Goals 2000 Loses Its Way on Standards

By David J. Hoff — January 22, 1997 8 min read

Manitowok, Wis.

Gayle P. Frame has a simple message for her fellow curriculum directors in northeastern Wisconsin, and the federal government is paying her to deliver it.

Writing academic standards and revising classroom teaching will be a long, hard job, she tells the 70 or so people gathered in the Holiday Inn ballroom here.

Similar messages about refocusing academics and teaching in the nation’s schools were supposed to be spreading throughout the country as a result of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. But the rules governing the program enacted by Congress in 1994 have grown so loose that sustained discussions of standards--like the one Ms. Frame led here last month--are rare.

Goals 2000 has lost its original focus on standards bit by bit since President Clinton first proposed the plan in the early days of his presidency. Fears that the program would lead to federal control over local curriculum decisions has driven Congress, governors, and school administrators to move Goals 2000 away from its standards emphasis toward a loosely affiliated series of projects and computer purchases.

Only occasionally, like here in this region of Wisconsin, is the program getting a chance to make good on its potential to foster locally crafted classroom reforms.

“There are a number of states where the money may be put to good general use, but it’s not being spent on thoughtful and integrated reform,” U.S. Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, one of the program’s architects, said.

For the current fiscal year, Congress earmarked $340 million for participating states. Next year, the Goals 2000 total will rise to $476 million.

After states take up to 10 percent for their work and drafting new standards, the money goes to districts, where the law envisioned that local officials would use it to find ways of applying new standards in their classrooms.

“I don’t think any of us is going to pretend that this is going to be less work,” Ms. Frame, the curriculum director of the Howard-Suamico school district near Green Bay, told colleagues from 10 Wisconsin districts at the meeting here. “Hopefully, our districts can share with you what we’ve learned and make it a shorter process for you.”

Ms. Frame started leading the Howard-Suamico district toward standards for academic content in 1992, just as the Bush administration was launching projects to write national models for standards in key subjects--definitions of concepts and activities students should master. After more than four years, Howard-Suamico is just now nearing the completion of the project.

Goals 2000 pays for 20 percent of Ms. Frame’s salary this year so she can dedicate one day a week to the project. She leads workshops like this one and travels among the 24 districts that are represented by the regional education agency to advise them on the importance of stronger standards.

At the recent gathering of curriculum directors, principals, teachers, and one school board member, Ms. Frame explained that teachers who take on standards are in for radical changes. And districts that adopt such reforms need strong and steadfast community support.

Dodging Controversy

But such intensive requirements may steer people away from tackling the kind of work Ms. Frame outlines, particularly in a program whose federal funding lacks focus, observers say.

“The uses of funds have become much looser,” said John F. Jennings, who helped craft the Goals 2000 law as a House Democratic aide and is now the director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit Washington group tracking school reforms. He now compares the program to a block grant--money from Washington that states and local schools can spend however they please.

“As the bill went through, anything that gave an inference of federal control was eliminated,” he said.

In California, for example, the Republican governor and the state schools superintendent battled over whether to accept the federal money. In the end, most of the money went to state’s reading initiative.

“The money was plugged into priorities that the governor already had in reading or whatever the school district came up with,” said Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University. “It’s a series of fragmented projects.”

Backers of the nearly 3-year-old Goals 2000 program face the frustrating fact that after surviving repeated political attacks, it may have lost its soul.

Even in Wisconsin, a state deep into a debate over what school standards it will adopt, most districts lag behind the commitment of this northeastern area.

“There’s so much more willingness to work on content standards here,” said Loren J. Raythert, who moved from near Madison to become an assistant high school principal and the curriculum director of the 1,800-student New Holstein district.

Buying Time and Ideas

Here, the $403,600 grant under Goals 2000 to the Cooperative Educational Service Agency No. 7 is driving a rethinking of the way schools teach children. The 70-person, six-hour discussion in Manitowok would almost certainly not have taken place without the grant, said James S. Coles, the administrator of the service agency.

