National School Goals: Old Idea Surfaces With Newfound Intensity

By Deborah L. Cohen — September 27, 1989 13 min read
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While the President’s call for an education summit has given a well-publicized lift to the notion of national education goals, educators, corporate leaders, and policymakers note that the idea was taking shape well before Mr. Bush decided to convene the nation’s governors in Charlottesville, Va.

There’s no doubt, they say, that the summit will galvanize the movement to set a national schools strategy--once considered anathema to the tradition of state and local control of education. But the fact is, they add, the idea has been percolating for several years.

“The summit comes at a time when there is an increasing sense that we ought to have clear expectations” of what the nation’s education system is trying to accomplish, said Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. “One could argue that the summit is being adapted to that sense, rather than the other way around.”

Still, many educators acknowledge that procedural and philosophical obstacles will complicate the goal-setting process. For instance, they say, many spurn the idea of a national curriculum or rigid standards based solely on test scores, and others raise questions about who will pay for the strategies devised to meet the goals.

But, while differences will need to be worked out, thinkers from a wide range of viewpoints voiced interest last week in setting goals in areas ranging from student performance to interagency linkages in serving at-risk youths.

“Several leading educators and political leaders have been talking about and working on goals for two and three years,” Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, noted. He added that several states have already developed goals on, among other issues, bolstering school readiness, improving high-school and college preparation, and reducing dropout rates.

Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said interest in forging a national education strategy “has increased exponentially in the last four or five months.”

“Although there is confusion over what form it should take,” he said, “there seems to be almost a universal embrace of the general principle.”

And Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, noted, “The people have been there, but they have been waiting for a leader to say now is the time.”

Business leaders, too, have been working within their ranks to forge a consensus on education goals.

“Many of us were surprised at how easy it was for us to come to an agreement on this,” said Frederick S. Edelstein, a senior policy fellow for the National Alliance of Business. “The time was ripe.”

The Momentum Grows

Evidence of the growing momentum toward the setting of national goals can be found on several fronts:

  • The National Governors’ Association decided at its summer meeting to establish a task force to study what essential skills the schools should be teaching. While the panel will first focus its attention on the summit, it will later turn its energy to a yearlong study of the skills students need to have mastered to be internationally competitive.

  • On Capitol Hill, Congressional interest in setting a national strategy has been growing. Last week, for instance, Congressional Democrats unveiled their own education goals on issues ranging from early-childhood development to access to higher education. (See story on page 16.)

  • National attention on state-by-state rankings of student progress has increased each year since 1984, when former Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell introduced the U.S. Education Department’s “wall chart” comparing students’ college-entrance-test scores.

More recently, the Council of Chief State School Officers has spearheaded efforts to design more sophisticated indicators of achievement, and the governing board of the National Assessment for Educational Progress has been charged with setting appropriate achievement goals for the subjects and grade levels it tests.

  • Subject-matter specialty groups in recent months have turned out report after report calling for curricular reform, and a consensus has begun to emerge on the levels of student achievement that should be expected in specific subjects.

For example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued a report recommending standards for a K-12 curriculum last spring. And the first report from “Project 2061,” a long-range effort of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, lays out learning and literacy goals in science, mathematics, and technology.

  • Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions have backed the notion of national goals. And the newly established National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is adding to the debate with its plan to develop a voluntary national certification process that would set standards for what teachers should know in specific fields.
  • Major business groups have added their voices to the need to set goals.

Last week, for example, several influential business organizations, including the Committee for Economic Development, formed the Business Education Coalition for Education Reform to keep the business community focused on educational issues. The group will call for goals in such areas as student attainment, school restructuring, teacher professionalism, early intervention for disadvantaged children, and school financing.

In addition, the National Alliance of Business has just published a ''Blueprint for Business on Restructuring Education,” and the issue of goals is likely to be featured at an education summit planned by Fortune magazine next month.

