Standards Issue Puts Ex-Education Secretaries at Odds

By Mark Pitsch — January 12, 1993 3 min read
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All five former U.S. Secretaries of Education, meeting in a forum last month in Atlanta, agreed that it is important to hold students to high standards.

But they failed to find common ground on who should set the standards, how students should be evaluated, whether money should be tied to the imposition and achievement of standards, and the proper role of the federal government.

Three of the former Secretaries said they opposed the imposition or development of national standards from Washington.

The former Cabinet officers’ views were aired in a roundtable discussion sponsored by the College Board, the Southern Center for International Studies, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, where the forum was held.

Hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, national correspondent for the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,’' the program was taped and will air on Public Broadcasting Service stations on Jan. 16.

It was the third annual Secretaries’ roundtable, and the first to include Lamar Alexander, who served during the last two years of George Bush’s Presidency. (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1992, and Nov. 20, 1991.)

Lauro F. Cavazos was among those voicing caution about a Washington-led drive for standards.

Made in Washington?

“I have great reservations about national standards, frankly,’' said Mr. Cavazos, who served as Secretary under Presidents Reagan and Bush before being forced out of office in late 1990.

“I think that once you establish a standard, although it’s voluntary and we can change it and people do not have to accept it--I have seen too many volunteer things started out in Washington that subsequently became law,’' he said.

He suggested that states and school districts establish their own education goals and standards.

Mr. Alexander, who succeeded Mr. Cavazos, praised the standards-setting efforts under way in various disciplines, most of which were begun with the support of the Bush Administration during his tenure. But he questioned the wisdom of tying federal dollars to so-called “school delivery standards’’ that are to measure the conditions needed in schools to allow students to meet academic standards.

States would have to set such standards to receive education-reform funds under the Clinton Administration’s proposed “goals 2000: educate America act.’'

“None of us, when we are in Washington, are wise enough to say to Atlanta exactly how it ought to spend its money and what it ought to spend in order to help children here learn to live, work, and compete in the world they live in today,’' Mr. Alexander said. “That should be decided here.’'

Standards or Tests?

William J. Bennett, the outspoken former Secretary who served during most of President Reagan’s second term, suggested the imposition of academically rigorous national tests.

He said national standards will not be successfully imposed, because conservatives fear that they will lead to a Congressionally imposed curriculum and liberals fear that some groups will not be able to reach such standards.

“There is this worry throughout liberal circles; therefore we will not have a standard, we’ll have several circles,’' Mr. Bennett said. “We’ll have a trying-hard standard, we’ll have a self-esteem standard, we’ll have a how-do-you-feel-about-things standard.’'

Terrel H. Bell, President Reagan’s first Education Secretary, said that testing is more important than the setting of standards, which he said are already in place in a de facto way through the use of textbooks offered by only a handful of publishers.

Testing establishes benchmarks for students, schools, and districts, he said, and provides incentives for students to do well.

“There is a yearning for a means of measurement,’' said Mr. Bell, who inaugurated the Education Department’s controversial “wall chart’’ comparing states on several academic indicators and oversaw drafting of the landmark report A Nation at Risk.

Shirley M. Hufstedler, who was chosen by President Carter to be the first Secretary of Education, agreed that incentives are needed for students to meet high standards, and suggested that federal dollars are a good incentive.

“I am in agreement that we should not impose [federal] standards ... on schools,’' she said. “But at the same time ... I think that the concept of reward and incentive is just as important in spending federal funds as it is in spending private funds.’'

Finance Equity

The former Secretaries also touched on the subject of educational finance.

In a rare moment of agreement, Ms. Hufstedler and Mr. Bennett said that the United States is spending an adequate amount on education.

But Ms. Hufstedler, who echoed the sentiments of Mr. Cavazos, said that inequities between districts need to be rectified.

Mr. Bennett, however, said it is difficult to restrict wealthy districts from raising money.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 1994 edition of Education Week as Standards Issue Puts Ex-Education Secretaries at Odds


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