Rue summer-school numbers or celebrate an awakening?

May 30, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MY FRIEND LEVIN, the retired schoolteacher, tells the story of informing one of his students that he was likely to spend his vacation in summer school.

"That's OK," this underachiever responded. "I believe in the school creed."

He meant the blithe, in-your-face tribal creed regarding summer school.

"What school creed?" said Levin.

"`I ain't the only one,'" the lad replied, reciting it by heart and with gusto.

The story comes to mind today because of the thing happening in the public schools of Baltimore, whose great thinkers announced this week that the city's classrooms will be filled this summer with hordes of the moping and the academically indigent.

Last year, about 28,000 kids went to summer school to make up for classes they flunked during the regular year. This year, as many as 46,000 are expected to go through the dreary ritual.

The figure represents about 50 percent of the public school population. There are estimates that it's as large a percentage as any big city has ever recorded.

To which, we have a choice.

We can wring our hands and declare what an obviously dreadful situation we have, in which half our children cannot perform basic academic skills for their grade level.

Or we can breathe a sigh of relief and declare: At last.

At last, we have some standards in the public schools.

At last, we have a school administration with the courage to stop pretending kids are learning when they are not.

At last, we aren't passing kids through the system - "social promotion" was the old euphemism, until they dropped the practice two years ago - simply to get tough kids out of teachers' hair.

At last, we're insisting that these kids learn certain basic skills so that, after they leave school, they will have a reasonable shot at making their way in the world.

Around here, we've spent years lying to ourselves about such things. Every year, the standardized test results came out, and the reading and math scores looked like suicide notes for a culture. But school officials would dodge the obvious. We're turning a corner, they would announce. We're working on the kids' self-esteem, they'd say. Things will get better once the kids feel good about themselves.

Unfortunately, improvements have been marginal and spotty. For three decades, minimum, the city school system has perpetrated fraud on the grand scale, claiming to educate kids when common sense - standardized test scores, dropout rates, flunk-out rates - said they were not.

Some of this comes with a poignant history. The schools are about 90 percent African-American. When white families were fleeing the city 30 years ago, two things conspired to harm - quite unintentionally - remaining black students.

One was the guilt of some white liberals working in the system, intending to make up for generations of cruelty inflicted by racial segregation.

They saw black kids whose parents had never gotten a decent education, and thus did not respect the system, and did not trust it.

These whites, intending to remake history in a single generation, bent over backward, made excuses, tossed away many existing standards - all to make the schools more welcoming to black kids.

Second was the response of some black parents, suspicious of the value of education and of white teachers, and quick to challenge those who said their kids weren't performing they way they should. These parents didn't want their children cheated as they had been cheated.

Out of good intentions on both sides, the kids were cheated. They weren't held to standards - and left school, one way or another, unprepared to succeed.

Two years ago, the city school board voted to end social promotion. Last fall, it voted to tighten standards and require all students to get passing grades, and elementary and middle school children to score at least at the 23rd percentile on national standardized tests.

And this brings us to the current situation, in which half the population of the city schools gets ready for summer school. It's a drag. Kids should be outside playing ball, diving into swimming pools, sleeping late - instead of picking their way through math equations unlearned over the previous nine months.

But the other way was worse: Telling ourselves we were helping these kids, when we were not. Sending them into the world with diplomas in their hands, and not nearly enough in their heads to stay above water.

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