Plain-Speaking and Fast-Learning, Romer Rides Herd on Goals Process

By Lynn Olson — October 02, 1991 16 min read
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The process began the evening Roy Romer was tapped to chair the panel that would report progress on the nation’s education goals.

Starting that night--and over the next few weeks--one education expert after another met with the Colorado Governor to talk about education. The discussions have not stopped since.

“One is continually meeting someone who just had a conversation with Roy Romer,” joked Lauren B. Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Indeed, the 62-year-old Governor is credited with bringing a sense of urgency, diligence, and focus to the goals panel’s work.

Although all of the governors who serve on the panel have devoted a surprising amount of time and energy to the effort, observers say Mr. Romer deserves to be singled out for pulling together the report card on national goals that is slated for release here this week.

“The success of the panel in clarifying what the goals might mean, and in developing criteria by which they’d be assessed, and in coming up with a report card, I’d say, is overwhelmingly attributable to Roy Romer,” said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Some credit Mr. Romer with making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear: taking what many viewed as a politically unpromising and unwieldy structure and forging it into a public forum on educational quality.

When President Bush announced the six national education goals in Iris State of the Union Message in January 1990, many educators questioned the seriousness with which politicians would pursue the attainment of those goals by the year 2000.

That summer, the governors vowed to hold themselves accountable by establishing the National Education Goals Panel to issue yearly report cards on state and national performance. But the panel got off to a shaky start almost immediately.

Members of the Congress were incensed that they were not consulted about the panel and were limited to an ex-officio status. (Governors and members of the Administration have full voting rights.) Several questioned the wisdom of creating a panel that explicitly excluded educators from its membership.

The fledgling panel had no staff, no money, and an enormous mission.

‘A Sense of the Nuances’

Into that void stepped Mr. Romer: a man who had shown little interest in education, and who, by his own admission, knew almost nothing about educational testing or measurement.

“My state of knowledge was that there are tests out there that somebody gives,” he recalled in an interview last month. ‘q was always interested in education, but it was at another level; it was a surface level.”

Mr. Romer, a Democrat, assumed the governorship of Colorado in 1987, during the state’s first significant recession since World War II. His first term was devoted to economic development and to gaining political support for such large projects as a new airport and a convention center for Denver. Education barely emerged as an issue.

Since then, observers have seen a remarkably public transformation of the Colorado populist into an advocate for higher standards and better measures of educational quality.

“I think there is probably no politician in this country right now who knows as much about education as he does,” said Rae Garrett, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

Agreed Mr. Boyer: “I think, frankly, he has more sense of the nuances of many assessment issues than probably half the educators in the country. He’s also 150 percent informed about the politics of this.”

‘Talking Straight’

What the gray-haired, square-faced Governor brought to the goals panel was a mind like a steel trap, a hands-on leadership style, and an ability to work long hours.

Most of those characteristics can be traced back to the Governor’s boyhood in the little town of Holly, in the southeastern corner of Colorado.

When Mr. Romer was growing up in Holly during the Depression and the dust bowl of the 1930’s, people hung blankets over their windows to keep the dirt out and struggled to keep the small town alive.

The youngest of five children whose parents ran the local grain elevator, Mr. Romer grew up in a climate of hard work and frugality. He delivered milk in the morning before school. He skinned animals and sold and traded their hides.

When he was 6 years old, his father encouraged him to begin keeping a ledger in which he recorded every cent he spent or earned. And he worked each day except Sunday morning, when he went to church.

“There’s an awful lot of that rural background in my being,” said Mr. Romer, whose large hands and solid build are more reminiscent of a farmer than of the millionaire he has since become. “You talk plain. You talk straight.”

Mr. Romer, who graduated second in his high-school class, went on to become student-body president of Colorado State University, a graduate of the law school at the University of Colorado, and a student of ethics and theology at Yale.

His political education began in 1958, when he was elected to the Colorado legislature as a representative from central Denver. In 1966, he suffered an overwhelming defeat in his race for the U.S. Senate on an anti-Vietnam War platform that found few fans in the conservative state.