“It wouldn’t be impossible,” he said. “I wouldn’t be too optimistic that it would happen fast.”

Federal money pays for the hotel ballroom, the pastries and coffee that are waiting when the morning session begins, and the $5.75 lunch buffet that every participant walks through at noon.

More importantly, the federal grant reimburses schools for the substitutes needed to fill in for the 40 or so teachers who left their classrooms for the day’s workshop.

“Knowing that, I found a way for [teachers] to be here,” said Jim Burger, the curriculum director for the 2,200-student Two Rivers school district. “It was important that these people have a common knowledge base to start from.”

Mr. Burger billed the Goals 2000 project $210 for three full-day and one half-day substitutes to cover for the four teachers who heard Ms. Frame and others who have been working on new standards for four years.

“People were saying, ‘One of the problems our district has is finding time to do this,’” Mr. Coles said. “By helping with substitutes and providing them with expertise, we’re in effect buying some time.”

Most of the expertise in the project comes from Ms. Frame.

She has worked closely with several teachers from her district and officials at the Mid-Continent Regional Education Laboratory.

The federally funded technical-assistance agency has helped Ms. Frame and officials in the Green Bay and Ashwaubenon districts write standards. Working together, the group has also prepared teachers to modify their own work to reflect the standards. The federal Goals 2000 grant is paying for 40 percent of the $120,000 consulting contract the coalition of Green Bay-area districts signed with the regional lab.

Mixed Bag of Results

Across most of the country, however, new standards are a daunting prospect. And with the country’s insistence that the federal government stay out of local curriculum decisions, the uneven results “may be the best we could hope for,” Mr. Jennings said.

From the beginning, Congress has been wary of requiring states to adopt standards and mandating that school districts follow them. Over the past two years, the Republican leaders of Congress have warned against too much federal intrusion while trying to gut Mr. Clinton’s pet education program. Meanwhile, backers of the program have made tradeoffs to keep it alive.

As a result, Goals 2000 is all about technology in states like Alabama and Wyoming. In North Carolina, the program is seen as a vehicle for training teachers how to use computers in their classrooms and recruiting others to be mentors to their colleagues.

“Congress has gone out of its way to encourage states to spend their Goals 2000 money on technology,” Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a recent paid advertisement. “Why should states carry on with the tough and controversial job of setting standards when they can substitute the easy one of buying equipment? Why should politicians risk votes when they can get applause?”

Because of the lax language on standards, the focus on standards in the the program has been a “mixed bag,” according to Jennifer Davis, who coordinates Goals 2000 for the U.S. Department of Education.

“There are some areas that we wished the focus had been much more on standards,” Ms. Davis said. “At the same time, we have lots of examples where states ... did a much tighter job of creating the linkage” between school reform and high standards.

Cultivating Local Change

While other areas equivocate on standards, Ms. Frame and her colleagues in northeast Wisconsin are some of Goals 2000’s truest devotees.

Ms. Frame says that the work toward defining what students should know and then making sure that material is taught--and learned--in classrooms has been worth the work.

Teachers are now questioning whether their usual approach to teaching a common unit on ancient Egypt--one where students learn how to write hieroglyphics, build model pyramids, and use papier-mƒch‚ to turn their teacher into a mummy--is the best idea.

While the unit is popular, Ms. Frame explains, it offers little practice in writing, complex thinking, and other skills the Howard-Suamico district now wants its students to learn. And it also leaves students with false impressions of life in ancient cultures.

“The kids now think mummies were made of plaster of Paris,” Ms. Frame joked.

But convincing teachers that they need either to scrap or radically alter such lesson plans is difficult, she said.

“Change is something that takes a long time,” Ms. Frame said. “A one-day workshop or reading a book is really just the start of a process.”

She and others say that here at least, federal money is paying for better local work.

“It’s important to involve teachers and involve communities,” Mr. Coles of the regional service agency said. “You can’t have change from the top down.”

Related Tags: