The National Education Goals Panel:
Purposes, Progress, and Prospects
Richard F. Elmore
Graduate School of Education
This paper was prepared for the National Education Goals Panel. The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and not of the panel. I benefited greatly from the reading and discussion of the papers commissioned by the panel listed in the reference section of the paper and wish to thank the authors for their contribution to my work.
The National Education Goals Panel:
Purposes, Progress and Prospects
Richard F. Elmore
Graduate School of Education
Soon the National Education Goals Panel (NEGP) will recommend to the Congress of the United States whether the panel should continue to exist, and, if so, what its future purposes should be. This paper is intended to inform that discussion and decision. It is not, in any sense, a definitive evaluation of the panel. That would require a much more extensive analysis of the panelís work than I have been asked to do. This paper is instead an outsiderís perspective on the role the panel has played, set in the broader context of state, local, and national politics around education goals over the past decade or so. I am fairly straightforward in revealing my biases about this recent history, but I bring to this paper the perspective primarily of a analyst of politics and public policy around education, rather than an advocate of one position or another. The questions that shape this paper are, what can the National Education Goals Panel say to the public at large about (a) the progress of educational reform in the U.S., (b) progress of American schools on the goals set in 1989, and (c) the possible future of the educational goals themselves and the institutional structure for setting them and monitoring their achievement? I will set these questions in the context of the broader questions of, what purposes do educational goals serve in the U.S. at this juncture and how might those purposes be translated into an institutional structure that is consistent with the competing demands being placed on schools, school systems, and states in the present period of educational reform?
The paper is organized into three parts. The first discusses the significance of national goals for education in the context of the recent history of education policymaking in the U.S. The second part discusses some major lessons I think the panel should take away from the process of setting goals and measuring progress on them over the past decade or so. And the final part of the paper discusses some options for the future of the panel.
The Politics of Educational Reform and the Role of National Goals
Almost everything about education policy in the U.S. over the past fifteen years has changed significantly from the century or so that preceded it. Beginning with A Nation at Risk, and the handful of state reforms that immediately preceded it, the nation has undergone a seismic shift in its political posture toward elementary and secondary education. We have moved from a system that emphasized the autonomy of local boards of education and the tailoring of all curriculum and instruction to the demands of local communities to a system that emphasizes the interdependence of states and localities on basic decisions about what students should know and be able to do and what schools should do for students. We have moved from a system in which states focused mainly on providing and monitoring inputs to schooling-- financing, teacher certification, school facilities, etc.-- to a system in which states are playing a much more assertive role in monitoring school performance and developing alternative structures for the delivery of schooling, including charter schools, vouchers and various other market-based choice schemes. We have moved from a system in which there was virtually no discussion among state and local political leaders of what students actually learn in school and virtually no state-level information on student academic performance to a system in which governors and state legislators routinely discuss student performance on statewide tests and virtually all states now collect data on student performance routinely for every school in the state. We have moved from a situation in which performance-based comparisons among schools, among states, or between the U.S. and its major industrialized competitors were discussed only in academic circles to one in which such comparisons are now a routine feature of political discourse. The time has passed when teachers and administrators could work in relative obscurity, making judgments about what to teach and how to teach it with no external scrutiny-- although teachers and administrators may be the last to recognize this. The entire range of questions about what students are being taught in school, why, and with what demonstrable effect on their learning is now more or less open for public debate.
On some dimensions, this transformation is nearly complete. Virtually all states now have state-wide testing systems capable of producing performance data on individual schools. Virtually all states have some form of standards-- performance-based, content-based, or both-- to offer guidance to local schools and school systems. On some other dimensions, the transformation is far from complete. Perhaps a third of the states have developed, or are in the final stages of developing, well-articulated systems of standards, assessments, and accountability measures that can be used to make judgments about individual schoolís performance. More than half the states have charter school laws that offer a variety of arrangements for schools to operate in relative independence from the traditional regulatory structure. A few states, and a number of well-financed private entrepreneurs, have ventured into the provision of vouchers targeted on children from low-income families in urban centers. There are still major practical and political issues to be resolved between standards-based reforms and market-based reforms, and there are many political battles to be fought over the implementation of existing reforms. But the over-riding signal coming from state and national opinion leaders is that the old institutional structure of public education needs a substantial overhaul, that schools should become more focused on results for students, and that state policies should focus on accountability for student learning, rather than the input and process regulation that characterized policy in the past.
