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Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Governors Set Sights on Finding What Works in Education Policy

Governors Set Sights on Finding What Works in Education Policy

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When they got together here last week, governors from around the country explored an issue they say every state leader is grappling with: how to pinpoint and replicate what works in reforming education.

The winter meeting of the National Governors' Association kicked off a year in which the association will explore states' best practices through a series of regional meetings on educational technology and accountability, said Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, who has made raising student achievement a key platform issue in his term as the chairman of the NGA.

"The quality of life in states will be driven by the quality of the workforce," the Democratic governor said in a meeting with Education Week reporters and editors before the NGA conference convened. "Just as a matter of necessity, we as governors need to be proactive in education. We've got a lot at stake."

Urging Accountability

In one of the plenary sessions during their four-day meeting, the governors listened to testimony on how best to implement systemwide accountability measures and incorporate education technology into classrooms. Gov. Carper said the session was designed to inspire governors with "a whole fistful of ideas we can go home and implement."

Chicago public schools chief Paul G. Vallas described how changes in his 425,000-student system have led to rising test scores and higher graduation rates. Mr. Vallas credited Illinois lawmakers with allowing Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to take on the responsibility for improving the city's schools. The shift was crucial, Mr. Vallas said.

"You no longer had a divide-and-conquer game," Mr. Vallas explained. "The Republican legislature gave the Democratic mayor of the city responsibility over schools, freeing up our resources. The political responsibility for the schools was laid on the doorstep of the political leader of Chicago."

The chief executive officer of the system also touted the district's systemwide approach to accountability, which ensures that teachers and administrators are guaranteed their positions based on job performance, not contracts, and that students demonstrate basic proficiency on state tests before they're promoted to the next grade.

Ultimately, students who don't meet the standards will be retained in grade, Mr. Vallas emphasized. "Social promotion has been a cancer that has undermined school systems across America," he said of the practice of promoting students who are academically unready.

Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut, a Republican who serves as a co-chairman of the association's accountability task force, said state governments should empower local school boards to take such dramatic measures as "reconstituting"--restaffing and reforming--failing schools.

"There is a wave coming our way" in education accountability, Mr. Rowland added. "The pressure on all of us to achieve is going to be extraordinary."

Flexibility Concerns

During a related meeting at the White House last week, President Clinton appealed to governors to support his plan to make some federal funding for education contingent on the states' ability to meet certain requirements, including ending social promotion and creating school report cards documenting students' progress.

"Some will say that the federal government should be giving states more flexibility, not demanding more accountability," Mr. Clinton told the governors. "I think it's a false choice, and the federal government should be giving you more of both."

Many Republican governors and some Democrats responded by emphasizing the need for more flexibility in the president's plan.

Despite the differences, "most of the governors want to have a working relationship with Washington on education policy," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters later the same day. "We could be real partners. It's gratifying to know that the president and the governors are addressing some of these things in the same ways."

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Page 27

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