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‘Report Card’ Out, Alternatives Eyed

By J. R. Sirkin — March 05, 1986 5 min read


Underlining the sensitive nature of the policy proposals they now seem likely to make, the nation’s governors announced last week that the “report card” aspect of their joint education project would not be a report card after all.

In fact, the governors, here for their annual winter meeting, had by week’s end dropped the term “report card” altogether.

“We don’t have it in mind to give the states A’s, B’s, and C’s,” said Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the National Governors’ Association.

“I’m not eager to turn the N.G.A. into an organization that reports on states,” he added. Mr. Alexander, a Republican, launched the governors’ education initiative last summer. The governors’ association is coordinating the effort.

But in the confusion about how the governors will follow up on their yearlong effort to “set the American education agenda for the next five years,” Mr. Alexander said some states would get an “A plus for effort.”

And he added, “We do think that three years from now we should know what states are doing on choice, for example.”

But several other governors said they preferred some type of performance indicators—such as test scores and graduation rates—to an assessment of the states’ progress in implementing specific reforms.

“A lot of governors feel we should be held accountable for the improvement of services to kids, but not the implementation of some fads,” said Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado, who chairs the governors’ task force on choice, one of seven panels that are developing the education initiative.

On the other hand, Gov. Richard W. Riley of South Carolina, who chairs the readiness task force, noted that “some kind of accountability is called for to call attention to what the governors have done or are in the process of doing.”

“I think it’s important to have a report on what action the states have taken on choice,” added Steven WeIchert, an aide to Governor Lamm. Such a report, he said, should include “who’s doing it, who can get it done in the next five years, and for those who can’t, why not. The ‘why nots’ are very important.”

Report by August

By August, each of the seven gubernatorial task forces is scheduled to issue a report, including policy recommendations for the governors. The task forces have been investigating such issues as choice, how to attract and retain teachers, and college quality.

As originally conceived, the project, which is called “The Governors’ Report on U.S. Education, 1991,” would also have produced annual “report cards” measuring the states’ progress in implementing the governors’ proposed reforms.

“The implication was that there would be some assessment of common actions by states,” said Tom Duncan, the education aide to Gov. John Ashcroft. of Missouri.

But Governor Alexander and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the N.G.A. vice chairman, had apparently decided prior to last week’s meeting that it was not appropriate for the N.G.A. or the governors as a group to hold individual governors accountable for the task-force recommendations.

“I have no problem with annual reports,” Governor Clinton said. “But I don’t think the N.G.A. should say governors are doing a bad job because they’re not doing the things recommended.”

One N.G.A. staff person noted that the association could not hold the governors accountable even if it wanted to, and that varying political circumstances in the states made a report card impractical.

“There are recommendations that not all of the governors are buying into,” one staff person said. “They don’t know whether these are the answers. They’re experimenting.”

“Obviously, it’s in no one’s best interest to say this is the one best way to go,” said Richard P. Mills, an aide to Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, who chairs the teaching task force. “The issue is not whether one has adopted certain policies or not. The issue is whether the schools are getting better.”

Others noted that an annual report card might appear threatening to education groups in the states, who might fear an effort by the governors to force the reforms on them with or without their approval.

‘Fundamentally Sound’

At a Sunday morning meeting on the education initiative, Mr. Clinton, a Democrat, said that while the idea of updating the governors’ progress on a yearly basis was “fundamentally sound,” he added, “I’m very concerned that we may be put ill the position of writing a report three years down the road saying that I and my colleagues are not doing what we should be doing.”

Mr. Alexander added that some states might find the governors’ proposed reforms “so difficult, so challenging, that they were tried and abandoned.” States “shouldn’t be graded down for that,” he said.

Later, Governor Clinton, who chairs the task force on school leadership, added: “You can’t do it in a way that ranks the state. What if our seven task-force members agree on a set of recommendations and the other 43 governors think we’re all wet?”

“When we issue a report card, the most we should do is report on what’s been done in these areas, and if not anything, the reason why,” he said. States should get a poor grade only if they say the governors’ reforms “hadn’t crossed our minds.”

Other governors, noting that the N.G.A. project focuses essentially on educational “inputs,” urged states to develop common performance measures that would demonstrate their schools’ effectiveness.

‘Massive Problems’ Remain

Governor Lamm, for one, warned his colleagues “not to be too self-congratulatory” about their recent efforts to improve schools.

“Whatever progress has been made, we still have Rome massive problems on our hands,” he said. Consequently, he said, “it is not inappropriate to know what level of progress states are making.”

Referring to the governors’ pending report, Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire, a Republican, said he was concerned about “what’s not in there at all. It’s important to me that what we’re dealing with measures performance.”

“These recommendations are important, but they’re process-oriented,” Gov. Bob Graham of Florida, a Democrat, added. “What’s important is the ultimate impact on the outcome of students.”

Governor Alexander said he would try to accommodate the governors’ concerns, noting that anything that looks at results, we want to do.”

However, Joan Wills, the director of the N.G.A.'S Center for Policy Research, later said that “it is very clear that it is beyond the scope of the N.G.A. to report on outcomes.”

She said she took the governors’ comments to mean that the N.G.A. should work with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Assessment of Educational Progress to “influence what the nation needs in terms of outcomes.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 1986 edition of Education Week


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