Education issue: at-risk youth

Issues run for office - just like people do. Last year, drugs and AIDS won the election. This year, we hope it's ``at risk'' youth. - Harold Hodgkinson,

American Council on Education

The growing number of disadvantaged, or at-risk, youth in the United States is an issue rapidly gaining currency. Recent studies show that one third of America's 40 million students are potentially at risk - in danger of dropping out, getting pregnant, or becoming citizens in need of welfare or other social services.

It's also an issue that cuts to the heart of education politics.

Some educators argue that the nationwide school reform movement - with its emphasis on tougher content and graduation requirements - has simply ignored the educational needs of disadvantaged students. Others, conservative reform leaders in particular, say the at-risk issue is ripe to be used as an excuse to get more federal money, or for replaying failed social experiments, or as a tool to dismantle school reform - just as higher student standards and greater accountability in the teaching force begin to be implemented. Few, however, discount the severity of the at-risk problem.

Two weeks ago, at the National Press Club, leaders of 11 major education groups in the US (including the two teacher unions) stated that to avoid long-term ``serious negative consequences,'' more federal, state, and local aid for at-risk youth is needed, especially for preschool education.

``The reforms of the last five years may pale against the requirements of the next 10,'' said the group, titled the Forum of Educational Organization Leaders.

``We've got a dangerous problem,'' stated Frank Newman, head of the Education Commission of the States (ECS). ``The cycle of poverty has been accelerating. Schools can't solve everything. But we need to do what we can before the situation becomes unmanageable.''

Contributing to a ``radical change'' in US student demographics is the fact that nearly 40 percent of public school students are minority, a group ``disproportionally represented among the poor.'' Also, 1.3 million children were born to unwed teenage mothers in 1985 and '86 - many of whom will enter school in five years under less-than-ideal conditions.

Therefore, both federal and state governments must ``legislatively guarantee to each at-risk youngster the array of necessary educational services'' to graduate, the educators stated. This includes greater remedial help at all levels. Such a guarantee would be made as much out of economic self-interest as compassion. In 1950, there were 17 workers supporting each person on social security, they point out. By 1992, the ratio will be 3 to 1. One will be a minority - a group ``disproportionally represented among the poor.'' And, if trends continue, one will be uneducated and on welfare.

Harold Hodgkinson, author of the Forum statement, told the Monitor, ``The incredible avalanche of education reports coming out since 1983 doesn't address the type of student we now find in our schools. Not all kids have white middle class parents who read to them before they go to bed. The administration has been lax in admitting we've got to help kids who are born into failure through no fault of their own. We have to concentrate on the schools we need for the kids we've got.''

Yet it is just the possibility that at-risk youth will become the new cause c'el`ebre - the new big-dollar anti-drug or pro-literacy campaign - that concerns many educators, who have often seen superficial approachs taken to solving deeply rooted social problems.

More importantly say reformers such as Chester Finn, assistant US secretary of education, evidence is mounting that the education establishment is beginning to blame the higher standards sought by school reformers as a cause of dropouts (a problem he attributes to ingrained social and family pathologies). Such blame is ``a clever ploy,'' Dr. Finn states in the spring issue of The Public Interest, to provide a rationale for redirecting education policies and money into a ``hazy albeit well-intentioned'' set of solutions similar to those ``that got American education into trouble in the first place.''

Finn cites a National Education Association curriculum for at-risk students that suggests schools offer an open-ended set of courses, ``life planning,'' and ``a flexible schedule for those unable to attend school.''

Such a trend away from core studies, Finn remarks, may ``impede the progress of the most important quality-improvement effort to have been mounted within American education in many years.''

In fact, say many educators, high academic expectations are carefully built into the climate and method of schools that have helped at-risk kids the most. The superintendent of Norfolk, Va., schools notes that dropouts decreased as promotion standards increased. Princess Whitfield, a new principal at Hine Junior High in inner-city Washington, has turned the school around through an innovative system of discipline and reward that gets kids excited about school.

``Our research shows that kids drop out of school because they've been led to feel that life, and school, just aren't for them,'' says Dr. Newman. ``In the '70s we talked about equity. In the '80s we talked about excellence.'' The new equation, he says, is to structure schools so that ``excellence and equity take place in parallel.''

Over the next few years, say experts, funding and policy debates will develop around ways to do that.

School demographics 40 percent of the poor in America are children. 24 percent of all children live below the poverty line. 60 percent of the children born in 1983 will live in one parent homes before they are 18. The teen birth rate in the US is twice that of any other Western nation. Nearly 40 percent of all public school students are minority. Deliquency rates among youth have risen 130 percent in the past 25 years. The US has the highest teen-age drug rate of any industrial nation.

Source: The Forum of Educational Organization Leaders.

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