``Dedicate yourself to excellence,'' exhorts a sign on the classroom wall. Another declares, ``Perfection is not an unattainable goal.'' And a third, ``Hard work equals success.'' The 10th-grade English teacher at a high school in Washington is passing back a test on the use of adverbs that his students took a few days ago. He is white. All of his students are black.
``Most of you failed the test,'' he says cheerfully. ``You have a chance to retake it tomorrow.''
He stops beside a lanky young man. ``You got one right, boy,'' he says, tossing a paper onto the desk.
``You're kidding!'' says the student in mock amazement.
``I'll be here at 8 tomorrow morning to go over what you got wrong,'' says the teacher. Then he adds with a chuckle, ``But I'm willing to bet money you won't be here.''
Despite - or perhaps because of - the teacher's extremely casual, sometimes outrageous, even apparently insulting approach to his class, his students obviously like him. They seem to enjoy his abusive jokes about their lack of commitment to their schoolwork. But for the most part, they do not appear to follow, understand, or care about the contents of his lessons.
The rousing, upbeat slogans on the walls of this classroom contrast ironically with the palpable miasma of boredom, frustration, and futility that emanates from the students, and the visible projection of low expectations and good-natured contempt that emanates from their teacher.
This stark disparity between aspiration and reality exemplifies the state of education for many black children in America today. While administrative rhetoric calls for excellence and the raising of standards, thousands - perhaps millions - of black children continue to be poorly served in school, to drop out at an appalling rate, and to fail to learn.
Many school administrators blame the children's home environment: lack of supervision, small value placed on school by parents who own few books and have little education themselves, and the myriad stresses, dislocations, and distractions of inner-city life. Some cite the numbers of parents on drugs, in prison, or otherwise unable to function adequately on their children's behalf.
Others maintain that, especially in this environment, the schools' potential to offset such liabilities in a child's life is crucial. Yet they contend that schools not only fail to meet the special needs of these students, but that they would fall short of providing adequate education even to less disadvantaged children.
The current drive to reform public education began with the back-to-basics movement of the late 1970s. In 1983 the reform movement was fueled by ``A Nation At Risk,'' a highly critical report on primary and secondary education in the United States by then-Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.
Since then, state education departments have made a number of policy changes, including tougher standards for grade promotion and more rigorous course requirements. Steps to improve teacher performance are being taken.
Some states' governors already point with pride to improved student test scores. But critics contend that the effects of such reforms have in some instances been far from positive, especially for minority students.
``Many states have raised their secondary-school diploma requirements,'' says Nancy Young of the National Education Association (NEA), the teachers' union based in Washington. ``While this can't be faulted conceptually, unfortunately, it may have pushed out marginal students. When you raise standards but you don't give students who need it extra help in meeting those standards, minority students in particular can be hurt.''
Despite this problem, ``the reform movement is not all bad for low-income minority children,'' asserts Phillis McClure of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. ``The big plus for these kids is that many states - predominantly in the South - are for the first time establishing public kindergarten programs. South Carolina is even going to provide preschool education for four-year-olds. These are very positive steps.''
Another positive step has been a gradual increase of almost 30 percent in the funding of Chapter I (formerly Title I) - the compensatory education program for disadvantaged and minority children - since it was cut by 20 percent in 1981. But according to the Children's Defense Fund, a private advocacy group, even with the current increase, the program's $3.95 billion appropriation for 1987 will only enable it to reach about 55 percent of the children eligible for benefits.
Funding for the prekindergarten Head Start program, which has been shown to have a high potential for raising the overall school achievement levels of disadvantaged children, was increased by $90 million this year, for a total of $1.13 billion. Even so, the program serves only 16 percent of the nation's 2.5 million poor three- to five-year-olds, according to the Children's Defense Fund.
Indeed, the subject of funding for minority schools is a highly sensitive one. A 1985 study by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People points out that ``many school districts allocate substantially fewer dollars to schools in poor and minority neighborhoods. The disparities among schools within a district are often just as great as the gap between low-income urban and rural districts and affluent suburban districts within the same state.''
Inadequate funding means inadequate education, as Rachar Bilal, a father of three and resident of the Los Angeles section of Watts, testifies. ``When blacks apply for a job,'' he says, ``we find that the school system we grew up in didn't really give us the proper education. If you go to a school in Oxnard, a predominantly white, middle-class district, and a school in Watts, you will see that the kids out at Oxnard get the better education, even though both groups go to public schools.''
``The fact that a school is located in a ghetto or is totally minority does not automatically mean that it is not serving children well,'' says Joan First, executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students. The coalition is a network of advocacy organizations working on public-school issues affecting at-risk children. ``However, one of the determinants of which schools in a district get which teachers, resources, and materials is the vocalness of the constituency it serves. Also, very often teachers and principals don't view inner-city schools as the most desirable places to work, so the schools may have staff that are less experienced. And the teachers - both black and white - may also have lower expectations of inner-city kids.''
On the other hand, the Reagan administration is more sanguine about the quality of ghetto schools.
