With Goals in Place, Focus Shifts to Setting Strategy

By Lynn Olson — March 07, 1990 12 min read

Now that the President and the governors have adopted a set of national education goals for the year 2000, the question becomes: Can they deliver?

“The governors have basically agreed, whether they recognize it or not, to hold their own feet to the fire,” said Thomas H. Kean, the former Governor of New Jersey.

The package of six goals and 21 objectives embraced by the governors at their mid-winter meeting last week is nothing if not ambitious. Observers used words like “audacious” and “breathtaking” to characterize the distance between where the United States now stands in education and where the governors hope to go.

David T. Kearns, chief executive officer of the Xerox Corporation, captured it best when he described the governors’ agenda as the equivalent of a “national crusade” in education.

Like a crusade, it embraces a distant and lofty vision. Some goals and objectives remain vague, unrealistic, or unmeasurable.

For example, few think that U.S. students will be first in the world in math and science achievement by 2000, when they currently rank last or near last on international comparisons. The statement about adult-workforce preparedness is sketchy. And there are no good definitions of terms like “dropout” and “school readiness,” let alone a way to assess them.

“This is a novel experience for everybody, the governors included,” noted Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “It’s not surprising that the goals tend to be a bit diffuse and overambitious.”

Despite such problems, most educators agreed that the package put forward by President Bush and the governors represented a fair crack at a job that needed do Continued on Page 20
ing--and that the governors were probably the right group to do it.

Governors have arguably exerted more influence on school reform in the 1980’sny other group.

Indeed, most observers said they were pleased and gratified by the progress the governors and the President have made since January, when Mr. Bush first outlined the national goals in his State of the Union Message.

“This is clearly a more detailed package,” said Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “It has become a much more substantial document and commitment.”

Others noted that attaining the goals by a certain date is less important than getting the country headed in the right direction. “People are complaining about the goals. They aren’t realistic, et cetera,” said U.S. Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee. “I don’t have that problem, because if you set goals that are too easy to reach, you really don’t put much effort into it.”

But the $64,000 question is what level of effort people can expect--from the President and governors, in particular. “The governors have put themselves in the hot seat on this one,” Mr. Kean said, “and they have got to deliver.”

That means devoting an enormous amount of energy, money, and political capital to education over the next 10 years.

Each of the 27 goals and objectives adopted by the governors will require a workable strategy at the national, state, and local levels. And that, educators noted, will be hard, slogging work.

By the end of last week’s meeting, however, the roles that various levels of government should play in pursuing the national goals remained “largely untouched,” Mr. Tucker said.

Restructuring Agenda

Instead, what the governors focused on was restructuring, or the need to give public education a thorough overhaul from top to bottom.

“We won’t get from where we are to these goals without making some very fundamental changes,” cautioned Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, co-chairman of the nga’s task force on education.

The governors’ document recommends reorienting the system to focus on results; giving school people more authority to make decisions and more flexibility in the use of funds; expanding alternative certification for teachers; and increasing the use of magnet schools, choice, and other strategies that give parents more responsibility for their children’s education.

“Most important,” it notes, “restructuring requires creating powerful incentives for performance and improvement, and real consequences for persistent failure.”

David Hornbeck, former state superintendent in Maryland, argued that key elements of a restructured school system--including new assessment instruments, a strong rewards-and-sanctions system, a substantive staff-development program, and a fully implemented school-based decisionmaking effort--could be put in place at the state level within five years.

But governors attending the meeting seemed perplexed about how best to proceed, and frustrated that inno4vative ideas in education are not copied more broadly. Gov. Garrey E. Carruthers of New Mexico, for example, complained that school administrators and school boards are particularly resistant to change.

Bold or Timid?

Indeed, some educators have questioned the assumption that a radical redirection in school reform is needed.

The danger in that line of thinking, predicted Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is that both politicians and school officials will merely graft the goals onto their present education-reform efforts rather than take a hard, fresh look at what they are doing.

“The tendency of the system is to say, ‘We’re already doing that’ or to re-label old practices to make them sound compatible with new goals,” he said. “These national education goals should instead be the occasion for every state, school district, and school to ask ‘What do we need to do differently?”’

While some governors would race home and begin to work on “fundamental” restructuring, Mr. Kean predicted, “I think in some states it will be add-ons.”

Asked Lamar Alexander, the former Governor of Tennessee: “Will we be bold enough to really create brand-new schools? Probably, we won’t. We’ll just tinker and change things around the edges, and there’ll be some pretty big fights over that.”

Missing Elements

What is more, the goals the governors set for themselves pose problems that extend far beyond the classroom walls.

Discrepancies in student performance by race and class, for example, reflect a confluence of forces both inside and outside the school, said Paul G. LeMahieu, director of research, evaluation, and test development for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. To solve them, he asserted, will require an equally “comprehensive” approach.

In that regard, several people criticized what was missing from the goals statement. They said the governors paid scant attention to the health, social, and nutritional needs of children after age 5 and ignored the issue of child care.

“Give me a child who gets five years of mediocre or marginal custodial child care and then shows up for school,” said Edward Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University, “and I’ll guarantee you that child is not ready to learn.”

‘Coming to Terms’

And although it may sound like the refrain of a now-familiar song, nearly everyone talked about money.

“Look, you do not fundamentally overhaul an entire industry, especially one as far behind as ours, without any cost,” Mr. Shanker said. ''Education is no different from any other business or industry in that regard. We simply must come to terms with the idea that we have to invest more in education to become competitive.”

