Goals Work!

This year marks the tenth anniversary of an event that has helped change the nation's thinking about what we expect from our schools. That event was the first National Education Summit, an historic meeting between President George Bush and the nation's governors, held in Charlottesville, Virginia in September 1989. The Charlottesville Education Summit was significant because it was the very first time that a meeting between a President and the nation's governors focused on how to improve America's educational performance.

The need to improve the quality of American education was widely recognized during the early 1980s. High school students' average scores on most standardized achievement tests were lower than they had been two decades earlier. Verbal and mathematics scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) were in decline. U.S. students performed poorly in comparison to students in other countries on international mathematics and science assessments.

Concern about the nation's educational performance increased when the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned in its 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, that the skills and knowledge of the U.S. workforce would have to improve dramatically in order for the nation to remain internationally competitive. State-level organizations such as the National Governors' Association and the Southern Regional Education Board called for states to step up efforts to improve education. The time had come for serious discussion at the highest levels of leadership about ways to improve America's schools. The nation's economic future was at stake.

When the President and the governors met at Charlottesville in 1989, they agreed that the United States needed clear national performance goals and needed to launch an earnest state-by-state effort to improve education in order to attain them. National goals would provide a common direction for educational improvement in all states, yet still allow states and local communities to determine for themselves how best to achieve the desired results.

The 1989 Education Summit led to the adoption of six National Education Goals, later expanded to eight by Congress. Essentially, the Goals state that by the year 2000:

  1. All children will start school ready to learn.
  2. The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90%.
  3. All students will become competent in challenging subject matter.
  4. Teachers will have the knowledge and skills that they need.
  5. U.S. students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.
  6. Every adult American will be literate.
  7. Schools will be safe, disciplined, and free of guns, drugs, and alcohol.
  8. Schools will promote parental involvement and participation.

The National Education Goals Panel was formed shortly after the Goals were announced in 1990. The Panel was charged with reporting national and state progress toward the Goals, identifying promising practices for improving education, and helping to build a nationwide, bipartisan consensus to achieve the Goals.

The eve of the year 2000 and the ten-year anniversary of Charlottesville is an appropriate time to reflect upon what has taken place since that historic Education Summit was held and the National Education Goals were established. Has this bold venture to improve American education worked? We are convinced that it has. It is too soon to tell how close the nation and the states actually came to achieving the National Education Goals, since the Panel is awaiting a number of critical end-of-decade updates in key areas such as mathematics and science achievement and teacher education and professional development. However, we do already know that many of the purposes for setting National Education Goals have been achieved. State policymakers, members of the business community, and respected leaders in education affirm that the National Education Goals have helped stimulate critical education reforms that have moved the nation and the states forward. The Goals and the Goals Panel have helped this nation by:

  1. Focusing education improvement efforts on results;
  2. Sustaining strong, broad-based support for education reform over the last decade;
  3. Helping to launch and support academic standards;
  4. Supplying comparable data that enable states to monitor their progress toward the National Education Goals and to benchmark their educational performance against the best in the nation and the best in the world; and
  5. Informing local and state efforts nationwide to improve educational performance, particularly higher levels of student academic achievement and better learning environments for young children.

1. Focusing education improvement efforts on results.

The Charlottesville Education Summit was the very first time in the history of American education that national and state political leaders from both parties, with very diverse views on education reform, reached consensus on what the nation's highest education priorities should be. Setting National Education Goals effectively elevated education reform to the top of the public policy agenda. The Goals focused debate on what we needed to do in order to ensure that our students and our future workforce would be prepared to meet the technological, scientific, and economic challenges of the 21st century.

The Goals had a very important feature in common: they all focused on results. Higher levels of student achievement, particularly in mathematics and science, were among the most important results to be attained. However, better academic achievement was not the only result to be achieved. Boosting America's educational performance to internationally competitive levels would demand higher expectations at every stage of a learner's life, from the preschool years through adulthood. The National Education Goals acknowledged that better academic achievement by itself was not sufficient to meet the needs of the nation's children and to guarantee the continued growth and prosperity of the United States. The nation also wanted and needed:

  • young children who were healthier and better prepared for school and learning;
  • stronger links between home and school, and between school and work;
  • better qualified teachers;
  • safer schools;
  • higher rates of high school graduation;
  • responsible, literate, well-informed citizens; and
  • a productive, highly trained, and internationally competitive workforce.

Because the Goals focused on results, they helped change the way that states judged the success of their education systems. Previously, states were primarily concerned with monitoring inputs, such as funding and facilities, and compliance with rules and regulations. Today, desired results and accountability for student learning drive policy decisions. Thirty-six states now issue annual report cards on individual schools' performance, and five more are expected to do so by 2001. Nineteen states routinely identify low-performing schools as part of state accountability plans to target support and raise student achievement. The Goals Panel's own annual state-by-state reports have helped keep public interest in education high and helped exert pressure to improve results at the state level, where critical education decisions are made.

2. Sustaining strong, broad-based support for education reform over the last decade.

Historically, education reform efforts in the United States have not had much staying power. Changes in educators' priorities or leadership at the national, state, or local levels often signaled abrupt changes in the direction of education policy before the results of education reforms could be fully realized. Before Charlottesville, decade-long commitments to educational improvement were virtually unknown.

