'Strategy Session' on Goals Draws Diverse Array of Players, Reactions
By Lynn Olson
DES MOINES--More than 700 people from 43 states and the District of Columbia gathered here last week for what was described as a "strategy session" to help achieve the six national education goals.
But the National Education Goals Forum attracted widely varying levels of state involvement, with some participants expressing uncertainty about the purpose of the two-day event.
The nation's governors had been invited to attend the forum and to send teams of "delegates" from their states to share ideas and experiences on working toward the goals.
Six governors actually attended the forum. And while some state chief executives sent more than 25 people--including legislators, chief state school officers, educators, and leading business executives--others sent few or none.
Moreover, while many attendees found the exchange of information helpful, some wondered what they were supposed to accomplish here, or what they were expected to do once they got back home.
"The first question I got asked was, 'Why are we here?'" said Dick Vander Woude, a government-relations consultant for the National Education Association, which held a briefing for union members who attended the conference.
"I think they were hoping to start some dialogue," Mr. Vander Woude added, referring to the forum's organizers. "And if that happens in a few places, then I guess it will be worthwhile."
There was no strategy document or plan that states were expected to have developed by the conference's end. Individuals were asked to complete questionnaires that sought to elicit their opinions about many of the national school-reform initiatives under way, as well as possible next stops. The results will be provided to each state and to the meeting's sponsors in the next few weeks.
The forum was the brainchild of Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa.
Since last year, when President Bush and the governors adopted the national goals during Mr. Branstad's chairmanship of the National Governors' Association, the Republican Governor has been advocating a meeting that would involve all of the stakeholders in education reform.
The conference was sponsored by the state of Iowa, the U.S. Education Department, the National Education Goals Panel, and the Business Roundtable.
'Open Arms, Skepticism'
During the meeting, delegates and at-large participants heard status reports on the work of the goals panel, the President's America 2000 reform initiative, the New American Schools Development Corporation, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, and the Business Roundtable.
They also attended smaller workshops that highlighted national and state initiatives to achieve the goals.
But several delegates said their most productive time was spent in hallway conversations and in a meeting sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers before the Oct. 27-28 forum began. The chiefs' session brought together 27 states to begin work on an interstate consortium on assessment.
"What I've gotten out of it, personally," said Chester Freed, director of planning and assessment for the Delaware Department of Public Instruction, "is just talking to people from many other states and seeing how they're approaching reform-some with open arms and some with healthy skepticism."
Although the organizers had hoped to attract 11 governors to the meeting, only a half-dozen attended. They included most members of the goals panel, as well as John R. McKernan Jr. of Maine, the current chairman of the Education Commission of the States, and John Ashcroft of Missouri, this year's chairman of the N.G.A.
"The lead governors on all the education stuff are here," Mr. Branstad said.
President Bush, who had tentatively been scheduled to speak to the participants by satellite, was unable to do so because of his trip to Madrid for the Middle East peace conference.
The uneven level of commitment to the forum was reflected in the wide variations in the size and makeup of state delegations.
Some states, such as Arkansas, sent no representatives. Others, such as California and Delaware, sent one or two people. And some-including Ohio, Texas, and South Carolina--sent large contingents that included influential players in school reform.
"We had hoped that we would have some legislators here with us and, perhaps, even the governor," said Helen Busche of the North Dakota Education Association, "because we know what we want our agenda to be, but we have to get the others to come along with us." North Dakota sent only four delegates.
In contrast, Gov. Carroll A. Campboll Jr. of South Carolina, the chairman of the goals panel, brought more than 20 people with him, including two state lawmakers.
Mr. Campbell said he wanted participants to get information "firsthand, not from me coming back and telling them what to do."
Ohio had an equally large turnout, including Ted Sanders, the new state superintendent of education, who was meeting some of his state's delegates for the first time.
The agenda of state delegations also varied widely.
Some came simply to hear what was happening in other states or to get help in launching their own America 2000 initiatives. Others, such as the Texas delegation, planned to reconvene back home.
"We tried to get a cross-section of people who were working positively to get some things going," said Sonia Hernandez, the education adviser to Gov. Ann W. Richards of Texas.
"We're beginning to feel that we may be able to do something, that we're all marching in the same direction,'' she added. "That's why we didn't want to miss the opportunity to bring people here."
Ms. Hernandez also said she wanted to learn how other states have gained publicity for their reform efforts. Texas is trying a number of innovative measures, she said, "but nobody ever hears about that."
For the event's host, Governor Branstad, the forum provided an unprecedented opportunity to push his own agenda in Iowa--and one that he rarely missed.
Two hours on the first day of the meeting were devoted to showcasing educational initiatives in the state. U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander also spent several hours on Oct. 27 meeting with Iowa representatives and learning about the New Iowa Schools Development Corporation. ('See Education Week, Oct. 16, 1991.)
The Secretary compared the current ferment surrounding education to the heyday of the civil-rights movement. "There's a rumbling and a bubbling and a coming together of opinion sort of all at once,"he said.
But he admitted that the process for achieving the national goals and setting national standards and assessments "is all very messy."
'"My guess is that it needs to be that way for a while," he added. "What we need to do is create a framework in which good things can happen."
Since early this fall, the Secretary has been spearheading an intensive public-relations campaign to get states and communities to sign on to America 2000, the centerpiece of the Administration's education policy. (See Education Week, Sept. 11, 1991 .)
During the meeting, Mr. Alexander said there would be 30 participating states by Thanksgiving, up from 19 at present. And he urged delegates to think about what an America 2000 community does "after it kicks off' its campaign.
Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who is co-chairman of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, also warned the audience that efforts to create national standards and assessments were moving rapidly and that those meeting here should be prepared to react in an organized fashion.
"When academic organizations contact your state and say, 'We want you to react to our draft on national standards,' who do they deal with?" Mr. Romer asked. "What is the mechanism by which the 50 states are going to communicate with each other?"
The Colorado Governor presented the audience with several scenarios for developing standards and assessments at the national level, including the creation of a quasi-governmental body that could coordinate such efforts.
Mr. Romer said the standards council would probably recommend creating such an entity in its final report to the Congress and the goals panel next month.
But opinions among the forum participants about the desirability of creating a "national educationstandards board" were mixed, particularly on the issue of delineating its purpose. "Personally, I don't want to create a board in America that tells you you're going to teach this, this, and this," said Governor Campbell of South Carolina.
"I'm not real sure what some people have in mind for this board to do," he added.
And Mr. Alexander said that the Administration "doesn't know yet what the next steps are."
"I think that the best thing for us to do is just listen and form an opinion," he said. "I think we have time to think things through."
Meanwhile, members of the audience continued to express doubts about whether there should even be national standards or assessments.
Within the Oklahoma delegation alone, for example, one person said, "I think there are going to be some national standards .... There is too much inconsistency now."
Another member stated, "I don't think we're ever, ever going to agree on very specific standards as a nation."
And a third Oklahoman said, "I'm not sure that I'm in favor of national standards." But, he added, "If we must have national standards, they must be maximum standards, not minimum standards."
Participants also expressed concern about how to build grassroots support for fundamental changes in education. An Ohio delegate said the community forums that many states are relying on to generate excitement about America 2000 "don't get the right people."
"Community forums are talking to the committed," she said.
And several people suggested that most Americans still are unaware of the six national education goals or are unconcerned about them.
Finally, several participants expressed the frustration of many educators who are dealing with severe budget cuts and fiscal retrenchment.
"Nobody is talking about money," one delegate said. "Why has no one talked about money for the past day and a half?. A lot of us are concerned that it will cost more money to put in these reforms."