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States and the 'At Risk' Issues: Said Aware but Still 'Failing'

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By Tom Mirga

Washington--Although all states have demonstrated some awareness of the problems of children at risk concludes.

"A level of improvements unacceptably low and a dropout rate for minorities to describe what we have seen with regard to service for at-risk youth in the American public schools," write the authors of the study, which was released here last week. "For the federal government's own recent stewardship of the problem, we can think of no appropriate grade," they write. "'Absent' is the school term that comes most readily to mind."

The study, entitled "America's Shame, America's Hope," found "discrete, scattered initiatives" for at-risk children in all 50 states. But, it adds, nearly all were "characterized by a certain haphazardness" and were often created on a pilot basis with no guarantee of continued funding.

The study's authors estimate that only 5 percent of state education funds "are being used specifically for service to at-risk youth." The number of such children being reached by those programs, they say, "could be as low as 1 in 25 and certainly is no higher than 1 in 10."

"[T]hese problems add up to a million dropouts a year plus an unknown number of youth who graduate but are prepared for little beyond the simplest entry-level jobs," the authors write. "We are on the way to creating a soup-kitchen labor force in a post-industrial economy."

'Psychological Genocide'

The report was released at a press conference here on Sept. 14 along with four others on economic, educational, and social problems of young people. (See related stories, page 17.)

It was written by Carol A. Lincoln and R.C. Smith of mdc Inc., a North Carolina nonprofit firm that conducts research on youth-employment issues, and was financed with a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Kenneth B. Clark, the psychologist whose research on the effects of segregation on black children was cited in the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, chaired a panel that advised the authors and reviewed their work.

In an introduction to the study, Mr. Clark writes that "the bulk of the young people who are at risk are subjected to psychological genocide."

"They are robbed of self-esteem and the capacity to achieve," he says. "They are trivialized and relegated, at best, to ever decreasing job levels, and at worst, to correctional institutions whose per-capita cost is many times greater than the cost of effective education."

"It appears that the very foundation of democracy is being corroded as our young people are consigned toward America's form of social concentration camps without walls," he continues. "A society which continues to erect excuses for abiding the educational inferiority of less-privileged young people is perpetuating the pattern of at-risk youth and the fundamental risks of the society as a whole."

4 Levels of Activity

Ms. Lincoln and Mr. Smith conducted their inquiry into state-level activity by assigning several field researchers to interview officials in governors' offices, legislatures, and state education and job-training agencies. The interviews took place late last year and were followed up last spring.

The results of the survey were8then used to place the states on a four-phase continuum that began with "awareness" and progressed through the stages of "action," "consolidation," and "implementation."

In their report, the researchers say that although all states have moved into the earliest phase of the continuum, only 14--California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin--can "safely be said to have reached the second phase of action."

Summaries of these states' activities were included in the report.

Eleven other states--Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina--are showing "real progress toward the action phase," the researchers add.

But they conclude that "in effect, half of the states at this point--nearing the end of this decade of focus on and funding for excellence in education--are barely aware of the existence of a problem with at-risk youth."

"That is to say, only a relative handful of states have responded at all to a growing minority of students in our public schools whose continuing rapid departure from education poses a crushing economic threat to our nation at the same time it shames our democratic pretensions."

The study also includes the following findings:

'Piecemeal' approach. Some 45 states report having legislation that addresses the problems of one or more groups of at-risk children. But, the study notes, "most of it is piecemeal in nature, typically supporting a limited number of pilot programs."

"With awareness has come a good bit of casting about by the states, almost all of it characterized by a certain haphazardness, not necessarily indicating lack of direction as much as lack of central planning purpose," the authors write.

"By the time these funds filter down to individual districts and to schools within those districts," they add, "they may amount to only a few hundred or few thousand dollars per school; seldom do they amount to the equivalent of even one new staff position."

Lack of leadership. The authors say they found that "no single state has an over-arching policy addressed to at-risk, school-aged youth."

"[I]t is difficult to find real leadership in the area of policy," they write. "Policy appears to be most effective when enunciation of it comes from the governor's office (or from the governor's wife, as is the case here and there) or from the state superintendent or commissioner of education."

The study recommends that all governors establish a standing commission on at-risk youths "to investigate the nature of the problem in the state [and] examine the unintended consequences for at-risk youth of current state education-reform and job-training policy."

It also suggests that governors vest responsibility for efforts with "a single cabinet-level agency or arm of state government."

Lack of concern. "State officials simply do not feel the urgency ... for serving at-risk youth," the report states. "The attitude that these youth are 'other people's children,' that their lack of success is their fault, and that schools are better off without them lingers in some quarters."

