Education Commentary

‘Continuity of Purpose And a Common Vocabulary’

By Paul E. Patton & Tommy G. Thompson — October 13, 1999 5 min read
Two governors assess a decade of national education goals.

As Americans take stock of the successes and shortcomings of our education system at the close of a decade of reform, the most important achievements may be ones we take for granted: We know what we want, and we know where we stand. Ten years ago, President Bush and the nation’s governors convened in Charlottesville, Va., for a historic summit that led to our national education goals. Ten years later, the simple language of those goals has made an extraordinary impact. The goals have supplied a common vocabulary for America’s education debate and a continuity of purpose that has endured across changes in the political landscape. They are the yardstick by which our nation of diverse beliefs can measure progress toward a single aim: building the education system to ensure our future success.

As members of the National Education Goals Panel, which monitors progress toward the goals and provides a forum for ideas about reaching them, we represent different perspectives. One of us is a Democrat, the other a Republican. One of us--Gov. Patton, the chairman of the National Education Goals Panel--was elected relatively recently, and governs a state widely recognized as a pioneer in systemwide education reform. The other--Gov. Thompson--is the only governor still in office who was present at Charlottesville. His state has pursued a solid, incremental approach to education reform. While each of us has employed a different path in pursuit of the goals, we share this belief: Establishing them has worked.

Born of a growing national anxiety about whether our education system was preparing Americans to compete on an international scale, the Charlottesville summit produced bipartisan consensus on six goals to be reached by the year 2000: All children would start school ready to learn. The high school graduation rate would increase to at least 90 percent. Students would leave grades 4, 8, and 12 with competence in challenging subjects. Schools would be safe, disciplined, and drug-free. U.S. students would be first in the world in math and science. And every adult American would be literate and equipped with the skills to compete in a global economy.

Later, the U.S. Congress added two more: Teachers would have access to the professional development they need, and schools would promote partnerships that involve parents in education.

As 2000 nears, the United States has made significant progress toward many of the goals. Serious challenges remain on all. But this much is clear: Setting the goals and monitoring progress toward them has itself proven to be a landmark achievement.

The goals have galvanized a national conversation--and sparked local innovation--on education. In 1989, the idea of a summit devoted entirely to education was as revolutionary as setting targets for our students, teachers, schools, and communities. Yet only weeks ago, a third national summit on education brought together governors, corporate leaders, and education professionals who reaffirmed their commitment to rigorous standards and assessments to measure our progress. (“Teaching Tops Agenda at Summit,” Oct.6, 1999.)

Today, during the longest period of sustained education reform in the history of the United States, governors also routinely hold summits in their own states. Education, once an issue for professional educators, now routinely tops national polls as Americans’ chief concern.

By emphasizing a broad array of concerns--both inside schools and out--from whether kids come to school ready to learn to whether adults are literate and internationally competitive, the goals have taken education beyond the classroom door and made it a communitywide concern. Like the victory gardens of World War II, which allowed all Americans to contribute to the war effort, the goals have shown Americans they need to contribute to education reform.

The goals have also spurred a lasting, coherent conversation about improving education. Because they were bipartisan, they have transcended changes in the White House, Congress, and statehouses.

People who otherwise disagree use the vocabulary of the goals to debate reforming our education system.

People who otherwise disagree use the vocabulary of the goals to debate reforming our education system. Like earlier education reform movements that made free public education universally available and prepared the children of immigrants for success in American society, the goals have elevated public discourse to focus on the central purpose of schooling: what all students should know and be able to do.

Before Charlottesville, states monitored their education systems primarily by measuring inputs like state formulas for money spent and compliance with federal rules. The national goals focused them on results--helping launch the movement for higher academic standards--and provided the data for monitoring them. Every state now has data on how its students compare with their counterparts in other states and in countries across the world.

Many states have made remarkable progress. All 50 have increased the percentage of mothers receiving prenatal care. Thirty-nine have increased the proportion of high school graduates who enroll immediately in college. Twenty-seven have significantly increased the percentage of 8th graders who are proficient in mathematics. On one indicator, Kentucky is a national leader in making sure kids come to school ready to learn; on another, Wisconsin’s schools are some of the nation’s safest.

To be sure, the goals aren’t perfect, nor is the progress toward them. We’ve fallen short of some, and experts agree we need better data to assess them all. A crop of new governors--49 in office today who were not present at Charlottesville--has brought a crop of new ideas about what the goals should be and how to achieve them.

But where those ideas diverge, we agree that the first step in achieving an objective is defining it. The establishment of the national goals was the first step toward creating and maintaining a world-class education system in the United States.

Paul E. Patton, a Democrat, is the governor of Kentucky and the chairman of the National Education Goals Panel in Washington. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, is the governor of Wisconsin and a member of the goals panel. He also served as the co-host, with Louis V. Gerstner Jr. of the IBM Corp., of the third National Education Summit, held two weeks ago in Palisades, N.Y.