A Way Out of Failure

Radical steps are needed to help children from impoverished homes

CHILDREN who suffer from chronic neglect and live in devastatingly impoverished homes are simply not succeeding in our nation's schools. Despite an ``education summit conference'' held by a would-be ``education president,'' pronouncement of the ``decade of the child'' by a governor and would-be presidential candidate, and well-publicized press releases by a committee of high-profile governors, nothing less than radical new initiatives will change the reality of educational failure. Most school systems already provide a plethora of ``remedial'' programs, despite research showing that most of these interventions make no significant difference in children's academic achievement. Most school systems also implement ``new'' programs, though many of these ``innovations'' are simply repackaged versions of educational practices that failed in the past.

Given their financial restraints, however, most schools have no alternative but to continue providing largely unsuccessful programs. Their only other option is to stand by and do nothing.

Few programs designed to help the neediest students offer more than a glimmer of hope.

One radical, and controversial, attempt to throw aside conventions and offer greater hope has been receiving a lot of media attention: the call for all-black male elementary schools, taught by black male teachers whenever possible. This may or may not be the best way to overcome the lack of successful black male role models for many inner-city children, but it's an idea worthy of serious discussion.

A national dialogue to consider this and other radical proposals is needed, since society has not yet critically examined how schools should educate profoundly disadvantaged children. Given the dual realities of limited economic resources and the enormous educational and social problems confronting school personnel, radical proposals just may succeed where conventional programs have failed.

If society wants to give more than lip-service to the notion that ``every child can succeed,'' it has only three paths of action:

Commit vast new sums of money for prenatal and neonatal care to help disadvantaged pregnant women and mothers. At present, our society tolerates children being born to women with little or no parenting skills, women who know little about proper nutrition and health care let alone nurturing learning through reading to their children and talking with them. Is it time for society to mandate instruction in parenting skills to all pregnant, substance-abusing mothers (and perhaps to all pregnant mothers on welfare who, in the opinion of social services personnel, have no interest in raising their children)?

Commit vast new sums of money to our schools in a three-pronged attack: making preschool and extended-day kindergarten programs universal to develop socialization skills and encourage early language fluency; hiring social workers to help parents in their homes, reinforcing the school's message and providing ongoing parental training; hiring individual tutors to provide intensive assistance in the first few grades.

These kinds of programs might give school systems a fighting chance at educating children coming from severely impoverished homes. Such a comprehensive package of programs is costly, but implementation of only one or two of the three elements would undercut the potential benefits. An ongoing link with the home is critical. Of the nearly 9,000 hours in any given year, only about 900 are spent by children in classrooms with teachers.

Strongly consider the rights of the unborn child to enter the world free of an addiction to cocaine or alcohol, and to be born without the need for immediate foster care placement. Should society continue to tolerate child after child being born to chronically unfit mothers?

Acceptance of any radical option implies long-term commitment and not a one-shot infusion of support. To date, our society has been unwilling to make such a commitment. Society does, however, continue to imprison illiterate and socially maladjusted youth and adults, and politicians' demands for more prison cells and more judges and prosecutors rarely meet opposition.

Yet when educators or social workers call for more funds to educate children and parents, the opposition is quick and loud, despite the fact that society pays much more to house a prisoner than it does to educate a needy child.

A national dialogue to consider radical proposals will admittedly be controversial and possibly distasteful. The alternative, however, is to continue passionately stating our concerns for children, but then failing to initiate actions to help them. And all the while, our population of children at risk grows year by year.

Until we publicly admit that present school practices are not significantly helping at-risk children, and that the resources currently available to our schools are inadequate to make a difference in the lives of these children, no meaningful change will occur and one more generation of youth will simply fall through the cracks.

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