States

States Urged to Keep Eyes On Education

By David J. Hoff — October 17, 2001 5 min read
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For the fourth time in 12 years, state governors gathered last week at an “education summit” to talk about ways to improve the nation’s schools. This time, only 15 of them came.

With the country at war against terrorism and the economy in trouble, the other 35 stayed home to manage their National Guard units or monitor budget crises instead of traveling to an IBM conference center here to discuss the next steps needed to raise student achievement.

Even among the governors who attended, few stayed for the whole two days. Instead, they made appearances between trips to Washington before returning to their state capitals for more pressing business.

The meeting’s organizers said they did not consider canceling it even after the United States began bombing in Afghanistan on Oct. 7 in response to last month’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Instead, they wanted to send a signal that improving schools should continue to be a top concern for American policymakers.

“We need to continue to function and work,” said Gov. John Engler of Michigan. “Yes, we’re going to be in a sustained conflict, but that’s no excuse to start canceling meetings.”

The three-term Republican governor is a co-chairman of Achieve Inc., the partnership of governors and business leaders that sponsored the Oct. 9-10 gathering at the International Business Machines Corp. facility on a bluff above the Hudson River, some 30 miles from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Conference-goers—90 governors, corporate executives, and education leaders— approved a five-page statement detailing their views on how to improve testing programs, accountability plans, and the quality of teaching.

Attention Waning?

But questions remain over who will take charge of ensuring the agenda is carried out. Will it be governors, who have been at the forefront of school reform efforts since the 1980s, culminating in a 1989 summit with the first President Bush? Or will a coalition of educators and private groups take up the cause?

Governors here insisted that although the nation faces urgent military and economic challenges after a decade marked largely by peace and prosperity, they will continue to make improving their schools a priority.

“Our education system is what makes [the United States] different” from other countries, said Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia, a Democrat. “Just because we were victims of terrorism, it doesn’t mean education shouldn’t be the number-one issue for every governor, every year.”

At the first such summit, held in Charlottesville, Va., 49 governors attended with then-President George Bush and agreed to set goals for student achievement and school services to be met by the turn of the 21st century. In 1996, the National Governors’ Association and IBM held a second summit, where the 43 governors in attendance promised to adopt academic standards and tests to measure students’ progress in achieving them.

In 1999, about half the governors attended a similar meeting sponsored by Achieve and set an agenda for improving the quality of teaching and building accountability systems to measure the success of standards-based initiatives. (“Teaching Tops Agenda at Summit,” Oct. 6, 1999.)

The dearth of governors at last week’s meeting could indicate that their attention to education is waning, some observers said. But any such loss of interest could be offset by business groups and other political leaders that have rallied around state school improvement efforts over the past 12 years.

“More and more states are creating an education reform infrastructure of some stability,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.

In Texas, he said, a business coalition is one of the staunchest supporters of the state’s testing program. In other states, chief state school officers are working with governors instead of creating rival “individual fiefdoms,” as had been common until recent years, said Mr. Finn, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan.

Such forces may keep the movement to raise student achievement going even if governors turn their attention elsewhere, one education historian said.

“The real question is whether or not the governors have built a strong enough constituency so it’s still on the public’s agenda,” Patricia Albjerg Graham, a professor of education history at Harvard University, said in an interview last week.

A ‘To Do’ List for States

The list of tasks to be accomplished is long, said those who attended the latest summit. The effort also may lead states into policy arenas where they traditionally haven’t played a big role.

State officials need to provide teachers with curriculum materials designed to help students learn what they need to know to succeed on state exams, according to Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. If they don’t, they run the risk of losing teachers’ backing for standards-based instruction, she said.

“They feel like they’re under siege and without support,” the president of the 1 million-member union said during the summit. “You’ve got to have curriculum, and you’ve got to have professional development, or it’s not going to work.”

State leaders also need to find ways to assign their best teachers to the schools where student achievement is the lowest; otherwise, students in them will never learn to the levels states are aiming for, said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust. The Washington group works to eliminate achievement gaps between minority and white students.

“Governors are very much aware that there’s a problem,” Ms. Haycock said at the summit. “The challenge with them is convincing them that there is a lever for state policies, and then providing images of what they can do.”

For example, she said, states could insist that if schools are cited for low performance under accountability programs, all of the schools’ teachers must be fully certified.

In South Carolina, the promise of a $15,000 bonus has enticed qualified teachers away from high-achieving schools into more challenging ones in urban areas, said Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat. But the money hasn’t enticed teachers to uproot their families and start teaching in rural areas, he added.

That’s the type of problem state leaders will need to grapple with, suggested Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve, which has offices in Washington and Cambridge, Mass.

“The policy leaders are going to have to come to grips with a new set of issues,” Mr. Schwartz said. “This is nitty-gritty stuff. As tough as it is to get your arms around at the state level, governors and state leaders have to.”

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