The Roundtable: 'Be Thoughtful About the Federal Agenda'

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EW: Last year, a bill called S 2 died in the U.S. Congress. It would have supported state and local reform efforts and authorized a federal role in the development of national education standards. The Clinton Administration is now engaged in intense negotiations with the Congress about a new bill that some are calling "son of S 2.''

Moreover, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes the majority of precollegiate programs funded by the federal government, is up for reauthorization next year. And pressure is building to change the act to align it more closely with the education goals and with the ideas of systemic reform.

Some see this as an opportunity for the federal government to expand its role in education, to provide the stimulus and seed money necessary to give added impetus and direction to systemic reform. They see an especially important role for President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of whom have been deeply involved in school reform.

What should the federal role be?

MR. SEXTON: I'm not enamored with the federal role. Kentucky's revenue projections for the next five years show a fairly modest growth rate--and so do the federal government's.

Most of the growth goes to health care, some goes to education, and none goes to anything else. I agree that there are things that we must get on the federal agenda--including leadership. But unless the Administration and the Congress concentrate on health care, on getting the economy moving, on reducing the deficit, on restoring some confidence in the political processes that are driving things locally, then a major federal effort related to education may be wasted.

If the federal government will concentrate on those key issues that will affect whether the states can do this job, maybe the states can do the job. There are things in education the federal government can do, but I don't think they're the key elements that have to drive the reform agenda across the nation.

GOVERNOR ROMER: That thought drove the National Governors' Association's agenda for this year. Unless you get control of the economic factors and the health-care costs, we are going to be unable to govern at the state level. And even though I had education as my highest level of interest, as the chairman of the N.G.A., I put it third on the priority list, because I thought those two preceded it on the federal agenda.

But we need to be very thoughtful about the federal agenda. We need a national strategy for education reform. I do not think that we are going to get there without utilizing the leadership at the federal level, in addition to the leadership at the state and local levels.

MS. FUHRMAN: I certainly agree with the need to address health care and the basic economic issues, but I would disagree that the states can get systemic reform on their own--not only because of the importance of federal leadership and the efforts that the federal government can exert in areas of collaboration and support for people trying to do this job, but because I also believe that the federal categorical programs pose challenges to the reform agenda.

I think that if we don't deal with having these programs interact with what the states are trying to do, then the reform will be neither systemic nor real, because we will leave out children who are served largely by these categorical programs and whose entire education is driven by remedial pull-out programs. There is a major agenda for the federal government.

GOVERNOR ROMER: Let me give you a federal strategy that might curl your hair. Just imagine a law that would pass Congress that says we're going to develop a 10-year national strategy, and we're going to ask the Secretary of Education to provide the leadership.

Under this strategy, each state will be asked to develop a 10-year plan for systemic reform, including standards and assessments and all of the things that most reformers agree on. The states would have a whole lot of latitude the first year to go out and do their thing. But for the second through the 10th year, a state's continued funding would depend on the progress they make on their systemic-reform plan.

This law would give the Secretary of Education the opportunity to waive every federal regulation that now exists on all the present acts, and give the states permission to take those and fold them into their own strategies as they develop them.

Now, that is a way to play the game that we haven't been using. It does put a great deal of confidence into a federal establishment, and we may not want to do that. I'm not sure we want to federalize the leadership that much. That traditionally worries me.

But I'm willing to consider an approach like this with some degree of openness because we are doing so poorly in really getting this reform going. And I think that we've got to work both from the top down and the bottom up if we're going to succeed. We've just got to find the right balance.

We are in a real economic crunch and will be for some time. If we don't get at some of the tough problems pretty soon, our hills are going to be too steep to climb. So we've got to give up some of this classic notion that the states are the laboratories of democracy. Hey, we don't have time for all that experimentation on problems like the deficit and health care and education.

I'm more willing to give more leadership, responsibility, and authority to the federal government, so long as we have the right kind of controls and constraints on it.

MR. MILLS: I strongly disagree, even though that is probably the way things will go. It's very likely that the nation will agree on a list of things that we need to do, and they could be written into federal law.

