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July 20, 1986|Robert Hampel

TALES OUT OF SCHOOL: A TEACHER'S CANDID ACCOUNT FROM THE FRONT LINES OF THE AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL by Patrick Welsh (Elisabeth Sifton/Viking: $15.95). Patrick Welsh teaches English at a suburban Washington, D.C., high school, to the rich and the poor, blacks and whites, immigrants, teen-age mothers, cheerleaders on drugs, and adolescent subcultures as specialized as "grits" and "Skoal dippers." Accommodating the diversity is not easy. Tracking, for instance, often consigns the slowest students to the worst teachers. Current enthusiasts for academic excellence overlook what Welsh sees clearly--racial and class inequities unremedied by earlier crusades for non-discriminatory education. Our high schools have to please white middle-class parents, Welsh argues; any preferential treatment of minorities masks deeper injustice.

Educators now often slight two topics central to the 1970s reform rights and feelings. By a series of deft classroom vignettes, Welsh reminds us that discrimination is not gone, and shows how the stress of being an adolescent in the 1980s can undermine learning. School reform has to go beyond mandating another year of math, according to Welsh.

Sympathetic to youngsters, the book lambastes school administrators. They foolishly evaluate teachers by checking for a "sponge activity" to absorb the first seconds of class time. Many nurture public relations rather than better instruction. They scheme and gossip and collect big salaries.

Welsh may be too harsh on the adults and too kind to the youngsters; otherwise, he offers a lively account of everyday life in high schools. There is no core argument or central thesis in "Tales," but the dozens of anecdotes and stories bring to life the crazy-quilt complexity of polyglot schools. We need to hear more tales, out of different schools, voiced by other teachers as articulate as Welsh. How else will we know for sure that grits wear jean jackets and Skoal dippers chew tobacco?

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