate just some of the people, that these people are going to have a chance but you're not. That's fodder for revolution. That's why we have them (public schools).''
This year, as most recent years, Chicago public schools opened in the midst of a last-minute fiscal crisis. But Dr. Love stresses that she is talking more about ''will'' than about money. At issue, she says, is an apparently widespread loss of confidence in the public school's ability to do the job. She views the support for President Reagan's tuition tax credit proposal, aimed at helping parents of private and parochial school students, as one more sign of this.
Dr. Love, who came to Chicago in March 1981 after six years as superintendent of schools in Oakland, Calif., blames both public pressure on the schools and educators themselves for letting standards for academics and marketable skills slip in recent years.
''I think for a couple of decades we did lower the standards - there's no doubt about it,'' she says. ''I really believe the disciples of John Dewey misunderstood his mission and got us on a path of progressive education that didn't stress basic education to the extent I think he intended. At the same time the public was saying, 'You're pressuring the students too much.' The net result was to give excuses to people who didn't want to see public education succeed.''
Dr. Love puts a premium on accountability and progress in the classroom. Standardized tests, dropped here since 1975, have been resumed. Specific goals - on everything from academic progress to improved attendance and reduced vandalism - are stated frequently and assessed at year's end. A new ''high school renaissance'' program she is launching here this fall is aimed at stepping up basic skill achievement by adding more reading and math specialists.
She would like to see urban schools strip away some of the many extra duties they've been handed since the mid-1940's.
''Schools have been far too willing to accept total responsibility for solving everybody's problems,'' she says. ''Schools will never focus purely on the three R's - there's a lot more to education than that. But teachers and administrators should spend less time filling out forms and papers. . . . They spend far too much time on discipline. The home has to have responsibility for that.''
Though Dr. Love says she expects more suburbanites to move back into the cities eventually, she says she realizes desegregation goals must shift somewhat in large urban centers such as Chicago which have virtually all-black school systems.
''When the numbers are so exaggerated as they are here, with a 17-percent white population, there's no way you could have a viable desegregation plan like you could have had 15 years ago when the percentage was different,'' she says. We want to desegregate to the extent that we can, but I don't believe that a school that is all black or all Hispanic can't be an excellent school, too.''