We would probably get something like we've had for 27 years with Chapter 1--a checklist, a monitoring approach, a very rigid "cap analysis.'' We'd probably get a law that specifies what you're supposed to have in reform, looks at what you have, and says it's not good enough so we're going to cut off the money.

The federal government is a very late player in this game. It would be unseemly for the feds to come in and say, "This is how you have to be inventive. Let's look down the list and see what have you done about the passion thing.''

There are a lot of people who want to do it that way.

GOVERNOR ROMER: I understand the danger in this, Rick, but do we need to take it to the extreme and not even try?

Take the standards. We have not done very well at all with national math standards. How long have they been out there, five years or so? They haven't penetrated the mindset of America.

We've got a whole lot of things in Chapter 1 and the structure is wrong. Is it inappropriate for somebody who's doling out federal money to say let's do a less-wrong thing? To really start pushing standards-based education as one of the criteria, but allow considerable flexibility in how it's done?

MR. MILLS: Let's do it the way you've been doing it--walking around with a copy of the standards in hand, putting them into the professional-development programs, putting the spotlight on the teachers who are actually teaching them, and wrapping them around the state-level assessment.

It matters a lot to have Kentucky doing something very different from what Vermont is doing. We're all intensely collaborative, but we're also intensely competitive. We want to borrow ideas that have been developed someplace else. Let's keep that spirit alive and not let this thing get rigid.

I think one of the dangers is that the reform effort could have an orthodoxy, and we could exclude contrarian views. We need the contrarian view. We don't need a federal approach that discourages it. Kentucky might invent something next year that's the key, but, if it were inconsistent with the federal guidelines, it wouldn't get off the ground. I want to bet on Kentucky.

MR. HORNBECK: Isn't it possible to hold both of those things together? When we were working on the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, we envisioned national, not federal, standards.

Those standards would drive a federal law like S 2, but they would still be national, not federal. They would also be voluntary.

Vermont could come to the agency created by S 2 and present its portfolios and ask, "Does this assessment strategy measure up to the anchor standards and assessments?'' Kentucky could do the same thing with its education-reform act.

MR. MILLS: That makes sense.

MR. HORNBECK: If one does that, you can hold together at one time the national/federal leadership.

When we get around to discussing things like opportunity-to-learn standards or delivery standards, we can talk about the conditions under which the federal/national imprimatur is placed on Vermont's successful system.

But it seems to me you can hold together the two propositions that Rick and Roy have put on the table.

MS. FUHRMAN: I think Rick's concern about rigidity and people going into a compliance mode suggests that there's a mindlessness about the kind of checklists, or ways of judging what states are doing or what localities are doing.

When we talk about capacity, we need it at all levels; we don't need it just in the school. As important as that is and as much as we need professional development, we also need it at the district, at the state, and at the federal-government levels, and in national efforts.

So when this agency says, "What you're doing seems to fit the spirit of this piece of legislation, that it is done with intelligence,'' that's a kind of negotiation, and it's not a checklist. If we're talking about national efforts to encourage states, we need to talk about a national capacity to think about these issues, and we need to think about that at each level of the system.

MS. GRAHAM: Resources at the moment at the federal level are very limited. Therefore, to expect a very elaborate role and performance from the federal government is very worrisome. I would prefer to see a federal role that is big on inspiring goals and not so big on making judgments about state progress.

There is no one clear way to get educational reform in this country. The federal government traditionally has had a lot of difficulty thinking of multiple avenues toward a single goal. It tends to think of a single way to get to a goal.

There isn't any single route to getting all kids to learn at high levels. The danger of having a federal guideline is that the federal government will try to say there is only the Vermont way or the Kentucky way or the Maryland way.

I would argue for dramatic images at the federal level, dramatic statements of goals, dramatic statements on how important it is to our country, but not prescriptive measures.

MR. HORNBECK: Does your wariness include high voluntary national standards?

