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Lessons Learned? Old Goal-Setting Stirs New Doubts

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When President Bush laid out six national goals for education in his State of the Union Message last month, an eerie sense of deja vu accompanied his speech.

More than five years earlier, in September 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan had also presented a set of national education goals--four targets to be reached by 1990. One of those goals--to raise the high-school graduation rate to more than 90 percent--was among the challenges Mr. Bush has embraced for the year 2000.

Mr. Reagan adapted his objectives from a list of goals first issued by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell in December 1983, at the conclusion of the nation's first "education forum" in Indianapolis.

At a meeting attended by 2,500 of the nation's key education policymakers, Mr. Bell called on each state to meet four education goals by the end of the decade.

In addition to increasing the graduation rate, they included raising scores on college-admissions tests above the 1965 average, making teachers' salaries competitive with those for entry-level college graduates in business and engineering, and stiffening high-school graduation requirements.

The list of people attending the forum was impressive, including 8 governors, 10 members of Congress, 150 state legislators, about 30 chief state school officers, and some 60 college and university presidents.

But the goals pronounced there faded from public memory well before the date set for reaching them.

Now many people are asking what will make the current goals-setting endeavor any different.

"The real danger here is, if you repeatedly set goals that are not met, and there is no accountability for failing to meet them, you make the announcement of future goals a dead letter," says Gary L. Bauer, who held several top Education Department posts during the Reagan Administration. "You raise false expectations, and you also may divert attention from asking the hard questions about why we are in this fix."

A Different Context

There are key differences between the current goals-setting effort and those that came before it, many education observers agree.

Mr. Bell's goals were created in response to A Nation at Risk, the report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education that is widely credited with quickening the pace of school reform. That report was the work of a relative small number of individuals.

Although Mr. Bell thought he had achieved a broader consensus by the end of the December meeting, "there wasn't a gut-level commitment to follow through with it," he says. "I guess no one accepted the goals, as such, or very few did."

Although progress was made on some of Mr. Bell's targets, others--such as improving the graduation rate--remained relatively flat.

In contrast, O. Bradford Butler, chairman of the Committee for Economic Development, says the objectives being considered today "represent the agreed-upon goals of a very broad national coalition," including key members of the business community.

"What's different today than what happened in 1983 is that you've got both the President of the United States and the 50 governors coming together on national goals and on national strategies to address those goals," says Milton Goldberg, director of the office of research in the Education Department. "We didn't do that in 1983 and 1984."

Indeed, Mr. Bush has raised the federal stake in the goals-setting process by choosing to declare himself the "education President."

Another difference between 1983 and now, Mr. Goldberg notes, is that the emphasis is on performance. All the goals are listed in terms of outcomes, not just inputs like teachers' salaries.

'What's the Follow-Up?'

But others caution that there are more similarities than differences between the two occasions.

"When you get below a handful of government leaders, businessmen, educators, and a few others, I think there are relatively few people who really believe that the fate of the nation depends upon a radical improvement in educational outcomes for our kids," says Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

"None of the goals-setting activities, including the most recent one, have made any real effort to involve the numbers and kinds of people who have to be involved" to arrive at a true national consensus, he says.

Others warn that some of the problems that waylaid the last goals-setting effort still exist and could sandbag the current one.

Among the problems cited are the White House's commitment to embrace more than mere rhetoric, the lack of financial resources that could make lofty national goals attainable, and a dearth of appropriate measurements and data to let the public know if the goals have been met.

Without some careful planning, Mr. Bell cautions, the "results" will be much the same this time around.

"The country has always set national goals," notes John Chubb, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "We set national goals for education after Sputnik, and we set them during the War on Poverty, and we set them in 1983, and we're going to set them again."

"There's nothing wrong with keeping the country focused on what we're trying to achieve," he asserts, "but the question is always, 'What's the followup?' Nearly 90 percent of the issue should not be the goals, but what people have in mind for achieving them."

Educational 'Pablum'

In fact, some are questioning whether much progress has been made since the "education summit" in September, when the President and the governors agreed to develop national goals.

According to Sandra Kessler Hamburg, director of education studies for the Committee for Economic Development, Mr. Bush's goals differ little from the "seven areas of concern" first enunciated at that time.

"The goals I've read about thus far strike me as pablum," agrees Dorothy Rich, president of the Home and School Institute, Inc., and a member of the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"They are too big to be doable," she asserts. "It's like saying, 'No one will be killing each other in automobile accidents by the year 2000.' It's almost like the Wizard of Oz."

The governors, led by Bill Clinton of Arkansas, one of two governors delegated by the National Governors' Association to spearhead the goals-setting initiative, are negotiating with the White House to develop a more detailed statement in time for their mid-winter meeting later this month.

But it is not clear how specific the final goals statement will be.

'Nothing About Means'

Even if the goals become more explicit, many people remain skeptical about whether the strategies for meeting the objectives will be put into place.

"I don't think one has to be cynical to say that the President didn't say very much" in his State of the Union Message, says Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the department of education at Brown University.

