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'A Renewed Commitment'

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By Gordon M. Ambach

As state governors and chief executive officers of companies from across the United States gather in New York for this week's education summit, their focus is on what states can do to improve student performance. The summit points to a renewed commitment to education from key public officials and business leaders. Because states have constitutional authority over education, expectations are high for state-by-state plans to carry through summit agreements on academic standards and the use of technologies.

While the summit will focus on state responsibilities and actions, the participants would do well to think about how the federal government can support state action for educational improvement. Although federal expenditures for elementary and secondary education are only an average of 6 percent of total education spending, these programs are intended to go hand in hand with states' efforts. Therefore, the summit attendees should know how federal resources and laws can bolster states' efforts. And, they should note that state and federal cooperation is why the American people have supported a federal role in education from the 1780s to this day.

On the topic of academic standards, one main focus of the summit, the federal government has had a significant role that dates back three decades. States and districts have taken part in federally funded projects in research and development of assessments, standards, curriculum frameworks, and teaching and learning practices.

Currently, schools have access to more than $350 million for education improvement, the establishment of standards and assessments, and professional development through the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. States and localities have received funds under Title I of the Improving America's Schools Act to develop standards and assessments that ensure that poor children are challenged with the same high academic requirements as all children. Funds under Title VI of the same act assist in establishing standards. Over the past 30 years, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, and the Departments of Labor and Education have pooled resources to develop model voluntary standards in the sciences and other subjects and assessments.

A second focus of the summit will be technology in education. Most folks do not think about federal telecommunications policy as important for education. But, it has never been more significant than today, as we try to wire every school to networks of information. As any teacher or principal knows, access to technology varies greatly among schools and populations.

Public policies and practices for distribution of technological access will have a profound effect either on closing or widening the gap in our society between students and adults who "have" the skills of the 21st-century workplace and those who "have not."

Since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the potential for advancing telecommunications' use in schools is tremendous. For the first time, elementary and secondary schools are included in "universal service." Actions at both the state and national levels will have a profound impact on attempts to expand technology in the schools. Although telecommunications policy is established nationally, state leadership is essential to give the laws the greatest impact in schools.

These are but two examples of what state leaders must be aware of as they establish their educational strategies for the next decade. But this gathering of state leaders would do well to keep in mind other ways in which the federal government can advance their agenda for an improved education system in every state.

Federal leaders play a visible role as advocates for the importance of education and the need for improving the quality of student achievement. The "bully pulpit" role should not be underestimated. What happens at the federal level matters. People listen to what their legislators say, even if they don't always agree with them. Presidents, legislators, and Cabinet members have a political responsibility to urge every school to achieve the dual goals of equity and excellence.

The federal government also has the responsibility of targeting funding to students who are economically disadvantaged, who have disabilities, who are immigrants, or who have limited proficiency in English.

Substantial federal legislation is on the books today to help these students. One major problem is that these acts have never been fully funded. The target populations are neither completely reached nor fully served.

Federal initiatives, though, have historically had important, long-term impacts. Since it was enacted in the 1960s, Title I has been one of the most significant efforts to improve the performance of economically disadvantaged children. Because of Title I funding, high school graduation rates have increased substantially, and the gap between minority and white students' academic achievement has been cut in half.

Economic productivity, wages, and the demand for skilled workers have received considerable attention in this presidential campaign year. Federal funding for preparing our workforce is strongly supported by both political parties. The government now plays a strong role in fostering connections between education and business, and its programs should encourage integrating academic and occupational education.

One of our nation's most astute economic and social analysts, Peter Drucker, in the November 1994 Atlantic Monthly, calls the 21st century the century of the knowledge society. Drucker writes: "Education will become the center of the knowledge society, and the school is the key institution." Knowledge, its distribution, and the capacity of our citizens to use it, is our major asset. For individuals, for companies, for armies, for domestic government--the key is knowledge.

Continuing to develop and use knowledge is central to assuring civic responsibility in our democratic republic. Our economic productivity and quality of life, our security and capacity for world peace, all rely on a knowledgeable citizenry. Education is a national issue and, therefore, it merits federal attention.

These roles as advocate and economic booster are bolstered by the federal government's long-term role in collecting national education statistics, researching "what works" in education, and reporting schools' progress to the nation. At the postsecondary level, the federal government supports the capacity for colleges and universities to expand knowledge and improve practices through research in health, social, economic, environmental, and security issues.

The federal role in elementary and secondary education in the past has been targeted to improvement in a particular subject area, such as vocational education, or to a particular population group, such as migrant children. The challenge to the federal government in the '90s and beyond is to raise the performance of all students to higher standards, rather than just holding pockets of students to existing standards. Federal initiatives can help ensure that all states and districts are on the right track. Federal programs must provide for long-term, systemic, schoolwide change in every state. They must encourage higher-order thinking and creativity, analysis, questioning, and judgment.

We are not there yet; federal, state, and local efforts are not yet strong enough to prepare youngsters for the age of the knowledge society. But federal interventions have helped. The recent federal emphasis on raising standards in all schools is right on target.

The federal government, finally, has a key role in keeping education as a top domestic priority while reminding us of its international importance.

One of the most significant influences on the drive for improving quality and student achievement in American education in the past 20 years has been the close analysis of international competition in economics, military status, and education. We are comparing ourselves to other nations on student performance and classroom practices in other countries.

We also need to compare the commitments that governments in industrialized and developing worlds are making in educational policy and governance. They know that if they can gain an edge in education, they will gain not only in productivity but also in their capacities to strengthen the economy and quality of life for their people.

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