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Next President Urged To Stress Preschool Aid for Disadvantaged

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Aspen, Colo.--The next President's top priority in education should be to ensure adequate services for disadvantaged children in the critical years before school starts, a group of educators and policymakers concluded at a meeting here.

The bipartisan group, which included representatives from postsecondary as well as precollegiate education, considered ideas for reshaping the federal role in education during a Rocky Mountain retreat here last month.

In addition to recommending a focus on young children, the group proposed that the next President set in motion a process to establish national goals to measure the progress of schools.

The seminar's organizers said their purpose was not to influence the outcome of the November election, but to begin developing policy proposals to submit to the White4House once the new President takes office.

The group's primary goal, said Michael J. O'Keefe, president of the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education, "is to get our ideas circulating in the community [of people] who talk about these ideas."

Mr. O'Keefe noted that some of the discussions that flowed from a similar seminar held in 1976 had an influence on Carter Adminion education policies, includ8ing refinements in the Chapter 1 program.

Mr. O'Keefe organized the August seminar with P. Michael Timpane, president of Columbia University Teachers College, and Francis Keppel, a senior lecturer on education at Harvard University.

Among the two dozen participants in the meeting, which was sponsored by four private foundations, were college presidents and faculty, school administrators, policy analysts, and officials of government and the private sector.

Whether Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts or Vice President George Bush becomes President in November, seminar participants agreed, the federal government is unlikely to expand its purview substantially in view of concerns about the deficit.

In that case, they said, any new expenditures should be focused on early intervention for children considered to be in the greatest danger of failing in school.

"We're suggesting that education policy must be concerned earlier and more broadly ... in the planning and delivery of comprehensive, intensive services targeted to children most in need," said Mary Jo Bane, professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Offering adequate support to those children before they enter school, said Michael S. McPherson, chairman of the economics department at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., may be "the most important thing we can do to get them better prepared for college."

Existing funds, participants said, should be used to fine-tune federal programs ranging from Chapter 1 to student aid and to sponsor demonstration projects to attract and retain teachers in critical areas.

The centerpiece of the education policy promoted by seminar participants is a "children's initiative" that would provide a wide range of services for the families of children identified as victims of "chronic, persistent poverty."

At greatest risk, said Ms. Bane, are about 1 million to 1.5 million children--primarily blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities--who live in areas with a poverty rate of at least 40 percent. They often live in homes headed by single mothers who lack education and have inadequate prenatal care, she said, and many are likely to drop out of school, enter the drug trade, or become pregnant as teenagers.

The participants proposed a "universal welcome wagon" service that would supply all parents with information on services available for children and families.

Those identified as at-risk based on poverty criteria could receive follow-up care coordinated by a case manager connected with the state education, health, or social-services department, Ms. Bane said.

Members of the group suggested that the federal government require states to develop a plan for dividing services among agencies and for stimulating collaboration. Such plans, they added, also should be coordinated with private-sector and welfare-reform efforts.

The group said services to the targeted population should begin with prenatal care and parenting education and proceed with comprehen4sive preschool programs.

Once the children enter the school system, the educators said, they should receive continued support, counseling, and guidance on higher-education and career options.

The group speculated that the prenatal and health-care services could be financed under Medicaid and by expanding the Women, Infants, and Children program.

Participants acknowledged that the comprehensive preschool component of the plan would be the most costly.

They noted, however, that broad-based child-care bills supported by both Presidential candidates increase the likelihood of new federal aid for a major preschool initiative. Such funds also could be used to expand Project Head Start, they said.

The group also suggested improvements in the Chapter 1 program to better serve disadvantaged school-age children. They proposed targeting more aid to high-poverty areas, offering schools greater flexibility to use funds for overall improvement, and requiring them to show steady gains.

To promote greater accountability for education at the state and local levels, seminar participants proposed that the next President convene a panel of state education leaders and experts to set broad goals for the nation's schools.

David S. Tatel, a Washington lawyer and former director of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's office for civil rights, said a subgroup he chaired at the conference concluded that "the President should preside over a national debate about what we should be expecting in terms of educational accomplishments."

The process, participants said, should provide for state flexibility in meeting objectives. They suggested that standards reflect the results of tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress as well as school attendance and completion rates, college enrollment, and other data.

To minimize the potential for misuse of standardized tests, participants stressed that scores should not be used to penalize students and should be viewed as only one criteria for judging schools' progress. They added that tests should be further developed and refined to eliminate biases and improve reliability.

Federal funds, participants suggested, could be used as a lever to encourage states to develop accountability mechanisms, including state intervention in failing school systems. They stressed, however, that sanctions should not be used to withhold funding or services from children who need them.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig of California, who endorsed the standards idea as a way states can "grow together," suggested that schools that do a good job be designated as "learning institutions" for others.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for research and improvement, said the national standards concept signals a "fundamental shift" from an education system that evaluates itself via "inputs and processes" to one that measures "outcomes and results."

The consensus reached by the diverse group in Aspen shows that that approach is "not regarded as radical outside the [Washington] Beltway," said Mr. Finn. He called the standards idea the group's most significant "in terms of something that isn't seriously being considered on the public agenda."

Participants also proposed channeling federal funds toward innovative student-aid, work-study, scholarship, and loan-forgiveness programs to attract minority teachers, mathematics and science teachers, and teachers prepared to work in the inner cities.

Participants generally agreed that federal funds should support research and development in innovative teacher-training programs. But they did not endorse a call by Mr. Honig for a substantial federal investment in teacher retraining.

The educators also advocated refining federal student-aid policies to help expand access to higher education, in part by informing students earlier of how much aid will be available to them.

The participants also foresaw a federal role in helping coordinate and sponsor demonstration efforts in vocational and career education to revamp outdated models and offer students more rounded preparation for the changing economy.

But the group conceded that dramatic changes in the federal role in education are unlikely.

The "epicenter" of reform has been in the states, said Mr. Finn, who called Washington "a museum of old and antiquated education policies left over from an earlier era before the excellence movement."

Others, however, cited achievements in civil-rights and special-education policies in the last 25 years as signs of slow but significant strides in redefining federal responsibilities.

"If the alternative is no change at all, incremental change can be a blessing," said Amy Gutman, professor of politics at Princeton University.

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