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Goals Panel Pledges To Continue Work on Standards

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The National Education Goals Panel vowed last week to take steps to help states develop high academic standards--without waiting for Congress to kill the council created for that purpose.

"There's nothing to wait for," argued Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a Republican and a member of the goals panel. "Congress, when it acts, is only going to make it formal that they're vacating the field. They're just going to ratify what they've already made clear, that the states are going to have to deal with this."

At the request of the panel's chairman, Governor Engler and Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat, agreed at a meeting of the panel here to draft steps to help states in setting standards. These could include creating a voluntary coalition or compact that would enable states to share information and an advisory group to the goals panel that would help set benchmarks so that states could determine whether their standards were good enough. Such a group could also provide feedback to states that requested it.

Mr. Romer also has proposed a two-day meeting this spring of governors and business leaders to reiterate why the nation needs higher standards in education.

"Is this a subversive movement, or is this a movement that's going to help us become fully productive in a competitive world?" he said. "I would rather hit that one on the head."

"I don't want us to take a fall-back, passive, rope-a-dope position until Congress acts," he said.

State Sen. Robert T. Connor of Delaware, a Republican, said about half the legislators in his state understand and support standards-based reform. But the other half oppose the idea and so do their constituents.

"The really important people are parents," he said, "and how do we get across to them that the higher expectations are for the good of their children?"

State Rep. Doug Jones of Idaho, also a Republican, said a meeting of state and business officials "could help validate the need for standards and having a place to review standards."

'Charge Ahead'

The goals panel is expected to consider the governors' recommendations later this month.

Members of the panel scheduled the March 13 meeting to decide how to proceed given the waning support on Capitol Hill for a strong federal role in setting standards. Most notably, leading members of the new Republican majority in Congress have introduced bills to eliminate the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, or nesic. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1995.)

The Presidentially appointed council was to help the goals panel review and certify national standards and state standards and assessments that were voluntarily submitted for its approval.

Two of the bills would bar any further federal funding for developing or disseminating national standards. The Education Department and other agencies have helped pay for standards projects in seven academic subjects.

Nesic's demise is all but certain. But Congressional representatives told the goals panel last week that the House is unlikely to act on the bills until May, and the Senate may not act until this summer. That is when lawmakers expect to finish work on the "Contract With America," the legislative agenda that House Republicans pledged to vote on in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress.

"The states ought to charge ahead," Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said. "Quite frankly, the federal government--Congress--has been running along behind in this process. I think they should be a participant myself, but I don't think they should be the dominant participant."

The goals panel's staff prepared three options for helping states set academic standards:

  • An advisory group of experts convened by the goals panel;
  • A compact of states or state-level organizations, such as the National Governors' Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the Education Commission of the States; and
  • An independent organization that is financed and operated by the private sector or with a mix of public and private funds.

The third option presented by the staff received little support.

The staff said any of these entities potentially could monitor and report on standards developments, create a framework to define world-class standards, comment on standards prepared by the states or by subject-matter groups, or give feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their standards to states that requested it.

State-Directed' Mechanism

Whatever the mechanism, states would participate on a voluntary basis, and there would be no attempt to approve, disapprove, or certify their standards.

"Whatever is done has to be state-sensitive, state-directed," said Ken Nelson, the executive director of the goals panel.

But several members asked whether information sharing and peer review among states would adequately address such issues as whether standards are world-class. Panelists also wanted to maintain a stronger accountability role for the goals panel, a bipartisan group that is dominated by governors and state legislators.

"We don't want to get into certification," said Governor Romer. "But I think that, short of that, [the goals panel] still ought to have a presence in this scene and a very strong presence."

Mr. Romer noted that it is unclear whether Congress will alter the goals panel's authority to review standards.

"We're going to go on down this road," he said. "We're going to take more responsibility at the state level. I think that if they see us doing the right job, they'll leave us alone."

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