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Riley Urges 'Reconnection' Between Adults, Troubled Youths

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Washington

Sounding a prominent Clinton Administration theme, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley last week challenged Americans to face up to personal, family, and community responsibilities and enter into a "new compact'' with children and families "in an effort to reconnect children to learning.''

In a 50-minute address at Georgetown University here, which was billed as a speech on the "state of American education,'' Mr. Riley called on the education community--and the nation--to unite behind the cause of education reform.

He cited four areas as critical: increased parent involvement, "reconnection'' of alienated minority youths with the education system, linking K-12 reform with reform and accountability efforts in higher education, and increasing the use of educational technology.

Mr. Riley announced an Education Department parental-involvement campaign, and said that similar efforts in the other areas he identified will follow.

"The issue,'' the Secretary said, "is not 'good,' 'bad,' or 'rank,' but whether we are changing fast enough to save and educate this generation of young people, whether education has kept up with the fundamental and far-reaching changes in the economic and social structure of this nation.''

It was not Mr. Riley's typical stump speech. Although he plugged the Administration's legislative agenda, the address was perhaps the first time he has sought national exposure to express his general concerns about American education.

More than anything, Mr. Riley said, he is "troubled'' by a "disconnection so pervasive between adult America and the children of America that we are all losing touch with each other.''

'Moral Urgency'

A "moral urgency'' should compel citizens to recognize the problem and take action to improve schools, he said.

At the same time, the Secretary said, President Clinton has sought to change Washington's attitude toward education.

"Lifelong learning and literacy for all Americans is seen as the very basis for the rebuilding of this country,'' he said.

Mr. Riley also repeated a theme he has been stressing for months, urging combatants in the national education debate to take politics out of the equation and look for common ground.

"We cannot reconnect our young people to learning if public education continues to be condemned without relief, if we become fixated on negative musings destructive to the future of public education,'' the Secretary said.

"At the same time,'' he said, "nothing is gained by the intransigence of some in the education community who see any outside reform or proposed innovation as unneeded, unwanted, and unnecessary.''

For Mr. Riley's address in the university's Gaston Hall--where Mr. Clinton once spoke as a Presidential candidate--the Education Department convened about 500 members of the education, business, labor, and political communities in an attempt to enlist their support.

Among those in the crowd were Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Katharine Graham, the chairwoman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Company; and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

The invitation-only speech was similar to one Mr. Riley used to drum up support for his education-reform program when he was the Governor of South Carolina, said Camille Johnston, an Education Department spokeswoman.

"There are a lot of people here that needed to hear it that you don't get to talk to every day,'' she said.

Parent Involvement

The parental-involvement campaign Mr. Riley launched last week aims to enlist parents, schools, communities, and the department in a cooperative effort to help students meet high standards.

Among other objectives, the department hopes to foster better relationships between parent groups and school-based organizations to change what Mr. Riley described as a situation in which parents and educators are "talking past each other.''

The campaign will encourage parents to monitor their children's television habits, help them with homework, and maintain closer contact with schools. It will urge schools to give parents a say in decisions, design homework that engages parents, and train teachers to reach out to parents.

Communities, Mr. Riley said, should have the responsibility to foster mentoring and tutoring, make community resources available to families, and support flexible working hours.

Ms. Johnston said that the department in the next few weeks will publish a paper addressing the issue more thoroughly; it will later release papers on the three other areas targeted by Mr. Riley.

Mr. Riley tied his focus on minority youths to the Administration's push to set standards for student performance.

By expecting more from minority youngsters, and setting the same high standards for students without regard to race, native language, or income, the education system can prevent minority youths from becoming disaffected, he argued.

He decried the use of so-called pullout programs and special-education classifications that are effectively segregated, and suggested that federal policies may have contributed to such practices.

Mr. Riley also suggested that higher-education officials have yet to recognize how much the setting of higher standards for the elementary and secondary levels will affect their institutions. Higher education is "at the threshold of a new and important public dialogue ... on the meaning of accountability and standards for higher education,'' he said.

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