"He ordered the cars to drive faster, that's about what it was," Mr. Sizer added. "He didn't say how the engine was going to be souped up, or whether the tires had to be fixed, or whether the road should be any different. Right now, there's nothing about means."

Indeed, some worry that in the race to come up with a list of goals in time for the State of the Union Message, the participants chose speed over content.

"Our view here was that they were pushing these goals out much too fast without giving enough thought to the strategies for attaining them," Ms. Hamburg of the CED says.

Without more "detailed performance targets" and a "believable implementation plan," Mr. Tucker concurs, the current effort "just doesn't look serious."

Mr. Bell, for example, wants to see a "time-phased action plan" to ensure that interim goals are met by key dates. And he would like states to adopt laws requiring more data to be published on a school-by-school basis.

"It's one thing to talk about the dropout rate nationwide," he asserts, "but it's another thing to show it school by school. Until it's brought down to that level, goals don't mean anything."

Wait and See

For now, many people are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. They will give more credence to the goals-setting process if the White House and the governors adopt some visible new mechanisms for helping to reach their targets.

Mr. Clinton has proposed that the governors, the Congress, and the President create a National Panel on Education Performance. The panel would provide annual progress reports on the goals, oversee the development of new measures, and revise the goals when necessary.

The only attempt to monitor progress on Mr. Reagan's goals was contained in the federal Wall Chart, which compares states' education performance in a few broad areas.

From 1985 to 1988, the Wall Chart calculated whether states had made enough progress each year to meet the President's goals for college-admissions test scores and high-school graduation rates by 1990.

But the attempt to compare states' performance against a fixed target was dropped in May 1989. At that time, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos presented a new set of goals for the nation's schools, but he did not set any deadlines for meeting them.

F. James Rutherford, chief education officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that unless the federal government now establishes an independent, national council to translate the current goals into a detailed action plan and to monitor and report on results, "it's not serious and will make no headway."

He says the White House should propose at least two or three new thrusts at the federal level directly related to the goals-setting initiative and get the Congress to back them.

"When President Kennedy said we had to beat the Russians to the moon and get a person there," he notes, "we didn't just strap some rockets on the side of an airplane."

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, has suggested devising a National Assessment of Educational Practice to measure who is taught what, by whom, when, for how long, and with what support. Mr. Sizer would like to see the creation of a research-and-development fund generous enough to help redesign the schools.

'Time for Results'

Michael Cohen, director of the NGA's education program, says the governors will work on strategies to meet the goals after they are adopted.

"It's an issue we haven't addressed yet and can't address until the goals are set," he says, "but it's an issue that governors on the task force are committed to addressing."

In 1986, in publishing Time for Results: The Governors' 1991 Report on Education, the governors suggested a number of ideas that could help achieve national goals. That document described an array of policy initiatives for improving the schools that the governors promised to work on over the next five years.

Since then, the NGA has published a slim annual volume, "Results in Education," assessing states' progress in implementing those reforms. Although the reports have gotten almost no media attention, Mr. Cohen says that the governors and their staffs are using the documents to decide which state strategies to pursue.

He views the national goals-setting effort as a natural outgrowth of the Time for Results initiative.

But the governors have not been held accountable for adopting--or failing to adopt--the strategies outlined in Time for Results. And the new goals-setting effort threatens to overshadow the 1991 deadline for assessing their progress.

What the governors need to do now, some suggest, is to grab that initiative back from the White House before it is too late.

"What I believe ought to happen now is that the governors should thank the White House for the leadership it has displayed and announce that they will take the present statement as a base and use the next year to create a broadbased consensus on educational goals and performance standards and then a national strategy for reaching them," Mr. Tucker says.

At present, many people note, there is little relationship between the goals-setting process under way in Washington and the realities of most schools.

Some worry that the move toward any type of standardization could discourage much-needed creativity at the school level. Others say that while local innovation and national standards are not in conflict, it is still unclear how to join the two satisfactorily.

"If you take a look at what's happening at the state and local level," one observer notes, "there's not a great deal of attention paid by the real players to what's going on here in Washington."

'The End of It?'

Finally, some experts warn that the goals-setting process will be for naught, unless the governors and the White House address the broader societal issues that affect children's school performance: particularly the growing rate of child poverty.

"As long as we have a growth in our poverty rate, and as long as we have these high concentrations of people living in environments which poverty causes, we're going to have some uneducable kids in school, no matter how we fix up the schools," says Harold Howe 2nd, a senior lecturer at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and U.S. Commissioner of Education during the Johnson Administration.

"I don't think they've addressed that subject," he adds, "nor do I think they want to, because it's an expensive subject. It implies that you have to make an attack on poverty."

For many people, what happens at the governors' mid-winter meeting later this month will provide the first indication of whether the nation's goals for the turn of the century will be more than a wish list.

"Everyone's fear--or some people's hope, I suppose--is that this will be the end of it," one observer notes. "There aren't that many people out there reminding the decisionmakers that they have an obligation here."

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