MS. GRAHAM: I'm much bigger on talking about dramatic presentations of goals than I am talking about standards, because standards, in my book, while highly desirable, translate very quickly into a mechanistic mode of application that I, frankly, fear from the federal government.

GOVERNOR ROMER: I think that we're too polarized. There is middle ground. S 2 called for a state-by-state plan. I think "son of S 2'' will include the elements of the hypothetical federal law I sketched out earlier.

The federal government is probably going to funnel money to states, and it might be more rational to do so in a way other than the highly prescriptive way they do it now under Chapter 1. I would like to believe in a federal establishment, Education Department, and President who would have the wisdom not to do it prescriptively. We can get them to help us be strategic without being prescriptive.

The standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics are not part of a federal program; they're national. That's a model we ought to emulate and duplicate as we develop other standards.

Colorado should not redo the N.C.T.M. standards. We don't have the capacity to do it, and we're not going to get it done. But we could adopt them in Colorado.

MS. GRAHAM: In this sense, we're on the same goal. The question is how are we going to get there? To what extent do we believe that strengthening, or making more explicit, certain federal activities is going to be helpful, and, if so, which activities? I don't think we're disagreeing about the end; I think we're disagreeing about what the mechanism is at the federal level to enhance the education of kids.

What is the mechanism at the federal level to get communities and states to be more effective in serving children? When Title I was adopted in 1965, the idea was that the states and the locals weren't doing a damn thing for poor kids, and particularly minority poor kids. Those regulations were intended to force states and locals into doing something that states and locals didn't want to do.

We're not at that point now. We should be figuring out what can be enhanced at the state and local levels to get the job done.

MR. HORNBECK: The situation in 1993 is not all that much different from 1965 when it comes to high levels of performance by kids in our cities. The states have not stepped up to the plate and even begun to take on the challenge of meeting the educational and social needs of those kids.

Surely developmentally appropriate pre-kindergarten programs of high quality would make a contribution to the education of the disadvantaged. In fact, such programs are important enough that you would expect the 50 states to have guaranteed them at least for their poor kids. But only about five states have. That's hardly stepping up to the plate.

And it gets worse with initiatives that haven't yet been shown to work. So the challenges of the 1960's haven't all been met.

But at least we've moved to the point that advantaged kids are about to take off, because the society has figured out we've got to do that. And that raises the historical federal role regarding access and equity, because we don't want to have the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids get wider.

But neither do we want to make the mistake that we've historically made of only targeting poor kids. We need at least voluntary across-the-board standards for both poor kids and rich kids.

MS. FUHRMAN: The challenge today is just as great as it was in the 1960's. But the substance of the challenge is different and requires different mechanisms. It's not simply a problem of access that can be solved by targeting where the kids get the services. It's a question of quality that can be influenced by carefully constructed federal policy. Voluntary national standards are a good way to go, and anchoring a number of existing federal programs to those standards and asking states to carry them out is a good way to go.

GOVERNOR ROMER: The Americans With Disabilities Act offers an analogy. Do you realize what the A.D.A. has done to us? I'm out there spending money on the A.D.A., whether I like it or not, folks. And it comes first. It's absolutely the highest priority in my budget.

Or take the environment. I'm out there spending money on the Clean Water Act, because that is what everybody said was the first and foremost thing.

I care deeply about clean water. I care deeply about people with disabilities. But I care even more about the ability of a child to mature and to think and to have great values.

I'm just about at the point of saying: "Folks, if I'm going to be ordered to do A.D.A. and be ordered to do Clean Water, then I'll buy a federal role in setting priorities in education and providing leadership. Just give it to me in a way that is not prescriptive.''

MS. GRAHAM: But can you get it in a way that is not prescriptive? That is the issue: Can you give quality in a way that is not prescriptive?

MR. HORNBECK: I think you can.

MR. PETERKIN: I'm not as strong as the Governor is on being ordered to do things. But there are some ways to enforce the kinds of reforms that we're talking about and still let them be played out at the local level with a kind of richness and variety.

