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'Self-Interest and the Common Weal': Focusing on The Bottom Half

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Whenever America gets serious about an issue, it reaches for the right metaphor, for language that will simplify and give power to ideas. Thus, it was not by accident that the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education--issued five years ago this week--sounded more at times like a replay of World War II than a prelude to school reform.

Even the document's title, A Nation At Risk, was a call to arms. And its rhetoric, heavy on economic and achievement comparisons with former enemies, principally Japan, sustained the alarm:

"If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,'' it read, "we might have viewed it as an act of war. ... We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.''

See Also
Read the full text of A Nation at Risk, from the Department of Education's Web site.

What is ironic, on this fifth anniversary of its release, is not that A Nation At Risk failed to instill its sense of urgency--virtually every state has acted to impose its recommended higher standards--but that a message implicit in its international comparisons has been, until recently, all but ignored.

The Japanese achieve their extremely high average level of academic performance by taking great care to see that their weakest students do well. As they have often claimed, they have "the best bottom 50 percent in the world'' educationally--and virtually no dropouts.

American school reform, on the other hand, was launched with a rhetoric of "excellence'' that did not take into account the bottom 50 percent.

It is an omission that many have seized upon in assessing the movement's progress at the half-decade mark.

In a report on urban education released last month, the trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching note a "disturbing gap between reform rhetoric and results.''

"We are deeply troubled,'' they say, "that a reform movement launched to upgrade all students is irrelevant to many children--largely black and Hispanic--in our urban schools.''

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a recent newspaper column that "what now mostly passes for reform has been an especially empty gesture when it comes to our most disadvantaged students and schools.''

A William T. Grant Foundation study released this year warns that though some reforms are promising, "a sizeable number of youth--too many for a pragmatic or a just society to ignore--already suffer the consequences of school failure.''

And in a new publication from the National Education Association, the Harvard University economist Robert B. Reich says, when assessing the future needs of the U.S. workforce, that "we will have to do a better job ... helping all our children become minimally numerate and literate.''

The attention, it would seem, is turning more and more to what the authors of a new Ford Foundation study, Toward a More Perfect Union, call "the second achievement gap.''

This gap is a domestic one, they say, "one between the bottom scorers and the top scorers, between minorities and nonminorities, and between the poor and the nonpoor.''

What--or Who--Is in Jeopardy?

The locus of America's "risk'' is shifting from the nation as a whole to its children. And, as it does, a variant of the excellence commission's rhetoric is becoming the most widely used term in the educational lexicon: "students at risk.''

A catch-all phrase with both descriptive and predictive meanings, "at risk'' is now being used to categorize large portions of the reform movement's unfinished agenda. It is "often a euphemism,'' notes Walter Hathaway, research director for the Portland, Ore., public schools, a verbal dumping ground for "a variety of ills of an educational nature and of a profound personal and societal nature as well.''

What it lacks in precision, however, at-risk makes up for in resonance. It can evoke the full range of perplexities facing schools and society--unacceptable dropout rates, increases in problem behavior such as teen pregnancy and drug use, persistent underachievement on standardized tests, inadequate job skills, and growth in what the Annie E. Casey Foundation calls the "inactivity rate,'' a depressing social barometer showing the number of youths who are neither in school nor into productive work lives.

Indexing 'Futures Foreclosed'

"No single index exists to gauge the scope of the problem,'' the foundation says in the planning guide for its New Futures initiative. "Instead, we try to measure it by counting 'symptoms' or 'events' in young lives, which, when added up, give us a proxy for the number of youthful 'futures' that are each year being foreclosed.''

The foreclosures have been most visible in the nation's large urban school districts, where the poor and minority populations are disproportionately represented. Here, dropout rates can soar to 50 percent or more, and students face a world that is often characterized by apathy, anonymity, and an absence of adult support.

Children "know that they can disappear here and not be missed,'' says the Carnegie Foundation's report, An Imperiled Generation.

"It is not possible,'' it says, "to have an island of excellence in a sea of indifference.''

'Intense' Poverty, Devastating Result

But the problem is not limited to urban youths. It is prevalent also in small, poor rural districts, especially those in the South, according to Martin Orland, a research specialist in the U.S. Education Department.

