A National Priority: The Search For Common Goals

February 01, 1990 8 min read

But it could also prove to be a key catalyst for the transformation of American education.

Participants in the September summit forged a pact calling for a system of education that is at once more centralized and less bureaucratic, which gives educators more authority, but also demands greater accountability for results.

The plan would be nothing short of revolutionary if it were actually carried out. The question is, to what extent will it be carried out?

“For the first time in our history, we are seriously considering the question of a national agenda, and it has the potential to alter our entire system,’' says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “More important is what follows the goals. We may not have the structure or leadership to carry it forward; I’m not at all clear in my own mind where it should come from.’'

The goals to be announced this month were drafted by Administration officials and the National Governors’ Association’s education task force, after consultation with such “stakeholders’’ as educators, parents, and business leaders.

That “consultation’’ essentially amounted to a Dec. 7 meeting in Washington, D.C., with representatives from education, civil rights, and business; a request for written comments; and state-level conferences and hearings in which governors sought advice and suggestions from constituents.

In effect, every summit-related agreement, from the agenda for the Charlottesville meeting to the final joint statement, was negotiated by White House officials and a group of key governors--NGA Chairman Terry Branstad of Iowa, and task force co-chairmen Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Carroll Campbell of South Carolina. It is likely that the goals will be drafted similarly.

At press time, White House sources said that the President would preview the goals in his January State of the Union Message and that they would parallel those outlined in the summit agreement, which specifically listed as priorities:

Ensuring that children are ready to start school.

Raising student performance on international achievement tests, particularly in math and science.

Reducing the dropout rate and improving performance of atrisk students.

Decreasing the number of illiterate adults.

Ensuring a “competitive workforce’’ through adequate training.

Improving the supply of qualified teachers and “up-to-date technology.’'

Ensuring “safe, disciplined, and drug-free schools.’'

But even those who support such goals believe they are meaningless without a strategy to achieve them.

Summit participants promised in their September agreement to announce “detailed strategies’’ for meeting the goals. But it is unclear when or how that announcement will be made.

A majority of governors have begun work at the state level by holding conferences and forming task forces. And several have promised to include education-reform proposals in their 1990 budget messages.

Governors and Administration officials say the goals they announce will be quantifiable, such as increasing the national graduation rate from 71 percent to 95 percent. Educators and officials at the state and local levels, they say, will then be left to determine the best way to reach the goals.

This dovetails with the summit agreement’s call for greater flexibility and decentralization of authority.

The governors and Federal officials have said they will seek to loosen state and Federal rules and regulations in exchange for demonstrated improvements in student achievement--to “trade red tape for results.’'

They also declared their commitment to “restructuring education’’ and outlined a number of initiatives that could be implemented to further that effort, such as site-based decisionmaking, parental choice, alternative teacher certification, and programs that provide both rewards for excellence and “real consequences’’ for failure.

How and the extent to which this agenda is carried out will vary from state to state. But the summit agreement is likely to have one universal effect: It will apply pressure on states and local districts to meet national goals and measure up favorably on the comparative assessments.

“A lot of this is persuasion,’' Clinton noted at the summit. “You have to be willing to give them flexibility and hold them accountable for results.’'

Gov. Garrey Carruthers of New Mexico, chairman of the Education Commission of the States, was more specific, suggesting that, in some situations, states may have to take over school districts.

Will the goal-setting and monitoring process spur more states to consider such drastic moves? “If governors have any influence in states, absolutely,’' Carruthers said.

Although the education system evoked by the summit agreement would give educators more flexibility and more responsibility, innovations such as school-based management cannot be implemented nationally or even by governors; they must be instituted at the local level, often through collective bargaining.

What is a national issue, however, is whether to reduce the amount of Federal red tape that accompanies many of the national compensatory education programs. Such a reduction would require legislation, which is opposed by many advocates for the disadvantaged, who are the recipients of most categorical education aid. Advocates fear that regulations are the only reason some schools endeavor to serve those students.

But cutting the red tape is understandably popular among educators tired of tangling with bureaucratic rules, like the ones preventing the after-school use of computers bought for Chapter 1 classes. And an idea so popular with constituents can be difficult for a lawmaker to stand against.

Many educators are encouraged by the summit-agreement’s proposal to give them more autonomy and authority on the job. They note, however, that in exchange, they would be held directly accountable for their students’ performance.

The trade could be a bad one for educators if performance standards are adopted without other reforms and without increases in resources, particularly for less affluent schools.

“We need a commitment to equity, and until there is equity, I don’t want to be compared to the districts in the richer suburbs,’' says Constance Clayton, superintendent of the Philadelphia Public Schools.

The call for greater accountability also focused “summiteers’’ attention on the issue of student assessment. In a brief statement that belies its potential for controversy, the agreement calls for establishing “clear measures of performance’’ and issuing “annual report cards on the progress of students, schools, the states, and the Federal government.’'

Says Ramsay Selden, director of the education-assessment center of the Council of Chief State School Officers: “If we declare those kinds of learning goals, we’d better develop an assessment to measure them or the goals will go by the wayside.

“The message to local schools is: What’s important is what is tested. Goals are ineffective if they don’t follow what is measured.’'

Some educators, like Clayton, are concerned that achievement will be assessed almost exclusively with standardized tests. That would be unfair to poor states and poor school districts, she and other opponents say, and could result in a single-minded focus on raising test scores.

Despite concerns about the adequacy of existing assessments, there is little sentiment for delaying goalsetting until it improves.

“We should not be held hostage by the fact that we don’t have the right measures at this time,’' Frank Newman, executive director of the Education Commission of the States, said at the Dec. 7 meeting. “We should set the goals in such a way to force the system to change.’'

Whatever the ultimate result, the summit, and its aftermath, is virtually certain to increase public awareness of the need for change in American education. Perhaps the most revolutionary outcome of all is that a nation traditionally antipathetic toward Federal encroachment on the local control of education is on the verge of establishing national benchmarks.

Says former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, “We’ve reached a point in our national life when we need more unity of purpose in education.’'

The findings of a recent Gallup Poll seem to indicate that the American public is coming around to this line of thinking. The poll found that 70 percent of respondents favor requiring that public schools conform to national achievement goals.

Bell and others believe that the focus on national goals portends an enhanced role for the Federal government in education. Says Bell: “I think we’re going to spend more money on education at the Federal level. I think we’re going to set nationwide standards, not federally imposed but nationwide standards, and that’s going to demand a much more meaningful role for the U.S. Department of Education.’'

But finally, most agree, the success of national goals depends on the people who must meet them: educators. Some question whether the goal-setting process included sufficient involvement of those who would actually carry out the strategies being mapped.

In fact, some Congressional leaders are pushing for another summit, a conference of school officials, teachers, and parents. A law enacted in 1984 authorized $500,000 in Federal funds for such a conference, but the Reagan Administration never held it.

“I don’t care what you do from the top if you don’t get the people in trenches willing to make the change,’' says Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, a former teacher and ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

“You can’t mandate excellence,’' he adds. “It won’t just happen because someone waved a magic wand and said that’s the way it will be.’'

--Julie A. Miller, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as A National Priority: The Search For Common Goals