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From a Nation Adrift to National Goals

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Ten years ago this week marked an important moment in the history of American education. The release of A Nation at Risk, the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, galvanized attention and sparked a flurry of activity to overcome serious problems in American education. The report urged states to place an increased emphasis on core subject areas, to increase expectations of students, to make better use of the school day and year, and to bolster teacher training, pay, prestige, and professionalism. As a result, nearly every state boosted high school graduation requirements. By the end of the decade three-fourths of America's high schools reported higher attendance. And, overall funding for education has increased by more than 40 percent when adjusted for inflation.

A Nation at Risk focused on inputs--additional years of English, math, science, social studies required for high school graduation. However, the outputs of the system--what students were expected to learn in those years of study--remained a matter for individual schools and districts to define and measure. In effect, educators and policymakers sought to "ratchet up'' performance, without agreeing upon what we wanted young people to know and without developing a process to measure how well students were mastering essential knowledge.

Thanks to the blunt message of the 1983 report, there is far greater awareness today that our nation competes in a global economy. I see the challenge broadly; not only our goods and services, but also our ideas, ideals, and our way of life are at stake.

Rising to the challenge is complicated immensely by the unique nature of our polity, especially in the domain of education. Ours is a nation rooted in very diverse communities. Not only is education not a federal responsibility, the states have delegated it to the local level. While all is not well in America's communities, that's where our strength lies and where the very best of our civic culture--including our democratic process and our fondness for grasssroots involvement--is embedded. To guide and empower our marvelously decentralized and disaggregated school system, we need a national (not federal) vision.

To respond effectively, we cannot afford to let 16,000 separate systems or 80,000 public schools "figure it out'' and pursue countless sets of different and conflicting standards and expectations. Too many fall short, and too many will not improve fast enough. To our parents, we're saying your children are above average; we are not telling them if "average'' measures up to world-class standards (and we have no way of knowing). To our young people, we're saying that educational performance depends on seat-time and, too often, on chance and circumstance--where they grow up, their parents' wealth, and the conditions in the community. Regardless of where they live, American graduates need higher-level skills so that a young person in Omaha or Orlando is assured as fine an education as a student in Osaka or OsnabrÃuck.

The American workforce must be as well trained as workers from around the world. When students finish high school in France, they are familiar with the works of great mathematicians, historians, and philosophers. The average Japanese student knows advanced mathematics and can solve a fairly complex physics problem. So, I am sure, do some of our students, but because of the way our system operates, it is hard to say what our students in fact know and can do. Surveys show our students believe they are tops in their class, and their parents agree. However, educators and employers disagree with this Pollyanna-ish assessment by a wide margin.

The response to the National Commission on Excellence in Education set the stage for a national restructuring movement that has begun to bring teachers, parents, and administrators together as partners in change and to alter the way education is delivered and managed. Bringing power from the central office to the school building has helped educators place the needs of students over the needs of the systems. Involving parents, community leaders, and local business experts has broken down barriers that had most of us thinking of education as "the school's problem.'' It's our problem. Today, the national education goals are adding a third piece to the reform equation, answering an important question: Restructuring for What?

The national education goals represent a consensus of what we're shooting for. The goals urge every community, every parent to aim high--providing for and expecting the best of every student. They articulate our will to become once again world leaders in mathematics and science education and to insure that at least 90 percent of our students graduate, with the skills and knowledge they need to compete in a world economy. And they set our sights high enough so that every child can enter school ready to learn and can study in an environment that is safe and conducive to learning.

The goals remind us that we can only be on the frontiers of technology and democracy if we are competent and active learners. They tell us that to have a world-class workforce our citizens must be able to solve problems and understand concepts and ideas. They tell us we will only be strong and unified if our children go to school fed, rested, ready to learn, and spend their days studying rather than dodging bullets and drug dealers on the streets. Most importantly, they tell us we are fooling ourselves if we think that 12 years in school is the same as 12 years of an education. Because what matters is not the number of years students put in, but the knowledge they come away with.

Are we aiming too high? We can't afford to let ourselves off the hook if we want to guarantee our young people good jobs at a decent wage. Without high standards for all students we are dooming too many of our young people to a low-wage, low-skill society. All of our children can and must learn, and to much higher standards.

The goals speak to American values of hard work, citizenship, discipline, and achievement. They are evidence that 10 years after the release of A Nation at Risk, we are no longer a nation adrift. We are moving in the direction we need to go and beginning to assess our progress along with way.

Unfortunately, goal setting and measurement can be complicated. In education, as in other sectors, everyone wants accountability, but nobody wants to be held accountable. And people want data to determine progress, but--as yet--nobody trusts the data they are being given. That's why the National Education Goals Panel is working to make common definitions of what a dropout is and what we mean by education for citizenship so that students, parents, schools, districts, and states will know where they stand.

This is a major challenge. The four-minute mile was once thought impossible. But every year athletes run faster not just because they care, but because they set their goals beyond what was once expected. We must do the same. We have to push a little harder every year, in every grade, in every classroom.

And we will need educators and leaders from all walks of life to develop community buy-in for the goals process. Only 25 percent of Americans have children in school. But we cannot succeed unless 100 percent of us stand behind the goals. Every American must insure that every student is challenged and given the opportunity to succeed. But without accountability--for students, schools, and communities--the vision will remain an exotic dream, and other pressing problems will command our energies and resources. Passion makes for great rhetoric, but America needs results.

The knowledge and skills required to launch the Apollo spacecraft were developed by scientists and engineers educated in American classrooms. But it took the will of all of our citizens to put a person on the moon. By working together at the national, state, and most importantly, local levels, we will succeed again and achieve our national education goals.

Gov. E. Benjamin Nelson of Nebraska is the chairman of the National Education Goals Panel.

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