In a paper prepared for a College Board colloquium on "Access to Knowledge'' held last month, to be published with other papers from the meeting later this year, Mr. Orland lays out statistical correlations between poor academic achievement and what he calls "intense'' poverty factors--being poor over long periods of time and living and attending school in areas with high concentrations of the poor.

For each year a child lives in poverty, Mr. Orland has found, the likelihood of falling behind his expected grade level increases by 2 percent. Thus, a child whose family has been mired in poverty for 10 years is 20 times more likely to do badly in school than a child who is poor for only a year.

If that same child also attends a school with a very high concentration of poor students, his statistical chances of school failure increase strikingly.

In Mr. Orland's research, the percentage of low achievers in schools with relatively little poverty was 11.9 percent. It jumped to 23.9 percent in schools with moderate rates of poverty, and to 47.5 percent in schools with the highest poverty rates.

A report this year from the National Policy Institute confirms the link between poverty and school failure. It says that socioeconomic level has a far greater bearing on dropout rates than race. Youths from poor families are, regardless of race, three to four times more likely to drop out of school than those from more affluent households.

According to the Grant Foundation report, The Forgotten Half, living in poverty also increases a young person's statistical chances of having weak basic skills. "Nearly half of all poor youths score in the bottom fifth of the basic-skills distribution,'' it says, "while over three-fourths of all poor youths have below-average basic skills.''

The Achievement Gaps Persist

Scott Miller, an Exxon Education Foundation official who has studied comparative data on standardized-test scores, says that while gains have been made, "the achievement gaps between minority and disadvantaged youngsters and their majority and middle-class counterparts remain enormous.''

It is not simply a matter of lower average scores, he explains, but of a markedly weaker distribution of scores, so that "minority students are both very underrepresented among the highest scorers on such tests and very overrepresented among the lowest scorers.''

What is even more disturbing, Mr. Miller adds, is that after a pattern of low achievement has been established by these students in the elementary grades, "educators have not demonstrated that they know how to make substantial improvements in that pattern.''

'At Risk': A New Term For Many Old Problems

The relatively recent explosion in the use of the term "at risk'' to describe such student problems may say much about where the reform movement has been, where it is going, and why.

In a search of the Educational Resources and Information Centers' "thesaurus of descriptors,'' two University of Arizona researchers found that the related term "high-risk student'' had only been in use since 1980. But by 1987, write Virginia Richardson-Koehler and Patricia Colfer in a unpublished College Board paper, ERIC was listing the following categories of "at risk'': school and academic failure, potential dropouts, educationally disadvantaged, and underachievement.

The term appears to have been coined by the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students. In 1985, a distinguished "board of inquiry'' assembled by the group issued a reform report called Barriers to Excellence: Our Children At Risk. It was deliberately titled to draw the distinction between its message and that of A Nation At Risk.

"Policymakers at many different levels talk about bringing excellence to the schools and ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of youngsters are not receiving even minimal educational opportunities,'' the report said.

"From the minute they walk into school, many low-income students get the message that society does not really care about their education, that schools expect little from them.''

Barriers to Excellence had been preceded by two other studies making mention of that issue. A task-force report of the Twentieth Century Fund, released just a month after A Nation At Risk, called for federal "impact aid'' and other assistance to help school districts struggling with the problems of substantial immigrant and impoverished populations.

And Ernest L. Boyer, writing in the Carnegie study, High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America, warned that "in the great debate about public schools, equity must not be seen as a chapter of the past, but as the unfinished agenda of the future.''

Despite these references, however, few of the earliest reform documents laid aside the preoccupation with tougher curricula and increased requirements to focus on the needs of the educationally disadvantaged. And until Barriers to Excellence, none suggested that pupils, rather than the nation, might be "at risk.''

Subsequently, a few other groups, such as the Education Commission of the States' business advisory panel, highlighted the phrase in their reports. But it was not until 1986 that "at risk'' as a characterization of students began to gain the kind of visibility that has propelled it to virtual cliche status.

The Impetus Was Demography

The reason, in a word, is demographics.

Beginning in 1986, the work of such population analysts as Harold L. Hodgkinson, the former head of the National Institute of Education, started to attract wide attention. These studies showed in graphic detail what the first wave of reform had ignored: that the schools of tomorrow would not be like the schools of the past.

Not only were the disadvantaged becoming numerically ascendant, the researchers said, but work patterns and industrial needs were changing, the traditional notion of family was disintegrating, and the population was becoming older and more racially and culturally diverse.

