Murkier and More Complex Agenda Awaits Participants at Third Summit
The organizers of the third national education summit in 10 years face a problem their predecessors did not. They don't have a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker.
Summit Takes Three
March 26-27, 1996
Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1999
In 1989, President Bush and all but one of the 50 governors emerged from a two-day meeting with a simple message: We're setting national education goals.
Seven years later, governors and business leaders met with a single purpose: States will adopt academic standards.
The message from the meeting to occur this week will likely be harder to define, and that may make it difficult for the governors, business executives, and education leaders attending the Sept. 30-Oct. 1 gathering to forge a united front.
"We're dealing with a much more complicated set of issues that states have to address," said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve Inc., the group organizing the event at an IBM conference center in Palisades, N.Y., just outside New York City.
This week's agenda includes teacher quality, opportunities for all students to meet challenging standards, school choice, accountability, and the need to sustain public support--none of which can be easily summarized, and all of which are likely to yield divisions among the 100 or so participants.
"What we're really talking about is hard work," said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, whose group is a member of the Learning First Alliance, a co-sponsor of the summit.
That doesn't have the "glitz or glamour of setting goals," Mr. Houston said. "We're down to the mud-shoveling stage of school reform."
That work promises to be as broad as it is deep.
In a working draft of an "action statement" to be presented to participants, Achieve will ask governors, business leaders, and educators to pledge to take action to promote standards education.
The draft, which may be revised even before the summit convenes, asks governors to expand alternative certification to recruit teachers and seek periodic reviews of the state standards to compare them with those of other states and countries.
Business leaders will be asked to target their K-12 grants toward standards-based projects and to double the number of employers asking for high school transcripts from job applicants. The latter was a promise that emerged from the 1996 summit, and 10,000 businesses are now complying.
Achieve also wants educators to support national efforts to ensure every 3rd grader is reading at grade level and that students master algebra and geometry before high school. It also is asking those who set teachers' salary schedules to ensure that they receive raises for professional development only if that coursework is tied to standards.
Regardless of what comes out of this week's meeting, it is almost sure to have a lower profile that its predecessors did. As of late last week, President Clinton--who attended the 1989 meeting as the governor of Arkansas and addressed the 1996 summit as he was gearing up his re-election campaign--had not confirmed he would address the meeting. Mr. Clinton wants to attend, but was trying to rearrange his schedule so he could be there, according to Mr. Schwartz and a White House official who asked not to be named.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas--the front-runner for the Republican nomination to replace Mr. Clinton--has declined Achieve's invitation to come to an event modeled after the one his father organized as president.
All told, Mr. Schwartz said he expected around 30 governors to attend--compared with 49 in 1989 and 40 in 1996. Governors will be accompanied by business executives from their states, and around 40 educators from the state and local levels will be there.
The educators will play a bigger role than in the past. In 1989, they had no place at the table, and in 1996, a small group served as "resource" people. This time around, they will be full-fledged participants.
While organizers of the 1989 and 1996 summits faced conflicts, they managed to find themes that could bring people of various political stripes together.
In Charlottesville, Va., in 1989, governors were "running out of steam" after a burst of activity following the 1983 report A Nation At Risk and needed a common rallying point, said Maris A. Vinovskis, a history professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "In 1989, almost everybody agreed that something new had to be tried," said Mr. Vinovskis.
By 1996, the movement to set standards was threatened, largely by conservative attacks and especially as congressional Republicans worked to abolish the federal Goals 2000 program. The summit convinced GOP governors that they should march ahead on the path toward standards, along with assessments to measure student progress in learning them.
"All of a sudden, there were real questions as to whether or not the standards movement ... was going to survive," said Mr. Schwartz, who participated in the 1996 event as the coordinator of education grants for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based foundation.
Today, the debate isn't at a critical point where the issues are black and white, many observers say, and that hampers attempts to unite governors and other leaders around a single cause.
Still, there are worrisome signs for supporters of standards-driven school reform. In several states--Wisconsin and Massachusetts among them--middle-class parents are organizing against exams that follow the standards. Others are facing legal challenges to their exams. ("Standards at Crossroads After Decade," Sept. 22, 1999.)
Meanwhile, holding schools more accountable continues to be a prominent theme for state leaders, but states are offering diverse solutions to fixing failing schools. California enacted a strict accountability system for public schools this year, while Florida introduced private school choice for students attending certain low-performing schools.
Choice on Agenda
The issue of school choice is an example of how difficult it will be to achieve consensus at this week's meeting.
Organizers of the earlier summits kept the subject out of the discussions because voucher advocates had made little headway in advancing such programs. Now, publicly financed vouchers--though still subject to legal challenges--have track records in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Florida has a new program. And a growing number of cities have privately subsidized vouchers.
"The world has changed, and states are grappling with this as a part of their reform strategies," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who attended the two earlier summits. "It was hard to ignore in 1996, but they did. It's impossible to ignore in 1999."
An early draft of the agenda for this week's summit acknowledged that participants disagree on the issue, but asked them to go so far as to agree to expand open enrollment in public schools.
"We need to be working together to improve and support public schools," said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. "It may be, in the end, that we'll agree to disagree" on private school choice.
But that is unlikely to be attractive to officials such as first-term Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who can point to his state's new accountability-driven voucher program as his biggest accomplishment so far. The Republican governor expects to expand the program throughout the state as early as next year.
Vol. 19, Issue 5, Pages 1,20