There are signs that the American public, too, is more open to the idea of a national education strategy than was previously thought.

A recent Gallup Poll found that 70 percent of the respondents would favor requiring public schools to conform to national achievement goals.

The fact that political candidates are increasingly focusing on education issues also signals “a national-level commitment that we haven’t heard before,” Marshall S. Smith, dean of education at Stanford Univerity, said. “It’s a hot news item.”

Historic Transition

Although notions of what the nation’s education strategy should include differ, several factors have converged to promote widespread support for the concept.

Among them is a “frustration with the progress of reforms,” Mr. Smith said.

At the root of the national-goals movement, Mr. Boyer said, is the realization that, “with all of the effort at school reform in the last few years, we still have not found the formula to move forward.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and the director of the Educational Excellence Network, said the education-reform movement has failed to chart “specific objectives.”

“We didn’t pause to look at the production system and stop to ask what the product would look like if it were good,” he said. “We’ve been fiddling with the assembly line, but making potluck with what comes out at the end.”

Mr. Finn also cited “mounting frustration” with what he termed a “decentralized, incrementalist approach” to reform.

In addition, business leaders, citing their increasing need for highly skilled workers and a decline in the quality of employees entering the workforce, have focused national concern on education.

“Businesses now realize that their bottom line is being affected,” Mr. Edelstein of the business alliance said, adding that one way to address the problem is through “broad-based, straightforward goals.”

Poor results in international comparisons of student achievement and concern about the nation’s economic standing in the world also have moved the focus from the local and state levels to the national arena.

“If we become a second-class nation,” Mr. Smith said, “the whole nation has to do something about it--not just California.”

Mr. Boyer also hypothesized that a “weakening of localism"--spurred in part by technological advancements and a more geographically mobile population--has resulted in “less concern about local control than national results.”

Education reform is in the midst of a “historic transition,” he added. The perspective is shifting from an era when “local control over schools was the only conversation we ever had” to concern over “how to balance local control with national results.”

Maintaining that the current system has become too decentralized and diverse, Mr. Bell added, “We’ve reached a point in our national life where we need more unity of purpose in education.”

‘Direction’ for Restructuring

While the move to set a national strategy might appear to be at odds with the notion of local control, advocates of school-restructuring efforts argue that national goals could enhance their efforts to vest principals and teachers with more decisionmaking authority.

National goals and local restructuring “can be very complementary,” Mr. Geiger said, “if we say these are the things we ought to do and those of you at the local level are in the best position to do it.”

If the goals are voluntary and recognize local diversity, added James Fleming, an associate superintendent in Dade County, Fla., they could “provide some direction” to local reform efforts and “give all of us an opportunity to focus on something.”

And Thomas W. Payzant, superintendent of the San Diego schools, said that, while some view restructuring “as allowing schools to be free from external control, the beauty to me is that it provides an opportunity for those closest to the students to develop a wide variety of ways to meet district, state, or national goals.”

‘Natural Resistance’

Experts acknowledge, however, that some educators and others may remain leery of national goals--or, in particular, any move to institute a national curriculum.

“There will be a natural political resistance by some parts of the community to any kind of nationalizing movement,” Mr. Smith said. The Gallup Poll respondents who opposed national goals are “probably a pretty articulate 30 percent,” he observed.

A “typical reaction,” Mr. Bell said, might be: “If we start pushing in that direction, it will lead to federal control and federally imposed curricula, with the federal education bureaucracy laying down mandates and giving marching orders.”

The idea of a national agenda may arouse fear that “state education departments will start sending down mandates to local boards,” said Bill Moss, a member of the Columbus, Ohio, school board. The process, he fears, could end up “overly influencing” local boards or usurping their control.

That concern, Mr. Smith noted, is shared by “people with strong ideologies on either side” who want to preserve the notion that “diversity and pluralism create the strength of American rather than one central line or message.”

