Bush Strategy Launches ‘Crusade’ for Education

By Julie A. Miller — April 24, 1991 10 min read

Washington--President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander last week unveiled an ambitious, unprecedented “education strategy” highlighted by proposals for “a new generation of American schools” and a national system of high-stakes achievement testing.

“For the sake of the future, of our children, and our nation, we must transform America’s schools,” Mr. Bush told business leaders, governors, lawmakers, and educators at the White House last Thursday.

“This isn’t really an announcement; it’s a launch,” Mr. Alexander told reporters. “It isn’t really a program; it’s a crusade.”

Mr. Bush called on all Americans “to be points of light in the crusade that counts most,” and Mr. Alexander said the President would “spend a lot of time over the next six years” working with governors to implement the plan and using the Presidential bully pulpit to promote it.

The strategy is designed, the President and Secretary said, to ensure that the nation attains the six national education " goals adopted last year by Mr. Bush and the National Governors’ Association.

Mr. Bush said he would also participate personally in the “educational renaissance” by learning to operate a computer.

The “America 2000 strategy"-- drafted by Mr. Alexander with help from informal advisers and Administration staff members--contains four sections. They focus on:

  • Improving existing schools;

  • Creating “a new kind of school";

  • Fostering continuing education for adults; and

  • Challenging Americans to “cultivate communities where children can learn.”

It calls for educational choice, merit pay for teachers, and greater “flexibility” for schools.

Reaction to the plan was generally favorable, with observers of all political persuasions praising the President for the boldness and breadth of the strategy. Even Congressional Democrats promised to work with the Administration on portions of the plan that require legislation.

Observers noted, however, that much of the plan lacks detail, and they predicted that some of the proposals would quickly become controversial as those details are worked out.

‘New American Schools’

Mr. Alexander likened the sections of the strategy to four trains moving on parallel tracks.

“When we get on the train, we may have some arguments,” he said. “But that’s better than sitting around the train station arguing about which way to go.”

The most dramatic part of the strategy is the proposal to create “New American Schools.”

“The idea is simple but powerful,” Mr. Bush said. “Put Americans’ special genius for invention to work for America’s schools.”

A group of business leaders, led by Paul H. O’Neill, chief executive officer of the Aluminum Company of America, has pledged to establish a nonprofit organization called the “New American Schools Development Corporation.”

It would use $150 million to $200 million in private contributions to award “research and development” contracts to teams that are to design schools from the ground up.

The teams could involve corporations, universities, think tanks, educators--or any other interested party. The business leaders in charge of the enterprise would set the criteria for those contracts and decide whom to award them to.

“We do not intend to be involved in that except to watch it,” Mr. Alexander said.

Community Role

Meanwhile, interested communities would apply to be the site of a ''New American School.”

“use time, space, and staff “in ways yet to be imagined,” make extensive use of technology, or “radically alter the customary modes of teaching and learning and redesign the human relationships and organizational structures of the school.”

For example, Mr. Alexander said, such schools could be designed around the philosophies embodied in Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essen tial Schools, James Comer’s program for disadvantaged children, and the “accelerated schools” created by Henry Levin.

“We would like them to be able to start from scratch and be able to create the best possible schools with as few restrictions as possible,” Mr. Alexander said.

The Congress will be asked to give each school $1 million in seed money, but the schools would have to be come self-supporting, with public or private funds.

The documents discuss coordination of social services, “community values,” and “individual responsibility.” Mr. Alexander acknowledged the abstractness of the community section, calling it “the somewhat amorphous track number four.”

However, he said, “if there were one part that was more important, it would be number four.”

“The whole idea of an America 2000 community is that it will see its responsibilities outside the schools and begin to meet them,” the Secretary added.

Mr. Alexander said Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan would lead this part of the “crusade.”

Who Qualifies?

In practical terms, winning official designation as an “America 000 Community” means:

  • Adopting the six national education goals established by Mr. Bush and the NGA

  • Drafting a strategy to reach the goals;

  • Developing a “report card” to assess progress; and

  • Demonstrating readiness to support an experimental school.

Many aspects of this proposal remain vague. “To be quite candid with you, no body has quite gotten it all straight yet,” said Bruno Manno, acting assistant secretary for educational re search and improvement. Asked who qualifies to speak for a “community,” Mr. Manno said a ‘community” as conceived in the Administration strategy did not have to be a town, a school district, or a county--although it could be.

“Any group of people who get together and think they can put together the resources to operate a New American School could be selected by a governor,” Mr. Manno said.

It could be a religious group, he said, “though we realize there are potential complications.” The New American Schools could be supported with public funds, private funds, or a combination, Mr. Manno said.

Mr. Alexander said he could even envision a profit-making school participating in the experiment.

The schools would have to be “accountable to public authority,” which Mr. Alexander said could be a school board, “or some other kind of board.”