Those interviewed said staff development in education now runs “a mile wide and an inch deep"; that funding for research and development remains sorely inadequate, despite the President’s 1991 budget proposals; and that some federal programs should be fully funded soon.

For example, Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called for full funding of the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children by 1995 and of Head Start by 1992.

President Bush has proposed an additional $500 million for Head Start in 1991. But the Children’s Defense Fund estimates that it would cost $7 billion to serve all eligible children and improve the quality of services.

“Unfortunately,” said Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, the question of funding was still “skirted” by the end of last week’s meeting.

While the governors debated whether the federal government should set aside some of the anticipated “peace dividend” for education, others wondered whether the states’ chief executive officers would make similar commitments back home.

“What’s going to happen next time governors have a surplus?” asked Sam Husk, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. “Are they going to turn it back to the citizens as a tax cut or put it into education?”

Bipartisan Body

The magnitude of such challenges--and the sweeping nature of the goals themselves--underline the need for sustained national leadership. And it is here that Mr. Bush can shine or falter.

Three of the most pressing items on the national agenda include increasing flexibility in the use of federal funds; devising new information and assessment systems; and creating a bipartisan national group to help develop and report on the assessment and monitoring effort.

The potential power and import of that group became apparent last week, when the White House and the governors failed to reach more than the broadest agreement about its makeup. At issue is who should control the group’s work.

Many governors and educators do not want the proposed entity to become an advisory arm of the U.S. Education Department. The department has a particularly negative reputation among governors for developing the federal “wall chart,” which ranks states on the basis of college-admissions scores and other measures.

“I don’t care who does it,” Mr. Boyer said last week, “but it’s got to be done in a creative and credible way.”

To many outsiders, that means broad-based representation; enough money, staff, and technical expertise to do the job properly; and the freedom to speak out on issues, while remaining responsible to the governors and the President.

The Assessment Question

One reason the governors are so anxious about the formation of the proposed national commission is the explosive nature of the assessments themselves.

Many educators now consider the development of better assessment and accountability methods to be the principal stumbling block in the school-reform movement.

In adopting national goals and objectives last week, the governors for the first time went on record in favor of state-by-state performance measures. Four years ago, when they adopted Time for Results, their earlier report on school reform, the governors explicitly rejected the notion of grading or ranking each other. Their ability to maintain that commitment now will rest heavily on the credibility and usefulness of the assessment instruments.

If the governors are serious, noted one observer, “this may be a little painful.”

“But,” he said, “if they’re not willing to buy into that, then this is a joke.”

Mr. Alexander predicted that the search for new assessments will be a key issue in the 1990’s.

NAEP or Not?

One of the most likely candidates for measuring student performance, in the short term, is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests a sample of students nationwide in grades 4, 8, and 12 in key academic subjects.

Chester E. Finn Jr., chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, predicts that expanding naep so that it could provide state-by-state--and even district-by-district or school-by-school--comparisons of student performance would cost at least $100 million more a year.

It would also require changes in federal statute. And Mr. Goodling said he “wouldn’t be a bit surprised” if that led to some fights on Capitol Hill.

Even educators cannot agree whether naep is the appropriate vehicle to use for the kinds of assessments suggested by the new national goals. Several of those interviewed last week said the United States needs a much more innovative and broader array of assessment formats than naep or a naep-like instrument would be able to provide.

At best, educators noted, it will be three to five years before some of the information the governors want is in place, no matter what assessment and data-collection systems are employed.

Meanwhile, the White House and the governors have agreed to work together to provide greater flexibility in the use of federal funds, in exchange for greater accountability.

But that fight, too, promises to be a heated one on Capitol Hill. Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the Democratic chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, contends that most of the inflexibility governors complain about is on the state level.

Until the governors demonstrate that they have taken action back home, he has implied, he would be reluctant to rethink the federal role.

The Public Will

Outside observers have suggested that, in addition to working on these broad fronts, the White House could take two other steps to highlight its commitment to education.

Mr. Zigler recommended that the President appoint the equivalent of an “education czar” to coordinate government programs, maximize the use of existing funds, and devise new policies.

And Mr. Boyer proposed that the President name a blue-ribbon commission on teaching that could lead a decade-long campaign to recruit the ''best and the brightest” into the profession. Without that, he cautioned, none of the goals will be realized.

In fact, many noted that the true fate of the goals rests on the commitment of teachers, principals, parents, and citizens to change. And they questioned whether the general public really believes that radical reforms are needed.

According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup polls, 75 percent of teachers and 70 percent of the general public would give their own schools a grade of A or B. More than 80 percent of administrators responding to a new survey also said the schools were doing a “good” or “very good” job of educating students.

“I very seriously question whether the people in this country truly feel and understand that there is a need to change our education system,” Gov. Michael N. Castle of Delaware said.

What is needed, he and others argued, is a marketing campaign to sell the goals to the public.

Along those lines, several people suggested the need for national and local hearings, and possibly a national summit, to involve educators and citizens in a grassroots effort to devise strategies for meeting the goals.

The worst thing that educators could do now is to “dismiss” the goals or to get “cynical,” Mr. Boyer argued.

“Things are very tough, and the kinds of changes that will have to be made are really awesome,” he said. “But instead of having people walk away, we need to move in more and make this work.”

“If this is a marathon,” Mr. Castle said, “we’ve run about 5 good miles, and have 20-plus to go before we get to the end.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 1990 edition of Education Week as With Goals in Place, Focus Shifts to Setting Strategy