A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

"A Nation at Risk"

After the late sixties, the educational needs of poor children and children of color became less of a priority, although many of the conditions that plagued students at risk were largely unchanged. Children of color, especially Mexican-American and Puerto Rican children, were increasingly segregated in impoverished inner-city schools (Arias, 1986). School desegregation and fiscal inequities continued to be hotly debated as legal and policy issues, but public interest in and support for radical education innovations waned. Budget cutbacks in many districts precluded expensive reforms. It would take major economic and social changes to return educational equity to the national spotlight. In 1983 the widely cited report A Nation at Risk warned that U.S. students as a whole achieve lower skill levels than students in other industrialized nations (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Concerned about the nation's future work force, policymakers increasingly call for "excellence" in education. Report after report recommends that even noncollege-bound young people must develop strong academic proficiencies (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989; National Research Council, 1989).

Recognizing that poor children and children of color will form a significant percentage of the future work force, policymakers have increasingly vocalized the need to improve the education of "disadvantaged" youth. However, some people warn that proposed reforms aimed at achieving educational "excellence" often do not provide a coherent plan for effectively educating students at risk (McCollum and Walker, 1992; Swift, 1986). Raising standards without providing adequate support to schools may increase academic failure and dropout rates.

Costs of school failure. The personal, economic, and social costs of academic underachievement are high. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Workforce 2000 report (1987), the fastest growing occupations will require some postsecondary training. A young person who leaves school with inadequate skills will be increasingly at a disadvantage in the job market (Berlin and Sum, 1988; Reich, 1990). As an Urban Institute (1991b) report points out, over the next 10 years the economy is likely to generate large numbers of new, low-skill jobs -- but the wages for low-skilled labor are declining. Furthermore, high school graduates are more likely to be employed than high school dropouts (Stern, Paik, Catterall, and Nakata, 1989), and those with higher levels of education are more likely than those with less education to receive promotions (Sicherman, 1990).

Reich (1990) reports that attempts by employers to remedy the skill deficits of employees are expensive: Approximately one-third of major U.S. corporations provide basic skills training for employees, and U.S. industry as a whole spends about $25 billion yearly on remedial education (p. 204). According to the National Research Council (1989), businesses spend as much on remedial math education for employees as is spent on math in schools and colleges (p. 13).

The social costs of school failure are also high: As the recent turbulence in Los Angeles and other cities shows, vast education and economic disparities can be explosive.

Is school reform a panacea? Although there is a consensus that schools need to do a better job of preparing students for the work world, some people are concerned that academic excellence is being viewed as a panacea for economic and social ills. Apple (1990) argues that the crisis in the economy has been "exported" to the schools -- rather than holding business and industry accountable for the ailing economy, the responsibility for improving everything from employment rates to international trade competitiveness is being placed on the educational system (p. 158). Perhaps there is too much of a tendency to view educational outcomes as determinants of economic progress. Comparing students' test scores nationally and internationally may tell us something about the skill levels of various population groups, yet it reveals nothing about the levels of expertise with which businesses design market strategies and draw upon the talents that workers possess.

Other researchers note that parity in educational outcomes does not necessarily translate into social equality. McClelland (1990) uses the framework provided by social reproduction theory (see Boudon, 1973) to analyze the process by which white high school seniors from different socioeconomic backgrounds form their occupational aspirations and progress toward their goals. Controlling for differences in academic abilities (as measured by test scores), a process of "cumulative advantage" appears to operate in which men and young people from upper-white-collar homes are most likely to be "on track" toward achieving the career goals they aspired to in high school. McClelland hypothesizes that privileged youngsters are more likely than youth of lower social status to be surrounded by positive images, advice, encouragement, and support.

Some people are concerned that the reform movement has emphasized job-related skills at the expense of promoting social awareness and values. Futrell (1990) states that education "must enable [students] to think complexly and creatively, to act responsibly, and - - when necessary -- to act selflessly....education must help the United States meet both economic and moral imperatives (pp. 264-265)." Some researchers argue that school policies, practices, and curricula must prepare students to live in a culturally diverse society (Pine and Hilliard, 1990), while some religious groups contend that a renewed emphasis on character development is required. Perhaps these concerns should be incorporated into discussions of ways of being "at risk." It may be that young people who leave school with poor behavioral and academic skills are not the only students at risk -- pleasant, productive young workers who understand "21st-century" technologies but fail to grasp the significance of social and ethical issues may also place themselves, their communities, and the nation at risk.
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