While the transformations have been substantial at the level of political rhetoric and policy, they have yet to work their way fully into the daily life of schools and local school systems in the same dramatic way. Virtually every state that has ventured into reform can show some evidence of improved student performance in at least some subjects at some grade levels in the early stages of reform. Some states have shown significant gains initially, followed by a flattening out. Much of the early experience of states with accountability systems consists of adjusting major parts of the systems to respond to implementation difficulties and political problems. As might be expected, the evidence on school-level results from state policy changes is often uneven in the early stages of reform; schools and districts have been far from consistent in their responses to the overall message of accountability for student performance. In this sense, the current reforms are at a critical stage: Schools and districts are beginning the complex and often painful process of adjusting to new expectations. A number of political constituencies inside and outside the public education establishment are watching policymakers closely for signs of equivocation and retreat. Teachers and principals are grappling with new demands, while at the same time calculating whether this reform, like so many others in the past, will eventually fade back into the existing institutional structure.
These transformations have also occurred in a typically American way. Education in the U.S., however important it might be as a national political issue, is primarily a matter of state and local policymaking. The reforms of the past fifteen years have generally strengthened the hand of states. This means that the fundamental feature of education reform in the U.S. is that, whatever it becomes, its meaning will be worked out the laboratory of federalism, by each of the fifty states finding its own resolution of the issues of school accountability, often drawing on the experience of other states, but always adjusting this experience to the particular demands of its own context.
Still, the remarkable feature of the present period of reform, compared with past periods, is the commonality of focus among state reforms. There are a number of possible explanations for this commonality. The most plausible and powerful explanation is a growing recognition on the part of governors and state legislators, as well as local corporate, community and political leaders, of the deep connection between the quality of education and the economic vitality of states and localities. We have known for some time that the economic returns to schooling for individuals are substantial-- earnings differentials between individuals who have been successful in school and those who havenít are substantial and have increased markedly over the past decades. The visibility of education reform as a political issue at the state and local level is testimony to the recognition of policymakers and community leaders that individual gains from schooling translate directly into gains in the overall quality of life of citizens in general, gains in revenue available for public and private investments, and increases in the competitive advantage of states and localities in national and international markets. In this sense, the U.S., through its state and local leadership, is coming to the recognition that our major European and Asian competitors came to in the aftermath of the second world war-- that deep and universal investments in human capital through elementary and secondary education are a fundamental tool of economic growth.
There are, of course, other explanations for the commonality of themes among state education reforms: a growing impatience with the sluggish responsiveness of public school bureaucracy to public demands for performance, when most other sectors of society-- public and private-- have long since become more responsive; alarm over the disparity in academic performance between children of poor and minority families and those of more affluent families; and impatience with increases in public expenditures on education at a rate of about thirty percent per decade over the last thirty years coupled with little evidence of increased student performance. Taken together, these factors add up to powerful new demands on public schools, which are translated through a multitude of political processes at the state and local level into a public consensus on the need for increased accountability for performance.
Another quite remarkable feature of the present period of education reform is the emergence of national debate on educational goals. The Charlottesville Summit of 1989 was a watershed event in the history of education policy in the U.S. Beginning with A Nation at Risk, and moving through the National Governorsí Associationís declaration of a new performance-based period of educational in the mid-1980s, it became possible to conceive of a national consensus on education reform, that would provide guidance and legitimacy for the myriad of state and local decisions that would have to be taken to transform public education. The Charlottesville Summit was the first time that national political leaders and governors convened face-to-face to work out the broad outlines of a bi-partisan political consensus that would guide reform. Not surprisingly, a key element of this consensus was an agreement to set national goals. Also, not surprisingly, the summit was accompanied by a good deal of grumbling on the part of various educational constituencies who felt they were not included in the developing consensus-- members of Congress, state legislators, business interests, teachersí unions, organizations of professional educators, and the like. Such are the realities of pluralist politics in education. But the over-riding significance of the Charlottesville Summit was that, for the first time in the history of American education, political leaders from both political parties, representing widely divergent constituencies, agreed upon a broad strategic framework, and a set of commitments, to guide the overall course of education reform.
