FOR the past five years, state governments have been focused on school reform for excellence in education. The good news is that the majority of students have improved their test scores. The bad news is that a steadily increasing minority of students - now almost 30 percent - are not graduating with their class, or are dropping out. Although some dropouts go on to lead successful lives, the really bad news is that many of those who drop out may never successfully make the transition from adolescence to a productive adult life. As Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft says, the problem is not that schools have failed to perform well but that they have failed to keep pace with the skills required by employers now and in the near future. The United States cannot embrace or afford a concept of excellence that defines high standards for a few based on the low achievement of many. The social signs of this failure are familiar: high rates of teen pregnancies and drug and alcohol abuse, even teen homicide and suicide. In the workplace, a recent report from the Hudson Institute indicates new jobs in the service sector will demand higher skill levels than those of today and that the nation's prosperity will depend on increased productivity in the service sector. Will today's dropouts be in position to meet this challenge?
Dealing effectively with high-risk young people requires a sensitivity to the different ways they absorb information and experiences with real academic success. In interview after interview with these youngsters, one finds a large number that simply do not expect to succeed in life - not because opportunities are lacking, but because they do not believe in themselves and do not believe that such opportunities exist for them.
What can be done? So far, it is clear that at least four things work:
Early childhood education such as Head Start. Evidence is ample that interventions during the first 60 months of a child's life can make an important difference and can save money over the long run.
The process of connecting adult volunteers of all ages to at-risk children on a one-to-one basis - mentoring - is another important opportunity. Whether they involve the approach of a Gene Lang - adopting a sixth-grade class - or that of the law firm of Day Berry & Howard in Hartford, Conn. - ``adopting'' 23 graduates of a dropout prevention program - mentoring programs tell the at-risk student that society wants him to succeed.
Parents' involvement in the education of their children. Many parents have become discouraged by the highly credentialed ``experts'' who work in education and by the attitude of school personnel that education is their sole responsibility. Recent evidence suggests that when schools reach out to parents to explain what is going on in the classroom, the reinforcement students receive at home significantly enhances their school performance. In Missouri, the Parents as Teachers program, offered in virtually every school district, gives parents practical information on early childhood development and ways they can be more effective ``teachers'' during their children's preschool years.
Schools that empower teachers, meet high expectations, and involve students in ``active'' learning as opposed to passive listening. Such schools can be much more effective with at-risk students. Ted Sizer and John Goodlad, two prominent education reformers, are each working in several ``restructured schools.'' In addition, I know many examples of individual principals working to restructure their schools to serve at-risk students better. The question is how to encourage more schools to undertake this transformation.
What makes all of these approaches work is one common characteristic. They say to each child, ``You are important. You can succeed. We need you to succeed. And we are going to work to provide you with opportunities for success.''
The easiest approach to the problems of at-risk children is to say, ``Well, we've provided the school, the rest is up to them. They will succeed if they have the motivation.''
In the United States of America, that is hardly an adequate answer. Makers of state and national education policy must provide the leadership and incentives to create the opportunities for more of the above examples to occur. What's needed is better organization and coordination of educational services, better accountability, and a shift to providing an education that helps every child become fully productive. That is the aim of the excellence reform movement in education, a rigorous, vibrant commitment to broaden the ownership of the excellence movement throughout the whole of our society. We know what to do. We must start now.
Frank Newman is president of the Education Commission of the States.