Education Opinion

Assessing the Education Summit: ‘Pap’ or Progress?

October 25, 1989 8 min read

Following is a sampling of newspaper commentary on the education summit last month between President Bush and the nation’s governors:

David S. Broder, The Washington Post:

At the Charlottesville summit, and in other forums, politicians are advocating different and conflicting approaches. They will not add up to a national program for education, [the researcher Lorraine M. McDonnell] warns, unless policymakers find a way to reconcile them with each other--and with the constraints the political system and budgets impose. ...

The key question that the new education-reform effort must resolve is who should hold those levers [of accountability]. Teachers and principals in individual schools? Parents, exercising choice among schools? Scholars in each discipline, prescribing tougher curricula? Or businessmen, defining the skills we need in order to compete?

This is the underlying governance question that only political leaders can resolve, after consulting their constituencies. If America tries to pursue all these education-improvement strategies at once, they will almost certainly collide and fail. We have to decide where to place our bets--and then give the people we’re betting on the resources to succeed.

Suzanne Fields, The Los Angeles Times Syndicate:

Whatever President Bush’s education summit with the governors launched, it wasn’t a sputnik.

The satellite the Soviets propelled into orbit in 1957 gave American educators the shot of adrenaline that propelled their students into the Space Age. Math and science suddenly got top priority.

But that was then and this is now.

In international competitions today, American students finish last in math and science and go to the head of the class in couch-potato studies. ...

The education summiteers, aware of the problems, got high on consensus without their imaginations having to leave the ground. ...

[Former Secretary of Education William J.] Bennett thinks the schools ought to get five more years to get back to where they were in 1963. If they’re still bad, he says, “then maybe we should declare educational bankruptcy, give the people their money, and let them educate themselves and start their own schools. That would be one radical way to have accountability.”

Radical indeed. It sounds like the noise of a departing sputnik.

Deena Mirow, The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer:

It’s too bad Elsie Dawson wasn’t invited to President Bush’s education summit.

She could have told the governors a lot about what it will take to achieve their goal of making sure all American children enter kindergarten “ready to learn.”

Getting children ready to learn has been Elsie Dawson’s job for the past 18 years.

Each September in her East Cleveland Head Start classroom, she greets a new group of 4-year-olds, many of whom don’t know how to hold a pencil, follow simple directions, correctly identify parts of their bodies, or recognize the difference between a circle and a square. ...

Research has shown the preschool program does make a difference. Head Start is one of the few surviving War on Poverty programs, because it does what it set out to do. ...

Dawson would have told the people attending the education summit all that. But she also would have talked to them about the children Head Start has not helped. There is only enough money to help one of every five eligible preschoolers.

If the leaders of our country truly want to make a commitment to education, they must begin at the beginning and make sure all children get the kind of head start teachers like Elsie Dawson can provide.

William Safire, The New York Times:

Nobody seems to sense the danger in this grand confabulation: If all we hear is the sound of 50 rattling tin cups, and if all we see is the spectacle of a demand for leadership from Washington, then we will witness a voluntary power shift from the states to the national government. ...

Hold on, everybody. It is not the same to say “the quality of education is a problem throughout the nation,” which it probably is, and “education is a national problem,” which it surely is not.

One approach is federalist and the other is nationalist; a great difference exists between the balance of central and localized authority, which is the genius of our federal system, and untrammeled central control flowing from the power to finance, which is an inefficient and unstable form of government. ...

The last thing we need is the spectacle of state executives lining up to end-run their own taxpayers by begging for unaccounted funds and foolishly trading diversity for standardization.

James J. Kilpatrick, Universal Press Syndicate:

Billy Bennett was a bad, bad boy. He went to the President’s education summit and there he committed truth. For that, they washed his mouth out with soap.

This is what Bennett said of the closed meeting of governors and federal officials: “There was the standard Democratic pap and Republican pap. And something that rhymes with pap.” ...

So it was at the summit--stupid word--at Charlottesville. The distinguished participants reviewed the same statistics and heard the same warnings they have been hearing for years. Having rehashed the hash, the conferees did what they always do: They appointed a study commission. What a bold idea!

The commission is to make recommendations for national goals and national standards. ...

Pap, pap, and rhymes with pap! Everyone who has not lived in a cave for the past 40 years knows these objectives. ...

We don’t lack goals. We lack the will to pursue them.

Robert L. Turner, The Boston Globe:

There was a lot of talk about value at the education summit in Virginia, but not nearly enough talk about values.

Economic results, competitiveness, and prosperity were high among the goals cited by President Bush and many of the governors.

But what standards will be used by young people in applying their new skills? The group was silent.

This must change. Students today may be deficient in their knowledge of computer systems, but what they need most desperately is a system of values.

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers do not use and sell crack because they never learned the multiplication table. What they need to learn--and deeply believe--is their own worth and that of their neighbors.

Edwin M. Yoder, Washington Post Writers Group:

“Restructuring” is the great buzzword from Charlottesville. But a true restructuring of American public education would demand such unpalatable and drastic steps that politicians shrink from it. The will is lacking. But to paraphrase the old hit song, we can dream can’t we? Let’s.

First a date would be set--perhaps October 1992--to celebrate a famous discovery in 1492 that perhaps 50 percent of recent high-school graduates would have to guess at. It would be designated Bulldozing Day.

On that day would tumble those citadels and keeps of educational mediocrity known as “schools of education,” all of them. ...

Second, the track to teacher certification would be redirected. The 50 state departments of education would be dismantled, and their certification functions abolished. ...

Beginning teachers would learn their apprentice skills under master teachers, not on college class time that should be devoted to learning something important and substantive. ...

Finally, open competition would be the rule for vacant teaching positions, and pay would be graduated by rank and merit. ...

A God’s plenty is wrong with the schools, which at best must struggle to transcend the mediocrity and glitter and sham, the indifference and license and irresponsibility that pervade the society itself. But to think of recapturing a serious system of education without preferring and promoting those who know things is idiocy.

Cal Thomas, The Los Angeles Times:

In his concluding address at the education summit, President Bush asked the nation’s governors a question. “Come the next century--just 10 years away--what will we be? Will we be children of the Enlightenment or its orphans?”

The President clearly prefers that we be children of the Enlightenment. But after experiencing the results of a public-education system that has been substantially influenced by thinking that came from that period of the 18th century, it would be better if we were its orphans. ...

The Enlightenment was anything but enlightening. ... The Enlightenment thinkers believed that people and society were perfectable. They rejected the existence of (or accountability to) a creator God. The lack of any absolute by which to judge men’s actions led to the bloodbath of the French Revolution and later the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. ...

[The] failure to teach the presence of absolutes in education has brought us to the brink of the disaster that Bush and the 50 governors and even much of the education establishment lament nowadays. Just how do educators and politicians think we became functionally illiterate, sexually promiscuous, morally dishonest, and historically ignorant?

Tom Wicker, The New York Times:

[A]t a Charlottesville panel session headed by William Bennett, the so-called drug czar and former Secretary of Education, [Gov. Gaston] Caperton [of West Virginia] rose to ask: “Would you kindly tell me what this President has done for education?”

Mr. Bennett had no answer, because there is none, pending “follow-up” to the Charlottesville meeting. The incident went unreported, because Administration officials, fearing such embarrassments, kept the panel sessions closed to the press.

Reporters were present in force, however, to provide mostly glowing accounts when Mr. Bush made the major speech of the conference. Several governors said it was a good speech--"whoever wrote it for him knew education,” one put it--but noticed that it consisted mostly of promises, not delivery.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Assessing the Education Summit: ‘Pap’ or Progress?