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Summit Seeks New Focus on School Reform

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Washington

The nation's governors and top corporate executives will trumpet standards and technology as medicine for what ails the nation's schools when they gather next month in New York state for an education summit.

Details of the summit began to emerge last week at the National Governors' Association's winter meeting here.

Led by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin and Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chairman and chief executive officer of IBM, summit organizers said that as of last week 37 of the governors already had pledged to attend. The March 26-27 event likely will be the most high-powered discussion of state education policy since 1989, when the 50 state governors met with President Bush and agreed to set national education goals.

But unlike at that meeting in Charlottesville, Va., state leaders will not be focused on a comprehensive list of reform targets. Next month's meeting will be a narrowly focused effort to galvanize support for school standards and wider use of computers and other technology in precollegiate classrooms.

"We will examine the evidence that high standards increase student achievement," Mr. Gerstner told the governors last week. "We will see how technology can multiply a teacher's power, speed the education process, and draw increased numbers of students into learning activities."

The summit will be at the International Business Machines Corp.'s conference center near the Hudson River in Palisades, N.Y. IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., is the world's largest computer maker.

Though deliberations on federal Medicaid and welfare reforms overshadowed any discussion of the summit at last week's NGA meeting, governors working behind the scenes to plan the March meeting said many of their colleagues are eager to focus new attention on school issues.

"We made some big breakthroughs here, but we would really like to turn the attention of the country back to schools and a more positive set of reforms," Nevada Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat, said at the end of the NGA meeting.

Emphasis on Standards

What Gov. Thompson, a Republican, conceived last fall as a "small, intense meeting that will produce action" has set its sights on a pair of school-improvement topics that have risen on states' agendas this winter. (See Education Week, Oct. 4, 1995.)

Many governors and legislatures have seized on the promotion of state and local academic standards.

And they have signaled that they will open their pocketbooks wider than ever to buy computers and other technological accessories while school spending otherwise seems tight.

The summit agenda likely will vault academic standards and classroom technology into a higher orbit.

A discussion paper prepared for the NGA meeting stipulated that the governors would agree to adopt "world-class academic standards, assessments, and accountability systems in each of their states over the next two years. The governors would also pledge to make curriculum and technology decisions based on reaching those standards.

The document describes computer technology as a tool that will equalize classroom offerings, boost family involvement in schools, improve students' employability, spur creativity, boost grades, expand teacher professionalism, and customize student learning.

Standards are envisioned as a means to push teachers to reach more students, open a local debate over what schools should accomplish, reinforce effective teaching practices, and set a high-stakes measure for school performance.

"Standards must be in place in our schools and must be in place quickly," the document says.

Mr. Gerstner promised the governors that the summit will showcase existing standards in schools, states, and several foreign countries.

"We will not argue about whether a problem really exists or how serious is the crisis," he said. "We will examine the depth of the public's support for standards, using results from polls and focus groups. We will look at the practical and political barriers to adopting standards, and identify strategies to overcome these barriers."

Who Will Make the List?

With the summit agenda taking shape, the biggest hurdle facing planners may be breaking the news to those who are not invited.

The organizers expect up to 130 participants. Each governor can invite one corporate representative, and planners have drawn up a tightly held list of 30 other invited guests--a number that is sure to leave many education organizations feeling shortchanged.

Meanwhile, the list of expected corporate leaders reads like a who's who of the New York Stock Exchange. The leaders of the Aluminum Co. of America, the Ameritech Corp., the Ashland Oil Inc., the McDonnell Douglas Corp., and the Prudential Insurance Co. of America are scheduled to attend.

They will join the corporate bosses on the event's steering committee representing the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., the BellSouth Corp., the Boeing Co., the Eastman Kodak Co., and the Procter & Gamble Co.

"Historically, education has been approached singularly by government," said Gov. Miller of Nevada, one of the summit planners. "It's time that we step aside and realize there is some valuable input to be received from business leaders. It's important to see if we can learn from them as they will learn from us."

'Goals Not Enough'

The governors acknowledge that an elite crowd or a pared-down agenda will not guarantee success. Their planning paper criticizes the unmet promises of the 1989 summit and pledges that next month's gathering will not set expectations that cannot be met.

"While we remain committed to the national education goals, it is clear that simply setting goals is not enough," the document says, conceding that none of goals set at the 1989 summit will be reached by 2000--the year they were supposed to all be realized.

This time, instead of challenging themselves to find ways to reach a set of goals, the governors say they will devote themselves to a strategy.

"We believe that efforts to set clear, common, and community-based academic standards for students in a given school district or state is a necessary step in any effort to improve student performance," the governors' document says. "We are convinced that technology, if applied thoughtfully and well-integrated into a curriculum, can be used to boost student performance and ensure a competitive edge for our workforce."

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