Suddenly, the outlines of a future without substantial improvements in the way all children--especially those at the social margins--are taught became clear. It would include a lowered standard of living, fewer government services, intensified class divisions, a weakened democratic process, and lost human potential.

Left, then, was the task of redirecting a reform movement basically concerned with more--more requirements, more discipline, more homework, more tests--to one seeking better--better matching of learning style to course content, better instructional methods, better access to resources.

Beyond the Middle Class?

The first stirrings of such a development can now be seen in the movement to professionalize teaching and restructure school governance to allow for more school-site autonomy and experimentation.

But to adapt and direct such ideas to the students who most need them will require a reversal of past patterns of school improvement, notes the University of Washington researcher John I. Goodlad.

"One of the predictable outcomes of school reform,'' he argues in an unpublished paper prepared for the College Board colloquium, "is that improvements motivated at the outset by the need or desire to serve the disadvantaged better are incorporated first into schools and school districts or segments of schools populated disproportionately by the advantaged.''

It is ironic to note in this respect that the Italian educator Maria Montessori considered her experimental teaching method, which stresses sensory stimulation, as especially helpful in the education of disadvantaged children, whose environments are often deficient in such sense-related experiences. Today, Montessori schools cater almost exclusively to the advantaged.

To Jose Cardenas, executive director of the Intercultural Development and Research Association, the problem is one of money and motivation.

"Historically, the growth of the American public school has paralleled the growth of the American middle class,'' he writes, in another of the colloquium papers. And there are few signs, he says, that the current movement aims to be anything more than a middle-class phenomenon.

Mr. Cardenas admonishes state governments for their "attempts to bring about education reform in the absence of equitable allocations of resources and instructional fairness.''

"A focus on outcome measures, particularly achievement-test requirements for promotion and graduation, rather than on input equity, has exacerbated the rates of failure and school dropouts among minority and disadvantaged students,'' he says.

There also have been few penalties for ailing schools, he points out. "If anything, school systems have been rather successful in having the victim of the educational inadequacy held accountable for the crime.''

Concludes Mr. Goodlad: "It is cynical but realistic to observe that the common welfare is likely to advance when the advantaged see their self-interests and the common weal to be entwined.''

There are signs that this confluence of self-interest and common weal may be taking place now.

When professional football's latest hero, the Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, announced this month that he was creating a foundation to supply college-scholarship funds to disadvantaged students in the nation's capital, he said this:

'We're All Growing Older, We'll Be Depending on You'

"We're all growing older, and we'll be depending on you.''

He was referring to a dynamic of self-interest built into the new demographics: Baby Boomers must be supported in their old age by substantially fewer--and more racially and ethnically diverse--workers.

But all the indicators imply that there will have to be massive revisions in both the quality and the kind of instruction students receive if these future workers are to be able to push the economic engine toward solvency, let alone prosperity.

The chorus of business complaints about high-school graduates' lack of skills continues to grow. Last year, when the New York Telephone Company launched a massive recruiting effort, Mr. Reich relates, 80 percent of the applicants from New York City schools failed an entry-level test of basic reading and reasoning skills. About one-third of Polaroid's hourly workforce, he says, is enrolled in a company program teaching elementary reading and writing.

Altogether, American corporations will need to spend nearly $25 billion a year on remedial education, according to a study by the American Society for Training and Development.

In the N.E.A. white paper on "Education and the Next Economy,'' Mr. Reich concludes that while a higher proportion of the young are well prepared for work, "the worst-prepared third of our young people--disproportionately lower income--are almost totally unprepared.''

In fact, as the Committee for Economic Development's report, Investing in Our Children, noted, "nearly 13 percent of all 17-year-olds enrolled in schools are functionally illiterate and 44 percent are marginally literate. Among students who drop out, an estimated 60 percent are functionally illiterate.''

Missing: 'Folk Theory' of Attainment

There is a growing consensus in many quarters that something deep-seated and fundamental is wrong with a system producing so many failures. But narrowing that "something'' down to a manageable set of conditions that education can address has proved troublesome.

Some argue, for example, that real progress in learning will take place only as the social conditions that feed low self-esteem and motivation are improved or countered.

The University of California at Berkeley researcher John U. Ogbu says that education policymakers "tend to ignore the fact that people go to school and work hard to succeed in school not out of a love of learning, but because they perceive and experience significant economic and other benefits of education.''

