Reform Has Ignored 'At Risk' Students, Inquiry by Advocacy Group Concludes
Washington--The vast majority of the nation's "at risk" children--those who are poor, nonwhite, handicapped, or female--have largely been ignored in the rush by educators to reform American schooling, says a national "board of inquiry" headed by a former U.S. Commissioner of Education and the president of the Children's Defense Fund in a report to be released here this week.
"Policymakers at many different levels talk of bringing excellence to schools and ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of youngsters are not receiving even minimal educational opportunities guaranteed under law," says the board, which was created two years ago by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, a Boston-based network of 20 child-advocacy groups in 15 states. "Throughout our inquiry, we felt an increasing sense of anger and frustration at the wastefulness of our schools. Our schools are disgarding too many young people; our society is losing too much potential. It is a waste we cannot afford and must refuse to tolerate."
A 'Bottom-Up' Look
The report, Barriers to Excellence: Our Children at Risk, was prepared following more than 100 hours of testimony during hearings in 15 cities. The board was chaired Continued on Page 10
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by Harold Howe 2nd, who headed the U.S. Office of Education during the Johnson Administration, and Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund.
According to Joan McCarty First, director of the group that sponsored the project, the board's report differs from other recent studies on the status of American education "in that it looks at schools from the bottom up rather than from the top down."
"What the board did was spend the year listening to what people's experiences in schools were and what their worries were," she explained in an interview last week. "That's a much different way to come up with proposals for school reform. We wanted to find out why a large number of children continue to be excluded from schools, why a large number of children in school fail to learn conceptual and problem-solving skills, and why a large number of young people experience unemployment and underemployment in the workplace."
Role of Schools
According to the report, many schools have failed to educate "those who are excluded from the mainstream of American life." It adds that educators "must become committed to the role of schools as central institutions in the ongoing effort to reverse the effects of economic deprivation and racial and cultural deprivation."
"Unless we enlist schools in this struggle for opportunity, we run the danger that they will, instead, become agencies that perpetuate the inequalities in our society," the report warns.
The board also argues that there are political and economic benefits to be gained by halting discrimination against children on the basis of their race, sex, origin, or handicap. "[T]he failure to educate millions of children is turning the potential for social profit into grave deficit, the cost of which American taxpayers will bear both financially and socially, in terms of increased dependency and the loss of a sense of common purpose," the report says.
The board report's makes major findings in the following areas:
School desegregation. Although significant progress has been made in the 30 years since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, "subtle forms of discrimination still exist in schools," the board says.
"From the minute they walk into school, many low-income students get the message that society does not really care about their education, that schools expect little from them," the report states. "The combined impact of decaying physical plants and a scarcity of classroom materials and educational resources undermines their motivation and self esteem." The board says it found widespread evidence of discriminatory tracking and disciplinary policies, as well as evidence of widespread misclassification of minority students as educable mentally handicapped.
School finance. The income level of a child's family is the major determinant of the quality of the education a child receives, the board contends. "Poor children ... are considered less important than nonpoor children, if we contrast the level of financing allocated for their education with that allocated for children in more affluent districts,'' the board says. "It troubles us that the unfairness in [this] difference is not a more significant issue on the current national educational agenda."
Sex Discrimination. Women face considerable discrimination in schools, limiting them both intellectually and economically, the board reports. Of particular concern, it adds, is the lack of services for pregnant teen-agers.
"Our schools have written off this population of young women," the board alleges. "Having allocated few resources designed to prevent pregnancy, schools offer little help once a student becomes a young parent. Inflexible institutional procedures, stigmatizing attitudes, and lack of support services all represent barriers to thousands of young parents who might complete their education if the schools reached out to them."
Testing. Increased reliance on testing as a measure of competency and aptitude has had a negative effect on teaching and learning, the board concludes. "Competency tests, while often justified as a means of ensuring remedial help, do not guarantee that such help will be forthcoming," the board says. "All children also suffer when testing narrows the content of curriculum and promotes teaching to the test."
Preschool programs. "Although the number of services for young children ... has grown in the past quarter century, such services are still far from comprehensive or universal," the board says. It notes that the federal Head Start program serves only 18 percent of those children eligible for services and that funding levels for state kindergarten programs "are often minimal."
Education reform and economic assumptions. "Current education-reform proposals fail to come to terms with the immediate employment issues for youth," the board states. "Few if any of the reform recommendations speak to the need for a smoother school-to-work transition for the 25 percent of high-school students who drop out and the 40 percent of high-school graduates who plan to proceed directly into the job market. ... Nothing in these reports notes the discouragement many students feel when their friends and relatives who have high-school diplomas are still on the streets without jobs, or, at best, are marginally employed."
In order to remedy these and other faults it identifies in the education system, the board recommends:
Continued government attention "to the rights of the disadvantaged and those discriminated against because of race, language, sex, or handicap."
A greater willingness on the part of school administrators "to adjust schools to the needs of all students who attend them."
More democratic governance of all schools in order to assure parents ''a significant role" in making decisions about the education of their children.
The establishment of comprehensive early-childhood education and day-care programs, and in-school support services to prevent school failures.
The enactment of more equitable and adequate systems for financing schools "so that quality of education does not depend on where a child lives."
"Systematic" attention to the problems of jobs for youths, including dropouts.
"Education reform is neither quick or cheap," the board concludes. "Past mistakes can become the grist for growth if we choose to learn from them. The space shuttle did not always take off on time or without mishap. The testing of strategies to educate 42 million young people in our public schools is no less complicated."
According to Ms. First of the child-advocacy coalition, the project was funded by grants totaling $250,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Faxon Company of Boston, The Ford Foundation, The Field Foundation of New York, The Hazen Foundation, The Johnson Foundation, The New World Foundation, and The Southern Foundation.
Copies of the report can be obtained for $5.50 from the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 76 Summer St., #350, Boston, Mass. 02110.
In addition to Mr. Howe and Ms. Edelman, the members of the board of inquiry included:
Angela Brown, graduate student, Wayne State University, Detroit; Jose Cardenas, director, Intercultural Development and Research Assoc., San Antonio; Martin Carnoy, professor of education and economics, Stanford University; Stanford, Calif.; State Representative Robert E. Clark Jr., chairman, Mississippi House Education Committee, Jackson, Miss.; Hubert E. Jones, dean, Boston University School of Social Work, Boston; Linda Martin, director, West Virginia Education Project, Griffithsville, W. Va.; Danny McGlone, assistant to the executive director, New Youth Connections, New York; Floretta D. McKenzie, superintendent of schools, Washington, D.C.; Sam Meyer, regional director, United Auto Workers, New York; Carol Ouimette, teacher, Minneapolis; Antonia Pantoja, president, Graduate School for Community Development, San Diego; Vito Perrone, dean, University of North Dakota Center for Teaching and Learning, Grand Forks, N.D.; Gumecindo Salas, former president, Michigan State Board of Education, Lansing, Mich.; The Rev. Kenneth Smith, president, Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago; Junious Williams Jr., associate professor of ethnic studies, California State University-Fresno.