The fate of this fragile consensus, in the years following the Charlottesville Summit, has been rocky, in a typically American way. The summit was followed by the construction of a set of national institutions, in the waning months of the Bush Administration and the early months of the Clinton Administration, which resulted in the passage of Goals 2000. This period was followed by a seeming evaporation of the bipartisan consensus on goals and institutions, and a significant retreat on major provisions of Goals 2000, following the highly partisan congressional elections of 1994. The issue of national leadership in education reform got tangled up, quite predictably, in fundamental issues of the federal governmentís role in leading reform, and, again quite predictably, Americansí abiding suspicion of anything resembling centralized authority over education won out. But, with remarkable resiliency, another summit occurred in 1996, this time with broad participation of corporate and political leaders, again accompanied by the grumblings of the unrepresented or the partially represented, which resulted, among other things, in the creation of Achieve, a voluntary national compact designed to provide guidance and support on a national level to states and localities in education reform.
The salience and importance of consensus on national goals for education reform, and on broad strategic guidance for state and local efforts, persists, even though policymakers seem highly ambivalent and divided on the exact institutional form this consensus should take. Any specific solution to this problem is bound to provoke political opposition and partisan wrangling in the pluralist political climate surrounding education in the U.S. What is truly remarkable about his period of reform, however, to any student of the history of educational policy in the U.S. is the persistence of the idea that education reform merits some kind of focused national debate and discussion among key political, professional, and community leaders at the state and local level to guide its overall course. Also truly remarkable about this period of reform is that, despite the partisan wrangling that has occurred around the exact form that national debate and discussion should take, many political and professional leaders have taken the idea of national consensus on educational reform seriously and have explicitly let that consensus guide their actions. Professional associations of educators have invested large amounts of effort in the creation of curriculum and performance standards that reflect essential agreement with the idea of performance-based accountability in schools. State and local educational leaders have invested considerable effort through their national associations in working out the specifics of new accountability systems. Private philanthropies and public research and development agencies have invested considerable resources in the creation of new forms of educational assessment and new curricula that reflect higher expectations for student learning. Commercial testing and educational materials vendors have begun deliberately to adapt their products to the new demands of state and local performance-based accountability systems. National consensus on goals and reform strategies may be fragile in a political and institutional sense, but it has definitely taken on a life of its own in the world at large. And national leadership around goals has clearly had some effect in legitimating the actions of public and private organizations.
In this context, the fate of the National Education Goals Panel seems quite important. Initially formed out of an agreement among governors and President Bush after the Charlottesville summit, and later given statutory authorization in Goals 2000, the NEGP has performed five main functions: (1) convening panels of experts to develop objective measures of progress on goals and to surface technical and administrative issues related to tracking the performance of schools on the goals; (2) providing periodic progress reports on the achievement of goals and the development of state and local reform strategies, using data organized around indicators developed by expert panels; (3) collaborating with, and providing guidance and support to, organizations representing key reform constituencies-- such as the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Alliance of Business-- as they develop the capacity of states and localities to monitor the effects of reform; (4) commissioning periodic special studies of key reform issues that inform debate on the progress of educational reform; and (5) serving as a convenor of public discussions on the progress of reform and progress toward the achievement of goals.
Over the course of its existence, the NEGP has also served as a model of how to construct and maintain a bi-partisan institution, representing diverse constituencies, as a forum for public debate on progress toward the goals and the course of reform in states and localities. The panelís initial membership was composed of six governors, equally divided by party; three members of Congress, two Republicans and one Democrat (all ex officio); the Secretary of Education and three other representatives of the President, all Republicans. In 1992, the composition was changed to include four members of Congress, all voting members, equally divided by party; eight governors (five Democrats, three Republicans); and two representatives of the President, both Republicans. Then in 1994, the panel expanded to include four state legislators, equally divided by party. The panel presently consists of eight governors (five Republicans, three Democrats); four members of Congress, equally divided by party, two Senate, two House; four state legislators, equally divided by party; and the Secretary of Education and staff of the White House Office of Domestic Policy, both Democrats. There are, of course, many important reform constituencies that are not represented on the panel, but the fact remains that the NEGP is the only remaining national institution focused on education reform with bi-partisan representation of political leaders across levels of government. This fact sends an important symbolic message about the importance of education reform as a bi-partisan political issue.
More important than the formal groundrules of bi-partisanship in the NEGP, however, is the fact that members of the panel represent very diverse views on educational reform. The states represented by governors and state legislators on the panel, for example, cover the full range of reform strategies currently underway around standards and choice. Panel members, likewise, represent very diverse ideological positions on reform. And they represent the full range of urban, rural, and suburban settings. Hence, the panel is, in some sense, a microcosm of the political environment of education reform in the U.S.