"Blacks,'' he says, "may say they believe school helps people to get ahead, but actually they do not buy the white middle-class folk theory'' of achievement through education.

There is, instead, a "deep mistrust'' built on past discrimination in the relationship between the public schools and what Mr. Ogbu calls "nonimmigrant minorities''--those who were involuntarily incorporated into the U.S. population, such as blacks, American Indians, and native-born Mexican-Americans.

Immigrants: No 'Acting White' Problem

Immigrants to the United States often fare much better educationally than native-born minorities, the researcher has found, because they generally perceive their status as outsiders to be a temporary situation that can be overcome through hard work.

Blacks and other nonimmigrant minorities tend to see their life condition as permanent and unchangeable, he says, giving rise to such counterproductive school attitudes as the recently explored phenomenon of labeling high academic achievement "acting white.''

"The lack of serious academic attitudes and efforts appear to increase as nonimmigrant minority students get older and apparently become more aware of the reality that as members of a subordinate minority group they have limited future opportunities for getting good jobs even with good education,'' he writes in Policies for America's Public Schools: Teachers, Equity, and Indicators.

Others, however, say that too great a concentration on the socioeconomic wellsprings of low achievement can remove schools' incentive--and sense of responsibility--for trying new and better approaches to educating the disadvantaged.

"It is important to note,'' says the Casey Foundation's New Futures planning guide, "that dropout rates are not exclusively a function of either the overall state of the economy or the background and circumstances of students. A growing body of research indicates that schools themselves vary dramatically in their ability to accommodate and respond to youths at risk of dropping out.''

A 'Joyless' School Experience?

Mr. Reich maintains that changes in the labor market will put a premium on interpersonal skills and the ability to learn rapidly and continuously on the job. He strongly recommends that schools do more to foster collaboration and work within groups.

Yet, as the University of Pennsylvania educator Michelle Fine points out, this is precisely the type of school activity usually denied to so-called at-risk students. "Students in high school seemingly need to earn the opportunity to be critical, participate, and work collectively.'' she says, "'Smart kids' get to work in groups; 'remedial kids' are accused of cheating. 'Smart kids' are creative; 'remedial kids' are right or wrong.''

Such attitudes on the part of schools, she says, ignore the fact that minority and poor populations are often more group-oriented and interactive than the white, middle-class culture, which tends to stress and reward individualism.

The Stanford University researcher Henry M. Levin criticizes current intervention strategies for stigmatizing disadvantaged students and creating a "joyless'' school experience where mechanics are stressed over content.

An effective curriculum for such children, he says, would be accelerated, rather than paced behind the normal grade level, to give them the chance to make up the "mainstream'' learning deficiencies they enter school with during the elementary years. It would also, he says, build on the "unusual assets'' these students often display.

'Fuller Definition of Human Talent'

This is an area that Sue E. Berryman, director of the National Center on Education and Employment at Teachers College, Columbia University, stresses. She says there is a second school reform waiting in the wings, one that "will be organized in some way around a much fuller definition of human talent than narrowly defined academic skills.''

This will be so, Ms. Berryman says, not only because the economy needs, uses, and rewards a much wider group of skills, but also because the at-risk populations may be bringing a greater diversity of talent with them.

She cites the work of Howard Gardner, the Harvard University cognitive psychologist whose book Frames of Mind is being used as a guide for some experimental classrooms. To the traditional academic abilities, Mr. Gardner's theory adds talents in such areas as spatial relationships, physical coordination, music, interpersonal perceptiveness, and inner attunement. While not prized or encouraged in the current school structure, such special gifts might be critical, Ms. Berryman points out, to success in an architectural, diplomatic, therapeutic, theatrical, or clerical field.

In her speeches, she likes to quote Mr. Gardner: "We should spend less time ranking children and more time helping them identify their natural competencies and gifts and cultivate them. There are hundreds of ways to succeed, and many, many different abilities that will help you get there.''

From her own research, Ms. Berryman has become convinced that children develop early on an "inner vision'' of their place in the adult world, one that they act on in making choices, whether or not they realize they are doing so.
The child who decides to drop out, she suggests, "may not be able to envision or emotionally claim an adult future that requires the core curriculum of a high school.''

"When schools concentrate on narrow verbal and mathematical-logical skills,'' she says, "they may unintentionally be limiting the child's vision of the adult world to academic activities, whereas in fact only a small share of jobs are highly academic in skill content and requirements.''