Schools are ready to meet some standards, but they want some dialogue about what those standards are, and how they pertain to kids, and how they're carried out. And if we attempt to prescribe all that, we will be battling over the checklist. And it won't be because the General Accounting Office says we've done something inappropriate. It will be over whether we have every single one of these specified components in that school system that will make it look exactly in Kentucky as it does in Vermont.

MR. HORNBECK: What, then, are the implications for a federal/national initiative that is appropriately reflected in federal law?

MR. MILLS: The federal regulations, the federal statutes have to be consistent with what states have done. Any mismatches there need to be found and eliminated.

Secondly, there hasn't been sufficient federal investment in a lot of the national reform structures that have been invented, like the New Standards Project, for example. The state-by-state National Assessment of Educational Progress hasn't been reauthorized, hasn't been funded. Those are major mistakes on the part of the federal government.

MS. HAYCOCK: The House is the only side that's gotten started on the education agenda. They've had hearings on state systemic reform: one on assessment, and one on Chapter 1.

One of the tensions here is that, while a lot of states are moving pretty aggressively on systemic reform, a lot of them are not. And the appropriate federal role, given those circumstances, is a little more complex than just getting out of the way and providing some resources.

What ought to be done for states that aren't moving aggressively on the reform issues? Should the feds push them on things like setting standards?

MR. MILLS: The feds don't know how to do that. The hearing that I attended was wonderful. Congressmen were genuinely asking questions and listening. But I would be appalled to have the pioneering experiences of states codified by the federal government and then rammed right back at the pioneers.

I don't see how a federal agency could have compelled Kentucky to do the right thing. If the federal government tried to tell us how to do reform in Vermont, the Green Mountain Boys would rise up again.

What we need is not to be told how to do things. We need the other partners to do the things that only they can do.

MR. SEXTON: That takes us back to the leadership role. If you don't want to codify, you can at least lead.

For example, I have been quite surprised in the past few years at the ability of the White House to go to the business leadership and send a message.

I would like to see the President talking from his bully pulpit to people in communities and saying, "Why don't you folks get together and figure out how to take care of the children in your community? And why don't you business leaders think about ways of encouraging older youngsters to want to do well in school?''

Maybe the President ought to reach out to the students, too, especially the older ones. Maybe one of the incentives in this system--or one of the messages that the whole culture sends to young people--is that education and hard work don't matter. What matters is consumption and watching television and whatever else.

GOVERNOR ROMER: What if this President had not chosen to get into health-care reform as the major new thrust of his Administration, but had started off saying the greatest crisis in America is our ability to compete in the global marketplace 25 years from now, and our ability to have communities that function, and a society that is increasing its values, rather than diminishing them.

And, therefore, we, in 100 days, led by Mrs. Clinton, are going to come up with a strategy for changing our schools.

Now, some people would say the federal government can't do that because education is so local.

But they're now doing it on the most personal thing in this country, and that is who your doctor is and how he treats you and how you're going to pay him and how long you're going to be hooked up to the machine and when are they going to pull the plug on you.

We buy into that. Think about it a moment. Now, if we buy into that, why are we so worried about the federal role in education? I just finished a conference call of about 25 states on the health-care issue. Why? Because they know their futures are going to be radically affected by what is done on health care.

I agree with this President picking health care and the deficit as his top priorities. But I use this as an analogy, because we have a sacred-cow attitude about education as a strictly local issue. It is a state and local issue, but the federal government has a role. There ought to be a way they can put the 100-day sense of urgency on it without prescribing, without micromanaging.

Our challenge is how to put together an effort similar to the massive reform of health care, set some time lines, and make some assignments.

Sure, we have to do it in partnership--make the proper delegation of authority to the school itself, to the district, to the state, to the national level, and have the President hold everybody whom he employs accountable for their role in this effort.

It is so massive, the power that the federal government has. It has never been focused on education; that is not "the agenda.''

MS. FINE: But if it were, what would be helpful to you? What would the Administration or Congress be doing that would strengthen your arm in doing the work you need to do in Colorado?

