You can't call it good news when the doctor finds that your blood pressure is up or that you've got a suspicious-looking spot on your lung.

You can only be glad that you got the bad news in time to do something about it.

That is the way Washington residents ought to be viewing the educational health report issued by D.C. school officials last week: the report that half of our first-, second- and third-graders have failed to master the skills necessary for promotion.

Obviously we would have preferred a different sort of report. But the question is: now that we've learned the bad news, what do we do about it?

One of the first things to do is to find out where the problem is. Is the competency-based curriculum (CBC) instituted by former superintendent Vincent Reed too hard, too jargon-laden for teachers to understand? Does it require so much paper work -- recording which skills have been mastered and which have not -- that teachers have too little time left for teaching the skills? Are teachers resisting CBC, refusing to make any real effort to make it work?

Are school principals making certain that the mandated skills are being taught? Are parents failing to do their part in helping their children master the skills? Is the CBC language calculated to intimidate parents out of helping? (Teachers tell me that they have trouble getting parents to come to school for conferences on their children's progress. On the other hand, few parents feel competent to help when they are told that their children are experiencing difficulty with their "medial short-vowel sounds." Why can't they tell us to drill our kids on vowels in the middle of words?)

Perhaps one way to get an idea of what is going wrong is to take a serious look at what is going right. Things have been going right for a number of years at some schools: Green Elementary School at Mississippi and 15th Street SE, for instance.

You should hear this high-level school official tell of her recent visit to Green: "The atmosphere is very businesslike. The place is orderly -- inside the classrooms and out. The principal believes in what he is doing and makes his teachers believe in it too. There is a sense of order and seriousness throughout the whole school."

Are there things to be learned at Green that might be useful to embattle principals at other schools?

We count it a simple, elegant truth to say that children cannot be expected to learn what they haven't been taught. When we say the same thing about teachers, it comes off as an attack on their professionalism.

But the truth is, most of our teachers haven't been taught -- either by their professors in teachers' college or by their principals on the job -- how to impart the basic skills to children from low-income families. Many of the professors and principals don't know either.

Shouldn't we make use of the out standing principals to show their less-effective colleagues how it is done? And what do we do instead? You can get a clue from the fact that Vandy Jamison, who was so successful as principal at Green, is now an acting assistant superintendent doing Lord-knows-what.

The report out of the Presidential Building last week is a warning that the problems that manifest themselves in functionally illiterate high school seniors have their origins much, much earlier.

We can react to the warning with embarrassment, or we can make up our minds to do something about it.

And if we don't know what to do about it, there is reassurance in the fact that some people do know. We need to find a way to enlist these successful ones -- principals, teachers and parents -- to let the rest of us in on their secrets.

It's no disgrace to admit that we don't know what we have never been taught.

The disgrace is in refusing to try to learn.