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Lawmakers Exhorted To Develop Child-Care Policy

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Washington--Witnesses before a joint Congressional panel last week called on lawmakers to establish a national child-development policy that would assure children adequate health care and education.

"Currently, our country has the least comprehensive child care policy and program of any western industrialized nation," said Irving Hamer, a deputy commissioner in the New York State Education Department, speaking before the Joint Economic Committee last week.

The hearing was the seventh in a series of jec hearings focusing on education and its relationship to the quality of the workforce.

Citing high rates of infant mortality, hunger, illness, lead poisoning, and homelessness in the nation's low-income communities, as well as the lack of inexpensive early-childhood education, as factors contributing to the cycle of school failure, Mr. Hamer said the federal government has a responsibility to "end such conditions."

Bettye W. Topps, principal of McKinley High School in Washington, told the committee that for many students there is little to support the notion that education is of value.

For most minority students, she said, public education is "their only hope," yet they quickly see that teachers and schools are openly discussed with disdain by political leaders and the media.

"The shortcomings of public education are waved like a red flag before them," Ms. Topps said. "The subliminal message is 'why try'."

In addition, Ms. Topps said, the most educated person many students know is the teacher, yet the teacher is not a good example of the economic value of an education. In many cases, the person who seems most successful, she said, is the drug dealer.

The answer to these attitudinal problems, Ms. Topps said, lies in early intervention. She echoed Mr. Hamer's call for federal leadership in establishing early-intervention programs, including prenatal care, and nutrition and preschool programs.

She called on elementary schools to sharpen their detection of potential dropouts, usually signaled by low attendance rates and low reading levels, and to intervene with counseling for such students and their parents.

Programs that focus on remedial education, counseling, vocational education and work experiences, and alternative school environments at the intermediate and secondary levels also can have an impact on the dropout problem, she said.

Signithia Fordham, professor of anthropology at the University of the District of Columbia, suggested that teachers should take a group-learning approach to motivate minority students to seek success.

Ms. Fordham conducted a two-year study in an area high school on academic performance among black students. (See Education Week, March 25, 1987.) She told the committee that the emphasis on individual achievement in the classes she observed seemed to be counter-productive in motivating black students.

Black students are a part of a race, or a "people," with a collective identity, Ms. Fordham contended. "There are historical, structural, and cultural factors unique to black Americans. They have made changes through group efforts, not individual successes."

She noted that the black students who did strive for individual academic success were often chastised by their peers for "acting white."

Because blacks have not achieved equal status within society, even when they possess equal skills and credentials, they have developed an unwillingness to compete individually in many arenas, including the school, Ms. Fordham said.

When a student does "compete," that student is often viewed as breaking away from the group.

As a remedy, Ms. Fordham suggested incorporating group-centered learning into classroom instruction. By stressing the "we can" instead of "I can," she said, peer pressure can be turned from a negative into a positive force, and may ultimately result in a higher school completion and success rate for minority students.--rrw

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