Parent Aspirations, Poverty Shape Child's 'Inner Vision'

But this inner vision of the future is also shaped in the home. And it is here, many researchers insist, that schools face their most complex challenges.

The studies Mr. Orland cites show that "the factors which explain most of the variation in student achievement [are] not parental income levels or other levels of socioeconomic status, but rather measures of 'home atmosphere,' such as parental aspirations for their children, the amount of reading materials in the home, and family attitudes toward education.''

He adds that this home atmosphere may vary dramatically depending on the length and depth of a family's poverty.

"A poverty measure which merely assesses whether a person is poor or not at one point in time would not capture much of this relationship,'' he notes.

"It would be roughly akin to trying to predict a person's life expectancy by asking whether that individual was currently ill,'' he adds, "but without distinguishing whether he was suffering from the flu or cancer.''

That is why the entrenched nature of poverty in some portions of the population--and the mounting evidence that certain behavior trends, such as teen-age motherhood, may be accelerating the intergenerational transfer of that poverty--are of such concern to educators.

More than 70 percent of the teachers interviewed for the Carnegie urban-schools study identified low parental involvement as a major problem. The report tells of a high school in New Orleans which, like others in the city, requires parents to pick up their children's report cards. Seventy percent of the cards at this particular school, located in a low-income area, remained unclaimed two months after the marking period.

A 1st-grade teacher in Cleveland told the researchers, "You send notices home, there's no response. You ask parents to come to conferences, they don't come.''

"You send homework home, you can see that parents aren't paying any attention to it,'' the teacher added. "They aren't helping their kids.''

For Many, a Loss of 'Social Capital'

The University of Chicago scholar James S. Coleman says that the transformations occurring in work and family life have reduced for all children the level of what he calls "social capital''--the home and community resources available for nurturance, mentoring, personal attention, and intimacy. For the impoverished child, living in situations where life stresses are generally much greater, the loss can be profound.

Schools as they currently are structured, Mr. Coleman says, can provide only "a certain class of inputs into the socialization process''--mainly opportunities, demands, and rewards--leaving to the child's "more persisting environment'' the provision of such intangibles as attitudes, effort, and conception of self.

To be effective, Mr. Coleman says, schools must "change as families change, must be adjusted to the institution they complement.''

In making a plea for schools to accept the challenge of replacing this lost social capital in children's lives, he points to his research showing lower dropout rates and higher levels of academic achievement in Catholic schools than in either public or nonreligious private schools.

The findings do not necessarily reflect differences in what happens within the schools, the Chicago researcher says, but are "due to a different relationship of the school to the parental community.''

"Religious organizations are one of the few remaining institutions in society, beyond the family, that cross generations,'' Mr. Coleman explains. "Thus, they are one of the few in which the social capital of the adult community is available to children and youths.''

Family-Support Centers

A growing number of communities are creating family-support centers in low-income neighborhoods to provide this type of cross-generational pooling of social resources. The centers, which can be but are not exclusively located in schools, offer such services as child care, summer and after-school enrichment classes for children, and personal, academic, and job counseling for adults.

The New York state department of education is operating a pilot program of 10 "community schools'' in economically depressed areas. They remain open for much longer than the traditional school day--in some cases seven days a week or year-round--and serve as the hub for social-services delivery. Their activities for children, including day care, prekindergarten programs, homework assistance, and artistic and recreational programs, are augmented by programs for parents ranging from adult education to dental clinics.

Parent's Attainment Aids Child's

This attention to the needs of the parents is a particularly promising area for schools, in the view of many researchers. Studies have shown a relationship, for example, between the academic attainment of parents--particularly the mother--and the school progress of their children.

The Northeastern University researcher Andrew Sum was able to use family data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Labor Market Experience to predict test scores based on parental education. When other variables were constant, he and his colleague Robert Taggart found, "an extra grade of attainment for the mother was associated with an extra half-grade equivalent of achievement for her children.''

"Because of this intergenerational effect of the parents' education on the child's,'' Mr. Sum writes, with Gordon Berlin, in Toward A More Perfect Union, "it is unlikely that we will be able to make a major difference for the child unless we place equal priority on education and academic remediation for the parent.''

