Education in a Vacuum



Washington. -- When the report ''A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform'' was released 10 years ago, I was serving as vice chancellor of the New Jersey Department of Higher Education. The report reinforced our view of that crucial linkage between K-12 education and higher education.

If the schools that fed into our colleges and universities were being eroded by ''a rising tide of mediocrity,'' as the report stated, then surely we in higher education would be forced to deal with the consequences of that erosion on our own soil.

In fact, we already were. Faculty in New Jersey, as elsewhere, had many tales to tell about students who were unequipped to do college-level work because of the poor quality of their prior educational experiences.

The report's recommendations made sense then, and they still do:

* That students be firmly grounded in the five basics (English, mathematics, science, social studies, computer science).

* That more rigorous and measurable standards and higher expectations be adopted for academic performance and student conduct.

* That more time in the school day and school year be devoted to academics and that homework requirements be strengthened.

* That the preparation of teachers be drastically improved and their status enhanced.

* Finally, that the nation's leaders spearhead educational reform and that citizens provide the necessary fiscal support and stability such reforms require.

As I reread the report, however, and as I listened to the national debate prompted by its release, something began to bother me. And that was this: The report, like so many of the earnest efforts of educational reformers, seemed to view education in a vacuum.

But as we know, education exists in a larger environment, and for far too many youngsters and their families who are locked in our urban cores that environment is one of despair and, increasingly, of danger. The report offered no blue print to meet the needs of this segment of the American population.

To advocate more homework for the nation's Johnnys and Susies, as the report does, makes academic sense, but what if Johnny and Susie don't have a home? Or, what if the home they do have is so impoverished or so chaotic that doing homework is impossible? Or, what if their interest in doing their homework is met with derision, or even ostracism, by their peers?

Divorced from such social realities, the report's recommendation of more homework for high school students seems naive at best. But this recommendation is a typical example of the way in which the report paid little or no heed to the impact of outside-the-classroom influences on the learning process. With far too many urban youth those influences are negative.

That is one of the chief reasons I believe the report's impact has been more rhetorical than real. Ten years after ''A Nation at Risk,'' who could look at the state of many of our urban schools and the academic achievements of the graduates of these schools (when they graduate) and honestly say that the report has made any measurable difference?

The problem is not just a matter of money, or lack thereof. It is also a matter of myopia. By failing to see beyond the classroom, the report, though stimulating, proved to be ultimately ineffectual.

The report prompted me to think more about the need to link educational reform to the reality of the social condition under which so many of our youngsters live today. As a result, I have become a strong advocate of establishing neighborhood-based urban residential schools for at-risk youth. These new-style boarding schools would provide the intellectual nurturing that many homes are unable to provide.

The timing is right. More schools are being closed or are under-utilized because of under-enrollment caused by demographic changes. Why not transform these school buildings into sanctuaries that will provide young people with the kind of environment that would allow them to reach their full educational potential?

There is growing interest in the residential schools idea. My own institution, Howard University, has been exploring the idea with representatives of the District of Columbia public school system. Pilot projects -- either full-fledged residential schools, extended-day schools, or summer residential schools -- have been launched in other cities.

Underlying these projects is a growing realization that something must be done to address the way environment affects education. Otherwise, even the best-intentioned reforms are doomed to failure, at least as far as our urban youngsters are concerned.

How can our nation -- morally as well as economically -- afford to write off such a large segment of our population? That population was largely invisible to the authors of ''A Nation at Risk.'' It is our responsibility, as educators, as concerned citizens, to ensure that it is invisible no longer and that its educational needs are addressed.

Franklyn G. Jenifer is president of Howard University and is a board member of a number of national educational and scientific organizations.

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