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Summit Accord Calls for Focus on Standards

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Palisades, N.Y.

If the national education summit here last week was supposed to be a tightly directed production with few surprises, the players at center stage--from the governors to President Clinton--chose not to stick to the script.

As expected, the state governors and corporate leaders who gathered here at IBM's bucolic conference-center campus agreed to take specific steps to advance progress on improving academic standards, student assessment, and technology in the nation's schools.

But getting to that agreement did not come without last-minute negotiations, raised voices, politicking, and considerable consternation among the governors who organized the March 26-27 event.

The summit was the brainchild of Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, who is the chairman of the National Governors' Association and the Education Commission of the States. Mr. Thompson, Democratic Gov. Bob Miller of Nevada, the NGA vice chairman, and Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chairman and chief executive officer of the International Business Machines Corp., led the gathering.

The 40 governors who attended agreed to develop and establish within two years internationally competitive standards, assessments to measure progress toward meeting them, and accountability systems of consequence.

And the 49 corporate chief executives--invited by the governors from each of their states--committed to implement hiring practices within a year that will require applicants to demonstrate academic achievement through such school-based records as transcripts and diplomas.

The business leaders also said they would consider the quality of a state's academic standards and student-achievement levels as a "high-priority factor" in deciding whether to locate their businesses in a given state.

But, after drafts of that policy and action statement had circulated for weeks, Republican Gov. George Allen of Virginia demanded--and got--changes to the document. That put consensus on hold for a few tense hours here.

Another GOP governor, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, said in an interview that he, too, could only support the amended version of the document.

A meeting among Mr. Allen, Mr. Thompson, and four other governors to work out the final wording of the policy statement occurred about three hours before the session in which Gov. Thompson was hoping to see unanimous adoption of the document.

If Mr. Allen or others had engaged in provocative and divisive debate on the floor or refused to sign on to the document, it could have proved publicly embarrassing for summit organizers, especially Mr. Thompson.

At a meeting of the summit planning committee the night before the policy statement was to be adopted on March 27, Mr. Gerstner was so displeased with the last-minute need for changes that he and the other CEOs got up and walked out.

Gov. Allen had concerns both about specific wording and policy substance.

He said in an interview that he did not want to endorse the words "national education goals" because he did not want to support the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, President Clinton's school-improvement initiative. Goals 2000 is in large part a successor to former President Bush's America 2000 plan, which called for voluntary national standards in core subjects and an optional testing system, among other steps.

The setting of national goals for K-12 education grew out of the education summit that President Bush convened in 1989.

In another part of the Palisades document, the word "collaboration" sounded too sinister, Gov. Allen argued, so he suggested using "information sharing."

One idea that got repeated mentions and endorsements from nearly all quarters here was the creation of an independent, privately financed, nongovernmental entity to serve as a national clearinghouse or "war room" for guidance and information to states on standards, assessment, and related issues. Mr. Allen said he had concerns about this entity as well.

Such a body would bear a strong resemblance to the controversial National Education Standards and Improvement Council, a federal panel created as part of the Goals 2000 act in 1994 to review state and national academic standards. Council members have never been named, and the panel is all but defunct.

In the end, in compromise language worked out between Govs. Allen and Thompson, the summit participants put off a final decision about how to create or endorse such an entity until the National Governors' Association conference in Puerto Rico this summer.

But Mr. Thompson said that the compromise language actually is stronger than the wording in an earlier draft because it sets a specific timetable for action.

The summit planning committee--six governors and six chief executive officers, including Mr. Thompson and Mr. Gerstner--said it will come up with recommendations about the planned entity within 90 days and present it for adoption to the executive committee of the governors' association.

The committee is to then present the proposal for endorsement by the NGA at its summer meeting.

Clinton's Proposals

President Clinton presented his views on standards, assessment, and technology in a speech on the summit's second day.

His proposal that states promote students from elementary to middle school, from middle to high school, and from high school into the post-graduation world based on their performance on assessments preceded him here, thanks to a front-page article in the March 27 USA Today.

