THE OTHER DAY I was talking to a District teacher, and his frustrated account of conditions in his school bothered me -- both in terms of what he said and of our tendency to forget these problems when they are not in the headlines.
Michael McCory no longer teaches at the school he was describing -- Woodson Junior High. He left to take another job just before Christmas. But the anger he expressed might help us do better, right shame us into shedding some of our apathy.
"The first problem as I see it is that the school system has cancelled out its option with regard to how to deal with problem children," he said.
"There are such discipline problems -- the kids continually cut class, start fights, set off fire alarms, threaten other kids.
"In its attempt to go along with everything liberal coming down in the late '60s and early '70s, the school locked itself in and is now incapable of dealing with kids before they are permitted to leave school.
"If you can't deal with the student who walks in and calls you a stupid mother --, what do you do with a kid who simply won't stop talking?
"I had one student in my eighth grade who is 17 years old. That's particularly striking to me because I was a freshman in college when I was 17. He's a king around that school. He's out of class most of the time . . . roaming around, doing what he wants to do.
"I worked with a lot of people who were nice people but who were not good teachers. I'm talking about English teachers, for example, who use bad English. It's a very discouraging situation. I don't see any way out of it.
"There are a lot of good people working in the D.C. public schools but they are so overcome with hopelessness.
"In our school, the strong survive and the weak go under," McCory said. "Thirty five to 40 kids constitute the average class. The student who can command physical respect among the males is going to be it. He's somebody to be reckoned with. In out school, nobody knew who got straight As. The only general knowledge of who are good students came at honors day at the end of the year.
This admittedly is one man's report, but it disturbs me nonetheless despite progress being made under Schools Supt. Vincent Reed.
"The crime of it all is that 75 percent of the students are above average but there is so much petty bull --, they are not being developed. It isn't lack of intellectual ability."
The question of dealing with problems of education has little or nothing to do with class, locale, or race. Harvard, the state of Florida, New York, Montgomery County and Howard University have in various ways recently gone "back to basics."
The issue seems to be joined on the concerns about performance by students and rewards for teachers; discipline in the schools and what education is supposed to do for society. Successful education shapes our young, and if our city is to produce responsible young people, our interest and efforts must be directed toward those ends.
It is sadly ironic, then, that public education is in peril as we begin the 1980s. The Chicago school system's fiscal woes, close upon the heels of Cleveland and New York, telegraph a frightening message: Society seems willing to make a casualty of public education.
American schools got out of kilter during the '60s and '70s when the American family began dissolving and the school took on an inordinate burden of socializing the individual. This coincided with attacks on public schools from high places. I still shudder with the memory of Spiro Agnew in 1969 saying education is not a right but a privilege. And I take little comfort from the Supreme Court's ruling that the states can take public money for private schools.
While Washington's woes are not primarily fiscal, if the public education pot shrinks, needed improvements in the classroom are pushed lower and lower on the agenda.
I feel one of the keys to public education is more money. But much of the problem of disciplining students lies in our failure to motivate them and this is often because teachers are not well prepared. I would like to see tougher standards imposed on teacher preparedness as well as substantially reduced class sizes.
I think it is also inevitable that Washington needs some system of tracking, since not every student is able to learn at the same speed. Black students have been abused by rigid tracking in the past, but even that archcritic of tracking, the late Julius Hobson opposed not the principle but the distorted application of the system. Different levels of progress for superbright, average, and below-average children would stimulate not only the student but also the teachers.
Of course, the professional educators and the new president of the D.C. school board will have to go far beyond these random thoughts. Not to look for bold answers is to imperil our future, to imperil the health of us all.