“Romer got his plow cleaned,” his press secretary, Cindy Parmenter, said. “He didn’t just get beat. He got whipped.”

After that, the Colorado legislator withdrew from the public eye. He went back to practicing law; invested in farming, ranching, and real estate; and worked to expand his family’s farm-equipment stores.

In 1975, he was recruited back into politics by then-Gov. Richard Lamm, who appointed him state commissioner of agriculture and, later, his chief of staff.

In 1978, Mr. Romer ran successfully for state treasurer and was reelected in 1982. It was from there that the father of seven made his successful bid for the governorship.

Steep Learning Curve

Since he was appointed chairman of the goals panel in July 1990, Mr. Romer has spent an average of one day a week in Washington.

He personally attended all eight regional hearings designed to elicit public comment and support for the monitoring process. And for months before the panel got a budget and an office in the nation’s capital, he ran the entire operation out of his Governor’s suite in Denver.

At the panel’s last meeting last month, Gov. John Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri, credited Mr. Romer with helping the group issue a report card on time and on schedule. %y has made us work harder than any schoolteacher I ever had,” he joked.

That effort has not gone unnoticed by educators.

David Hornbeck, a former superintendent of education in Maryland and a keen observer of the education scene, said Mr. Romer’s “learning curve is as steep as that of anybody I’ve ever encountered.”

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody, in such a brief period of time, work as hard to master so much in a way that has both depth and breadth,” he asserted.

‘Drive It, Drive It’

In the process, Mr. Romer has sometimes exhibited the subtlety of the farm tractors that his family bought and sold for a living.

Watching him conduct a meeting of the goals panel, before he stepped down as chairman in August, was like watching an expert auctioneer: Decisions sometimes flew by so fast that panelists had to ask for a restatement of what they had just approved.

If there is one criticism of Governor Romer that surfaces again and again, it is the speed with which he has pushed the goals-monitoring process along--a speed that is largely unfamiliar in education, but that Mr. Romer considers essential.

“I decided early on that, if you were going to move this thing, you’ve got to drive it, drive it, drive it,” the Governor said last month, beating his hand in the air for emphasis. “And we got the results, in part, because we were relentless.”

Mr. Romer has made it clear that he would like to see some form of new, national assessment beginning in 1993-94: a pace that gives many educators the jitters.

If high-quality measurements cannot be developed by then, he maintained, “I’ll back off.”

In Operation Desert Storm, “they put a massive Army on the Saudi peninsula in six weeks, and they did it with quality,” he asserted. “Do you mean we can’t in two years put a math test on the street?”

At a meeting this summer, members of the American Educational Research Association tried to convince the Governor that he should slow down to avoid the pitfall of creating poorly conceived tests.

But, according to Gerald E. Sroufe, director of governmental and professional liaison for the association, Mr. Romer gave the impression of barely listening to their concerns.

“He’s drumming his fingers and he’s going, ‘yes, yes, yes,’ “Mr. Sroufe recalled. “but the bottom line was that he was pretty firm in his beliefs and wasn’t likely to be swayed.”

The unsettling quality of the meeting can be traced, in part, to Governor Romer’s learning style.

“I find that one way to test expert advice is to challenge it,” he said.
“And there are some experts that can’t stand the long march.”

During the course of public meetings this past year, observers could watch Mr. Romer restate in layman’s terms information that he had been given, question it, and then refine his direction.

“He’s like a bulldog,” Ms. Parmenter, his press secretary, admitted. “He wants everything done now.”

A ‘Political Contract’

That same tendency to dive in and push things to consensus could be seen last spring in Mr. Romer’s surprising decision to intervene in the contract dispute between the Denver Board of Education and the city’s teachers’ union.

Virtually everybody advised the Governor not to enter the fray, which he did by calling on an obscure provision in state labor law. Mr. Remer and his labor director proceeded to chair all of the public hearings on the contract dispute and rewrote the contract themselves.

The resulting policy document was approved by beth the board of education and the union, but not without misgivings.