The only set criteria for the schools, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Manno said, are that they use the voluntary standards and tests included in the Administration strategy.

Mr. Alexander said the schools would have to abide by civil-rights laws, but declined to say whether they could be selective. Could they set academic admissions standards? Could they draw attendance boundaries? Would they have to accept disabled children, as do public schools?

“You have to create schools one by one, but they are part of the community, and you have to have a place in the community for everyone,” Mr. Alexander said. “We would hope the first schools would serve kids in the most difficult circumstances.”

“We don’t see schools that are publicly accountable having admissions standards,” he said, but added, “That would be up to the community to decide.”

“We anticipate that the [research] teams, as part of their policymaking efforts, would work through some of these questions,” Mr. Manno said.

Testing Initiative

The other especially bold proposal in the strategy is its call for a national testing initiative, closely tied to the work of the National Education Goals Panel created by the Administration and the N.G.A. to monitor progress toward the goals.

The goals panel’s charge is twofold: to recommend assessment measures that can be included in a “report card” to be issued this fall and to develop new measures that could better assess progress toward the goals. The panel has discussed, but not firmly endorsed, the idea of a national examination system.

The Administration strategy, however, calls for such a national system, developed “in conjunction with” the panel. Mr. Manno said the Administration envisions the panel developing an “anchor test” to which other tests could be calibrated.

“We expect it to be more than a traditional multiple-choice test,’' he said, adding that it could include writing samples or student portfolios. “These tests should be tests that are worthy to be taught to.”

The “American Achievement Tests” would be based on “New World Standards” for proficiency, also developed “in conjunction with” the goals panel. The standards would set expected levels of “both knowledge and skills” in the “core subjects” of English, mathematics, science, history, and geography.

The tests would be voluntary, but colleges would be “encouraged” to use them for admissions purposes, and employers would be urged to use them in hiring decisions.

Mr. Bush said he would like the first tests, for 4th graders, to be avail able by September 1993. Eighth and 12th graders also would be tested, and high-scoring 12th graders would receive Presidential citations.

In the interim, the Administration plans to give awards based on Advanced Placement tests.

Uses below the state level are currently prohibited by law, and proponents had to work hard to obtain approval for a trial state-level NAEP assessment, which took place last year.

Administration officials said they had not determined who should pay for the expanded assessment system, and tried to duck questions suggesting that it would establish a de facto national curriculum.

“There is clearly a sense in which, within the goals, there is a core curriculum,” Mr. Manno acknowledged. “We’re not getting into how [subjects] should be taught. But we’re saying there are standards, and people should be held account able for achieving those standards.”

Choice Advocated

The “track” focused on improving existing schools also repeats a proposal first presented in Mr. Bush’s 1992 budget proposal to give monetary incentives to states and school districts that adopt choice plans that include both public and private : schools.

The strategy document says such plans should include “all schools that serve the public and are accountable to public authority.” It offers no further details on how this plan would work.

However, the strategy indicates that the Administration also plans to propose changes in the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program that would allow funds to “follow” a child who opted to change schools under a choice program.

Currently, Chapter 1 funds are divided among states, and then districts, based on population and poverty measures. Districts rank schools based on poverty criteria and serve the neediest schools first.

Mr. Alexander said he would propose a new system that allocates funds directly to children, rather than to schools, but did not elaborate.

The strategy also calls for flexibility in the use of resources by schools and by states, but does not specify whether this refers to the block-grant proposal advanced in the President’s budget or a proposal nearly enacted last year that would have allowed schools to receive waivers from certain federal regulations in exchange for performance agreements.

The document says merit pay “will be encouraged” for exemplary teachers, those who serve as mentors, and those who teach in “challenging” settings, but does not specify how it would be encouraged. As Governor of Tennessee, Mr. Alexander enacted a statewide merit-pay program that has received mixed reviews.

The strategy would also launch on a national basis another program Mr. Alexander initiated in Tennessee: “governors’ academies” to provide professional training for teachers and administrators.

The adult-education track of the strategy is to be coordinated primarily by the Labor Department. It calls on business and labor groups to establish job-related skill standards, and advocates the creation of “skill centers” in communities and workplaces. The centers would inform workers about the skills needed for particular jobs and where to learn them.

Administration officials said their next step would be to finish drafting : legislation for the proposals that require it; such a bill is expected on Capitol Hill next month.

But they noted that most of the strategy calls for action outside Washington--and for work that could not be completed before Mr. Bush’s term is up in 1992.

“These results are going to take awhile,” Mr. Alexander said. “It won’t decide the result of the next Presidential election. You won’t see a transformation of education in the next two years.”

“What I hope to have going next year is evidence of progress,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 1991 edition of Education Week as Bush Strategy Launches ‘Crusade’ for Education