Having said this, however, it is important to add that the present political environment around educational reform in the U.S. is very different from the one in which the NEGP was initially established in 1990. Early attempts to create congressionally authorized national institutions to guide education reform in states and localities-- the National Council on Education Standards and Testing and the National Education Standards and Improvement Council-- proved impossible to sustain against political opposition to the threat of federal government intervention in state and local decisions about education. The emergence of Achieve, as a public/private, voluntary compact, has created another locus of activity monitoring the progress of reform, providing assistance to states, and stimulating cooperation. At the same time, key education groups-- notably the Council of Chief State School Officers-- have begun to play a more visible role in providing assistance to their constituencies on reform issues. And many of the interest groups that were convened by the NEGP around the measurement and monitoring of the goals-- the National Parent Teachers Association, the Business Roundtable, the Committee for Economic Development, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, and the like-- have taken up parts of the national reform agenda as their own and are acting independently with their constituencies. As the organizational landscape of education reform has changed, the specific role that NEGP plays in that landscape has become harder to define. Hence, the future of NEGP depends, to a large degree, on finding a productive niche in the complex and active array of national organizations that are working on reform issues. I will return to this issue in the final section of this paper.
Two main features distinguish the current period of education reform from earlier periods: (1) a seismic shift in the focus of education policy toward accountability for performance by schools and school systems, which brings with it, quite logically, a focus on goals and standards; and (2) a dramatic, if somewhat fragile, bi-partisan national consensus among state, local, business, and community leaders on the necessity for broad-scale reform focused on accountability for performance. The country has struggled, in typical American fashion, to give institutional form to these features. Of all the institutions created in the aftermath of the Charlottesville Summit to exemplify national concerns about goals, performance, and accountability in schools, the NEGP is the only one still standing; its agenda and its composition reflect the original idea behind the Charlottesville Summit of mobilizing support among political leaders from diverse points of view around a strategic view of education reform.
What Have We Learned from the Goals Process?
The original idea behind the NEGP was, like most policy innovations, appealingly simple. The President and the governors would set national goals for education, in terms broad enough to challenge political leaders and educators to move an ambitious reform agenda in a diverse federal system, but specific enough to frame real challenges well beyond the existing capacity of states and localities. These goals would be turned over to panels of experts, who would formulate more specific measures by which progress could be monitored. Then the NEGP would periodically assess progress, in the aggregate, on the goals and release reports that would focus public debate and action at the state and local level. Being explicit about goals, and systematically measuring progress on them, would, in the end, galvanize public opinion, political leadership, and institutional capacity to meet them.
As with most policy innovations on this scale, the results have been rather different from the initial intentions, but, in a way, much more interesting and informative than originally anticipated. From the perspective of changes in measured performance, the goals process has been mixed, to say the least. In some areas-- Goal 1, for example, which states that all children shall arrive at school ready to learn-- there has been significant, measurable progress on various indices of child welfare and school readiness, despite the persistence of high levels of childhood poverty. (Kagan 1998) In other areas-- for example, Goal 3, which sets expectations for elementary and secondary student performance in basic academic subjects, and Goal 5, which states that U.S. students will be "first in the world" in math and science by the year 2000-- progress has been, under the most generous interpretations, spotty and far short of expectations. (Resnick 1998; Raizen 1998) In still other areas-- for example, Goal 2, on high school completion, Goal 7, on safe and drug-free schools, and Goal 6, on adult literacy and workforce preparation-- it has been difficult to judge performance, given the existing state of monitoring and measurement in states and localities, and the main contribution of the goals process has been to focus energy and attention on the creation of new information systems. (Valdivieso 1998; Porter 1998; Barton 1998) And in some areas-- for example, Goal 4, on teacher preparation and professional development, and Goal 8, on parent partnerships and involvement-- progress seems to have consisted mainly of focusing constituency groups on articulating state-of-the-art practices, rather than on producing major changes in results. (Imig 1998; Powell 1998) A simple, one-page summary of performance against goals, on the basis of existing evidence, would almost certainly deliver a largely pessimistic message. This is probably an important message for the panel to deliver, and I will say more about this issue later.
But a simple summary of measured performance against goals doesn't begin to capture the amount of learning that has taken place around the goals process since its inception. I will try to give one formulation of this learning in a series of brief summaries. I am sure others, who have been closer than I to the goals process, will have different lists, but mine represents an outsiderís view.
