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Summit Garners Mixed Reviews From Pundits, Practitioners

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The national education summit was held last week in a cloistered corporate campus with an exclusive guest list, but that did not prevent educators, parents, and others across the country from weighing in with reactions and opinions.

Some viewed the summit with skeptical, even critical, eyes, while others said the two-day meeting involving President Clinton, 40 governors, and 49 top corporate executives would reinvigorate the education-reform movement. (See story, page 1.)

"Any time attention is given to education, especially public education, I think it's positive," said Michael Betar, the superintendent of the 10,000-student Battle Creek, Mich., school district. "I think it's great, but I'm not going to get all goosebumpy about it because I think a lot of it will become political fodder."

But some said the March 26-27 meeting in Palisades, N.Y., struck just the right chords and brought some harmony to the reform movement.

"It seems obvious, but the reaffirmation of the importance of standards and accountability is really important," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.

"I commend their commitment to establishing an entity to review the standards and provide help," he added, referring to one of the specific follow-up steps the summit participants agreed to take.

Richard P. Mills, the education commissioner in New York state, said the meeting's contribution was "an immense infusion of energy and focus" into efforts to improve the schools.

"Every state suffers from the illusion that their standards are the best. Now a marketplace of ideas has been created," he said.

'Slap in the Face'

As with the 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, Va., some groups complained that they were left out of the discussions or expressed dissatisfaction with the issues addressed in the meeting.

Officials of the National PTA were upset that they were not represented at the meeting.

"It's a slap in the face for parents again," said Lois J. White of Knoxville, Tenn., the president-elect of the National PTA. The parents' group "is not a new kid on the block. We've had many examples where parents were not in on the ground floor, and then they have had to come back to us later."

Sandra Zelno of North Huntingdon, Pa., who directs the PTA's mid-Atlantic region, said she wished the group could have gotten across the message that businesses can improve children's education by creating a better work atmosphere for their parents.

"It's not just money," she said. "It's the flexibility and time they give parents to be able to be more involved in their kids' education. And I hope that was discussed at the summit."

While the governors and business leaders vowed to win public support for clear, challenging subject-matter standards, there were signs that their efforts could face some of the same opposition encountered by the national subject-area groups that have drafted standards for what students should know and be able to do.

"It seems to be assumed that there is general agreement to have national standards," said Jennifer A. Marshall, an education-policy analyst with the Family Research Council. The Washington-based conservative organization has been critical of the proposed voluntary national U.S. history standards and the federal role in education.

"They are overlooking quite a number of Americans for whom the issue isn't cut and dried," she said.

The summit participants took pains to avoid the idea that they were endorsing national standards, much less federally mandated education guidelines. But Ms. Marshall was not convinced that the outcome would be state and local standards.

"When 50 governors get together and decide on a set of standards, those are de facto national standards," she said.

Robert Simonds, the president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a conservative group in Costa Mesa, Calif., said the summit was "both good and dangerous."

"Once you start mandating standards you lose local control," he said.

However, he said he does not oppose the states' setting standards, as long they are meant as guidelines for local districts.

"Local districts should be the final word on all programs," he said.

William Randall, the commissioner of education in Colorado, said the states can cooperate with each other to compare and refine their standards without surrendering autonomy.

"Delaware and Massachusetts have standards similar to ours, so we have begun to look at them together," he said.

"The standards movement kind of got politicized," Mr. Randall added. The summit "is going to help us move to the point where we ask whether schools are demanding high expectations of all kids."

Good Citizenship

Some observers questioned the prominent role of business leaders in setting the nation's education agenda.

"Our education system should not be strictly based on preparing kids to work in those industries," said John Richardson, the principal of Sunnyslope Elementary School in the 11,000-student Port Orchard, Wash., district. "It should be on making them good citizens."

Businesses "can select their suppliers; we get what our parents give us," said Patrick J. Russo, the superintendent of the 36,000-student Savannah-Chatham district in Georgia. "The perspective there is that kids come to us ready to learn. When [businesses] have a defective product, they throw it out; when we do, we spend thousands of dollars in remedial education to make it better."

Some questioned the summit's focus on standards and technology.

"When I've got a class of kids who are tired and hungry and abused and scared, the highest standards in the world aren't going to do any good. Somehow we've got to solve those problems first," said David Turner, the executive director of the Illinois Principals Association.

Carole Kennedy, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, also questioned President Clinton's recommendation last week that students be expected to pass a test at a key transition point in their school careers and that educators avoid giving social promotions.

"The people who are saying if you can't pass a test, you need to be retained, need to be looking at the information on retention," she said. Research shows students who are retained are much more likely to drop out of school, she said.

Even those who criticized the event for its lack of input from educators praised some of the ideas that came out of it. Mr. Turner liked the idea of employers giving more scrutiny to the grades of high school students and graduates in making hiring decisions.

"In 20 years as a high school principal I can count on my hand the number of times an employer called and asked for a transcript for an entry-level job," he said.

"In reading the comments of some of the business leaders I think they are finally beginning to understand that education is a tough business and the plights public schools see themselves in are not of their own making--they're social," Mr. Turner added. "It would be good to take some of these high-powered CEOs and let them run an inner-city elementary school and see what problems they have."

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