Now Comes The Hard Part

April 01, 1990 6 min read

When President Bush laid out six national goals for education in his January State of the Union Message, an eerie sense of déjà vu accompanied his speech.

More than five years earlier, in September 1984, then-President Reagan also presented a set of national education goals--four targets to be reached by 1990. One of those goals--to raise the high school graduation rate to more than 90 percent--was among the challenges Bush has embraced for the year 2000.

Reagan adapted his objectives from those first issued by former Secretary of Education Terrel Bell in December 1983, at the conclusion of the nation’s first “education forum” in Indianapolis. At the meeting, attended by 2,500 of the nation’s key education policymakers, Bell called on each state to meet four education goals by the end of the decade.

In addition to increasing the graduation rate, they included raising scores on college-admissions tests above the 1965 average, making teachers’ salaries competitive with those for entry-level college graduates in business and engineering, and stiffening high school graduation requirements.

The list of people attending the forum was impressive, including 8 governors, 10 members of Congress, 150 state legislators, about 30 chief state school officers, and some 60 college and university presidents.

But the goals pronounced there faded from public memory well before the date set for reaching them. Now, many people are asking what will make the current goals-setting endeavor any different.

“The real danger here is, if you repeatedly set goals that are not met, and there is no accountability for failing to meet them, you make the announcement of future goals a dead letter,” says Gary Bauer, who held several top Education Department posts during the Reagan Administration. “You raise false expectations, and you also may divert attention from asking the hard questions about why we are in this fix.”

There are some differences between the current goals-setting effort and those that preceded it. Bell’s goals were created in response to A Nation at Risk, the report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education that is widely credited with quickening the pace of school reform. That report was the work of a relatively small number of individuals. Outside the group, “No one accepted the goals, as such, or very few did,” Bell says.

In contrast, the current set of national goals represents the combined efforts of the President, the Secretary of Education, and all 50 of the nation’s governors. That could be a powerful coalition for change, particularly given Bush’s campaign pledge to be the “education” President.

Even so, there may be more similarities than differences between the two occasions. Many problems that waylaid the last goals-setting initiative still exist and could sandbag the current one. Observers question the White House’s commitment to move beyond rhetoric, and they point to a dearth of financial resources needed to make lofty national goals attainable. Nor does the nation have appropriate measurements and data to let the public know if goals have been met.

Without some careful planning, Bell cautions, the “results” could be much the same this time around.

“The country has always set national goals,” notes John Chubb, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. “We set national goals for education after Sputnik, and we set them during the War on Poverty, and we set them in 1983, and we’re going to set them again.

“There’s nothing wrong with keeping the country focused on what we’re trying to achieve, but the question is always, ‘What’s the follow-up?’ Nearly 90 percent of the issue should not be the goals, but what people have in mind for achieving them.”

Many educators describe the goals that President Bush unveiled in January as disappointing and unrealistic. For example, few people think that U.S. students can rank first, worldwide, in math and science by the year 2000 when they currently come in last or near last on international comparisons.

“The goals I’ve read about thus far strike me as pablum,” says Dorothy Rich, president of the Home and School Institute Inc. “They are too big to be doable. It’s like saying, ‘No one will be killing each other in automobile accidents by the year 2000.’ It’s almost like the Wizard of Oz.”

Indeed, the national targets remain nearly as vague as those President Bush first described in September, when he and the governors agreed to work on national goals. The governors had promised to develop, by their midwinter meeting in late February, a more explicit set of national goals than those listed in the President’s speech. But they also needed a plan to reach them. So far, many educators observe, there has been little talk about means.

“I don’t think one has to be cynical to say that the President didn’t say very much’’ in his State of the Union Message, says Theodore Sizer, chairman of the department of education at Brown University.

“He ordered the cars to drive faster; that’s about what it was,” Sizer adds. “He didn’t say how the engine was going to be souped up, or whether the tires had to be fixed, or whether the road should be any different.”

Indeed, some worry that, in the race to come up with a list of goals by this winter, the President and the governors chose rapidity over content.

“Our view here was that they were pushing these goals out much too fast without giving enough thought to the strategies for attaining them,” says Sandra Kessler Hamburg, director of education studies for the Committee for Economic Development. Without more detailed performance targets and a believable implementation plan, another observer suggests, the current effort “just doesn’t look serious.”

Bush’s federal budget proposals, for example, are hardly a windfall for education. He calls for an additional $500 million for Project Head Start in 1991. But college student aid comes in for cuts. And the Education Department’s $500 million increase does not even keep pace with inflation.

For now, many educators are withholding judgment. They say they will give more credence to the goals-setting initiative if Bush and the governors enact some visible new mechanisms for helping to reach their targets.

“When President Kennedy said we had to beat the Russians to the moon and get a person there,” notes F. James Rutherford, chief education officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “we didn’t just strap some rockets on the side of an airplane.”

Rutherford would like the federal government to create an independent national council that could translate the goals into a workable action plan, monitor progress, and report on results. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, has suggested devising a National Assessment of Educational Practice to measure who is taught what, by whom, when, for how long, and with what support.

Sizer wants the government to underwrite a research-and-development fund that is generous enough to help redesign the schools.

The governors themselves suggested a number of policies that could help achieve national goals in 1986, when they released Time for Results: The Governors’ 1991 Report on Education. That document described an array of initiatives for improving the schools that the governors promised to work on over the next five years. Michael Cohen, director of education programs at the National Governors’ Association, says the governors will devise more specific plans for reaching national goals before their annual meeting this summer.

But for now, many people note, there is little relationship between the goals-setting process going on in Washington and the realities of most schools. How to combine the current thrust toward national goals with the myriad innovations being tried in individual schools around the country is unclear. Some people worry that the move toward standardization which national goals imply could discourage much-needed creativity at the school level.

What the governors and the President choose to do in the next six months could determine whether the nation’s goals for the year 2000 become more than a mere wish list. “Everyone’s fear--or some people’s hope, I suppose--is that this will be the end of it,” notes one observer. “There aren’t that many people out there reminding the decisionmakers that they have an obligation here.”

--Lynn Olson, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Now Comes The Hard Part