Different Goals Serve Different Purposes for Different Constituencies. One remarkable feature of the process of defining measurable indicators for each of the goals, and periodically reporting on them, is the degree to which these activities mobilized diverse constituencies. The technical groups for each goal represented not just experts in a given area but also key individuals and organizations involved in reform activities. Hence, the work of the technical groups tended to influence and be influenced by broader reform activities. But this mobilization had very different effects for the constituencies associated with different goals. In some areas, the technical groups had a major influence in defining the measurement and reporting systems required to track goals. In Goal 2-- high school completion-- for example, the group played a major role in creating consensus on definitions of high school completion, clarifying the role that GED completion should play in measuring progress, identifying and calling attention to the minority/non-minority gap in completion, and influencing the nature of national data bases. (Valdivieso 1998) In Goal 7-- school safety-- the group played a major role in identifying reliable data sources in a very murky and difficult area, and in bringing coherence and continuity to measurement. (Porter 1998)
In still other areas, the measurement and reporting function of the goals was less important than the creation of consensus around dimensions of the problem and actions. In Goal 1-- early childhood and readiness to learn-- for example, the technical group readily identified key indicators, but quickly moved on and established a role for itself in growing public attention to pre-school child development. Goal 4 served as a point of mobilization for national teacher organizations and organizations representing institutions of higher education. In both instances, the measurement and reporting function of the goals was subsidiary to the function of mobilizing an focusing professional knowledge and advocacy.
On the key student achievement goals-- Goal 3-- academic proficiency in basic subjects, and Goal 5-- math and science-- the technical groups and the NEGP in general have had to carve out a role in a field where there has been a great deal of reporting and comment on student achievement data. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) routinely reports results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 1997, the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) began to appear, again under the sponsorship of NCES. The technical group for Goal 3 proposed, early in the process, a plan for national standards and measures of proficiency in basic academic subjects, which would have put the NEGP in a position of overseeing an independent measurement system with its own data sources. This idea did not materialize. The consequence was that NEGP was left in the position of relying on data sources that other agencies routinely report on their own; finding a niche in this environment-- publishing data in a form that adds value to the public debate-- has been somewhat difficult. This remains a strategic issue for the panel. On balance, though, Goals 3 and 5 did not create the kind of constituency that other goals created, probably because they were broad in nature, and other agencies had a major role to play in the same arena.
So part of the learning that has occurred in the goals process has taken the form of increased sophistication about the measurement and reporting of major social trends related to education, coupled with the creation of consensus in professional communities about whatís worth measuring and why. This capacity, in itself, is a valuable outcome of the goals process, although it might not be visible to political leaders and the public at large. The creation of professional consensus on measurement and reporting issues can be very valuable to policymakers, since it can reduce the noise that results from methodological bickering among experts when data are publicly released.
Indicators, Even Good Ones, are Not Always Valid Measures of the Progress of Reform. Another major lesson of the goals process is the imperfect connection between measuring things are socially important, on the one hand, and tracking the progress of reform, on the other. From its conception, the idea of national goals for education collapsed these two ideas together: Political leaders would set goals that tracked with the reform agenda underway in states and localities, and data on progress toward the goals would be the same thing as data on the progress of reform. In fact, there are at least two big problems with this view.
First, there may be large changes in demographic factors that overwhelm anything that reformers are doing in influencing key indicators. In the readiness-for-school goal, for example, there has been steady progress on some indicators, such as childhood immunization, but the big factor that drives readiness-for-school is childhood poverty, which is much more heavily influenced by marriage and divorce rates, female labor force participation, child support enforcement, and welfare policy than by anything the early childhood sector can do to promote readiness. High school completion is another example. Probably the single largest factor that will influence aggregate performance on high school completion in the near future is the emergence of a large population of Hispanic students with higher school drop-out rates than the rest of the youth population. Schools may be improving their processes for engaging students, and, in fact, be improving school completion rates for all populations of students, but the entry of a new population of students with a higher risk of dropping out could lower school completion, even if schools were being more successful with that population. In a similar vein, one analysis of NAEP results suggests that there have been significant improvements in measured performance for virtually all population groups since the 1970s, despite the fact that aggregate results donít show them. The reason for the disparity between sub-group and aggregate performance is that some of the gains are in low-performing groups of students who are an increasing proportion of school population, hence, despite the fact they are gaining, their increasing incidence in the population lowers the aggregate measures. (Kagan 1998; Valdivieso 1998; Resnick 1998)
Second, the reform agenda may play itself out in very different ways in different states and localities, and these changes in policy and institutions may not be picked up by aggregate measures of broad goals. One example will suffice to illustrate. While there is a common pattern across virtually all states engaged in standards-based reform to focus on measured academic achievement in basic academic subjects, different states take very different approaches to how they organize accountability around standards. Some states monitor aggregate, or average, student performance by school. Some states monitor the performance of specific groups of students, and attach differential attention and rewards to gains with low-performing populations of students and low-performing schools. Some states evaluate schools based on short-term progress measured by relatively narrow tests; some states evaluate schools based on their progress toward ten- and twenty-year improvement goals connected to ambitious measures of performance. So the common pattern of focus on academic performance is deceptive, since aggregate data on student performance overall may conceal major successes and failures of state reforms attributable to variations in the design of reforms.