"We are convinced that the most formidable barriers to assisting at-risk youth do not concern lack of money but failure to perceive them as in need of specific long-term attention, resistance to institutional change at the state and local levels, and an absence of genuine leadership at the federal level," the researchers say.

Lack of funding. Although state spending for education since 1980 has increased 26 percentage points above total inflation since that year, the researchers say, "resources continue to be used disproportionately for students who begin their education better off."

"Too many good programs [for at-risk children] either are facing funding reductions or are not being funded over levels that were never high enough," they add. "[T]aken as a whole, the performance of the states has allowed the situation of at-risk youth to rise to crisis proportions."

The report recommends that all states establish a goal of increasing their graduation rate until it reaches 90 percent. Until that goal is reached, 60 percent of all new education funding should be earmarked for at-risk youths, it says.

The report also argues that the failure of states to equalize spending between rich and poor districts "continues to be perhaps the most significant neglected facet of educational reform."

"The time has come for us to marry the equity considerations of the 1970's with the excellence in education concerns of the 1980's and begin educating in a way intended to reach every American youth instead of those lucky, advantaged ones in the first row," it says.

Inadequate data. Differences in the ways states collect data on at-risk students make it impossible "to add the numbers to arrive at an estimate of the size of the at-risk population in each state," the study found.

The authors also report that programs for the at-risk are being poorly monitored and evaluated. As a result, they say, "while many interesting-sounding programs exist, little information is available upon which to base judgments of effectiveness."

Poor information-sharing. Information about programs for at-risk populations "is not shared well at the state level or between the state and local levels," the study found.

"Our researchers found instances at the state level in which administrators in the same building were unaware of each other's programs serving at-risk youth," the researchers say. Job-training officials were often uninformed about programs at the local level. Education officials were not aware of job-training initiatives or of "what other divisions in their own department are doing."

Negative consequences of reform. "Certain features of the excellence in education movement are contributing to the dropout problem," the researchers write.

"While some aspects of the general education-reform movement have been helpful to at-risk youth," they say, "more difficult examinations and stiffer graduation requirements, without accompanying remediation, seem to be aggravating the dropout problem."

The reform movement, they continhas demanded more skill of4everyone instantly, without taking into consideration that the youths who have been behind need time, and more importantly, help, in catching up."

In addition, the researchers say their survey uncovered "very little in the way of major change--restructuring--in schools that would be intended to benefit all of the students, including those at risk."

"Evidence suggests that as restructuring ... takes place in regular school, all students benefit from the greater flexibility that comes into play," they say. "It does not seem to be true that reform aimed at the above-average student necessarily 'trickles down' to at-risk youth. ... But there is evidence that the reverse of this process--a kind of 'radiating up' effect from reforms that work for the bottom half of the class--is helpful to students at the top."

Federal Role

The report also singles out the federal government for criticism, saying that its "stewardship with respect to at-risk youth in recent years must be characterized by the word neglect, and not an especially benign neglect at that."

"What is tragic at this point ... is the lack of any [federal] policy toward at-risk youth," it says. "It is as though they did not exist, or as though we really did believe they are expendable."

The study argues that when inflation is taken into account, federal education spending has declined by 23 percent during the 1980's. That decline, it says, has had a "a far greater impact" on at-risk youths because "it was here that the federal contribution was greatest, and it is here that the blow falls most harshly."

In fiscal 1987, the authors say, the government made a total of $8.7 billion available to states and localities for education and job-training programs for at-risk children.

That amount, they say, was sufficient to serve only 20 percent of those in need of preschool education, 40 percent of those needing remediation, 25 percent of those needing bilingual education, and 5 percent of those in need of job training.

The report recommends that the government increase its support for preschool and precollegiate education from its current level of $10 billion to $18 billion, with the new funds "earmarked for programs and services directly affecting at-risk youth."

It also suggests that the Congress give the Education Department chief responsibility for coordinating the federal response to the at-risk problem.

"The states have taken a small step forward toward a future in which this nation ceases to treat a large portion of its youth as though they were expendable," the report concludes. "A small step--but much remains to be done and time is short. ... This opportunity will not come again, nor, perhaps, will another half as full of opportunity and hope."

In addition to Mr. Clark, other members of the advisory panel included Jane Lee J. Eddy, executive director of the Taconic Foundation; Vilma S. Martinez, former president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Robert C. Penn, a senior executive with the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Frank J. Slobig, director of Youth Service America; and Franklin H. Williams, president of the Phelps-Stokes Fund.

The report can be obtained by writing mdc Inc., 1717 Legion Road, P.O. Box 2226, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514, or by calling (919) 968-4531.

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