If you fear there are no standards in schools anymore, take a look in Samuel H. Perlmutter's chemistry lab at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac.
No grade inflation here. No social promotions. No gum chewing. No sass.
Perlmutter -- a small, roundish man in a white lab coat -- presides firmly over beakers, Petri dishes, Bunsen burners, test tubes and his students.
His chemistry course is so rough, and his standards for achievement and classroom behavior so tough that counselors regularly advise their students to avoid other difficult courses while taking Perlmutter's. He is revered by school administrators and parents, as well as former students who routinely attribute subsequent success in college science courses to his stern influence. Even current students grudgingly admit his old-fashioned brand of discipline is good for them.
But Perlmutter turned 70 on Feb. 13 and, under a Maryland law in effect at the time, would have been forced into mandatory retirement in June.
A bill passed unanimously last week by both houses of the General Assembly, however, will give Perlmutter and other elderly teachers a new lease on their classrooms. Perlmutter's champions at Churchill are largely responsible.
Although other county employes 70 and older can extend their employment year by year with supervisory approval, teachers could not until now.
The bill, introduced by Alleghany County delegate Thomas B. Cumiskey to help a 70-year-old Alleghany Community College teacher, will allow teachers with their supervisor's approval to apply to the Maryland Board of Education for one-year extensions of their contracts.
Perlmutter, his wife Elsie, the Churchill PTA, and present and former students who had labored under Perlmutter's tutelage, testified -- unsolicited -- on his behalf in hearings in March. More than 500 current students, parents and teachers at Churchill signed petitions to the governor, the fall-back plan if legislation had not passed.
Elsie K. Perlmutter, 68, who quit her job with the District of Columbia Department of Human Resources to lobby full-time for the bill, was elated by the victory.
"What we are saying is that it is ridiculous to make age a requirement for doing a good job," she said. "You become more mature as you become older."
Sally P. Kanchuger, who led the Churchill PTA's Committee to Save Perlmutter, said, "We have eliminated a lot of other reasons you discriminate against people. There is no reason not to eliminate age as a reason."
Pleased by the attention and delighted that his teaching position is secure, Perlmutter maintains that the only way to teach is tough.
"I expect kids to work up to capacity. I have high demands and high standards and they comply," he said stoutly. Besides chemistry, he said, he teaches them a string of Boy Scout virtues including honesty, integrity, punctuality and neatness. He was, indeed, a scoutmaster for 40 years.
"He treats students as more mature people than most teachers. He gives them more responsibility," said Stuart Kanchuger, 17, who said he "didn't do so well" in Perlmutter's class last year. He became Perlmutter's assistant this year, hoping to pick up a little more chemistry.
At the beginning of the year, Perlmutter tells students they are responsible for producing near letter-perfect laboratory reports on every experiment. He gives them a list of what he expects the reports to contain.
Each lab report receives a numerical grade and coded letter representing comments explaning the grade. A "G" means the explanation of the experiment's purpose is incomplete; "R" means answers are wrong; "O" is a spelling error; "J" means the drawing is deficient; "L" means the graph has an error; "AA" means "subterfuge," which Perlmutter says means the student tried to "fudge" figures on the lab report to make the experiment come out as it should. A students gets two hours of detention for "subterfuge."
On the behavior side, Perlmutter forbids students to chew gum, write on desks, come late, skip class, squirt water while washing glassware and a host of other infractions that carry specified detention hours.
The method works -- at least for the brightest and most diligent students. Perlmutter admits they are the ones who stick it out and finish his class. Many others transfer early to another class or drop the course.
Richard E. Preston, a former Churchill student now in the chemical engineering program at Princeton University, wrote to high school authorities compiling an award application on Perlmutter's behalf: "The largest single influences on my academic career have been Mr. Perlmutter, his chemistry course and my experience as one of his assistants . . . It was in Mr. Perlmutter's class I learned to learn." Another, a medical student, wrote, "He is a one-man bulwark against slipping standards in secondary education."
In 1978, Perlmutter won the James Bryant Conant award, given to the nation's top high school chemistry teacher, and this year won the Chemical Manufacturer's Association award for thigh school chemistry teaching.
Although teaching is his love and his life, Perlmutter is a chemist first. For 30 years, until he was 55, he worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a supervisory chemist. On retiring from federal employment, he got a masters in science education and took up his passion, teaching.
Perlmutter attributes his success as a teacher to his experience, but it is his enthusiasm and dogged determination that seem to set his students on fire. When he first arrived at Churchill, he started a science club and invited colleagues to speak after school on their specialties. No students showed up to hear them. So Perlmutter walked the halls corralling students serving detention for other teachers to make an audience.The captive audiences became interested and began to attend on their own. Now science club lectures are packed.
"He would teach for free, only they don't know it," jokes his wife.