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Study Finds 'At Risk' Efforts Hindered

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Washington--The problems of disadvantaged children are gaining increased prominence on state policymaking agendas, but efforts to solve them are being jeopardized by bureaucratic infighting and a lack of coordination between agencies, a new study suggests.

Results of the study, by the Education Commission of the States, were released here Dec. 10, during a national meeting on at-risk youth.

In a survey, the commission found that 44 states have undertaken some activity in the field, convening a total of 98 task forces, commissions, interdisciplinary collaboratives, working groups, and advisory committees. Most of the efforts have been launched within the last five years, according to the survey.

But most of the 750 project administrators interviewed for the study said their biggest barrier to success was "the inability of agencies to do interdisciplinary or cooperative work for the good of the child instead of the agency." The finding corroborates those of several recent analyses of state activities in early-childhood education.

Other obstacles cited in the ecs study included inadequate funding, ''institutional lethargy and bureaucracy," turf battles among agencies, and difficulty negotiating among diverse groups and agencies.

A percentage breakdown of the respondents' answers in this area was not included in the report.

"Children's issues are clearly rising on state agendas," said Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who chaired the meeting. "But the survey also shows that, too often, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. We must develop better incentives for coordination and collaboration."

The three-day forum, organized by the Interstate Migrant Council and the ecs, drew more than 500 state-level policymakers.

Part of 'New Wave' of Reform

Despite the difficulties cited in the survey, the growth and scope of state initiatives in this area lend support to earlier predictions that programs for at-risk children would constitute a "third wave" of education reform.

The increased attention is a by-product, some experts have said, of the educational-excellence movement's tendency to push the students most in need of an education out of the classroom.

"There is a push-out phenomenon," said Frank Newman, the ecs president. "There's no question about that."

Business leaders and federal officials who spoke at the conference also noted that disadvantaged students would be increasingly ill equipped to meet the demands of the changing labor market. According to one Labor Department estimate, for example, 75 percent of the jobs available in 1990 will require some postsecondary education.

"We cannot eliminate the trade deficit until we have more capable workers," said Owen B. Butler, former chairman of the board of the Procter & Gamble Company and vice chairman of the Committee on Economic Development's executive committee. Under Mr. Butler's leadership, the ced issued a major report last fall calling for early, sustained intervention in the lives of disadvantaged children and their families. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1987.)

He said he would have preferred that the conference title--"National Forum on Youth at Risk"--be changed to better reflect the seriousness of the problem. His suggestion, he said, would be "Will the United States Survive Into the 21st Century as a Peaceful and Prosperous Democracy?"

'No Child To Waste'

Other forum participants warned that though economic concerns have given the problem new visibility, actions taken thus far are only a first step toward its solution.

"We no longer have a single, solitary child to waste," Governor Clinton said.

"We're doing the worst job of any of the countries with which we compete of developing the capacity of our children," he added.

Almost one child in five lives below the poverty line, and half of all children are expected to spend at least part of their childhood in a single-parent home, the Governor noted.

At a press conference before the forum, Mr. Newman said the national dropout rate was nearly 30 percent and that 25 percent of teen-agers complete high school with inadequate skills.

In addition, he said, "a hard-core 10 percent" of youths leave school to become "negative social influences" and "a terrible burden for society."

The study examining the scope of state initiatives for young people at risk was one part of a multifaceted survey conducted by ecs researchers. They interviewed 750 officials from more than 650 projects and programs serving the disadvantaged.

Other surveys released during the conference analyzed states' efforts to combat illiteracy, school dropout problems, drug abuse among young people, and teen-age pregnancy. Increasing levels of statewide activities were also noted in each of those areas.

Summaries of all five surveys are available through the ecs Distribution Center, 1860 Lincoln St., Suite 300, Denver, Colo. 80295; telephone: (303) 830-3692. Copies are $2 each or six for $10.

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