Mission Imponderable: Goals Panel to Disband

By David J. Hoff — January 09, 2002 7 min read
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In 1993, when the National Education Goals Panel was near the height of its influence, a focus group reviewed its publications and documents. “This too shall pass,” one anonymous educator remarked.

Nine years later, after President Bush’s expected signing this week of a bill overhauling the main federal law on K-12 education, the prediction will come true.

The committee of governors, state legislators, and federal officials will officially close down after almost 12 years. Once the center of the debate over how to improve the nation’s schools, the panel is now being shunted to the sidelines as the school reform agenda takes its next steps.

Those who worked on the goals panel, or observed it, trace the panel’s demise to several factors. The original deadline for the eight goals it monitored passed two years ago, and the panel was unable to forge a new mission for itself. Moreover, conservative opposition to federal involvement in setting education goals meant that the panel would not survive in the bill that emerged from Congress last month with big, bipartisan majorities.

“It was pretty apparent that the support that it had was pretty shallow, and that there was a pretty strong contingent in Congress that wanted it to go away,” said Larry W. Grau, a former education adviser to Indiana Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon, the last chairman of the panel. Mr. O’Bannon, a Democrat, failed to persuade Congress to give the panel new responsibilities to assist states in building the data-collection and -analysis tools they will need to comply with the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The goals panel “was a good idea when national goals were all the rage,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan. “Now, national education goals are at the very least passé. Once the deadline passed, they became meaningless.”

But in some ways, the panel may be a victim of its own success, its supporters say. The governors who headed the committee in its early days were some of the most vocal supporters of a standards-based agenda for improving student achievement. Once the debate shifted away from goals and on to standards, the panel was left with a mandate that didn’t resonate with the public and policymakers.

“The goals have slipped from people’s consciousness,” said John W. Barth, the panel’s acting executive director. “The problem from that point forward was answering the question, ‘What are you folks supposed to be doing?’”

Presidential Kickoff

In 1990, the National Governors Association and the first Bush administration established the National Education Goals Panel to monitor progress toward the six education goals that were fruits of the education summit held the previous year by then-President Bush and the governors. The panel’s original makeup included governors and members of the Bush administration, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. It received initial funding from a Department of Education grant.

The six goals aimed to improve kindergartners’ readiness to learn; lift high school graduation rates to 90 percent; raise student achievement in core subjects; elevate U.S. math and science performance to the top of international surveys; provide opportunities for lifelong learning; and create safe and drug-free schools. In 1994, under President Clinton, Congress added goals for improving parent involvement and teacher education and professional development.

From the outset, the goals played a central role in the debate over how to improve schools in the wake of the 1989 summit Mr. Bush convened with the governors in Charlottesville, Va.

The president addressed the panel’s first meeting. That session and many others aired on C-SPAN, the cable public-affairs network. In the early years, more than 100 education advocates would attend the panel’s quarterly meetings to track its work.

Its first report laid out where the nation stood on reaching the goals and highlighted the work that needed to be done. It also signaled that no one was collecting key data necessary to measure progress toward the goals. For example, the chapter on improving children’s school readiness was left blank. (“1st Goals Report Contains Failures and Incompletes,” Oct. 2, 1991.) The goals panel was never able to come up with satisfactory benchmarks for that goal, Mr. Barth said. It eventually published child-immunization rates and the percentage of low-birthweight babies as measures of school readiness. Those were the best indicators of child health that officials could find, he said.

What’s more, subsequent reports relied on old data. To quantify strides on the goals for student achievement, the panel published scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which gives exams in the core subjects every four years.

“The panel was hampered from the outset by the inadequacies of the data supply,” said Mr. Barth, who worked in the Department of Education during the first Bush administration.

Still, the goals panel became a central place where governors set the path for school improvement efforts. At its quarterly meetings in the early 1990s, governors heard from national experts about how academic standards could set benchmarks for student achievement.

Such advice defined the basic framework for the approach that led to 49 states’ adoption of academic standards by the end of the decade. Only Iowa has refrained from setting statewide standards.

But the goals panel struggled to find ways to keep the nation focused on its efforts. In 1993, it hired a Washington firm to conduct focus groups on its work. (“Goals Panel Discusses Ways to Involve Public in Its Efforts,” March 10, 1993.)

In 1994, the goals panel received its own appropriations line item from Congress in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The law also added members of Congress to its roster.

By the next year, however, it struggled for its life as the new Republican majority in the House voted to cut off all the panel’s money. The panel was spared, though with only about half its previous funding, after Republican governors pushed to preserve it. But it still faced arguments from conservatives that it would encroach on local control of education issues.

“The National Education Goals Panel as it was originally conceived could operate better without money from the federal government or participation from Congress,” Lamar Alexander, a goals panel member when he was secretary of education under the first President Bush, said in a recent interview. Mr. Alexander, who was active on education issues as governor of Tennessee during the 1980s, made similar critiques of President Clinton’s education policies during his runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000.

The panel was unable to change its mission to fit with the new political climate, according to one source, who asked not to be named, all but ensuring that it would be facing its end.

Recent Successes

The goals panel, however, has made some significant marks in recent years, according to Mr. Barth.

Its 1998 report on designing assessments for young children is the central resource for states as they build accountability programs for early-childhood programs.

After the goals panel conducted that study, “you saw the governors get far more deeply involved in early-childhood education across the country,” said James B. Hunt Jr., a goals panel member for several years when he was North Carolina’s Democratic governor.

The panel hired a prominent RAND Corp. researcher to evaluate test-score gains in North Carolina and Texas, and the report that came out of that research has been widely debated by politicians, policymakers, educators, and researchers.

Furthermore, the governors on the panel became some of the first policymakers to request that NAEP tests be given more frequently in reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Under the reauthorized ESEA that is about to become law, NAEP will be given every other year in reading and mathematics. But such contributions will cease, Mr. Barth said, because the goals panel now has “too much negative baggage.”

Gov. O’Bannon tried to persuade Congress to give the goals panel the job of monitoring how states use the student-achievement data that must be collected under the new testing systems required in the ESEA bill. But lingering opposition to the panel virtually ensured that it could not be the group to do that job.

“The sense we got,” said Mr. Grau, the Indiana governor’s former adviser, now a consultant to school districts, “was it would be easier to create a new organization and start fresh.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Mission Imponderable: Goals Panel to Disband


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