The primary task for grade schools. Educator Boyer thinks children need to learn and love language

``I have a general rule of thumb that if we'd give as much status and support to first-grade teachers as we do to full professors, we'd probably have the best school system in the world.'' This is no mere quip from a frustrated parent or an overworked elementary-school principal. It's the considered judgment of Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. And it signals what may prove to be one of the most important steps along the nation's still-potholed road to educational reform.

Why? There are three reasons:

The author. Dr. Boyer is in a position to help make things happen. As the author of a major book on high school education in 1983, and of the forthcoming ``College: The Undergraduate Experience in America,'' Boyer has now turned his attention to an issue he describes as ``transcendentally important'': the so-called ``early years,'' focusing primarily on ages 4 through 8. His team of researchers is already in place in 25 elementary schools around the nation. The resul ts of their work -- a book to be titled ``The Early Years'' -- should be available in 1987.

The context. After dwindling for years, the number of elementary-school students bottomed out in 1982 and is now rising -- the ``echo,'' demographers say, of the postwar baby boom. By 1993, according to estimates from the National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of children enrolled from kindergarten through eighth grade will have risen to 30.5 million -- 15 percent above this fall's 26.6 million.

But this boomlet is markedly different from that of the '50s and '60s -- largely because the home is different. Several decades of rocketing divorce rates have produced large numbers of single-parent families: A recent study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development suggests that, if current trends continue, 70 percent of white children (and an astonishing 94 percent of black children) born in 1980 may spend at least some time living in a one-paren t family by age 18. Also changing the homescape is the presence of television. Researchers are now finding that the heavy diet of TV common in many homes seems to militate against a child's later academic success.

The philosophy. Fortunately, Dr. Boyer brings to all this a coherent educational philosophy. For him, the heart and soul of early education is the study of language, which he defines broadly to include the symbolic structures underlying both words and numbers. ``Language,'' he observed in a recent telephone interview, ``is the foundation for further learning. Language is not just another subject: It's the means by which all other subjects are pursued.''

In Boyer's view, then, a child comes to school not so much to learn the language -- that has already happened at home -- as to develop an understanding of its significance. ``I feel strongly,'' he says, ``that we have not given the priority . . . to children in the first weeks and years of schooling that would help them understand the centrality and also the excitement and the utility that surrounds language.''

He laments what he calls a ``terrible period'' of ``nonsense'' in our recent past -- a period characterized by ``the `Run, Spot, Run!' approach to language, in which children didn't see in it anything that really caught their imagination or excitement.'' Far from being real and forceful, the study of language was treated as ``a sad and silly diversion from the lives they lived.''

Then what do the early grades teach? In a frank reassessment of priorities -- and one that is bound to raise some hackles in the profession -- Boyer contends that the schools have overemphasized what he calls the ``socialization'' and the ``developmental aspects'' of the child. He agrees that teachers, of course, need to ``sustain a climate in the school that's supportive.'' But he notes that the genuine excitement of learning has too often be en ``trivialized and dissipated as so much time was spent in the accommodation of the social adjustment.'' The result: Children haven't understood why they were in school.

But are today's children prepared to learn language? Given the changes in the child's home -- less contact with adults, more passive absorption in television -- the question concerns Boyer greatly. There is, he says, a ``real possibility that children will be less involved in an adult world verbally than they were before. They will spend time from the earliest weeks of their lives heavily engaged with other very young children in day-care centers.'' And th at, he says, will have its effect.

``It seems almost self-evident,'' he says, ``that a child who is denied exchanges with adults, who does not get the models and the examples of language use, will probably be less efficient and effective by the time [he or she] gets to school.''

Is there a remedy? While acknowledging that schools cannot be society's ``Mr. Fixit'' -- that they cannot be teachers, surrogate parents, law-enforcement officers, counselors, and clinicians all rolled up into one -- he does see changes afoot. ``Sometime before the year 2000,'' he predicts, ``we'll see a school day and even a school year and maybe an [age] of entry accommodating more and more to the realities of a family's economic pattern -- in which children are not cared for b y their families for extended periods before they're five or six years old.'' Translation: longer school days, shorter summer holidays, younger children entering school.

If he is right, the brunt of the changes will land on the teachers in the early grades -- who, in competition with television, and with less support from the home, must nevertheless lay solid foundations for the future. Theirs will be the first cages to be rattled -- though the reverberations will be felt on up through the system. Helping them cope -- and helping the nation see the importance of their work -- will be the role of Dr. Boyer's eagerly awaited book.

A Monday column

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