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Report Urges New Policies for Urban Schools

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In spite of the "unsympathetic mood" of the Reagan Administration toward a strong federal role in education, urban schools need the financial and administrative backing of a "modified" federal policy if they are to improve the educational opportunities of the urban poor, according to a report jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (hud) and a private research group.

But the report, while sounding a theme similar to that of several recent critiques of Administration education policy, differs from them in also challenging the premise on which federal programs for the disadvantaged have been based.

The report argues that federal education policies to correct the perceived inequities in the situation of disadvantaged students have incorrectly focused on sociological, rather than educational, factors.

Future federal policy, the report contends, should be predicated on the qualities of schools, not the social and economic backgrounds of the children who attend them.

In language reminiscent of that used by the education researcher Ron D. Edmonds--who was a contributor to the report--in his studies on "effective schools," the document states: "School characteristics rather than factors inherent in the child's family situation" would be a "more valid framework" for organizing future federal policy in education.

The recently released report, "Urban Policy Issues," is a collaborative effort of nine urban-policy scholars, some of whom are members of the Boston-based Joint Center for Political Studies. One section of the report--which also looks at housing, health, unemployment, and other urban issues--is devoted to education policy.

Drawing on extensive research linking pupil performance "to school variables rather than family background," the report argues that policymakers have been "led in the wrong direction" by such earlier studies as those of sociologists James S. Coleman and Christopher Jencks, which suggested that schools were less important to individual development than were noneducation-related factors.

The result of those ideas, the report says, was to "absolve" educators of their "professional responsibility to be instructionally effective."

Through his research in the 1960's, Mr. Coleman first advanced the idea that black students' performance and achievement was not directly influenced by the schools but rather by the socioeconomic status of their families.

In 1972, Mr. Jencks published research concluding that the differences between schools "seem to have very little effect" on those who attend them, reinforcing the view that deficiencies found in student achievement were "inherent in the lives of children," and not in the effectiveness of the schools, according to the report.

"No notion about schooling is more widely held than the belief that the family is the principal determinant of whether or not a child will do well in school," according to Linda Cummings of Brandeis University, the author of the education section of the report.

"While recognizing the importance of family background in developing a child's character, personality, and intelligence, the notion must be rejected that a school is relieved of its instructional obligations when teaching the children of the poor," Ms. Cummings added.

In its analysis of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which mandates programs for disadvantaged students, the report recommends that Congress "remove family income and social class as relevant variables in assessing pupil eligibility" for Title I's compensatory-education programs.

"One of the persistent criticisms of Title I is its failure to influence school life in contrast to the way it seeks to alter pupil life,'' the report noted, adding that altering the funding formula may help correct the imbalance. As the principal federal aid program to the urban poor, according to the report, Title I should be legislatively and administratively changed because of the implication that family background is the "origin of whatever disability the student may display."

In urging continued federal involvement in education, the report asserts that "claims of the excessive burden of federal financing of public schools are overstated" and recommends that Congress modify existing education laws instead of weakening them. The report also proposes that a study be undertaken to explore alternative funding sources for urban schools that lost tax support when middle-class homeowners and industry fled the cities for suburban and rural areas.

But the researchers reject the concepts of educational vouchers and tuition tax credits because, they argue, such measures would "further weaken the public-school system," which they call the "most feasible means of providing quality education to the urban poor."

"We are not suggesting that federal involvement has been the savior of public education in the United States," the report asserts. "Paradoxically, despite the intense attention given to urban schools over the past 25 years, their condition, especially in the North and Midwest, appears to be one of serious decline."

However, the report acknowledges that "the impetus for improving the urban public schools has come from federal initiatives" because the states have often been "unresponsive" to their obligations to the urban poor. "Urban Policy Issues" was conducted under a cooperative agreement with the Joint Center for Political Studies and hud

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