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Letting schools do what they do best

A HORDE of educators, business leaders, and elected officials are setting off fireworks over what they call the impending crisis of ``at risk'' youth. They point to poverty, minority status, single-parent families and two-worker homes, cultural disadvantages, drug abuse, and teen pregnancies as conditions that are placing increasing numbers of youngsters in danger of being left out, of dropping out, or of losing the rewards of a free society. What to do? These spokesmen urge schools to shoulder a long list of new responsibilities - providing youngsters with psychological counseling, clean clothes, summer jobs, contraceptives, and an array of social services.

No one denies that a lot of kids are growing up in lousy circumstances that a caring society will do its best to alter. But to construe these circumstances as principally the responsibility of the school system is sorely to distort their true causes; to overpromise in terms of what schools (they being relatively weak institutions that account for just 11 percent of the hours that the average high school graduate has been alive) can do; to court interference with that which schools do best, namely foster cognitive learning; and to divert attention from the one form of ``at riskness'' that the education system itself causes and could fairly be charged with curing: the risk of attending a lousy school.

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Schools are not to blame for family breakups or undernourishment. They are substantially liable for the fact that 60 percent of high school graduates cannot understand fairly simple passages of literature; that only 1 in 4 young adults can interpret a newspaper column or write a letter to explain a billing error; that 1 in 3 high school juniors does not know Christopher Columbus discovered America before 1750; and that 2 out of 3 of them don't know that the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.

Are we to believe that turning schools into societal multiservice centers will better enable them to impart the basic skills and knowledge necessary for youngsters' further learning and future success?

On the contrary, research shows that effective schools limit their scopes and missions - and strive like mad within their domain of competence and responsibility. They focus on clear, explicit goals, and the goals are essentially the same for all students: high academic achievement. This is true for schools in suburban, rural, and urban areas, for rich and poor, black and white.

Turning schools into multiservice centers will confuse their priorities and blur their mission. And then they will fail to attain any goal. Schools cannot directly fight poverty or hold families together (though completing a first-rate education is a superb long-term poverty preventive, and if that education pays attention to character as well, it may have a strong, positive impact on the well-being of the family unit in American society). They lack the clout - and the know-how - to uproot social pathologies. These are tasks for many other public and private agencies and institutions, for churches, the YMCA, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, local businesses - community organizations that can mobilize volunteers and tutors, counselors and social workers, and furnish decent meals and a safe bed. All these groups ought to do more, and all of us who are concerned with ``at risk'' youth must be relentless in holding them accountable.

But none of these groups teaches reading, writing, or computing. Those who fail to acquire these skills at school won't likely get them anywhere else, and the consequences will trail them for life.

Academic achievement is the one great goal for which schools are responsible and to which they should be held accountable. School efforts should be aimed not at coordinating social services, but at monitoring academic progress at every turn, identifying cognitive difficulties as early as possible, and providing remediation and enrichment after school and during the summer.

Since 1980, 39 states and the District of Columbia have increased high school graduation requirements. As of 1986, half the states had enacted minimum competency testing for high school graduation. Schools and school districts should hold firm to these higher standards, which, contrary to the concern of some educators, are not increasing dropout rates or leading to anything resembling a teacher shortage - and which the overwhelming majority of the public rightly sees as essential to improved educational quality.

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School quality has an inestimable effect on students. And schools can be improved by application of good research, sound policy, and proven practice. Look at the outstanding schools for disadvantaged youngsters described in the recent US Department of Education publication ``Schools That Work.'' If we within the education system want to do our part to help ``at risk'' youth, we'll strive to create many more such schools.

Educators should leave other social services to community groups. Good schools offer youngsters a ticket to upward social mobility and to a brighter future. For the youngsters commonly referred to as being ``at risk,'' nothing we can give them is more important.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is assistant secretary for research and improvement in the United States Department of Education.

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