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Congress Is Eyeing Efforts To Address Dropout Problem

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WASHINGTON--Two recent reports have buttressed the arguments of those who say strategies for lowering the high-school dropout rate have proved their effectiveness and deserve the strong support of federal policymakers.

Those findings come at a time when the Congress appears willing to endorse additional investments in new and existing dropout programs and in research to better define the scope of the problem.

Last month, the Institute for Educational Leadership Inc. released a study contending that enough is known about the dropout problem--both its causes and its cures--to justify an aggressive campaign of early intervention, remedial instruction, and support services for students considered most likely to quit school. (See Education Week, March 18, 1987.)

And that opinion is shared by an "overwhelming'' majority of some 400 experts involved in dropout-prevention efforts, according to a nationwide survey by the General Accounting Office.

The plight of school dropouts has emerged as an economic issue in recent months, as the Congress attempts to reform the welfare system and to trim the cost of other social programs.

"Dropping out of school all but extinguishes the hope of making it in our competitive economy,'' argues Senator Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Democrat who is chairman of the Labor and Human Resources subcommittee on education.

High-school dropouts cost the nation as much as $228 billion a year in unemployment and welfare payments, lost tax revenues, additional law-enforcement expenses, and other societal costs, estimates James S. Catterall, a researcher with the Stanford Education Policy Institute.

Although recent data indicate a modest decline in the number of dropouts in the general population, studies have shown that poor, minority, and other "at risk'' youths are three times more likely than other students to leave school before earning a diploma.

Differing Responses

But while there is general agreement on the seriousness of the problem, education policymakers have voiced strongly differing opinions on the proper response to it, especially at the federal level.

Education Department officials, including Chester E. Finn Jr., the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, have contended that too little is known about the effectiveness of specific techniques to embark on a major dropout-prevention campaign.

"The dropout problem is serious, but it is far from solved,'' Mr. Finn said through a spokesman last week. "There is no consensus on how to define it, no agreement on how to measure it, and no certainty that it can be solved without reference to myriad other educational and social issues. There is very little hard evidence about what works.''

Others, however, disagree. The authors of the Institute for Educational Leadership's report, for example, titled their booklet "Dropouts in America--Enough is Known for Action.''

Andrew Hahn and Jacqueline Danzberger, the authors of theWashington research group's study, call for a "comprehensive, integrated strategy'' to keep high-risk students in school. They maintain that a number of programs--ranging from early-childhood intervention to the Job Corps--have proved their success at keeping students inschool and persuading those who have left to return for their diplomas.

Budgetary Constraints

But high-quality programs are expensive, the I.E.L. report acknowledges--citing, for example, the Job Corps, which spends an average of $9,500 on each participant each year. Preventing dropouts, the authors contend, can require health and day-care facilities and guidance counselors, among other expensive services.

According to the GAO report, budgetary contraints "were frequently cited as a barrier to effectiveness'' by the more than 400 dropout experts polled as part of the agency's survey.

"Some officials stated simply that the needs of the at-risk youth population exceed what available resources can meet,'' said William Gainer, associate director for human resources at the Congressional investigatory agency, in testimony before a House education subcommittee last month. "Program administrators saw a need for more vocational education and work experience,'' he added.

Researchers for both the accounting office and the IEL, however, agree with Mr. Finn on one key point--that there is a serious lack of data on the extent of the dropout problem and on the characteristics of the dropout population.

"Statistical manipulations have the effect of trivializing a significant social and educational problem,'' Mr. Hahn and Ms. Danzberger wrote.

Federal Funding Sought

In the Congress, education-minded legislators have introduced several bills earmarking modest amounts of new funding for statistical research and for demonstration projects designed to test new prevention strategies.

The most ambitious proposal comes from Representatives Augustus Hawkins of California and William Goodling of Pennsylvannia as part of their proposed revision of the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program.

Mr. Hawkins, a Democrat, and Mr. Goodling, a Republican, would target as much as $100 million to high schools in districts with large numbers of poor students. The money could be used to pay for guidance counseling and other support services for dropout-prone students.

Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Goodling have also incorporated into their Chapter 1 plan a measure that would set aside $50 million for demonstration projects in a number of areas, such as work-study programs, staff training, and efforts aimed at coaxing dropouts to re-enroll in night classes and other flexible learning arrangements.

A similar bill introduced in the Senate by Mr. Pell would also require the Education Department to conduct a one-year study of the dropout issue to resolve some of the critical statistical questions left unanswered by existing reporting systems.

Mr. Pell also has proposed earmarking funds from the Chapter 2 block-grant program for dropout prevention.

Setting Priorities

While the Congress debates these and other proposals, education experts are weighing the strengths and weaknesses of various prevention methods and seeking to set priorities for whatever federal resources are eventually made available.

Both the GAO and the Institute for Educational Leadership have highlighted the need for reaching at-risk students in the elementary and middle schools--before their problems are more likely to become unmanageable.

But the GAO report found that nearly 75 percent of all students served by existing programs are age 15 or older.

A dropout bill introduced in January by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York, would make early-intervention projects a high priority for federal funding. Mr. Moynihan, however, has since endorsed Mr. Pell's measure, which does not emphasize such programs.

In the long run, some dropout experts say, the limited number of federal dollars may be better spent on basic research and data collection, rather than on actual projects.

"What can you do with a million dollars in a state the size of New York?'' asked John V. Hamby, acting director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University. "You are going to be spreading your dollars very thinly.''

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