Preparing U.S. students to compete in an increasingly global marketplace must become the top priority for the nation’s schools, a former adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents told the states’ top education officials at a policy forum here Nov. 19-21.
Pointing to the nation’s deep political divides, David Gergen, a professor of public service at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said, “We are so focused on red versus blue that this issue doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”
Mr. Gergen, whose most recent White House stint was as an adviser to President Clinton, added: “We have to be out ahead of everybody else, and you can only do that through our public schools.”
Mr. Gergen spoke to about 200 people gathered here for the annual policy forum of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The attendees included more than 30 of the nation’s state education chiefs and their top deputies.
While Mr. Gergen declared that “the responsibility for education is yours,” he also painted a grim fiscal outlook for federal spending, in which projected budget deficits in coming years make it unlikely that there will be much new financial help from Congress. (“2005 Budget Drops Below Bush Request,” this issue.)
“My sense is that it will be very hard for education to even stay where it is,” he said. Every federal agency “will have to make a contribution.”
Fresh off of her own hard-fought re-election win, Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson told Mr. Gergen that, based on her campaign experience, the public is not sold on the idea that there is an economic imperative for ratcheting up school rigor.
“I got beat up from one end of the state to the other,” Ms. Bergeson said, citing parents’ fears that high-stakes tests and tougher standards would mean children wouldn’t graduate or their self-esteem would be harmed. “How do we motivate the public to realize we have a crisis on our hands?”
Mr. Gergen countered that this is an area where the White House can do more to push its agenda, and referred to Margaret Spellings, President Bush’s chief domestic-policy adviser and his choice to be the next U.S. secretary of education.
“My question is, ‘Can she make the leap to being the spokesperson for what we need?’ ”
State chiefs also said here that the public is dubious about the need for overhauling high schools—an idea that is growing as a priority among the state education leaders as well as governors and the Bush administration.
“I know some of the biggest pushback will be from our legislators saying, ‘Our high schools are OK,’ ” Missouri Commissioner of Education D. Kent King said during a small-group session on high school reforms. “We’re not doing a darn for that bottom 30 percent [of high school students], and we need some help dealing with that.”
Inez M. Tenenbaum, the state superintendent of education in South Carolina, said one of her legislative priorities in the upcoming session will be to push for approval of the state’s proposed Education and Development Act. In part, the policy would require high school students to pick electives that were part of flexible, career-focused curricula, or “pathways.”
“With a career path, we tell students, ‘You can say, I’m going to stop at being a nurse, or go all the way to Harvard Medical School,’ ” said Ms. Tenenbaum, a Democrat who lost her recent bid for the U.S. Senate. “Students say, ‘I have a future in something.’ Right now, that’s what a lot of young students don’t have.”
Susan Frost, a senior adviser for the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, told the chiefs that improving adolescent literacy is perhaps the most immediate challenge for high schools. “Middle school and high school teachers don’t have the foggiest idea how to handle a classroom of students who can’t read a test,” she said.
In his acceptance speech as the CCSSO’s new president, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll affirmed the group’s overall support for the No Child Left Behind Act, though he listed some of the changes he would like to see in the federal law.
“If we as a group believe, as I do, that [the NCLB law] sets the right goals, we must do everything in our power to reform it to make it work,” he said. “Right now, NCLB is not a completely effective law. But with some logical changes, it could be.”
For example, he questioned the wisdom of setting a single target of 2014 to have all students reach proficiency in reading and mathematics, rather than allowing some flexibility.
Other changes he proposed would be to require school choice, supplemental services, and improvement planning only for the student groups that fail to make adequate yearly progress under the federal law for two or more years.
He would also like to give schools and districts two years, rather than one, to demonstrate the positive impact of corrective action before restructuring them. And he wants schools identified for corrective action when the same subgroup of students in the same subject are not making adequate yearly progress.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week