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Opinion on Goals 2000 Reforms Spans the Spectrum

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A meeting here last week of prominent educators and policymakers provided clear evidence of the wide spectrum of views among experts and the public about school-reform initiatives in the aftermath of passage of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

The views aired by panelists and spectators at the session sponsored by the Brookings Institution ranged from advocacy of a national curriculum and testing system to wariness about even voluntary national standards and assessments designed to gauge student and school accountability.

The focus of the session, one of a series, was on the national standards and assessments currently under development.

The moderator of the session, Diane S. Ravitch, said the conversation was needed to counter what public-opinion polls have portrayed as Americans' complacency with their local schools.

A former assistant secretary of education who now serves as a senior research scholar at the New York University school of education, Ms. Ravitch also called for addressing standards and assessments against the backdrop of what she described as an increasing backlash against standards. The public fears that curricula will be "dumbed down'' so that all children can learn, she said, and there is a growing apprehension of performance assessments.

Who Is the 'We'?

Participants noted that curricula taught in the nation's public schools traditionally have been determined at the local level, with varying degrees of state involvement. But a major provision of the Goals 2000 law is an expanded federal role in the development of voluntary content standards.

Americans have allowed the expanded federal role as one way to bring a sense of order to a society that they view as being out of control, Theodore R. Sizer, the director of the Coalition of Essential Schools and an education professor at Brown University, told the meeting.

The worry in that, Mr. Sizer suggested, is that people far removed from the schools at the day-to-day level are designing the national standards and assessments.

"It raises the issue of who 'we' is,'' Mr. Sizer said. "The 'we' should be parents, kids, community.''

Moreover, he questioned how rigorous and teachable the standards are likely to be given the massive amounts of material the drafts indicate they will cover.

If policymakers and educators are interested in high standards, he said, "what could be more insane than a world-history course?''

But many people, including the media, are paying little attention, he said, noting that he had seen little or no coverage of last week's White House celebration of enactment of the Goals 2000 law.

"The only group that is attentive is the Christian right,'' he contended. "There is, of course, in that movement fear of losing control.''

"This is a time of extraordinary potential,'' Mr. Sizer continued. "The danger is we will forget about the importance of local democracy. By eroding that, we will lessen the effectiveness of street-level schools.''

Others on the panel, however, said they believe the new standards law reflects a good balance between the local and federal levels. But they acknowledged concern that the public may perceive the law otherwise.

"People are trying to polarize on the federalist issue,'' said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado. "Let's not let it happen.''

Mr. Romer, a former chairman of the National Education Goals Panel, said it was essential for the education community to learn to communicate with the public and to bring on board local and state policymakers and union leaders.

The proponents of rigorous standards need to explain what a standard is in terms of what a 4th-grade student needs to know and be able to do to be on track for a particular job when he or she reaches adulthood, he said.

"We need to work hard on the religious right, or the ones that say 'local forever' ... and get beyond the rhetorical ghost and get down to the essential issue,'' Governor Romer said.

Dismissing the Public?

Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director of the Public Agenda Foundation, said focus-group research under way by her organization has found that parents are raising legitimate questions about the standards.

Parents have real doubts about heterogeneous groupings, she said, but experts have tended to write off their concerns as being based on bias. But instead, she said, the parents may be motivated by their own experiences that individual children learn in different kinds of settings.

"The experts dismiss the public's concerns and then move on their own agenda,'' Ms. Wadsworth argued.

"I think we need to confront this and acknowledge it,'' she added.

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