A white construction contractor complains that his junior high school age son can't read even though he has a B+ average. His elder son says of drugs in his high school. "My sophomore year, I don't think I spent a day straight. I was high all the time."
A Chicago woman gripes that her 10th-grade son is only reading at a fourth-grade level, but no one ever bothered to tell her about it before.
A black woman says she received a better education in her segregated school in a small Texas town than her junior high age son receives in Denver.
"Is Anyone out There Learning?: A CBS News Report Card on American Public Education," introduces these Denver, Colo, families in the first of three one-hour telecasts tonight at 8 on Channel 9 (WDVM). Subsequent telecasts will follow Wednesday and Thursday, also at 8.
It should come as no surprise that CBS News, Walter Cronkite and Charles Collingwood have concluded our schools are in serious trouble. The programs are essentially a rehash of material that has appeared with some regularity in the media in the last few years.
Such issues as grade inflation absenteeism, social promotions, use of drugs, declining test scores, family breakup and parental apathy, school violence and vandalism, tolerance of low standards, and lack of discipline, continue to plague our educational system, as the programs correctly note.
Nevertheless, it's a vital story and one that we cannot be reminded of too often. In directing national attention to the problems of public education in prime time, the programs serve a useful public function.
There is no consensus as to who's to blame for the problems of the schools, CBS notes, but Wednesday's program does point a long finger at the teacher.
Early in the program, a parent makes the sweeping statement that "I don't think the teacher today is nearly as dedicated as the teacher was 20 years ago."
CBS follows this up with the observation that teachers today have more degrees, are better-paid and better-protected by their unions than ever. Then it cites a study by the College Entrance Examination Board as suggesting that teachers "are less dedicated, spend less time in and out of classrooms, are more permissive, give few writing or homework assignments, and don't enforce high academic standards." It quotes a CBS news poll as saying only 26 percent of those questioned said today's teachers are better than those of a generation ago.
Understandably, the series does not sit well with the National Education Association.
After previewing the series last week, the NEA News Service criticized the series as "a meter broad and only a millimeter thick . . . due to the shallowness of the investigation, the programs' findings can be characterized as follows: Students can't read, write, or figure: they're being passed through school via inflated grades and social promotions; they are not inspired or treated with a firm hand, so they are violent, absent and take dope. And the implication is that these conditions exist more often than not."
Although they travel from California to New York, the programs focus on the public schools of Denver, because, a CBS says, the Denver schools present a microcosm of the problems that afflict school systems nationally.
With 68,000 students, the Denver public schools are above average, CBS tells us, but they have all the problems of a large urban school system. Forty-seven percent of the students are white and there is an issue of declining enrollments and flight to the suburbs.The Chicano enrollment is 30 percent and blacks account for 21 percent of the school population. Denver does have a busing program.
In the first program we're introduced to three families, one white, one Chicago and one black, all of whom are having school problems.
George Holley, a white, middle-class construction contractor, complains that the youngest of his three boys can't read even though he has a B+ average at his junior high school.
"Somewhere along in the lower grades, he didn't learn to read and he can't read today," Holley says.
A middle son, Robert, at 15, is in advanced classes in high school, but says he can do all his work without much effort. The eldest son, Hank, is a high school senior, but he's lost all interest in school and has stopped working. He's been able to get by on such courses as "co-ed survival," which is a class in cooking for boys.
Jackie Limon, a Chicago woman, complains that she had not known her 10th-grade son was only reading at a fourth-grade level.
Mamie Craft, a black woman, complains that her junior high school age son stays up late to watch television, and then can't get up in the morning to go to school.
The second program attempts to explore the causes for problems within the schools. It suggests that, in addition to teachers, the fault may lie with too much television viewing poor quality textbooks and the vast changes in family structure and social values.
By the time a child reaches first grade, he has already watched television for 4,000 hours, the program notes. Although there is no clear evidence that this is in itself harmful, it is clear that those are 4,000 hours that aren't spent learning how to read.
Thursday's final program focuses on a search for solutions, and while it locates some examples of educational successes, there is no comprehensive plan to solve problems of the public schools.
Greensville County, Va., for example, raised test scores by the simple device of refusing to promote children from one grade to another unless they'd learned what they were supposed to learn.
Wingate High School in Brooklyn transformed itself from a center of violence, vandalism and drugs to a school with a solidly functioning academic program by changing the curriculum to meet student needs.
But those remained the isolated examples. The serious problems persist.
To accompany the network series, WDVM has scheduled a series of programs during the week focusing on problems and issue in Washington area schools. All week, during the 6 o'clock news, Maureen Bunyan will present a series, "What Do We Want From Our Schools?" It will focus on several Washington-area families and their impressions of the public schools. The series will culminate with a half-hour special Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
This morning at 10 a.m., Carol Randolph and Dennis Wholey will explore the Back to Basics movement. On Sunday, in half-hour programs at 6:30 and 10 a.m., bilingual Spanish-American education will be the focus of panel discussions. From 12 to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, WDVM will broadcast Adams-Morgan news conference a taped dicussion of students and parents focusing on educational concerns in that area.