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Chiefs Urge That States 'Guarantee' School Quality for Those 'At Risk'

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A bold new proposal drafted by the nation's chief state school officers calls on states to "guarantee" a high-quality precollegiate education to those students deemed least likely to finish high school.

The chiefs were expected to endorse the seven-page policy document this week. It represents the clearest signal yet that state officials are ready to be held accountable for the academic performance of all students within their jurisdictions.

Among the 11 "guarantees" for at-risk students included in the chiefs' policy statement is the right to attend a school with a demonstrated record of "substan6tial and sustained" student progress.

The statement also envisions that each student would be guaranteed access to preschool education and to an individual "teaching and learning plan," approved by the student and his or her parents. (See related story, page 17.)

David W. Hornbeck, outgoing president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the proposals represent a "basic understanding" that major structural revisions are needed to change a school system in which one in four students does not graduate from high school, and nearly 13 percent of 17-year-olds still enrolled are "functionally illiterate."

"The issue," said Mr. Hornbeck, state superintendent of education in Maryland, "is whether schools are going to be really serious about the business of successfully reaching all children, or whether we're going to continue the pattern of the past, in which we only reach 60 percent or 80 percent of the children, depending on one's definition."

The council defined "at risk" students as those who are not likely to complete high school successfully. It noted that a substantial proportion of such students are from low-income families or do not speak or comprehend the English language.

The state superintendents were scheduled to vote on the policy statement Nov. 16, during their annual meeting in Asheville, N.C.

The council has also developed a model statute as one approach to carrying out the legal guarantees.

Among other provisions, the statute would give children the right to transfer from any school in which more than 25 percent of students are not meeting "appropriate" levels of performance.

Dropouts under the age of 214would also be guaranteed the right to re-enroll in their local public school systems or alternative programs.

The model legislation makes it clear that students and their parents could, as a last resort, seek legal relief for any violation of the educational guarantees.

But it specifies that court remedies would be limited to "civil relief," and would not include any award of monetary damages, with the exception of those covering court costs and lawyers' fees.

The council has received a grant of $550,000 from the U.S. Labor Department to fund initiatives in 10 states that are willing to establish such guarantees for at-risk students, through changes either in their regulations or in state law.

The chiefs' decision to rethink how services are delivered to at-risk students reflects a growing dissatisfaction among education policymakers with the limits of existing "categorical" programs.

Such programs--focused on specific subgroups of students--were meant to provide supplementary services to youngsters, such as those in low-income areas, who traditionally had not fared well in schools.

In recent years, however, educators have complained that categorical programs are not well coordinated with each other or with students' regular academic programs, resulting in a fragmented curriculum.

State officials surveyed for a report scheduled to be released during the council's meeting said categorical programs limited the flexibility of school districts to provide children with a continuum of services.

In addition, some educators have argued that categorical programs "water down" the curriculum for at-risk students. Funding for such programs has also fluctuated widely according to each state's annual appropriations process.

"I tend to characterize it as the 'Oliver Twist' approach to education," said Mr. Hornbeck. "Like in the musical, when Oliver goes to Mr. Bumble and says, 'Please sir, I'd like some more, sir."'

That approach, he said, is vastly different than having states establish, "as a matter of policy," that "by golly, we are going to guarantee these kids this set of things."

One of the most controversial guarantees laid out in the policy statement is what Mr. Hornbeck refers to as an "individual teaching and learning plan" for each student, similar to those now provided for handicapped youngsters.

That proposal has received a "mixed reaction" among educators, Mr. Hornbeck acknowledged.

To alleviate concerns that such plans would become inordinately burdensome for school systems, or serve to further track and label youngsters, the model legislation proposes that they be written only for at-risk children in schools that are already successfully educating most of their students.

"Up until the moment that a school becomes effective or successful, the school itself should be the focus of attention," Mr. Hornbeck said, "its structure, its curriculum, its staff-development programs, not the individual child."

"The question," he added, "is how do we continue to rivet attention on youngsters with whom we've not yet been successful" in schools that generally are meeting their goals.

The model statute would also provide states with significant authority--and responsibility--to intervene in school districts that are not adequately educating all youngsters. With such expanded authority, states would have the option of annexing a school district or replacing its top administrative leaders.

Equally controversial is the statute's guarantee that students be allowed to transfer out of schools in which more than 25 percent of the student body is performing below some minimum standard.

"The notion of saying to a student and his parents, 'If we are not being successful for you, you have a right to go someplace else,' has provoked a lot of discussion," said Mr. Hornbeck.

"It's a new notion," he said. "It is not choice for choice's sake. It is choice that arises only in a context in which the school is not being successful."

Mr. Hornbeck emphasized thatel10lthe model legislation is only one option available to states as they consider implementing the educational guarantees included in the policy statement. It was designed to illustrate that such guarantees could be written into statutory language, he said.

The Maryland superintendent acknowledged that the guarantees would cost significantly more money--particularly a proposal to provide early-childhood education for all at-risk children by age 3 or 4.

The cost of such programs runs between $2,500 and $4,000 per child, he said. Research has found that such programs save money in the long term, by reducing the number of students who need remedial education or who drop out of school.

But, Mr. Hornbeck added, "I don't know whether legislators and elected officials will wake up to the reality of this in time or not."

"I would be fairly cynical about the prospects based on history, because we have not done very well by young people living in poverty," he said.

"But increasingly," he continued, "the private sector, elected officials, and the wider citizenry are recognizing that without success for all kids, our standard of living in this nation is going to go down the tubes. And that's proving to be a significant new incentive."

Earlier this year, the Committee for Economic Development, which includes some of the nation's leading business and higher-education officials, issued a report calling for early, sustained intervention in the lives of disadvantaged children and their families. That report also advocated preschool for all disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds.

For now, however, fiscal problems continue to be a major barrier to serving at-risk students, according to the state chiefs' report.

The report was based on a survey of state education officials in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.

The council also surveyed the directors of 69 programs identified by the states and territories as successfully meeting the needs of at-risk youths.

In addition to fiscal obstacles, state officials responding complained about the lack of coordination and cooperation among service providers, the difficulty of developing alternative education programs, the common perception that not all children can learn, and the lack of data on at-risk students or the programs that serve them.

The report found that states' definitions of such students varied widely. Some definitions, for example, emphasized the need for early intervention, while others focused more on potential high-school dropouts.

According to the report, 30 states and territories now have legislation or programs designed to meet the needs of some portion of the at-risk student population.

Twenty-four states and territories have created new programs for such children in recent years, but such efforts tend to be relatively limited in scope and funding.

The report concluded that any effective strategy for helping at-risk students would require a "team effort" on the part of state agencies, business and industry, communities, schools, and parents.

In addition, it argued, more program emphasis should be placed on prevention and early intervention, and "these efforts should be generic, rather than focusing on a single risk, such as substance abuse."

The report also said that nontraditional educational arrangements should be encouraged for at-risk children and youths.

In addition to the initiative sponsored by the Labor Department, the chiefs' council is planning a number of activities to follow the release of its policy statement.

Under the leadership of Verne A. Duncan, state superintendent of education in Oregon and the chiefs' president-elect, the group will focus in the coming year on early-childhood education and the needs of at-risk students.

In addition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich has agreed to publish a book that will include 12 papers commissioned for the chiefs' 1987 summer institute on serving at-risk students. The book will also include the council's policy statement, model legislation, and survey findings.

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