States Only Part of the Way Toward Their Goals for 2000
While the nation is unlikely to reach its eight education goals by 2000, the expectations they've raised have helped guide and inspire state efforts to improve schools.
"I don't think we'd have seen the grassroots interests we've had without something going on nationally," said David D. Anderson, the coordinator for curriculum development for the Texas Education Agency.
Six goals, which target student achievement, school safety, and other areas, were adopted in 1990 by President Bush and the nation's governors. Goals for teacher training and parent involvement were added in a 1994 law.
Overall, states report that more children are arriving at school ready to learn--the first of the goals--than at the beginning of the decade, according to the National Education Goals Panel. And student achievement, especially in mathematics, is also rising.
But progress toward goals for improved teacher preparation, school safety, and parent participation has stalled or worsened since the goals were chosen, states told the panel for its most recent report, issued last month.
"There's much more public awareness of the need for standards and the need to set goals," said Idaho Rep. Douglas R. Jones, a Republican and one of four state legislators serving on the National Education Goals Panel. "But what society expects kids to know has also increased substantially, so there's always the need for more progress."
A 'New Seriousness'
The goals challenge states to make sure that all 4th, 8th, and 12th graders are competent in core academic subjects. On that front, the news so far is encouraging. The panel reported that 27 of 46 states significantly increased the percentages of 8th graders in public schools who scored at the "proficient" or "advanced" level on the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics. All states reported substantial gains in the number of students passing Advanced Placement examinations in 1998.
Emily O. Wurtz, a senior education associate with the Washington-based goals panel, credited some of the improvement to a growing consensus that "the bottom line of education reform is improved student achievement."
Massachusetts, for example, saw a 66 percent jump in the rate of its students passing Advanced Placement exams from 1991 to 1998, outpacing a 60 percent increase nationally.
The state's marks are at least partly due to a "new seriousness" about testing and academics stemming from school reforms initiated in 1993, said Alan Safran, the chief of staff at the Massachusetts Department of Education. State mandates to structure the school day so that more time is spent on core academic subjects may help explain the progress, he said.
As with most states, however, the goals panel's data on the qualifications and training of Massachusetts teachers did not reflect improvement from 1991 to 1994, the years the panel studied for its most recent report. But Mr. Safran pointed out that the state's teaching force would not have turned over much in such a short time. In addition, recent measures, including the state's new competency tests for aspiring teachers, are not reflected in the panel's 4-year-old data. ("Think Tank Inks Blueprint To Lift Achievement," Nov. 18, 1998.)
Mr. Safran added that state officials hope to raise the number of first-year teachers who participate in formal teacher induction, or mentoring, programs. The goals panel reported that only 13 percent of the state's teachers participated in such programs in 1994--well below the national average of 27 percent.
In last month's report, nine states also posted decreases in the percentage of public school teachers with degrees or teaching certificates in their main teaching areas. That may be attributable to the demand for teachers spurred by rising student enrollments and initiatives to lower class sizes, Ms. Wurtz said. "Holding steady is pretty damn hard in this environment," she said.
Far From First
States have had mixed success with trying to boost graduation rates to the goals target of 90 percent. From 1990 to 1996, 10 states improved their percentages of 18- to 24-year-olds with a high school diploma or the equivalent, 36 states and the District of Columbia, reported no change, and four states saw their percentages slip.
In that time, Maryland raised the percentage of people in that age group with a high school credential from 87 percent to 95 percent. The state attributes its success in part to public relations campaigns that encourage young adults in areas with high dropout rates to pursue high-school-equivalency diplomas.
Maryland high schools also link at-risk students with regular counseling and mentoring. "Tech prep" programs connect schoolwork to real life as a way to give students a reason to stay in school, said Ronald Peiffer, the assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach.
One of the most daunting end-of-the-millennium goals may be moving American students to first place in the world in math and science achievement.
While progress toward that goal cannot be gauged until a second round of international assessments is administered this year, American students have a long way to go: The country's 8th graders ranked 28th and 17th, respectively, among 41 countries on the math and science portions of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995.
But American students have made gains on other assessments. For example, 27 states raised their 8th grade math scores between the 1990 and 1996 NAEP tests in that subject. And while 19 states reported no change, none saw its scores drop.
"It's fabulous," Ms. Wurtz of the goals panel said of the gains in mathematics. "We think something's going on that's helping student math achievement."
Michigan was the most improved state in 8th grade NAEP math scores, registering a 12-percentage-point increase from 1990 to 1996, according to the goals panel's report.
"National goals are laudable," said Tim Kelly, the education policy coordinator for Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a Republican. "People recognize that there is something to strive for. It puts focus on things."
Drugs and Safety
In another goal area--efforts to rid schools of drugs, violence, firearms, and alcohol--the panel paints a gloomy picture, though information is incomplete.
Getting states to report incidents of crime and other comparable data regarding school safety remains difficult, according to the panel. As few as 23 states reported information to the panel in some areas. "While the data is bad, half of states reporting is enough to say where we're going, and I wouldn't take much comfort in it," Ms. Wurtz said.
Between 1993 and 1997, most states reported either no change or an increase in marijuana and alcohol use by students, drug availability, and the percentage of public high school students reporting that they carried a weapon to school. Fifteen states reported higher percentages of public high school students' being offered illegal drugs at school in 1997 than in 1993.
Officials in Wisconsin--one of only four states to report that fewer students carried weapons to school--say statewide zero-tolerance weapons laws help keep weapons out of schools. The state also has sponsored efforts to keep students busy with activities and open lines of communication between students and adults.
"We had to take a look at what we don't want kids to become," said Michael Thompson, the director of student services, prevention, and wellness for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. "And we also focused on the kinds of environments we want in schools."
Boosting parental involvement has also proved elusive. Between 1991 and 1994, California, Colorado, and Indiana were the only states to see a decline in the percentage of principals who told the goals panel that parental involvement was not a serious problem.
But tracking such efforts is hampered, in part, because of differing conceptions of parent involvement, Ms. Wurtz said. One principal might consider high turnout at back-to-school night parental support. Another might define it as parents' help with homework.
Perceptions about parents are also crucial, said Susan Thompson, the administrator for the family- and community-partnership office in the California Department of Education. "In the past, some administrators thought if parents weren't helping the school, the [parents] didn't care," she said. "So we started asking local schools, 'What can you do to improve outreach to families?' "
Vol. 18, Issue 18, Page 31