Reforms 'Doomed,' Says Panel, Without Early Family Aid
Concerned that the nation is "creating a permanent underclass of young people," a panel of business and education leaders this week called for early, sustained intervention in the lives of disadvantaged children and their families.
Reform strategies for poor and minority youths that focus on the schools alone--without attempting to change the home environment--are "doomed" to fail, the officials contend in a report called "Children in Need: Investment Strategies for the Educationally Disadvantaged."
The document was produced by the research and policy committee of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonprofit organization whose 225 trustees represent many of the nation's leading corporations and institutions of higher education.
Its report advocates prenatal and postnatal care for pregnant teens and other "high-risk" mothers; preschool for all disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds; parent education for both mothers and fathers; and greater community and parental involvement in the schools.
The report is particularly critical of large urban school systems whose "archaic school structure and unresponsive bureaucracy" often compound children's problems.
Approximately 40 percent of disadvantaged children are concentrated in inner cities.
Too many urban schools are "opting for control rather than education," the report states. "Too many schools offer a large, impersonal environment that more closely resembles a factory than a haven for learning."
Such schools, it suggests, need a "radical redefinition" of their purpose and structure, including changes in the way they are organized, staffed, managed, and financed.
The report recommends smaller schools and classes; greater autonomy at the school site; more attention to junior-high and middle schools; and the provision of health and social services on the school grounds.
In addition, it advocates the creation of alternative school settings for current and potential dropouts that combine work experience with education in the basic skills.
The report favors the delegation of authority whenever possible, but adds that within individual schools, accountability for student performance must extend to principals, teachers, and parents.
'Bottom Up' Reform
The ced's new 73-page report comes approximately two years after its last policy statement on the schools, "Investing in Our Children."
That report, too, called for a "bottom up" reform of the public schools, more authority for teachers, and a greater investment in preschool programs for the disadvantaged.
Owen B. Butler, retired chairman of the Procter & Gamble Company, chaired the subcommittees that produced both reports.
Since the release of "Investing in Our Children," Mr. Butler has spoken to groups across the United States on an almost weekly basis about the need for school reform.
What Businesses Can Do
Although businesses cannot be expected to finance the schools, Mr. Butler said, they should take the lead in a "third wave" of reform focused on disadvantaged youths.
"These children need a champion," he argued. "Somebody who is accustomed to taking a long-range view of what our society needs has to step in, recognize this problem, and become an advocate for both more money and better programs. We think that businessmen are ideally suited to do that."
Businesses can provide time off from work so parents can participate in their children's education and can involve employees in volunteer activities on behalf of the schools, the report states.
It also asks corporations to lend their expertise to the schools through such avenues as job-placement programs and management centers for principals.
Like "Investing in Our Children," the new policy statement tackles a number of sensitive topics that could stir dissension within the education community.
The earlier report, for example, argued that public schools should be forced to compete for students by allowing children to attend the school of their choice.
The new document suggests that in some instances it may be more effective to concentrate disadvantaged children in a particular school or program rather than scattering them throughout the school system.
Earlier this year, a proposal in Cincinnati to create a separate school for pregnant teen-agers was defeated, in part, on the grounds that, since the majority of such students would be black, the school would automatically be segregated.
"That's a tradeoff," said Mr. Butler. "We believe that the advantages of a special school for pregnant teen-agers outweigh the advantages of heterogeneous student populations. The fact is, a pregnant teen-ager has very special, unique educational problems."
Ideally, he noted, the widespread availability of preschool programs for poor and minority children would enable most students to be "mainstreamed" before kindergarten age.
"If they don't get that early-childhood intervention," he added, "you can mix them with students from a different background, but they don't mix because they cannot compete."
'Waste of Human Resources'
According to the report, children are educationally disadvantaged if they "cannot take advantage of available educational opportunities or if the educational resources available to them are inherently unequal."
The committee estimates that this year, nearly 1 million students will leave public schools without8graduating. Another 700,000 will "merely mark time in school and receive their diplomas but will be as deficient in meaningful skills and work habits as most dropouts."
"The nation can ill afford such an egregious waste of human resources," it concludes. "Allowing this to continue will not only impoverish these children, it will impoverish our nation--culturally, politically, and economically."
According to the report, each year's class of dropouts will cost the country more than $240 billion in lost earnings and forgone taxes over their lifetimes.
Although the ced acknowledges that its recommendations would require additional resources, it does not put a price tag on its proposals.
The report advocates increased federal funding for both Head Start and Chapter 1 remedial education, so that all eligible children could be served.
State and Federal Roles
It also calls on the federal government to fund high-quality research and development efforts and to improve its educational database.
But it argues that, in general, progress on behalf of disadvantaged youngsters is best achieved at thestate and local levels and within individual schools.
According to Mr. Butler, the federal government is "too remote" to solve the problems of poor and minority children.
"My personal preference is to see most of it done at the state level," he said. "That's where I'm putting the most encouragement ... and that's where the effort seems to be catching fire."
The committee produced the report in less than a year, based on presentations to its subcommittee on the educationally disadvantaged, background papers, and research by staff members.
In addition to policy recommendations, the report includes descriptions of successful programs thatserve poor and minority children.
The subcommittee's work was directed by Sol Hurwitz, senior vice president for the ced Advisers included Harold Howe 2nd, former U.S. commissioner of education; the presidents of both national teachers' unions; and James P. Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University who is noted for his work with inner-city schools.
Since the release of "Investing in Our Children," the ced has sponsored a number of forums around the country that bring together business leaders, teachers, community representatives, and government officials to discuss school reform.
The committee is sponsoring a similar series of forums focused on the disadvantaged through a grant from the Hewlett Foundation.
Message Not New
The ced's message of early prevention is hardly new for the organization.
In March 1971, the committee published a report, "Education for the Urban Disadvantaged: from Preschool to Employment," in which it argued that preschooling is a "necessity" for poor and minority youngsters.
That report also called for a "massive effort" to establish both public and private preschool programs andto increase government support for free day-care centers for the children of working mothers.
Since then, Mr. Butler said, the organization has become more sophisticated about how to get its message across.
"We recognized that we don't have a policy statement aimed at Washington," he said. "We have a policy statement aimed at 15,000 school districts in 50 states, and not only at parents but at every taxpayer who cares about the future of American society."
Vol. 07, Issue 01