These possible disconnections between goals and indicators, on the one hand, and the effects of reform, on the other, suggest that any attempts to monitor national progress on educational goals should always be coupled with a major investment in social intelligence on changes in demography and variations in the detailed design of reform that could influence overall estimates of progress. These issues have surfaced through the expert groups convened by NEGP. But one could argue that there should much more deliberate and systematic attention to these issues, and much more public discussion of their consequences for how we evaluate the progress of reform.
Clear Goals are Not Necessarily Good Goals. There is a tendency among advocates of goals to think that clarity is an unalloyed virtue. After all, how can you know whether youíre making progress unless youíre clear about where youíre going? The experience with national education goals suggests otherwise. The most obvious example is Goal 5-- first-in-the-world in math and science. I have no knowledge of the origins of this goal, but it represents a good example of how the form of a goal can shape public perceptions in ways that are not necessarily productive and can actually work against progress in reform-- all within the context of a very clear statement. We now know substantially more than we did ten years ago about the performance of American students in math and science relative to students in other countries, largely as a result of the release of the initial TIMSS results. Most experts on international achievement comparisons, I suspect, would have been highly skeptical of the first-in-the-world formulation even ten years ago. But we now know that this form of the goal is not even remotely within range for the foreseeable future. Overall, American students do relatively poorly across the board in international comparisons in math and science; we do worse in later grades where higher-level content is taught than in lower grades; and we do very poorly in our so-called "advanced" courses, which most Americans thought were where we were most internationally competitive. Under these conditions, the first-in-the-world goal is completely meaningless, and it serves only to focus attention on the most pessimistic construction of our problems in math and science, rather than setting expectations that will demonstrate significant progress.
It is clear that the math/science problem is deeply rooted in several systemic problems of American education: teachers who themselves are often uncomfortable with the content they are required to teach and uncredentialled to teach it in many cases; ability grouping and tracking schemes in schools that move large numbers of students out of the stream of challenging content; diffuse and watered-down curricula and textbooks; and generally low expectations among students, parents, and professionals about what students are capable of learning. This is the sort of problem that is tailor-made for national goals. It is present in every school, local community, and state in the country. It involves the most fundamental questions of access to learning. And it is extremely serious by any measure. But the very seriousness of the problem suggests that the goal should be constructed not as an international comparison but as a statement about the level and type of content to which students should be exposed and the progress we expect to see on students' exposure to the content and their resulting academic performance. Such a goal might look much less specific that the first-in-the-world formulation, but it would be much more aligned to the actual nature of the problems we face.
Some goals seem specific enough on their face, but lack clarity of institutional focus that makes them compelling as instruments of change. An example of this issue is Goal 6-- adult literacy and lifelong learning. The goal itself seem clear enough without falling into the trap of working against improvement. And the indicators that the technical group came up with seem plausible. The problem with the goal is that it sprawls across a huge number of institutional providers of adult education, literacy training, occupational training, as well as colleges and universities that provide both general and specific forms of higher education. It is difficult from reading the goal to locate where the action would be if one wanted to do something about it, and which constituencies would have to be mobilized to change conventional wisdom and practice in a systemic way. Often relatively specific goals conceal enormously complex institutional structures that simply can't be mobilized in any coherent way around a common purpose.
The collective experience of NEGP and its expert committees is such that it should be possible to come up with restatements of goals that reflect the knowledge accumulated over the past eight years and that do not represent a retreat on the original commitments embodied in the goals. The NEGP could, based on its experience, set out some expectations for what goals should look like, including the degree to which they define progress and the degree to which they identify who the key actors and institutions are whose action is required to address the goal.
