Goals 2000: Opportunities and Caveats

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The passage of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act augurs a new era in the evolution of educational policy. Although states and localities will continue to pay well over 90 percent of the costs of elementary and secondary education, Goals 2000 heralds a dramatic shift in the locus of educational-policy formulation which will alter significantly the traditional prerogatives of federal, state, and local education officials. For the first time, the federal government will have substantial influence on what is taught, how it is taught, and how educational programs are evaluated. Federal officials will also help determine the capacity of schools to achieve the national standards outlined in Goals 2000.

What are the implications of Goals 2000, and why does the strengthened federal role embedded in the legislation have such profound ramifications for the governance and effectiveness of schools? What are the potential pitfalls policymakers at all governmental levels should consider? What are some of the opportunities inherent in this legislation? Goals 2000, the reauthorization of the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement, and the passage of the safe-schools bill reflect the recent saliency of education issues on the federal scene. Along with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and school-to-work legislation, these Clinton Administration education initiatives represent the most proactive federal policy agenda in 30 years. For the first time there will be a structure for developing standards for all students that ostensibly will permit the nation to compete more effectively in an increasingly competitive international economy. The implications of this legislation are obviously profound.

The full promise of the Goals 2000 act may not be achieved, however, because of a number of potential pitfalls, most notably the possible lack of local support. The education-reform movement for the past decade or so has been characterized by the unprecedented involvement of influential business and political leaders. These practitioners of the "new politics of education" believe, with considerable justification, that the sweeping change and improvement symbolized by the growing standards-driven reform movement cannot emanate from the traditional educational establishment. The validity of these apprehensions is less important than the growing reality that there has been considerable opposition at the community or district level to "top down" initiatives as efforts to implement reforms have moved from rhetoric at the national and state levels to the hard task of changing the schools where teaching and learning takes place. Indeed, in many jurisdictions and localities there is dysfunctional tension between national and state-level reformers and district or school-based educators on issues like the capacity of state leadership, definitions of meaningful local participation, and the substance and purposes of the standards-driven reform movement.

The difficulties inherent in these tensions have been heightened by the recent ideological conflict generated by increasingly powerful organized grassroots movements which oppose outcomes-based education. While it is patently inaccurate to equate outcomes-based education with the overall reform movement, there is considerable confusion in the public's mind; confusion which has been exacerbated by some reformers who categorize opponents a little too simply as being either right-wing ideologues or extreme fundamentalists. The reality is that many mainstream citizens have serious reservations about some of the new curricular thrusts and their potential impact on the quality of education received by their children. Many people simply have problems when educational outcomes incorporate "nonacademic" social and behavioral components.

This is not the place to discuss in depth the pros and cons of outcomes-based education or the curricular implications of the reform movement. My point is to illustrate how the lack of connections and inadequate understanding between state and national reformers and local educational officials have enabled the objectives of the reform movement to become distorted by a relatively few well-organized elements and misunderstood by countless numbers of well-intentioned citizens.

In a number of states and localities, as school districts became embroiled in ideological clashes over the curriculum and the implications of the reform movement, advocates of the national standards-driven reform movement, representing such influential business groups as the Business Roundtable and political groups like the National Governors' Association, have sought support from local school officials. In other words, local support reportedly was requested in states like Connecticut and Alabama and other places only when debates and discussions about the public's values and expectations for schools reached local communities, where the backing of front-line teachers, administrators, and school board members was essential.

Not surprisingly, alliances between local communities and grassroots schoolpeople and state and nationally based proponents of reform were not readily forged. Because the local base of support for change did not coalesce, the reform movement in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky was politically vulnerable. The political lesson here is apparent.

The worst tactic is to ignore or insufficiently involve major on-the-ground players in any human enterprise or policy realm. It usually is advantageous to involve relevant people and groups even if they disagree in order to achieve the desired goals; at least they were deemed important enough to be involved.

It was and is the perception among many local school- or district-based practitioners and community leaders that they have been uninvolved and stakeless in the major reform initiatives. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many teachers, administrators, and board members do not support a reform movement that seeks to change the very institutions which they set policy for and in which they spend their professional lives. This same sense of nonparticipation at the community level has facilitated the efforts of anti-reform grassroots leadership to undermine educational change in localities like Greenwich, Conn., and Littleton, Colo.

It is important to stress that in many communities the opposition to reform has been based on substantive disagreements and not just on political resentment or the failure of reformers to proactively seek local "buy ins." Indeed, there have been many local improvement efforts that predate state reform initiatives. In a number of instances, as I have indicated, opposition to state and nationally driven reform initiatives has been more attributable to the lack of public will due to inertia or ideological concerns than to the intransigence of local educators who frequently experienced comparable hostility as they attempted to change schools.

What, then, are the implications of this analysis for the Goals 2000 program? This legislation represents the beginning of a unique effort to coalesce diverse lay and professional individuals from every governmental level to develop standards and assessments predicated on what they believe students should know and be able to do. Each state has the opportunity to mobilize a broadly representative planning team to develop in a systematic way these singularly important and complex issues. Inherent in this framework is the opportunity to develop state planning teams that incorporate substantial local representation. Appropriate local-state balance could undo much of the tension that has been caused by the recent history of centralized reform initiatives. Goals 2000 provides a wonderful opportunity to build the local-state cooperative mechanisms that will be essential if reform initiatives are to build a sufficiently broad political base of support to endure. A persuasive case can also be made that the broad requisite public support for reform will not be fashioned unless supportive local schoolpeople effectively engage community representatives.

We are at the very early stages of implementation of Goals 2000, but some caveats, based on recent political experience, already are appropriate. Goals 2000 gives governors and chief state school officers the power to appoint the members of the state planning teams. At the initial briefing sponsored by the U.S. Education Department on Goals 2000, the teams reportedly and (perhaps not surprisingly, because of the exclusive appointive powers of state officials) were dominated by state-level members. There was considerable criticism that local school districts and officials were underrepresented.

The opportunities here are obvious, as are the dangers. Inherent in the new legislation is the potential framework for remedying some of the excesses of what many observers perceive to be a top-down reform movement that has either deliberately bypassed or dysfunctionally ignored the local school and district officials who are ultimately responsible for implementing reforms. State officials will be challenged to exercise their authority in a judicious manner to insure the appropriate balance between local and state representatives. It is encouraging that high-ranking Education Department officials are sensitive to this crucial issue and have already indicated that they will be monitoring the process and act to assure balanced local-state representation on planning teams. Such balance might well determine whether the standards-driven reform movement and the Clinton Administration's new form of federalism in education will be a success or failure.

Vol. 14, Issue 12, Pages 35, 44

Published in Print: November 23, 1994, as Goals 2000: Opportunities and Caveats
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