GOVERNOR ROMER: First of all, the standards themselves are very slow in coming. We need the standards.

Then we need the iterative process, going back and forth several times until we have what we want and everybody has a sense of ownership. It wasn't dictated from the top down.

Then they help us move quickly into R&D, and we begin to develop the assessments, the methodology, the tools we need. And they help us with the professional development as we go.

The President of the United States could call in every textbook publisher, because the standards of America are being driven by the textbook publishers and the test publishers of America. Workbooks are driving the content of the curriculum and also a lot of the teaching methodology. He would let them know that we're going to have pluralism in approach here. We're not going to dictate from the top down. We want the free-market system to work.

That's what we're doing in health, isn't it? We're going to vertically integrate health care in America practically overnight. Why don't we call in these publishers?

I could go on and on.

For example, we could say that all federal funds that come to Colorado in any way, shape, or form in education have got to help further standards of education. Anybody who applies for any grant has to include a page on their form showing how their program would further our education goals. We do this all the time in other programs. We just don't have a mental image of the power that we have.

So the federal government could do these things and leave it to the proper kind of decision being made at the school building--which is essentially what is American about this.

MS. FUHRMAN: I think the process that you're talking about is going to happen with regard to standards. Unless huge formula fights kill proposed changes in these categorical programs, it's quite likely to happen in E.S.E.A., too, and more broadly.

But that iterative process has to be an intelligent discussion between states and the federal government, not just pro forma. And that's where the capacity of the federal level is just as important as the capacity of the state and local levels to have a good discussion about whether the state system is a meaningful system with accountability and standards and opportunity to learn, so that you would want federal dollars to flow through that system.

MR. MILLS: The power to make these changes is in the hands of millions of people. The President needs to do powerful things, like help the public understand what it could look like if we all worked together, to hold up the standards as they appear and ask people if their community is educating its children to these standards.

And then do it again and do it again and do it again with each new set of standards as they come out. The President could take the microphone and talk about the National Assessment of Educational Progress results rather than have that come out as it does. When the panel produces the report on the condition of education, let the President go on television and say: "You ought to read this; I just read it, and I'm appalled. You probably have condition-of-education reports in your town. If you don't, you ought to ask why you don't.''

Let the President visit schools and show you how you visit a school and find out what's really going on. Show parents how they can do this. Those are the kinds of powerful gestures that would energize millions of people.

Behind that, there is all kinds of intensely technical interagency, intersector work that has to be done. But that can't all be controlled; it has to be inspired.

MR. CROSS: We need to distinguish between setting a national policy and the federal role. Many of the tasks we've set out for the President are about creating national policy.

Then the federal government has a role, such as enacting a law and carrying it out.

There is a good deal that can be done in terms of the federal role--of convening and driving the message home, and really being sure that things happen, and using federal resources to help do that, but not be the entire carrier of the message.

Because, if we rely totally on the federal government, we would be letting the states off the hook. We'd let the local districts off the hook. We'd let everybody off the hook on the assumption that the feds have taken care of everything.

MS. GRAHAM: I agree with the power of symbols. I have a quite low approach to all of this. The President has a limited amount of time, and education invariably is not going to be his first or second priority. Education is likely to be, at best, the third priority.

And so, while it is very important to use the President whenever the President can be used for that, we need to have a strategy as well that does not rely on Presidential stump speeches.

If there's one thing the American people are interested in at the moment, it's a little honesty in all of this. And that means not just a federal initiative that promises a lot and then collapses.

GOVERNOR ROMER: We've got this new President, we've got this new Education Secretary. And we've got this new bill and money that are probably going to come out of Congress.

So let's take advantage of that. Let's get going on curriculum frameworks, for example. We don't need to do it in 50 states. Let's get clusters of four or five states to do it. And get some R&D money out to clusters of states to develop assessment strategies. Let's get five really good varieties of 4th-grade math assessments, for instance. The New Standards Project could play a leadership role. If we work together on this, we can accelerate the process by several years.

Vol. 12, Issue 30

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