Good Goals are a Compound of Expertise and Political Judgment. A corollary of the above conclusion is that good goals require a careful meshing of technical expertise with political judgment. The range of expertise that should be brought to bear on the process of goal-setting includes knowledge of measurement issues, complex national and international data systems, the content and implementation of state and local reforms across multiple sectors, and the design of state and local accountability systems. What this expertise contributes to the process of goal-setting is an understanding of what is currently measured, what could be measured, what the likely results would be under various formulations of goals, and what types of goals and indicators would capture the attention of various institutions and actors. But this kind of expertise is of little use unless it is coupled with political judgment, carried by people who actually hold public office. Political judgment adds important knowledge about what formulations of goals and indicators are likely to divide or unify competing political interests, what the concerns of elected and appointed officials are, and what their constituencies are telling them.
The process the NEGP has used to state objectives and indicators and to monitor progress on goals has been a reasonably good model for meshing technical expertise and political judgment. It is easy to overlook the fact that the very existence of NEGP, as a forum where technical expertise and political judgment get worked out around a common set of concerns, is important in the institutional structure of American politics around education. Just as there are few, if any, other places where broad strategic issues of education get discussed by people representing differing political parties and differing levels of government, so too are there few places that bring technical and political judgment together around educational issues in the way the NEGP does.
We Probably Do Get What We Measure, Whether We Want it or Not. It is easy to be pessimistic about the course of education reform in the U.S. and about the influence of goals on that course over the past ten years or so. Education reform is proceeding in a typically American fashion-- decision making is dispersed in fifty states and 16,000 local jurisdictions, different states and localities are at very different stages of development, state and local politics around reform often has a two-steps-forward-one-step-back quality, and the results of reform in student performance are spotty and erratic. Over a broader historical perspective, however, it is clear that when political leaders articulate relatively clear expectations for schools, and create incentives that reinforce those expectations, broad-scale changes occur. The U.S. has gone from a high school completion rate of under 50% in the 1950s (a period often characterized as the "good old days" by traditionalists) to a current high school completion rate of over 85%. We did this, of course, in large part by instituting compulsory attendance, measuring student attendance, and basing school funding on attendance. This now seems like a narrow and antiquated way of setting goals and rewarding their attainment, because in increasing school attendance and completion we uncovered a host of other problems having to do with the quality of instruction and student learning. In focusing on compulsory attendance, of course, we also created an incentive structure that rewards schools primarily for the enrollment they generate, rather than what they contribute to student learning. Would we have discovered these present problems if we had not made progress on the earlier problem of school attendance? Not likely.
Likewise in the 1960s and 1970s, states, localities, and the federal government went through a wrenching period of paying attention to the distribution of educational opportunity among previously under-served groups. Among the things we did during this period was begin to develop a measurement system at the federal level and in the states that was based, to a large degree, on which is now called minimum competency. A large part of the effort of schools, after a fashion, went into teaching very low-level skills to students who were determined to be in need of remediation, and, sure enough, over a period of time, low-level skills rose for low-income and minority students. In doing this, of course, we also institutionalized low academic expectations for a very large proportion of the student population-- a problem current reforms are designed to reverse. Would we have discovered the problem of higher-level skills if we had not focused initially on minimum competency? Probably not.
Our pessimism about the current state of reform and national goals, then, should be tempered by an historical appreciation of the fact that we have actually gotten what we have asked for and measured in the past, whether we want it now or not. At any given moment, the complex structure of governance and administration for American education looks impenetrable; over the longer sweep of history, it has actually been quite responsive to major shifts in public demand. A critical ingredient in these shifts has always been some form of leadership from professionals, public officials, and opinion leaders-- which, of course, leads to my conclusions about the NEGP.
What the NEGP Can Say to the Public About Educational Goals and Their Future?
By now, my biases should be clear. I think the goals process and the NEGP have been a relatively successful experiment in education, in a typically American way. The process of creating a new set of institutions to state and monitor progress on national goals has been messy, at times highly partisan, and pluralistic, but it has managed to sustain some level of discussion on the purposes and performance of American schools. And it has managed to do so in the context of a bi-partisan institution that represents considerable diversity in its composition. These things are probably well worth preserving. But whether they are preserved depends on whether they generate political support from various constituencies and the Congress.