Jeanne Allen, an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, noted that national leaders can play a positive and vital role in helping to improve schools--such as providing information on “choice” plans that allow pupils to transfer if their schools fall short on performance.

But what is “to be feared most,” she said, is that education organizations “would love nothing better” than mandates at the federal level.

With regard to a national curriculum, however, education groups have also raised concerns. Many favor “common understandings” in various subjects, but “a federally mandated curriculum is something this country has wisely avoided,” said John Maxwell, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

William J. Saunders, executive director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, favors a national curriculum--provided it fairly represents racial and ethnic groups.

Avoiding Turf Battles

One challenge will be to “adjust the objectives of excellence and equity” in stating and implementing goals, said Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“When you look for uniformity in outcomes, you have to look for uniformity in services and resources,” said Roy E. Morris Jr., a former principal who now teaches in a rural K-12 school in Clallam Bay, Wash.

Unless fiscal equity is woven into the goals, Mr. Smith added, there will be “tension [between] states that ‘have’ and states that ‘have not.”’

Michael Resnick, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, agreed. “We see as a goal having as broad and diverse a curriculum as possible available to every student, regardless of the location and wealth of the school district.”

Mr. Resnick also cautioned that national goals could interfere with or dilute standards being set at the state level to “make it feasible’’ for everyone to meet them.

To prevent that, said Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction, proponents should aim for “a legitimate goal that is not too far-fetched, but don’t water it down.”

States, Mr. Newman added, should be ready “to move from minimum levels to much more demanding levels of expectations.”

“I don’t think there’s a danger in interrupting current state activities so long as there is a good procedure for involving state education agencies and state boards” in setting goals, Mr. Ambach said.

Experts also called for “new approaches” to gauge progress and warned against overemphasizing norm-referenced tests and state rankings.

Such comparisons do not “lead anywhere other than to shame” poor scorers, Mr. Rutherford said.

Experts also stressed that any goal-setting process that emerges from the summit must be carefully guided in months and years ahead.

In a two-day meeting, Mr. Boyer said, “one could not begin to deal subtly with all the implications of national standards.”

An important task, Mr. Ambach added, is to establish committees or procedures that “include all the key parties, without making it so big that they can’t get anything done.”

As political, corporate, and education leaders vie for a role, a major obstacle will be to avoid “turf battles” between various levels of government or interest groups, Mr. Payzant of San Diego said.

The summit offers an ideal opportunity to create a “mechanism or forum” to set goals, Mr. Finn noted. But if the process is controlled by “the people who brought us the education system we have today,” he said, “I’d rather not have any.”

A Question of Resources

Many argue that national goals must include at least a long-range commitment of resources. “If we can’t indicate that these are going to be sustained by financial commitment, then we should scrap the whole idea,” Mr. Boyer said.

Mr. Geiger agreed. Those establishing goals should “identify the appropriate role” of federal, state, and local governments in funding the effort, he said.

Observers generally agreed, however, that funding concerns should not sidetrack the movement toward setting national goals.

While a national agenda must include a commitment of resources, Mr. Payzant said, one need not be “held hostage to the other before we begin to talk about how to make education better.”

“We may decide we need to spend some money” to accomplish some long-term goals, Mr. Finn said, “but that’s exactly the wrong place to start.”

Proponents acknowledge that they must offer a more well-defined national agenda in order to advance specific goals.

“Even those of us who advocate a greater sense of national standards can’t say very clearly how we would phrase them,” F. James Rutherford, chief education officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said.

While a commitment by Mr. Bush and the governors can “make a big difference” in rallying public support for national goals, Mr. Bell observed, “it can’t be just be a one-shot deal at a conference in Charlottesville. We have to keep coming back to it again and again.”

Mr. Smith added: “It is absolutely critical that they commit themselves to a process that’s going to take 10 years. ... We have to sustain the pressure all the way through, or else we’re not going to make it to the playoffs.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as National School Goals: Old Idea Surfaces With Newfound Intensity


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