But Govs. Thompson and Ridge skeptically dismissed the contents of the talk even before Mr. Clinton arrived.

To appear on the second day of the conference with such a major proposal for governors' consideration made Mr. Clinton a "Billy-come-lately to the process," Mr. Thompson said in a brief interview before the president's speech.

Gov. Thompson said he viewed such a testing proposal as a "nonstarter."

Acknowledging a late night of negotiations on the policy statement had made him more "acerbic" than usual, Gov. Thompson bristled at the suggestion that the president was not advocating national testing but challenging the governors to take it on themselves.

"We wouldn't be here if we weren't challenging ourselves," Mr. Thompson said.

But compared with the published report, Mr. Clinton's speech as delivered here seemed to embrace more options about how and when the tests--to be used instead of relying on so-called social promotion--might be given and what they might look like.

"You have to have an assessment system, however you design it in your own best judgment at the state level, that says no more social promotions, no more free passes," the president said.

Mr. Clinton seemed to offer the testing at the three transition stages in K-12 education as examples or options for where to place a single test.

"I believe every state," he said, "must require a test for children to move, let's say, from elementary to middle school, or from middle school to high school, or to have a full-meaning high school diploma."

Such a test, President Clinton said, should be tied to a state's newly rigorous standards and not measure minimum competencies.

And he said a measure of reading and writing ability should not be solely a multiple-choice test. "I know it's harder and more expensive, but it really matters whether a child can read and write," Mr. Clinton said.

In his 35-minute speech to a tough audience that broke into applause only twice, Mr. Clinton also said he would like to see not only that students be held more accountable for their performance but also that teachers and schools face consequences, both good and bad, depending on how well they deliver the education goods.

Teachers and schools should receive performance bonuses, the president said, and states should encourage and reward teachers who elect to become board-certified.

But removing a "burned out" or poorly performing teacher should, while remaining fair, be faster and cheaper for school districts than it is now, Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Clinton said schools should try to cut the amount of money spent on administration and redirect those funds to keeping schools open longer hours.

The president also mentioned his support for charter schools and for parental choice within the public school system.

After Mr. Clinton's speech, Mr. Thompson took a much more magnanimous view of the president's proposals than he had earlier.

"The speech was a lot different than first conveyed to me," the Wisconsin governor said. He said he thought the speech dovetailed well with governors' views.

Following Through

Education experts who were invited to attend the summit as "resource" people--a supporting cast of sorts for the lead players--said they found the gathering worthwhile.

Several remarked that raising education reform to higher prominence on the public agenda as well as on the personal agendas of governors and business leaders was important.

But any agreement on national standards was not part of the intention of the summit nor could it be, said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Maryland state school board and of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education.

"Rather than have a consensus around standards, there will be consensus about increasing awareness of the issue and an awareness of it on a state-by-state basis," he said.

The summit, Mr. Cross said, also meant a chance to bring the 24 Republican and 16 Democratic governors in attendance--all but six of whom were not in office at the time of the 1989 summit--up to speed on critical issues in standards and assessment.

"I think there's a good deal of facile commitment to standards and not a lot of understanding of what that means," Mr. Cross said.

The business leaders were key because they can keep pressure on the governors, state legislators, and others back in their states to follow through on promises made here, said the only teacher invited, Joyce A. Elliott, a speech and English teacher in Little Rock, Ark.

"There's nothing like a capitalist to drive the forces of achievement and efficiency," she said.

Ms. Elliott, who is a member of the governing board of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a privately organized certification body based in Detroit, said it was critically important that the leaders at the summit push to make high academic standards achievable by ensuring educators the resources and time they need for professional development and student and parent conferences.

If leaders were to set standards but not follow through with the practical steps to boost teachers' ability to help students learn, Ms. Elliott said, "it's like saying I'm going to the governors' conference in Puerto Rico and not knowing whether I'm going to fly, walk--or how I'm going to get there."

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