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Despite Years of Rhetoric, Most Still See Little Understanding, Inadequate Efforts

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By Lynn Olson

The release of several national studies last week highlighted what many now consider the most pressing concern facing American education: the growing number of students "at risk" of leaving school prior to graduation or without the skills needed to get a job.

But after more than three years of national reports and public soul-searching, educators said last week, services for these youngsters have barely begun to mirror the magnitude of the problem.

"I just don't believe people are serious about this," said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

"We had more stirring about the fact that there was pollution on the beaches this summer than that children's lives are being destroyed in city schools," he contended, because the former "touched the comfort of the middle class."

Real progress in helping at-risk students succeed remains painfully slow, according to many educators, despite the growing level of concern and effort, and an emerging consensus that the health of the nation's economy is inextricably linked with the fate of these children.

Interviews with officials in all 50 states conducted by Education Week, and a 50-state survey released by mdc Inc. last week, uncovered wide disparities in state-level initiatives on behalf of children who, for one reason or another, may never finish high school.

These range from states that have no definition of "at risk" students and virtually no new programs for them, to states with a myriad of task forces, commissions, and categorical programs addressing one or more subgroup of "at risk" youths.

'Low Grade Warranted'

The mdc study, which gave the states a collective grade of F for their performance on behalf of at-risk students to date, revealed "about what we would have expected" given the slow pace of change in education bureaucracies, said George B. Autry, president of the nonprofit organization.

While educators disagreed about whether that grade was too harsh, none maintained that the response has been sufficient.

"There have been some significant initiatives in a few places," said Harold Howe 2nd, former U.S. commissioner of education. "But if you look at the whole picture, then it seems to me that a pretty low grade is warranted."

Whether the states merit an F or a C- is open to debate, he added, "but certainly the range is there, rather than around A-."

"If you look at the fact that such a very high percentage of our at-risk children are not completing high school, then you have to say what we're doing is not adequate," agreed Owen B. Butler, retired chairman of the Procter & Gamble Company and chairman of the Committee for Economic Development's panel on the disadvantaged.

"On the other hand," he said, "I think states are trying to move very aggressively in this field."

"These things take time," he noted, "and when somebody has begun ... trying to take the action that is required, to give them an F because those activities are not yet in place may be a little harsh."

'Improving, Needs Work'

The mdc report estimated that only 14 states have even begun moving toward the provision of comprehensive services for at-risk populations. Even in these states, such as California and New York, far more remains to be done, it said.

"I would have to say that California's efforts to date have come nowhere near addressing the need on as aggressive or direct a scale as is necessary, given our student population," said Kati Haycock, executive director of the Achievement Council, a student-advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif.

"For the most part," she added, "California's dollars and its energies have been invested in a sort of generic education-improvement effort, and it's now become clear that these generic improvement efforts simply are inadequate to address the often-alarming needs of the state's lowest-performing schools."

Only recently, she said, have legislators appreciated the "need for an aggressive, well-funded, and energetic" strategy to work with those schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged children.

New York State, which the mdc report also cited as making strides on behalf of at-risk students, "is certainly improving, and needs more work," said Robin Willner, staff director of the Educational Priorities Panel, an advocacy group based in New York City.

"There's no doubt that on the state level ... there have been some discrete programs that have been started," she said. "But by and large, the school-reform movement in New York State is still grappling with the needs of at-risk students."

"We are just coming out of the stage of raising standards," she added, "and beginning to ask what we have to do to help those youngsters who are most at risk so that we can meet our hopes for them."

Many state school officials agree that current efforts, although a good start, are inadequate. According to Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the strongly worded policy statement on at-risk children that was adopted by the chiefs in 1987 reflected their "recognition of how much work had to be done by the states."

Among the "guarantees" for at-risk students included in that statement are the right to attend a school with a demonstrated record of "substantial and sustained" student progress; access to preschool education; dand the right to an individual "teaching and learning plan," approved by the student and his or her parents. Eleven states now have grants from the council to try to carry out that policy.

'Tennis, Anyone?'

Those interviewed last week attributed the paucity of comprehensive state initiatives to a host of factors, ranging from genuine perplexity about what to do next to a continued lack of urgency among citizens at large.

"Cities get more exercised over snow removal and garbage removal than they do over children whose lives are being shattered," said Mr. Boyer.

"The truth is that if snow isn't removed in three or four days, mayors' heads roll," he said. "But we have districts in this country where half the children have dropped out for decade after decade, and the reaction is, 'Tennis, anyone?"'

"People, in general, have not been aware of the quantitative nature of the problem," said John I. Goodlad, professor of education at the University of Washington. "Even though the demographic data have been widely available, I'm not sure that the public in general has been internalizing them."

Of the children who entered school last fall, for example, one in four lived in poverty, 14 percent were the children of teenage mothers, and as many as 15 percent were non-English-speaking immigrants.

Many of these students bring with them to school a combination of familial, racial, cultural, and socioeconomic stresses that educators have never encountered in such unprecedented numbers.

But, said Harold L. Hodgkinson, a demographer at the Institute for Ed8ucational Leadership, their impact has yet to reach many communities.

"The difficulty is getting this message out to individual local school boards, who are going to make most of the decisions, even though the money is coming from the state," he said. "A number of school boards have not yet understood the message."

"Some of this is simply painful," Mr. Hodgkinson explained. "The statement that 24 percent of children are below the poverty line in many states seems like an admission of failure, and so people are reluctant to get into these issues. There's a tendency to hope they'll go away."

National 'Negativism'

The specter of an increasingly poor and undereducated future labor force--and a growing population of

But the general public's ignorance of those issues may constitute the biggest roadblock to more effective change, according to Ms. Haycock.

"We still haven't managed," she said, "to drive home in a compelling enough way to the average voter--who is still particular the future of his children, with the futures of minority and poor kids." He attributed it, at least in part, to "the exaggerated claims of the Reagan Administration that such programs are merely throwing money at problems and not accomplishing anything. Unfortunately, that has sunk into the national consciousness."

"It took eight years to implant that negativism," Mr. Howe added, ''and it may take eight years to undo it. Right now, if you look at the two Presidential candidates, neither one of them is saying anything that would commit the country to investing in the things we know will work. They're scared to do so, because they know they'll lose votes based on this negativism."

'Scattered Initiatives'

Fiscal constraints at the state level and a reliance on categorical programs, which serve limited numbers of youngsters, also restrain efforts on behalf of at-risk students, educators said last week.

The first phase of the school-reform movement--with its emphasis on higher standards and increased testing requirements--virtually ignored the needs of disadvantaged students, according to most critics.

Although some states added remedial-education programs to help students meet the new standards, many did not.

It is only recently that dropout-prevention initiatives, early childhood-education programs, and other forms of help for at-risk childrenel10lhave emerged more commonly on state agendas, according to Education Week's survey.

Even so, the mdc report notes, these "discrete" and "scattered" initiatives are nearly all "characterized by a certain haphazardness,'' and they seldom have any guarantee of sustained funding.

"It's difficult politically to focus funds using the term 'at risk,'" said Helen E. Caffrey, executive director of the Senate Education Committee in Pennsylvania. "Everyone would like to have a proportionate share of the funding stream."

Moreover, while some categorical programs may help students, poor evaluation designs and a lack of accountability have made it hard to tell "how successful" they are, said Jose A. Cardenas, director of the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio.

The failure to produce clear results, he said, can then be used as an excuse not to expand or replicate such programs.

At the school level, concerns that categorical programs may label and stigmatize children, or pull them out of their regular classrooms unnecessarily, have also led to a growing dissatisfaction with such initiatives.

"You can't have schools that are structured to address the needs of a minority of youngsters and then try to paste on the pieces to serve the rest of the kids," said Ms. Willner of the Educational Priorities Panel.

"We know in New York City that barely more than a third of our youngsters graduate in four years through the traditional route," she said, "and that means we have to totally restructure the schools. You can't have a school that meets the needs of one-third of its students, and then add on for the other two-thirds."

A Difference 'in Kind'?

What is needed, according to Mr. Goodlad, is a model for social change that focuses less on the individual child and more on the "ecology'' of the school as a whole.

'I wouldn't say that [categorical programs] are heading in the wrong direction," he said, "any more than a strike on a crack house is the wrong thing to do. But it certainly doesn't get to the roots of the drug problem."

Educators are beginning to grapple with the suggestion of Mr. Goodlad and others that it may be the organization of the school, rather than the child, that needs changing.

Noted Mr. Boyer: "Many of our schools, especially in urban areas, differ not just in degree but in kind. We need a new kind of remedy for these, because the problems are dramatically different from schools that are relatively stable, with communities that are relatively supportive of education, and with families that can add motivation for children."

The anonymity in many urban schools, he noted, "and the way they are structured" have as much to do with their failure to reach children as does the lack of funds.

Yet while such ideas are catching on, the mdc survey found that there is "very little" major change or "restructuring" in schools "that would be intended to benefit all of the students, including [those] at risk."

"One form of 'at riskness' that educators should be held completely accountable for doing something about is the risk of attending a lousy school," asserted Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educa4tional research and improvement in the U.S. Education Department.

That risk, he said, "is something that educators and only educators are accountable for alleviating."

A 'Children's Policy'

Equally problematic, according to Mr. Howe, is the concept of providing assistance for at-risk children and their families that extends well beyond the school doors.

"Although there are a good many active and dedicated agencies trying to do something about the affairs of at-risk children," he said, "there is an insignificant recognition that to really deal with their problems, you've got to deal across the board in the child's life."

"I doubt very much that at-risk children can effectively be made really successful in school," he added, "unless there is adequate attention paid to the needs of their families for more support than they get from all kinds of community agencies."

Yet no state, according to Mr. Hodgkinson, "has got a really coordinated, integrated attack on those issues."

What is needed, said Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, is a comprehensive "children's policy" at each level of government--as opposed to an education policy, a child-welfare policy, or a juvenile-justice policy.

Mr. Kirst recently finished surveying the states to discover "how they look at the problems of children with multiple needs." In general, he said, "states don't make policy for children. They have no mechanism to do it. And they don't even have any vision of how to do it."

State-level task forces, interagency coordinating panels, and other ''organizational devices have had very little impact," he asserted. And the result is a set of fragmented services that do not follow children over time, almost entirely ignore them during their first four years of life, and do not provide assistance except in an emergency.

"There's just a new vision needed of how we ought to make state policy for children," he argued. "It's an issue whose time is coming, but it has not been really addressed in most cases in a direct fashion.''

'Wait and See'

But that, educators said last week, will take more money and a renewed sense of leadership.

"Providing better services for at-risk youngsters really does cost a lot of money," said Mr. Howe. "And the American public, at whatever level of government, ... is not really inclined to put up a lot more money."

The mdc report was particularly critical of the federal government for its absence of national leadership and its failure to adequately fund initiatives for "at risk" youths.

Mr. Finn called such allegations "hogwash." But he acknowledged that the federal government had not been very effective at coordinating services across agencies, or at developing a "coherent governmentwide policy" for disadvantaged young Americans. That kind of direction, he said, probably has to come from the White House or the Office of Management and Budget.

But so far, noted Mr. Hodgkinson, nobody at any level of government has claimed primary responsibility.

"So far, it's like day care," he said. "Everybody is hoping somebody else will be responsible for it."

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