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Reagan Panel Warns High Dropout Rate Threatens Business

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Washington--A Presidential panel has warned that the high rate of high-school dropouts, particularly among minority groups, poses a major threat to American society and industry.

The President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness--composed of business executives, labor leaders, and educators--warned: "The nation must act decisively to reduce the dropout rate dramatically ... or part of an entire generation could be lost to the productive process and to society."

The commission's report was released last month, shortly after a national study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that cited the high cost to business of educating employees who lack basic skills. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1985.) But the commission's findings on education received little attention.

The 30-member panel, appointed by President Reagan in June 1983, called for a partnership between the federal government and the private sector to "provide coordinated social services in the school setting to give intensive help to those students most at risk of dropping out."

Discussing the issue in an interview last month, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said more study is needed before the federal government can take steps to stem the increasing number of high-school dropouts.

Mr. Bennett has not yet seen this Presidential report, an Education Department spokesman said last week.

Focus on Industry

The Presidential commission, headed by John A. Young, chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Company, discussed the dropout issue briefly in a two-volume report on how the United States could improve its competitive position in the international economic arena. Its recommendations focused mainly on capital formation, manufacturing, international trade, and human resources.

In addition to its recommendation on dropouts, the panel called for federal efforts to upgrade educational computer software, to strengthen engineering and business education, and to encourage employer investment in training and retraining.

Particularly ominous, the panel found, is the dropout rate among blacks and Hispanics, the two groups that constitute an increasing proportion of the workforce. According to the panel, blacks and Hispanics will make up 14.3 percent of the labor force by 1995, up from 12.7 percent now.

Minority Dropouts

"It is this fastest-growing segment of the young worker population that is most likely to drop out of school and enter the workforce without critical basic skills," the report said. "Clearly, the competitiveness of U.S. industry is threatened when many of its young workers lack the basic skills to be productive employees."

The panel cited 1981 Census Bureau statistics indicating that the dropout rate could be as high as 40 percent for blacks and 43 percent for Hispanics. "The significance of these figures becomes clear when one notes that in 1980, 40 percent of all black Americans were 19 years old or under, while the comparable figure for Hispanic Americans was 43 percent (compared with 30 percent for all whites)," the commission's position paper on the issue said.


That position paper called for federal leadership on the dropout problem and a partnership between the public and private sectors. The panel said that both the Justice and Labor Departments may contribute6partial funds for the panel's key recommendation--the establishment of a training institute.

With additional support from the private sector, the center would disseminate information and provide technical assistance "to schools seeking to reach these high-risk students."

Citing the work of Cities in Schools, a national group that works at 32 school sites in six cities, the panel recommended "coordinated service delivery" for the high-risk students--including "counseling, educational services, and health, financial, legal, and employment assistance."

Congressional Meeting

Also last month, representatives of teachers' groups, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and several Congressional offices met in Washington at a Congressionally sponsored "working conference" on the problem of high-school dropouts.

The participants made some general recommendations but did not make suggestions for specific legislation.

According to John W. Smith, a staff member on the House Education and Labor Committee who helped organize the conference, participants called for: improved data collection regarding dropouts; more information on what happens to a student after he or she drops out of school; and more careful examination of the relationship between early-childhood education and the dropout problem.

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