``Not all ghetto schools are alike,'' asserts William Kristol, chief of staff and counselor to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. ``In some ghetto schools there's strong leadership; order and discipline; an emphasis on the basics, homework, monitoring, and testing; and attention is paid to making sure kids really learn.''
``Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems in poor neighborhoods, and schools can't solve all of them,'' Mr. Kristol says. ``There are problems of culture that are very difficult to solve. But we think that education is one of the more hopeful areas in the whole poverty question.''
Of all aspects of public education today, dropout rates are causing the most concern. Analysts estimate that in some inner-city schools, between 70 and 80 percent of the students drop out without completing high school. The NEA puts the dropout rate for the nation as a whole at 30 percent. Moreover, in inner cities the dropout problem affects children of all ages. In New York, for example, a private group, the Rheedlan Foundation, tutors dropouts between the ages of 6 and 12.
There are only 10 students in the white teacher's class in Washington cited above, though the records list 16. Where are the six other students?
``That's a good question,'' the teacher says. ``One of them, I think, is in jail. One of them just stopped coming to class. I talked to his father the other day. He leaves the house to come to school, he just never arrives. Everybody that comes regularly is here today.''
The teacher has three 10th-grade English classes. This is his second-period class.
``First period started out with 22, and it's now down to 11,'' he says. ``Third period started out with 40, then it went down to 30. And now there are 7 out of the 30 that don't come.''
``One of the biggest problems is attendance,'' he concedes, somewhat redundantly. ``You can't teach a kid if the kid's not here. And then a kid might show up who hasn't been to class in months, and the school is judged on a kid that hasn't been coming to class.''
Administrators are very sensitive about how their schools are judged. Over a period of several months, the Monitor tried repeatedly to obtain statistics from four inner-city high schools concerning the proportion of seniors reading at grade level. Only one school, in Los Angeles, responded, reporting the dismal news that 5 percent of its senior class is reading at grade level.
Many experts see a connection between more rigorous standards advocated by educational reform and the dropout rate. When a school's performance standards are raised, they claim, special attention must be paid to at-risk students lest, in frustration over repeated failure, they drop out.
``The more rigorous standards instituted by school reform are partly responsible for the increased dropout rate,'' says Harold Howe, a professor at the Harvard School of Education and commissioner of education under President Lyndon Johnson. ``There is added testing, added barriers to promotion, without adequate assistance for students who need help in meeting the requirements. You have more kids dropping out of school.''
Mr. Howe suggests that some school administrators may not always regard high dropout rates as an entirely bad thing.
``The kids who drop out tend to be your low scorers,'' he says, ``so the scores go up and school administrators feel good. But the kids are getting rooked in the process.''
Disciplinary actions - particularly suspension - also contribute to the dropout rate. At the high school level, blacks are suspended three times as often as whites. Advocates for disadvantaged students contend that there is a self-fulfilling expectation on the part of many teachers and administrators that black children from ghetto environments will cause discipline problems.
Jeff Canada of the Rheedlan Foundation sees a direct link between suspension practices and the dropout rate.
``The more days of school one misses, the further behind one gets,'' Mr. Canada says. ``And the harder it is to go back and keep going back.''
Another sensitive issue related to black children is the rate at which they are placed in special-education classes.
``Many black youngsters who had been placed in classes for the educable mentally handicapped had no serious intellectual deficit but had been placed in such classes because they created discipline problems,'' says Patricia Craig in her book ``Status of Handicapped Students.''
``A major effort is being made to improve inner-city schools and make them more effective,'' says Harvard's Dr. Howe. ``We have to recognize that because of the many hazards in these kids' environment, they need a lot of special services. It's a good investment to spend more on their education and provide those services, and I think we're making progress. But those schools need to have a much richer mix of services than they are able to have with their current levels of support.''
Alonzo Newby is a sophomore at the University of Maryland, a graduate of an inner-city high school in Washington. His is a relatively prosperous family, and his parents are well educated. They always encouraged their children to study hard. Early on, Mr. Newby set his sights on a career in engineering.
When he entered college at Syracuse University, however, he found that he lacked an adequate foundation in math. He was told that to keep up with college engineering courses, he would have to retake four years of high school math. Reluctantly, he switched his major to journalism: He is still bitter about the change.
``They should do something about those high schools so that if you want to make something of your life, you can do it,'' Newby says. ``If blacks are really going to get up there, I think education is the key.'' HIGHLIGHTED STATISTICS: 47% of all black 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate. This figure is expected to hit 50 percent by 1990. The overall illiteracy figure for whites is 16%.1 SOURCE: `Illiterate America,' by Johnathan Kozol, 1985. Black children drop out of school at almost twice the rate of white children.2 SOURCE: US Bureau of the Census. In 1984, 27% of black high school graduates enrolled in college, down from a high of 32% in 1975.3 SOURCE: US Commerce Department. Only 8% of all teachers are black. By 1990, this figure is expected to drop to 5%.4 SOURCE: National Education Association. Black students are placed in classes for the mildly mentally handicapped more than three times as often as white students. But they are placed in classes for the gifted and talented only half as often as white students.5 SOURCE: `Barriers to Excellence: Our Children at Risk, 1985.' The National Coalition of Advocates for Students.