“I worked like crazy to talk him out of it,” said Ms. Garrett of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, who claimed that the episode set an unfortunate precedent for state intervention in local affairs.

“It’s a very political contract,” she added. “It talks a lot about how to restructure and reform the schools. It doesn’t talk a lot about things that it needs to talk about, like professional leaves.”

On the goals panel, Mr. Remer has also proven adept at steering through politically treacherous waters to achieve consensus. And he has broadened the debate to include members of the education community.

One of his most successful strategies was to create working groups of educational exports to advise the panel on ways to measure each of the six national goals. Mr. Remer freely admitted that there was some resistance to that approach from those who feared “we may not be in control of everything that happens if we get too many people involved here.”

But observers say formation of the working groups lent the panel substance and legitimacy that it would otherwise have lacked. “I think there’s a broad feeling that this has integrity, that it has real meaning attached to it,” Mr. Hornbeck said.

“He broadened the process dramatically,” Mr. Boyer agreed. “I think that the effort, which began in a kind of closed-door environment, emerged as one of the largest public forums that we’ve had on public education in our history.”

‘Get the Mystery Out’

At the same time, Mr. Remer has pressed academics--who often treat assessment as their own personal domain--to communicate more effectively with the public.

Mr. Romer himself has become famous for his use of everyday analogies and charts and graphs to illustrate technical points about educational measurement. He frequently uses his own experience as an airplane pilot, for example, to make the point that it is more important for someone to reach absolute standards of quality--such as whether they can land a plane---than to measure their performance relative to that of someone else or to worry about how quickly they learn. “If you can’t take a complex idea and put it into a simple diagram,” he said, “you’re not communicating.”

“We need to get the mystery out of this business,” he added.

On the stump, Mr. Remer’s charismatic style resembles that of a football coach before the big game. His hands-on, activist approach to politics has also earned him soaring popularity ratings back home.

In a recent poll, the Governor received a public-approval rating of 69 percent-well ahead of the speaker of the House, the mayor of Denver, and the president of Colorado University.

‘No Place for Wimps’

On the goals panel, Mr. Remer has used a combination of public hearings and closed-door debates to weave consensus on such controversial issues as how to measure the federal commitment to education and what measures to use in assessing a child’s readiness for school.

During the spring, the goals panel split along partisan lines over the question of measuring school readiness. Democrats wanted to include indirect measures--such as children’s access to health care and day care--in the report. Republicans did not.

Mr. Boyer credits Governor Remer’s behind-the-scenes work on the issue with the eventual decision to include input measures in part two of the report, instead of jettisoning them entirely.

Mr. Romer, who equated the entire debate to “dancing on the head of a pin,” admitted that, in the end, pragmatism drove him to reach a consensus. “I feel good about my colleagues,” he said last month, rubbing his jaw. “But this is no place for wimps.”

In fact, Mr. Romer spent his initial months as chairman of the panel engaged in a heated dispute with the White House over who would control its operation. “They were determined to keep a tight grip on it,” he recalled, “and it wouldn’t move anywhere.”

The situation improved noticeably, he said, after former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee joined the Administration as Secretary of Education.

According to Mr. Alexander, some may be put off by Mr. Romer’s “rough-and-ready, straight-ahead style.”

“But that doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I prefer it, actually.”

‘Extremely Pragmatic’

Part of Mr. Romer’s ability to work both sides of the aisle stems from his Rocky Mountain roots. For the past 15 years, the Colorado legislature has been controlled by Republicans, while Democrats have held the Governor’s Mansion.

In addition, the state’s conservative nature has tended to produce Democrats who think more like Republicans. These individuals, Mr. Remer among them, favor balanced budgets and conservative fiscal policies alongside their support for traditional social programs.

“In Colorado, you don’t make it as a Democrat; you make it as an individual,” said David E. Greenberg, a former legal counsel to Governor Lamm. “Colorado politics is extremely pragmatic.”

‘Tone Is Better’

But if Mr. Romer has succeeded in navigating the shoals of partisan politics among his fellow governors, he has not been quite as successful with the Congress.

