Blaming the victim

I am a college president. I recently went back to schol for a week to see what America's secondary schools are like today. I have been reading a slew of national blue-ribbon reports on the high school. I found them alarming, but confusing - inconsistent in analyses and conflicting in recommendations. Yet I agreed with their most common conclusion - America's high schools are failing.

Today's high school graduates are less able in the ''three R's''. They score far lower on standardized tests of knowledge and aptitude. Thus, I expected the school I visited - a large, multi-ethnic urban high school facing all tha problems afflicting American education - to be a place where teaching was weak and learning was meager.

That's not what I found. I think many of the national reports have been wrong. What I saw was an institution making prodigious efforts to overcome staggering burdens not of its own making. I saw:

* An institution where budgets have been cut severely in recent years. There were enrollments of 40 in its basic-skills courses. In one class, textbooks had to be shared. In another, a third-rate book was used because a better text was too expensive.

* An institution where faculty salaries were embarrassingly low. Nationally, the average starting salary for teachers is under $13,000. After 12 years, a teacher can expect to be making $18,000. Consequently our most able college graduates avoid teaching, our best teachers leave the schools, and schools are unable to attract math and science teachers.

* An institution with an unimaginably diverse student body. I met a young man , new to this country and unschooled in his homeland. He was unable to speak English and illiterate in his native Spanish. To compound the tragedy, he was also going blind. I met a 17-year-old who worked full time, 3-11 p.m., 5 1/2 days a week as a manager in her husband's restaurant. I attended a Spanish class populated with some students who spoke little English and a larger number who spoke little Spanish. It was the job of the teacher - who was superb - to help the Spanish-speakers learn English and the English-speakers learn Spanish.

The high school didn't create these students. It didn't choose them. It was merely the high school's job to educate them - disabled learner and honor student alike.

* An institution helped far less by groups that once assisted it. The number of single-parent households is skyrocketing. Between one-third and one-half of all youngsters have lived with one parent by the time they reach 18. One young woman told me that because her mom has to work she stays home from school to care for brothers and sisters when they are sick. Other institutions, like the church and traditional youth groups, have declined in influence as well.

* An institution competing for student attention and losing. Eighty percent of the students have jobs and one-third work more than 20 hours a week. Many of the students talked more about jobs than classes. Television, too, commands more student time than the classroom. Before graduation, the average youngster spends 16,000 hours in front of a television screen, but only 12,000 hours before a teacher.

* An institution losing its ability to make fundamental educational decisions. More educational policy is being made by legislators, courts, and single-interest political groups on issues as basic as the content of class discussions, the subjects in the curriculum, the textbooks used, and the requirements for graduation.

* An institution the public has turned its back on. In the past decade public confidence in the schools has plummeted. A majority of Americans do not want their children to become teachers. And a majority of school tax referendums in the past 10 years have been defeated.

If we are serious about improving the quality of education the high school cannot be looked at in isolation from the rest of the educational system. Money, public commitment, and careful thought are essential.

Our high schools are not the villains; they are the victims. Condemning them will not improve the quality of their graduates.

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