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Report Criticizes Creation of Programs for 'Marginal' Students

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Conventional programs, often costing millions of dollars, that are designed to help "marginal" students complete their education are ineffective, according to a university researcher.

Gary G. Wehlage, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, contends that such programs focus almost exclusively on remediation of academic skills, development of vocational skills, and career counseling. They overlook basic principles of human development that are "fundamental to the long-term success" of all young adults, he says.

'Fundamental Changes'

In a study jointly sponsored by the Wisconsin Governor's Employment and Training Office and the National Institute of Education, Mr. Wehlage argues that potential dropouts--who can be identified by their poor academic performance, fre-quent absences from school, and "conflict with the norms and expectations of the institution"--are better served by educational programs that encourage them to make "fundamental changes in the way they see themselves and the social world."

Nationally, approximately 25 percent of high-school students leave school without a diploma. In inner cities, the dropout rate is much higher, according to Mr. Wehlage.

Marginal students, he argues, need to re-establish bonds with groups of people and learn principles of self-management and social interaction that will allow them lasting success in the world of work and in their personal lives.

Vocational training alone results in "a form of social tracking that leads youth into the frustration of a series of entry-level jobs that are neither developmental nor rewarding," according to a report, Effective Programs for the Marginal High School Student. It was written by Mr. Wehlage and Calvin R. Stone and published by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

The report presents detailed case studies of innovative programs at six Wisconsin high schools.

Among the programs examined are: a school for marginal students within a traditional high school; an intensive two-semester course of study for juniors who do not have enough credits and are unlikely to graduate; and a "school without walls" that encourages marginal, average, and gifted students to pursue community projects under the guidance of volunteer teachers.

'Clear Objective'

In all of these programs, "socialization to conventional values and behaviors was a clear objective," the study notes.

"Teachers in the programs understand that they are doing more than teaching math or science; they are teaching adolescents to become more adult, more responsible, and more effective in their relationships with others," Mr. Wehlage says.

He says other characteristics common to the programs include:

Manageable size. Some 25 to 60 students participated in each program, supervised by two to six teachers.

"Small size is essential to provide for control of students and also to provide personal, face-to-face relationships between students and faculty," the study notes.

Autonomy. Teachers in the programs control policies and practices, which gives them a sense of ownership, involvement, and accountability, the report says.

Separate facilities. The successful programs, even those housed within regular high schools, have some space of their own.

Regular assignments. Teachers strictly control the students' time and activities in school.

Assignments are designed to foster daily accomplishment and a sense of competence.

High expectations. Good conduct, exemplary behavior, regular attendance, and prompt completion of work assignments are required, with almost no exceptions.

Personal involvement. Teachers are especially caring and feel a personal obligation to help troubled and marginal students; they are concerned with developing "the whole child," including aspects of social development.

Group loyalty. Programs have identifiable names. Both students and teachers have a strong sense of group identity and loyalty to their programs.

"Problem-centered" curriculum. The most effective curriculum for marginal students, the study notes, takes into account real problems that need to be solved. "Unlike math problems or spelling problems which have right answers," the study says, successful curriculums give students an opportunity to test their skills "when they are personally involved in some way and no clear answer is available."

Experiential learning. "Kids begin to see themselves as adults by taking responsibility and initiative. Teen-agers, who are often takers and spenders and not givers, begin to see themselves as providing some worthwhile service or communication that is intrinsically rewarding," according to Mr. Wehlage.

Limited numbers of the 208-page report are available for $3 per copy from the Center Document Service, Center for Education Research, 1025 W. Johnson St., Madison, Wis. 53706.

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