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Researchers Propose National Curriculum To Ease Barriers Faced by Migrant Students

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By Peter Schmidt

Policymakers should consider such measures as a national curriculum and high-school diploma for migrant students to help ease the unusual barriers to schooling such children face, a team of scholars recommends in a new report.

Financed by the U.S. Education Department, the report is based on a three-year ethnographic study of the children of migrant farm workers in nine states.

Drawing on thousands of hours of interviews with migrant families, the authors describe the existence of a "culture of migrancy" that "fosters its own continuance and is, in many ways, counterproductive to education."

"All migrant children are potential dropouts," the report concludes. "If children are needed in the fields for the family to survive, then that will take precedence over education or any other need the migrant child may have."

It notes that many migrant children drop out because they are enticed by the financial rewards of field work and discouraged by academic failure at school.

Among its other recommendations, the report calls for:

Creation of system that would pay migrant high-school students to stay in school;

Establishment of an itinerant-teacher program that would send teachers to the homes of migrants;

Development of computer-based instruction for migrants, and the exploration of long-distance education using interactive video.

Entitled The Effects of Migration on Children: An Ethnographic Study, the report was released this month by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which commissioned the study under a $575,000 grant from the federal department.

The completion of the study signals "the first time that we have good, solid, empirical evidence to support what many people have surmised all along" about the migrant culture, said Gary W. Ledebur, director of the Pennsylvania department's bureau of basic-education support services. "That gives planning and policy a much firmer base."

Geared to Middle Class

The report was written by Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz, associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University; Vidal A. Rivera Jr., former national director of the U.S. Education Department's migrant-education program; and Robert T. Trotter 2nd, chairman of the anthropology department at Northern Arizona University.

The authors found that many programs that could benefit migrants fail to reach their target population. They attribute such failure to the fact that government policies are oriented to the beliefs and behavior of the "static" middle class.

To help resolve this problem, the report recommends increased efforts to coordinate the work of agencies responsible for providing services to migrant workers. It also seeks a greater number of school- and community-based counseling and cultural-adjustment activities for migrant children.

According to the U.S. Education Department, some 541,000 children are identified as migrants and are eligible for services under the federal migrant-education program; of that number, some 343,000 are receiving educational or support services. Of those not being served by the migrant program, officials said, a large portion are receiving services under Chapter 1 or state compensatory-education programs.

'Whiplash Effect'

In an interview last week, Mr. Trotter, one of the authors, elaborated on two of the boldest suggestions to emerge from the study: the establishment of a national curriculum and diploma tailored to the needs of migrant children.

"In talking with the kids, there were incredible levels of frustration," he said. "They almost were being pushed out of school by the whiplash effect of changing curriculum as they changed schools."

Development of a national curriculum, he argued, would provide some continuity "so when a child moved from the southern part of Texas to the middle part of Wisconsin, the fact he was on the road three days would not make him six months behind."

The researcher acknowledged that he was not far enough along in his thinking to say if a uniform curriculum for migrants would require such provisions as separate classrooms.

On the issue of a national diploma, Mr. Trotter noted that the children interviewed "said over and over a [General Educational Development certificate] means nothing" and "makes them uncompetitive for the very things that will get them out of the migrant stream."

The GED "is not given the same respect as a diploma" by potential employers, he said.

Migrant children have trouble earning a regular diploma, he pointed out, because in moving they fail to fulfill all of the graduation requirements at any one high school.

'Not Realistic'

Officials at the Pennsylvania and U.S. Education Departments have already distanced themselves from those recommendations.

Mr. Ledebur, who oversees the state agency's education programs for migrant workers, last week stressed that all the recommendations represent the views of the authors, and not the state.

Although his department is giving serious consideration to several of the proposals, he said, it is not likely to get behind the call for a national migrant curriculum or diploma.

"Even though there are serious problems regarding the education of migrant children," he said, "a national curriculum may not be the best way to deal with those problems."

"The idea of a national diploma is interesting, but probably not realistic at this point," he added.

And Francis V. Corrigan, acting director of migrant education for the federal department, said the government would face legal barriers to any effort to mandate a national migrant curriculum or diploma. "In spite of their merits in terms of the needs of migrant students, we also have some state and local responsibilities to consider here," he said.

According to Mr. Corrigan, the department will use the study in developing a policy manual to enforce final regulations on migrant education published last month. New provisions in the rules include mandates of assessment of student achievement and an expansion of the age range within which migrants can qualify for federal services for children.

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