Mr. Coleman bolsters this observation with an anecdote. In an article on "Families and Schools'' in the journal Educational Researcher, he tells of one district's discovery that some Asian families were buying two sets of school textbooks. One of them, they found, was for the child and the other was for the uneducated mother--"to enable her to better help her child succeed in school.''

Some schools are already trying to give parents the same kind of opportunity--not by providing textbooks, but by facilitating their own quest for education, either by having regular "drop in'' days at school or by supporting classes in adult education.

'My Mama Said I Don't Have To'

During the 18 years that James P. Comer headed an experimental school-development program at Yale University's Child Study Center, many of the participating parents were motivated enough by the experience to obtain a General Educational Development diploma, he reports. And seven parents not only got their G.E.D., but also completed college and entered professions.

In the program, sponsored by Yale's Child Study Center, Dr. Comer and his colleagues were able to turn around the parental apathy at two predominantly low-income elementary schools in New Haven, Conn., and in the process, produce "significant achievement gains.''

Their approach involved the intensive collaboration of parents, administrators, teachers, and support-staff members on school problems, from discipline to instructional program. A team of mental-health specialists aided the process, helping to facilitate interaction and head off disputes.

In a paper to be published later this year as part of the College Board colloquium on access, Dr. Comer illustrates the parental mistrust noted in Mr. Ogbu's research by relating the experience of one 1st grade teacher in New Haven on the first day of school: "A six-year-old raised his hand, as instructed by his teacher, and said, 'Teacher, my mama said I don't have to do anything you say.'''

Such difficult home-school relations form, he says, "a barrier to learning for all children, but particularly for low-income children from families under stress, and certain minorities.''

Programs to improve them need not be as inclusive or structured as the Yale approach, he adds. "It is my impression that almost anything done ... that is systematic enough and done with great energy can bring about change.''

The question, then, is whether schools--and the society that supports them--are willing and able to create the systems and expend the energy needed for change.

'The Great Equalizer Of the Conditions of Man'

When the great 19th-century educator Horace Mann completed 12 years of school reform as Massachusetts's first secretary of education, he was able to write in his last report to the board that education was "the great equalizer of the conditions of man.''

Today, almost a century and a half later, there are some who question the continued validity of that notion. Mr. Cardenas of the Intercultural Development and Research Association offers this assessment: "If the purpose of the American public school were to perpetuate class differences, then public schools have not been the failure we have been led to believe.''

Equal access to schools has been assured by the courts. But Mr. Cardenas and others maintain that persisting imbalances in school quality still block the attainment of equal access to knowledge.

And Mr. Goodlad adds that the "startling statistic'' encountered in setting about to correct these imbalances is the growth occurring in the bottom half educationally.

"We are not talking about socializing, accommodating, or rehabilitating 10 or 15 percent of our total population,'' he says, "but perhaps 35 percent or more.''

Can Services Be 'Guaranteed'?

The current means of addressing the problem at the federal and state level is through additional funding for compensatory education and other special services. But often these programs suffer from the perennial shortcomings of bureaucracies--too little funding to cover need, inadequate or inflexible distribution formulas, and insufficient monitoring to ensure effectiveness.
'If there is anything we have learned over the past 15 years, it's that we can't help these kids unless we can guarantee a whole range of special services that go way beyond what we have done to date,'' says Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Yet some of the more promising federal initiatives, such as the Head Start preschool program and school-nutrition programs, are serving fewer children during a time of deficit reduction. Both address what many consider to be a growing danger for disadvantaged schoolchildren: unmet health needs.

Health and Nutrition

Research has documented both the role nutrition and good health play in learning and the risk teen-age mothers without health care run of having premature and low-birth-weight babies--babies who in turn run a greater than average risk of poor cognitive development.

Yet, according to the National Policy Institute study, children now constitute one-third of America's 35 million people without health insurance. One in four black children, it says, is uninsured.

School health clinics, which have been controversial because of their role in birth-control counseling, may provide a partial answer to this problem for some impoverished communities.

But others are exploring a more comprehensive option. Last October, for example, the Philadelphia school board proposed establishing a health-maintenance organization, or H.M.O., for all the city's schoolchildren.

The Forum of Educational Organization Leaders, a coalition of 11 major education groups, has called for legislative guarantees at both the state and federal levels to provide the full range of special services at-risk students will need to graduate from high school.