Just last week, Mr. Romer reiterated his contention that limiting Congressmen to a nonvoting status on the goals panel was a strategic mistake--and one that he still hopes to rectify. Since the panel was formed, members of the Congress have pointedly refused to participate, despite Mr. Romer’s frequent visits to Capitol Hill.

(As chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association this year, Mr. Romer has also used that office to strive for a closer working relationship between Democratic governors and their colleagues on the Hill.)

This past summer, Mr. Romer again tried to dilute the tension between the White House, the governors, and the Congress by helping to create a new National Council on Education Standards and Testing, authorized by the Hill.

Unlike the goals panel, the council includes members of the education community and full participation by members of the Congress. And it is mandated to consider one of the most important questions raised by the goals panel itself: whether new national standards and a national assessment system are needed to measure the academic performance of individual students.

The council, which is chaired by Mr. Romer and Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, met last week on Capitol Hill and got a respectable Congressional turnout.

“I think the tone of everything is better,” Mr. Alexander said.

Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania--two critics of the goals panel who serve on the council--also agreed that relations have improved, in part, because of Mr. Remer’s efforts.

“His personal visits to all the members that serve on the council, his willingness to rehash some of the things that were done in the past... the manner in which he conducted yesterday’s meeting, I thought, made all that very obvious, that he was trying to make us an equal partner,” Representative Goodling said.

But one Congressional aide noted: “The prevailing sentiment up here is that the goals panel, despite Romer’s efforts, is unlikely to end up with a report that’s as candid and honest and unbiased as the nation deserves.”

Not ‘Fade Into the Night’

Mr. Romer also lost the largely partisan battle early on to make the goals panel more than just a monitoring activity.

Educators and Democratic governors, in particular, have criticized the process for failing to build the infrastructure needed to attain the goals.

And Mr. Remer said he is troubled by the Administration’s attempt to close that gap with its America 2000 initiative. “They just filled that vacuum,” he complained. “There was no precedent of the governors implementing things.”

Mr. Romer is particularly critical of the President’s emphasis on choice; his proposal to create 535 new schools, instead of reforming the 110,000 that already exist; and his constant refusal to adopt the view that money counts.

“Frankly, we need more help from the White House on that issue,” said the Governor, who is currently embroiled in a special session in Colorado in which he is asking for a highly unpopular tax increase to help finance a $270-million public-school deficit. (See related story, page 20.)

“When they say, ‘We don’t need more resources, we need results,’ that phrase is not helpful,” he argued. ‘What they should say is we need results from the resources we’ve got, and we need some more resources in selective instances.”

The one component of America 2000 that Mr. Romer has picked up on is President Bush’s proposal to have each community adopt the national education goals as its own and devise ways to meet them.

This summer, Mr. Remer launched a “Colorado 2000" initiative to “give content” to the President’s plan, he said. On June 17, he held a teleconference that was broadcast to most of the districts in the state. He also hosted a statewide meeting that drew more than 1,000 people.

“We want an army of people at the grassroots level saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to change [education] in my community, and I support it at the state level,’” he explained. “The whole debate has been changed by this panel and these goals.”

And so, some would say, has Governor Romer. If anything, the concern among educators now is that they have invested so much energy in educating one man.

In August, Governor Romer ceded leadership of the goals panel to Governor Campbell of South Carolina. And this December, his work on the National Council on Education Standards and Testing will be finished.

“I really am quite apprehensive about what happens if Roy Romer goes completely off the scene,” said Ruth Mitchell, associate director of the Council for Basic Education.

But Mr. Romer, who will become chairman of the N.G.A. next August and who can still run for one more term as Governor in 1994, said he will not “fade into the good night.”

“I will obviously continue this education agenda and probably escalate it,” he predicted.

And, in his characteristic style, he observed: ‘Frankly, a lot of benefits go to those who work the hardest.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 1991 edition of Education Week as Plain-Speaking and Fast-Learning, Romer Rides Herd on Goals Process


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