TV's in-depth look at US education

If you exclude ''Welcome Back, Kotter,'' commercial television has devoted hardly a moment to America's public schools. Next week ABC will try to compensate by giving viewers a three-hour documentary called To Save Our Schools , to Save Our Children (Sept. 4, 8-11 p.m., check local listings). Since much of the message is about our troubled schools, the network faces the charge of being like the husband who didn't kiss his wife for 10 years - and then shot the man who did.

ABC is to be commended for accepting the challenge of considering the future of public schools during this reform period, where education's very mission and purpose are being questioned. It is not hyperbole to suggest, as ABC does, that America's public schools are ''in a state of crisis greater than ever before in modern times.''

But the complex nature and scope of public education defy even the comprehensive coverage ABC is offering in its new ''maxi-doc'' format. The gamut of issues facing today's schools is large, so large that after three hours of viewing, the discussion is barely begun. When the show is over, emotions will be charged, feelings aroused, frustrations engendered.

ABC asks hard questions:

* How is the student of the 1980s different from previous generations?

* What is to be done about the fact that the best teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers and future teachers are being drawn from the lowest academic levels of our college graduates?

* Can communities, especially urban ones, counter the grave threat posed by middle-class abandonment of the public schools?

* What happens to our democracy as the percentage of minority students grows (to 1 out of 3 by the year 2000) if the quality of education they receive continues to decline?

But the present education reform movement is moving beyond the questioning stage. Schools have received close scrutiny by a host of education commissions and in reports and study groups. Already state after state has passed legislation that attempts to solve the problems pinpointed by the studies. Conveying a greater sense of this would balance ABC's programming of schools in crisis.

Too often, situations are dramatized which suggest that uncontrollable negative factors are overwhelming our schools. Such emphasis is distorted and is unfortunate, especially since the latest Gallup poll shows public support of schools to be higher now than it has been for a decade.

The section dealing with teachers is the weakest, despite the fact that commentator after commentator says teachers are the key to any solution. Teacher burnout is treated superficially and incoherently, as if no answer to the problem exists. It is ''throw-up-your-hands'' hopelessness at its worst. Daily, thousands upon thousands of teachers go to work with a sense of purpose, joy, and fulfillment. Failure to communicate this is irresponsible journalism.

A sense of proportion is totally lost on the issue of teacher testing. That segment opens with footage of National Guard troops in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. The battle over racial desegregation in the schools was just beginning - truly a crisis. The camera cuts to today's schools, and the present controversy in Arkansas over a requirement that all teachers, new and old, take competency tests.

The show savages the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teacher union, because it is trying to block teacher testing. NEA president Mary Futrell is portrayed as the moral equivalent of George Wallace, standing in the doorway to block fairness and progress. The technique is classic TV journalism - the implication of guilt by visual juxtaposition, even though the contrasting events are vastly different. The NEA has its share of warts. But ABC fails to discuss what teacher-testing really means in the context of a host of reforms required for the teaching profession - many of which the NEA endorses and which Ms. Futrell has often called for publicly.

Which raises another question about the focus on teachers: Why is there but one brief comment from Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers? To omit the perspective of a person who has been on the national scene for 20 years while focusing on Mary Futrell, who has been there only two, leaves the viewer with, at best, an incomplete impression and risks polarizing the community.

Also, where are the principals? Only two appear - briefly. More should be heard from the people who represent the face of authority in the schools.

And that, in the end, is the best reason to watch ''To Save Our Schools, to Save Our Children'' - because it leaves no doubt that there is so much more to be said and done.

Review based on version available Aug. 29, 1984.

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