Goals 2000 Skirts Equity Issues

By Bob Peterson

Perhaps my skepticism of Goals 2000 has its roots in the fact that George Bush was the first president to endorse it. Or maybe because it has its origins in a group of governors most of whom know little about education. Regardless, my skepticism hardened considerably after opening an information packet from the Edison Project — a for-profit company seeking to run public schools — to find an excerpt from President Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union message in which he said, “Our Goals 2000 proposal will empower individual school districts to experiment with ideas like chartering their schools to be run by private corporations.”

While singling out that aspect may be misleading, the 400-page legislation that was signed by President Clinton this April is sure to contain a paragraph or two to please almost anyone. Officially known as Goals 2000: American Education Act , the law has such a broad scope and is such a mixture of lofty promises and petty compromises that its long-term effect on key issues such as assessment and standards is murky at best.

Goals 2000, as it is commonly called, has a curious origin for a piece of federal legislation. Its key elements were forged at a 1989 education summit between President Bush and the National Governor’s Association, led by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. The main difference between the Bush and Clinton versions is that private school “choice” was dropped — a move that doomed the entire effort in the eyes of some pro-voucher forces.

Many have noted that Goals 2000 signals a potentially significant increase in Washington’s role in education. “For the first time in the entire history of the United States,” Clinton said when signing the bill, our nation “is to set world-class education standards for what every child in every American school should know in order to win when he or she becomes an adult. We have never done it before; we are going to do it now because of this bill.”

The legislation originally established six national education goals for the year 2000 and two more were added by Congress. The goals are:

  1. All children will start school ready to learn.
  2. The high school graduation rate will be at least 90%.
  3. Students will leave grades four, eight, and 12 with demonstrated competence in English, math, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.
  4. Teachers will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their skills.
  5. U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement.
  6. All adults will be literate.
  7. Schools will be free from drugs, firearms, alcohol and violence.
  8. Every school will promote involvement of parents in their children’s education.

There will also be voluntary assessment procedures for the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades to accompany the national standards.

Goals 2000 also created three boards or councils:

  • A 19-member National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC).
  • An 18-member National Education Goals Panel to monitor progress toward the goals.
  • A National Skill Standards Board to develop work-related standards, testing, and certification system.

Reaction to the Bill

The National Education Association has lauded the bill, arguing that it signals a national role in defining quality education. “That’s a first — and it’s welcome,” says NEA President Keith Geiger.

A number of conservatives, particularly those with more libertarian leanings, have characterized the bill as a scheme to nationalize education. Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), for instance, has charged that the bill “effectively ends 350 years of local educational liberty in America.”

Neoconservative icon Irving Kristol echoed a common conservative complaint that the bill was fatally flawed because language about “opportunity-to-learn” standards, which raises the issue of equitable resources, was added.

Chester Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute who served as assistant secretary of education during the Reagan administration, argued that the bill’s problem is that it is not tied to a policy of school “choice” and deregulation. Finn supports voluntary national standards, as do a number of other education conservatives.

But he added this pro-voucher caveat in a Hudson Institute publication: “These goals can only be reached when everyone — governors, mayors, school boards, principals and teachers — is free to get there as they think best.”

Criticisms and cautions from a variety of progressive educators fall into four main categories: funding, the goals, the national curriculum standards, and “opportunity to learn” standards.

Areas of Concern

Funding and equity: The legislation, which takes effect July 1, does not significantly increase federal spending on education. Of the $105 million allocated in the first year, approximately $91 million will go to states to help finance model projects — or about $2.11 each for the nation’s 43 million elementary and secondary school students.

“The bill does not level with the American people about the crucial issue of funding,” argues a critique by Designs for Change, a Chicago group supporting the reform effort in that city. “…Further, Department of Education officials have stated that funding for elementary and secondary education will be stagnant for the next four years, assuring that any substantial funding that is put behind this bill will have to be taken from other programs, most probably from federal Chapter 1.

“Most disturbing, the bill does not even mention the issue of unequal resources among school districts and schools, let alone require some form of resource equity as the basis for an equitable opportunity to learn.”

The Lofty Goals: The eight educational goals are so broadly stated that they engender little disagreement. But they remain mere platitudes, with no real commitment to fund the jobs, social services, and education programs necessary to reach them.

It’s also problematic that while the goals include a few general statements about academic equity in their objectives, in the rest of the act there is little of substance about how such equity is actually going to be achieved.

Opportunity to Learn: Much to the dismay of conservatives, liberal Democrats in Congress included reference to “opportunity to learn” standards. Their thinking was that it is unfair to hold children and schools to content or performance standards if the “opportunities” they have in terms of resources, funding, and physical facilities are inadequate.

Thus, it is reasoned, the government should institute “opportunity to learn” standards bringing all people up to an equitable playing field.

Conservatives were able to water down references to the “opportunity to learn” standards to such a degree, however, that they are nearly meaningless. The law allows states to adopt “standards” or “strategies” for providing all students with an opportunity to learn and to include items which are deemed appropriate by the state. Further, implementation of any such standards or strategies is voluntary, and no federal funds were allocated to prod states reluctant to take up the issue of equitable resources.

National Standards: The most important question is not the existence of standards, but the meaningfulness of those standards — an issue that must be resolved in practice. The key question is, who is defining the standards and for what purpose.

Creating standards at a national level holds particular dangers, given the top-down nature of such a process and the disproportionate lobbying power of business interests. While various national curricular associations have a number of helpful and exciting ideas, it is unclear whether developing curricular goals should be closely linked to a process of developing “national standards” — a process having as much to do with political as educational agendas. Further, there must be flexibility in how local districts, parents, and teachers are able to decide how they want to use such curricular goals.

The most developed standards are from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and have been viewed positively by many educators. The national math standards, with an emphasis on problem-solving, already are influencing textbook publishers. Given the mediocre quality of math textbooks, this can only be an improvement. On a more dismaying note, standards that were proposed for art were ridiculed for their extreme specificity and unrealistic objectives. Even professional musicians said they would have difficulty attaining some of the goals that were set for high school students: achieving such mastery of music as to perform in “five distinct styles of Western art or popular music and at least three styles not derived from the Western music tradition.”

Another key issue is whether the standards will lead to a new battery of assessments which, in turn, could rigidify the curriculum as teachers are forced to “teach to the test” rather than meet their students’ needs. This fear is heightened by the bill’s call for assessments at the 4th, 8th and 12th grade. Although there is increasing emphasis on new forms of “authentic” assessment based on things such as project demonstrations, writing samples, and portfolios, concerns remain.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a Professor of Education at Columbia University in New York City, notes that the fundamental issue is what the assessments will be used for. Will they be yet another gate-keeping mechanism used to sort out low-income and minority students? As she wrote recently in the Harvard Education Review, “Testing students will not provide accountability in education while some students receive only a fraction of the school resources that support the education of their more privileged counterparts. For all students to receive high-quality instruction from highly qualified teachers, financial investments in schooling must be equalized across rich and poor communities.

Bob Peterson is an editor of Rethinking Schools and teaches fifth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee.