Don't play 'blame the schools'
American schools have many problems. They reflect the problems of the larger society and long decades of public neglect. But critics of many stripes seem bent upon some ''quick fix'' and generally fail to either diagnose or prescribe with thoughtful logic. At least three realities seem largely ignored or misrepresented by much of the current media treatment of the public education scene in this nation:
1. The public schools have many very serious problems, but they have demonstrated enormous strengths as well. Schools have accommodated to ''baby booms,'' teacher shortages, and deteriorating facilities with stability and continuity of service to all. They have adapted their programs to accommodate slow learners, handicapped, emotionally disturbed, and a constantly changing set of social values.
In recent years, a new record was set in holding power - 75 percent of all secondary-age youth were actually in school for the first time in America's history. Illiteracy has been so completely eradicated among students that new and more demanding standards called ''adult competence'' or ''life skills'' have replaced the literacy measures used throughout most of the world to reflect national progress.
2. The teachers of America's schools number approximately 2.5 million - the largest group of college graduates in any one occupational endeavor. They determine, in a large measure, what the unique contribution of the school will be to student progress, but they don't do it alone. Responsibility for the quality of education is heavily shared by parents and the larger community.
Even so, the persistent teacher shortage of the past 30 years has left its scars. The shortages were never seriously addressed by our people or our politicians. School officials were forced, decade after decade, to accept virtually all applicants with minimum qualifications. Few teachers have had anything approximating the amount or quality of professional training offered to virtually every other profession.
These failures to recruit, select, or adequately train have been compounded by the persistent refusal of boards, legislatures, and the Congress to fund in-service training programs in the face of obvious needs.
Our Johnny-come-lately critics seem utterly unaware that the youthful teaching force of the nation (average age in mid-30s) is ready and willing to upgrade its practices through retraining, in-service education, and human resource development programs. Instead these critics offer warmed-over, long discredited ''merit pay'' plans that would not produce needed results in any case.
3. The schools are ''at risk'' from persistent scapegoating and public neglect. A bit of reflection is required to recall the Rudolf Flesch mania for phonics in the 1940s, the new math panacea in the 1950s, the TV curriculum projects bypassing the classroom teacher in the '60s, and the back to basics with minimum competency testing of the 1970s. Each is an example of doomed-to-failure efforts at ''school reform,'' foisted upon school officials by vested interest groups and unknowing, self-appointed critics. The 1980s are off to another decade of capricious, ill-conceived, politically motivated meddling in the affairs of our schools.
The parents of the nation should be aroused. Their children have become pawns in an incessant game called ''blame the school.'' The right of each child to a curriculum that suits his or her individual needs is being abridged. The rights and responsibilities of parents to work closely with teachers and local school officials to provide an education that is supportive of family life and consistent with their aspirations for their children are being frustrated. Finally, the wisdom and technical expertise of 150,000 school administrators and supervisors and hundreds of thousands of fine experienced teachers is being literally wasted.
A new era has come upon the land and sown chaos in our schools. We cannot return to the past, but we can reaffirm the rights of students, parents, teachers, and school officials to shape locally and personally the education of each learner. We need cheerleaders, an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, a few responsible officials, some water boys, too! But too many coaches interfering with players' efforts is a sure way to lose the game.