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Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as A Goals 2000 in 2001?


A Goals 2000 in 2001?

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When the national goals panel looked at the hard data for evidence of student achievement gains, the picture wasn't pretty.

National education goals debuted as a movement in 1989, when President Bush and 49 state governors met to agree on a bipartisan, nationally coordinated effort to improve public education. In 1994, the U.S. Congress passed the Clinton administration's Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which, among other provisions, wrote the original six goals into law, added two new ones, and established a federal grant program to help states pursue school reform efforts.

Now, President Clinton wants to spend another $491 million on Goals 2000 in fiscal 2000, which means that as a new century and millennium begin, Washington will still be dispensing grants in the name of eight national education goals that were pegged to fulfillment by the year 2000.

The Clinton administration proposes to paint a veneer of newness by renaming them "America's education goals," evidently hoping such lingo will catch on in a winning way. The National Education Goals Panel would become "America's Education Goals Panel."

Using semantics to keep Goals 2000 current might be justified if the program were uplifting public schools throughout the land. Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence this first federal foray into state and local school reform is paying big dividends.

Progress reports from the U.S. Department of Education have emphasized deeds (such as the establishment of parent-resource centers and reform partnerships) more than academic results. The department recently had high compliments for pupils from Jessamine County, Ky., who used a $50,000 Goals 2000 grant to showcase what Goals 2000 is doing in that state's schools. ("Students Spend Year Documenting Goals 2000 Projects," June 23, 1999.) For instance, the students videotaped teachers talking about how they were teaching technology. The project may have gotten some students excited about learning, and may have been a practicum for those interested in technological careers. But this hardly qualifies as an objective evaluation.

When the national goals panel has looked at the hard data for evidence of gains in student achievement during the decade, the picture hasn't been pretty. In its 1998 report, the panel found that the percentage of high school seniors proficient in reading had actually declined. It noted some gains in social objectives-- for example, a drop in the incidence of infants born with significant health risks--but not much more than a small improvement in math proficiency to show that Goals 2000 has boosted academics.

As is the case with many government programs, Goals 2000 hasn't had a comprehensive evaluation. The closest thing was a 45-page study released last November by the General Accounting Office.

Responding to criticism of unwarranted federal intrusion on school decisionmaking, Congress in 1996 stripped from Goals 2000 a National Education Standards and Improvement Council, which could have become the functional equivalent of a national school board, and opportunity-to-learn standards, which could have set Washington up as the judge of the adequacy of local school spending. Since then, the GAO noted, Goals 2000 has mainly provided a funding stream to support reform efforts already initiated by states and localities.

Not surprisingly, education officials in 10 states told the GAO they liked getting this money and wanted it to continue to flow in the same format. Working within the federal framework, some of them may have accomplished good things, such as buying computers for classrooms. But how much more might be done if communities were free to reform schools outside the bureaucratic constraints of Goals 2000?

When it comes to children, goals-setting is more appropriate for parents and community groups than for distant policymakers in the White House, Congress, or the National Governors' Association. It would make sense to end the Goals 2000 experiment in 1999 and start fresh with locally driven reform. (In a Sept. 23, 1999 bill "markup," House appropriators approved, 8-6, the Republican leadership's plan to roll Goals 2000, the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, and the Clinton plan to hire 100,000 new teachers into a block grant for states to use for teacher training and hiring. However, the president has vowed to veto this so-called Teacher Empowerment Act as a threat to his initiative to reduce class size.)

Although she has been an avid fan of Goals 2000, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hinted at an alternative approach in her July address to the National Education Association's convention in Orlando. She urged representatives of the nation's largest teachers' union to support the charter school movement "because I believe that parents do deserve greater choice within the public school system to meet the needs of their children."

Specifically, the first lady commended a District of Columbia charter school that has rigorous academic requirements and a long waiting list. Why, Mrs. Clinton wondered, couldn't there be many more schools like this?

Why not, indeed? The NEA delegates who had been cheering practically every point the first lady made--including her denunciation of vouchers for attending private or parochial schools--fell tellingly silent at her endorsement of charter schools. ("Reporter's Notebook: NEA Runs Hot--and Cold--For Hillary Clinton," July 14, 1999.)

In July, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton urged representatives of the nation's largest teachers' union to support the charter school movement.

That betrayed an ideological aversion to choice even wholly within the public sector, which helps explain why many advocates of school choice find vouchers or tuition tax credits the only practical recourse.

President Clinton's budget does call for $130 million to assist in local organizing of charter schools. But his budget would put almost four times that amount into the anachronistic Goals 2000. These spending priorities are out of whack. Something more in keeping with the bold spirit the first lady brought to a recalcitrant NEA would be more appropriate. (In announcing distribution of $95 million in federal, fiscal 1999 start-up grants for charter schools in late August, the president did re-emphasize his hope that there would be 3,000 charter schools by 2002. But 1,700 are already up and running this fall; in Arizona, one of every six schools is now a charter school. Once again, local initiative is way ahead of national planners--and that's no bad thing.)

If given wide latitude to innovate and respond to market demand for solid education, charter schools could bring about the positive change that the bureaucratically constructed frameworks of Goals 2000 failed to generate. After all, there is no reason to believe that the fruits of such change would be restricted to charter schools, which are accountable for results in exchange for their operational autonomy. Other public schools could take from charter schools those practices shown to work best, and discard the rest--just as competing firms do in the marketplace, to the benefit of consumers of their products.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va.

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Page 37

Web Resources
  • Read the full text of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • "Reforming Education To Improve Student Achievement," looks at how Goals 2000 supports state efforts to develop clear and rigorous standards for what every child should know and be able to do, and supports comprehensive state- and district-wide planning and implementation of school improvement efforts focused on improving student achievement to those standards. From the U.S. Department of Education, April 1998.
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