In terms of the goals themselves, it is important for the NEGP to deliver a clear message that performance has been disappointingly sparse on many important dimensions, especially on those having to do with student performance in basic academic subjects. There is no particularly polite or subtle way to deliver this message, and any attempt to doll it up will only reduce the panelís credibility. It is also important, however, to explain to the public that there is abundant evidence that states and localities are facing the problems of low performance in schools, that there are significant policy changes underway, and that there is preliminary evidence that some states and localities are raising student performance. Having said this, then, I think the panel has the credibility to say that there is some good news in the details of goals and indicators.
In terms of the future of the panel and the goals, I think the panel and the Congress confront a number of important strategic questions. I wonít pretend to decide how these questions should be answered, or to second-guess the fate of the panel, but I will lay them out.
Whatís the NEGPís Niche? It is probably appropriate for the panel and the Congress to revisit the panelís functions in light of the current state of play around education reform. As noted above, the NEGP has focused on (1) convening experts to develop measures on the progress of reform; (2) providing periodic progress reports on the goals; (3) collaborating with, and provide guidance and support to, other national organizations in the development of capacity for reform; (4) commissioning periodic special studies of key reform issues; and (5) serving as a convenor for public discussions on the progress of reform. These seem like plausible functions for the future of the panel, but the relative emphasis of the panel's future work might change depending on the landscape of other organizations involved in reform at the national level and the nature of the problems that surface through the monitoring of progress. For example, the relative emphasis might shift from periodic progress reports to special studies of key reform issues as states and localities develop more experience in implementing various reforms and as instances of successful policy and practice become more available. The panel might also play a more visible role in helping to shape the national agenda on big issues that fall out from routine monitoring of progress, such as the math/science performance problem, the problem of differential rates of attainment and completion for different groups of students, and the role of teacher preparation and professional development in increasing student academic performance.
From my perspective the NEGPís comparative advantage in the array of national reform institutions is its bi-partisan, multi-level representation and its ability to combine technical expertise with political judgment. Capitalizing on this comparative advantage means focusing the panelís work on issues where communicating bi-partisan consensus will shape the policy debate at the state and local level.
Re-Write the Goals? There are clearly some good reasons-- political and substantive-- for revisiting the language of the original goals. Opening up the process of formulating goals, of course, invites all sorts of political complications-- multiple constituencies lobbying for their own goals, jockeying for more or less demanding or more or less clear language, etc. It also raises the question of what the proper forum is for legitimating new goals or new statements of old goals, since the panel didn't frame the original goals but received them from the governors and the President at the Charlottesville Summit. But clearly there are some major substantive issues with the way some of the goals are written that should be fixed if the goals are really intended to be serviceable guides for future action. If I were designing the process, I would focus it on the criteria outlined above -- the degree to which the goals define what progress should look like and the degree to which they identify who the key actors and institutions are whose action is required to address them.
One major problem that is clearly brooding underneath the accumulated data around the goals is the problem of equity of access and performance for different groups of students. The original goals did not explicitly state equity-focused expectations; they seemed to embody the view that improving all students' performance would equally benefit everyone. This is clearly not the case. It is quite possible that the legacy of standards-based reform will be an increase in disparities of performance between low-income, minority students and their more advantaged peers. This could happen because standards are being implemented in schools and school systems with widely varying capacities for improvement, and often the schools with the lowest capacities are those with the students most in need of more concentrated effort to meet higher expectations. So a major strategic issue in the reconsideration of the goals, if it occurs, will be how much and what to say about the problem of inequalities in performance among different types of students.
Barton, Paul. 1998. "Goal 6: Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning: An Assessment of the 1990's and Prospects for the Future." Paper prepared for the National Education Goals Panel.
Imig, David. 1998. "Professional Development: Accomplishments Made and Proposals for the Future National Educational Goals Panel." Paper prepared for the National Education Goals Panel.
Kagan, Sharon Lynn. 1998. "Examining Children's Readiness for School: Progress Over the Decade-- A Report to the National Education Goals Panel." Paper prepared for the National Education Goals Panel.
Porter, John. 1998. "Report on Goal Seven." Paper prepared for the National Education Goals Panel.
Powell, Douglas. 1998. "Promoting Parent-School Partnerships: Progress in Meeting National Goal 8." Paper prepared for the National Education Goals Panel.
Raizen, Senta. 1998. "Goal 5: Mathematics and Science." Paper prepared for the National Education Goals Panel.
Resnick, Lauren. 1998. "Student Achievement and Academic Standards." Paper prepared for the National Education Goals Panel.
Valdivieso, Rafael. 1998. "National Education Goal Two: Trends, Accomplishments, Prospects." Paper prepared for the National Education Goals Panel.