'You've Got To Demonstrate That There's Another Way'
Changes in how schools operate, many say, may be particularly crucial for the academic success of youngsters "at risk" of failing or dropping out of school, a disproportionate number of whom are poor or minority.
"I think everybody who's focused on at-risk kids believes you have to restructure schools, because it's just not working," says Cynthia G. Brown, director of the resource center on educational equity at the Council of Chief State School Officers.
That sentiment is strongest among citizens in urban areas, where student dropout rates often exceed 40 percent.
"Whatever people mean by restructuring," says Norman Fruchter, senior consultant with the Academy for Educational Development, "if we're talking about urban districts, the central thing that restructuring ought to be aimed at is improving the achievement of students who don't normally achieve well in traditional structures. That's what you ought to be trying to do."
"What we're talking about is an answer to the failure of urban schools to adequately educate the kids they have," agrees Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance. "It's an alternative to allowing the school professionals to cite the Coleman reports from 1966 onwards and to say, 'If we had middle-class kids, we'd be doing well, too."'
Many of these advocates argue that poor and minority youngsters would benefit most from the same kinds of changes in school structure that are seen as promising for all students: more personalized environments, less fragmented instruction, and a stronger connection between classroom learning and real-world activities.
New York City, for example, is trying to reorganize its 9th-grade classes into "houses" within larger schools, so that students would come in contact with fewer teachers on a more intensive basis.
Students within each house would share a common group of instructors, a common physical space, and have all of their classes with others in the same house.
According to the Public Education Association, a New York-based advocacy group, the house plan could benefit at-risk youths in particular by creating more learning options within schools, providing a personalized academic setting, and potentially, by creating student groupings based on interests rather than ability or behavioral problems.
Explains Diana Oxley, a research scientist at the Bank Street College of Education who has worked with the pea: "What we're beginning to see is that where you find a really strong relationship between school size and student outcomes is in schools that serve large numbers of at-risk kids. Those kinds of kids do much better in smaller learning environments."
Gary G. Wehlage, associate director of the National Center on Effective Secon6dary Schools, concurs that to help at-risk pupils succeed, educators may have to change the emphasis in schools from a "bookish, sedentary, individualistic, competitive" style of learning to one that is "problem-oriented, active, manipulative, and cooperative." Those are the same kinds of changes in instruction now being advocated for all youngsters.
It is for such reasons that "America's Shame, America's Hope," a recent report on at-risk youths by mdc Inc., concluded that all students would benefit from restructuring efforts focused on "at risk" youngsters.
"It does not seem to be true that reform aimed at the above-average student necessarily 'trickles down' to at-risk youth," the report by the nonprofit research firm notes. "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."
Nonetheless, the extent to which current restructuring efforts focus explicitly on at-risk students varies widely.
For example, a network of schools in the Seattle area that is participating in Washington State's Schools for the 21st Century program plans to give special emphasis in its restructuring efforts to low-achieving and at-risk students.
The schools plan to develop a common core of learning for all students, move towards a nongraded structure in the elementary schools, and create a volunteer-training program that would enable parents and other community members to work with at-risk pupils.
Similarly, in Rochester, N.Y., Superintendent of Schools Peter McWalters has said: "I have only one ambition and that is to improve student performance in an equitable way."
As part of Rochester's restructuring plan, teachers at the top rung of the salary schedule must agree to work wherever they are needed in the district, including with the most disadvantaged students.
Teachers in the city's middle schools and high schools will also participate in a "home-based guidance" system, in which they will serve as advocates for small groups of 20 to 25 students over a period of years. Among other things, these teachers will be responsible for maintaining ties with the students' families and with relevant social-service agencies.
But while other restructuring efforts ultimately may benefit poor and minority students, they are not explicitly focused on their needs. And at the state level, the mdc report found "very little" in the way of major structural change that was intended to benefit at-risk students.
Easy To Overlook
Without that explicit focus, advocates worry, the problems of poor and minority students could be overlooked within restructuring efforts, just as they have been in previous reform movements.
"If you don't focus on the 'failures' and the 'casualties,' so to speak, then it's much easier to gloss over them," argues Tom Joe, director of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy, "and to restructure schools so, in fact, it becomes acceptable to reduce or eliminate 25 percent or 30 percent of your population and make an 'excellent' school out of the remainder."
"These kids are really tough," he notes. "Even if you had all the resources at your disposal, the state of knowledge about what to do for them is not easily available or existent."
"You can imagine a restructured school system that does a much better job meeting the needs of the average student or the talented-and-gifted student, but that still fails to respond adequately to the needs of low-income students," adds Stewart C. Purkey, professor of education at Lawrence University:
"Somewhere," he says, "at least at the state level, if not within districts, there has to be some attention paid to equity issues."
But some aspects of the present school structure that are most harmful for at-risk students are also among the most difficult to change, educators note.
These include long-term practices like tracking, grade retention, and a heavy emphasis on rote drill-and-skill exercises for low-achieving youngsters.
"Teachers," notes Theodore R. Sizer of Brown University, "are not in the habit of thinking fundamentally. They've never been asked to, they've never been given the opportunity."
In that context, he asserts, "the agony of coming face-to-face with a class bias in one's school, and the unintentional but very profound tracking of students by ethnicity and color--you ask a faculty to take that seriously? That's tough."
If schools are left to tackle such problems on their own, he suggests, "they're not going to" without some positive, guiding principles to lead them in that direction.
Even more important, others suggest, will be examples from real schools that have turned education around for disadvantaged students.
"I think that really deep-rooted institutional practices like tracking change when you have examples of schools that don't do it and that seem to achieve better results with the same population of students" says Mr. Fruchter. "You've got to demonstrate that there is another way to do it."
Beyond the School
In addition, experts caution, students who bring to school a whole range of economic, familial, social, and racial stresses need far more help than schools alone can provide.
"Schools are being hit from a variety of quarters with the need to be much more responsive not only to the academic needs of children, but to the emotional and health needs of children," says Joan First, executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.
"The plain truth," she argues, is that students need services ranging from nutrition to family counseling, "and either the school, as the primary youth-serving institution, has to provide those or it must create a system of linkages that causes them to be available to children."
But ensuring that students receive such services will require much more than simple collaboration between schools and social-service agencies, cautions Mr. Joe of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
"My notion of restructuring," he says, "goes way beyond the four walls of the school," to the provision of a "guaranteed social-insurance concept for all kids."
That theme is now being sounded by several big-city school superintendents, such as Richard R. Green of New York City.
In a speech given during a meeting of the Education Commission of the States in August, for example, Mr. Green said that in the future, New York City's schools would have to "ensure the safety and security and nurturing and development of young people," as well as their academic progress.
"It simply can't be left to the devices of the community," he said. "The public school ... during my time at least, will become the most important institution in ensuring and guaranteeing that there's a place of safety and development for young people and young families."
This new conception of the school "in loco parentis," he added, needs to be debated in legislatures nationwide.