The Answers Schools Hold

But, more and more, educators are concluding that add-ons will help but not cure what is a complicated systemic problem. The answers must be sought, they say, in the schools themselves.

Mr. Orland's analysis of data from several federal studies reinforces, he says, "the notion that there are independent school level factors which depress the academic-achievement level of students attending high-poverty schools.''

One of his most interesting findings, for example, is that in schools with high concentrations of low-income students, the detrimental impact on achievement rates holds true for nonpoor as well as poor students. "In fact, according to these data,'' he says, "a nonpoor student in a poor school is actually more likely to be a low achiever than is a poor student in a low-poverty school.''

'Greatest Source of Inequity'

One of the reasons, many suggest, is differences in the level of teacher competence.

In an unpublished paper from the College Board colloquium, the researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Joslyn Green call disparities in the availability and distribution of highly qualified teachers "perhaps the single greatest source of educational inequity.''

"As matters stand now,'' they write, "the students who most need the best teaching are the least likely to get it.''

And the situation will not change, they say, until the profession offers greater inducements and rewards to teachers willing and able to take on the challenge. Easier teaching assignments are one of the "few real incentives to staying in the profession,'' the researchers explain.

Thus, beginning teachers--and uncertified teachers when districts face shortages--are usually forced to "pay their dues'' in schools with high concentrations of at-risk students, while awaiting the opportunity to transfer to others where the conditions are more conducive to learning.

Low Expectations Are Met

Teacher attitudes also hamper the acquisition of knowledge, according to the Carnegie Foundation's trustees.

In their study of urban schools, they found that many teachers working with at-risk students--more than one in five in their survey--simply do not believe that all students can learn. These teachers' low expectations, the board concluded, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In addition, says Suzanne Soo Hoo, an elementary-school principal in Cerritos, Calif., the advent of "pull out'' programs such as special education and Chapter 1 has changed regular classroom teachers' perspective on the role they should play with marginal students. Where once they tried to "accommodate the diverse needs of students without question,'' she writes in one of the unpublished College Board papers, now they think that helping certain children is the job of someone else.

"They doubt their ability, as well as their responsibility,'' Ms. Soo Hoo says.

Tracking, adds Mr. Levin of Stanford, reduces the status of student and teacher alike and offers no real help in reaching what he calls "the mainstream educational agenda.''

Mr. Goodlad is more forceful in his condemnation of divided school agendas for students who bring differing cultural adaptations to the learning process. "It is simply immoral,'' he says, "for schools to perpetuate practices which clearly discriminate against poor children, many of whom are from minority groups.''

"How would federal and state governments respond if 50 percent to 70 percent of white, middle-class students dropped out of high school?,'' Ms. Fine of the University of Pennsylvania asks. "Would they increase promotional standards, toughen testing and standardization, cut access to school lunches, reduce students' options in coursework, and make it harder to graduate? Or would they reassess the policies, structures, and practices of education?''

Reform's Challenge: 'Attack' Or 'Be Overwhelmed'

Many are now choosing the latter course.

The presidents of both national teachers' unions, in their assessments of reform at the five-year mark, criticize the "more of the same'' approach taken thus far and call for experimental programs that give greater leeway to teachers and parents in planning new configurations for learning.

The new Carnegie study suggests smaller schools, new governance structures, and federal money for building improvements in its list of remedies for the bleak conditions in urban schools.

"The reforms of the last five years may pale against the requirements of the next 10,'' says the statement on at-risk students from the Forum of Educational Organization Leaders.

In fact, many predict that the task will require nothing short of a fundamental reordering of the institution called school.

As Mr. Coleman phrases it, "School as we conceive of it implies family as we conceive of it. Yet family as we conceive of it no longer corresponds to family as it now exists.''

Some of the restructuring will require experimental links to the larger community, experts say, and additional care-giving activities by schools. Most of it, they add, will require the vital school-site creativity that comes through teacher empowerment and professionalization.

"And it will require more money,'' contended the Committee for Economic Development in Children in Need.

The committee warned: "Any plan for major improvements in the development and education of disadvantaged children that does not recognize the need for additional resources over a sustained period is doomed to failure.''

"We are, in hard fact, confronted with phenomena we have never faced before,'' writes Mr. Goodlad, "phenomena which could overwhelm us--and which will, indeed, overwhelm us in one way or another unless we undertake a direct attack on them and their inevitable consequences. Bold ideas are needed as never before.''

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