The National Education Goals are an exception. Although there have been changes in Presidential administrations, Congressional leadership, and the gubernatorial leadership of nearly every state during the past ten years, the National Education Goals have remained constant. The Goals Panel's bipartisan, intergovernmental structure has helped provide the consistency and continuity required to sustain a focus on long-term education improvement efforts. The Goals Panel is a unique federal-state partnership, balanced between Democrats and Republicans, whose members are drawn from the highest levels of political leadership: governors, members of Congress, state legislators, and representatives chosen by the President. These unique characteristics ensure bipartisan policy reports and implementation strategies that are essential to school reform efforts. In an era of intense opposition to federal intervention in state and local education decisions, states have been remarkably consistent in voluntarily adopting reforms that the Panel has encouraged, such as higher standards, more challenging assessments, and greater accountability for school performance and student learning.

The decade-long commitment to the National Education Goals applies to the American public, as well as to political leaders. A 1990 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll administered shortly after the Charlottesville Education Summit was held revealed widespread support for the Goals, even though Americans were skeptical that all of them could be met by the end of the decade. Public Agenda's 1998 review of public opinion data on education concluded that the public continues to believe that the educational improvements called for in the National Education Goals are important, and that achieving the Goals would benefit the nation and their communities.

3. Helping to launch and support academic standards.

Prior to the Charlottesville Education Summit, policymakers rarely discussed standards in education. Standards that did exist were usually set at very low levels to define minimally acceptable levels of performance for promotion to a higher grade or graduation from high school. These standards varied widely in both their scope and their quality from one school district to the next. Growing concern that American students were leaving school without the knowledge and skills that they would need for jobs of the future led to a resounding call for more challenging academic standards — ones that would clearly define what we expect all students to learn and the levels of performance that we expect them to achieve.

Over the past ten years the nation has witnessed an unprecedented level of effort at the national, state, and local levels to set more rigorous academic standards and design more challenging assessments. The National Education Goals Panel played an important role in supporting this movement, calling for the development of world-class, academic standards in key subject areas to inspire greater effort, encourage higher levels of achievement, and measure progress. In 1991, upon recommendation of the Goals Panel, Congress established a bipartisan National Council on Education Standards and Testing to consider the desirability and feasibility of developing national standards that described what all students should know and be able to do. The following year, the Council endorsed both the desirability and feasibility of establishing voluntary national education standards. The Council recommended that such standards should:

  • reflect high expectations, not minimal competency;
  • provide focus and direction, not become a national curriculum;
  • be national in scope, but not federally mandated; and
  • be dynamic, not static, in order to keep pace with the development of knowledge.

Following the release of the Council's report, the U.S. Department of Education, other federal agencies, and private foundations awarded grants to private professional organizations to begin a multi-year effort to develop voluntary national standards in key subject areas. These efforts followed the pattern established three years earlier by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, who were the first to create standards in their academic discipline. The Goals Panel convened an advisory group of experts to suggest specific guidelines that might be used to review the quality of proposed standards developed by these national professional organizations or by states. The advisors' 1993 report, Promises to Keep: Creating High Standards for American Students, proposed criteria to ensure that newly-designed standards were voluntary, academic, useful, adaptable, developed through a broad-based participatory process, and as challenging as standards established for students in other parts of the world.

The Goals Panel joined forces with numerous professional organizations, states, and school districts to advance standards-based reforms. Voluntary national standards have been created in the academic subjects specified in Goal 3, and have served as models or resources for the development of state and local standards. Every state but one has adopted challenging statewide standards in some subjects, and 40 have established standards in all four core subjects of English, mathematics, science, and social studies. Forty-eight states report that they have statewide assessment systems, and 39 states have aligned their assessments in one or more subject areas to measure progress against their standards. Though much work remains to be done, there is widespread agreement that the longevity and success of the academic standards movement to date have been extraordinary.

4. Supplying comparable data that enable states to monitor their progress toward the National Education Goals and to benchmark their educational performance against the best in the nation and the best in the world.

Concern about American competitiveness during the 1980s spurred interest in better comparative data that would allow states to benchmark their performance against the best in the nation and the best in the world. For six consecutive years leading up to Charlottesville, the U.S. Department of Education had published a Wall Chart, which ranked states on a variety of education indicators such as SAT and ACT college entrance test scores. These annual state rankings were widely criticized by state policymakers as unfair.

When the National Education Goals were adopted and the Goals Panel was charged with reporting progress toward their attainment, the Panel insisted that only comparable state data be reported to ensure that state comparisons were fair. The Panel also decided that its annual reports would focus on results, not how hard states were trying or the obstacles that hindered their progress. Given these requirements, the amount of information (particularly state-level information) that the Goals Panel could report at the beginning of the decade was meager. Consider, for example, just a few of the key indicators that did not exist prior to the 1989 Education Summit:

  • We had no comparable state-by-state data on student academic achievement.
  • We had no commonly accepted achievement levels or performance standards to tell us how many students were competent in challenging subject matter.
  • We had no comparable state-level data on high school completion or dropout rates.
  • We had no way to benchmark states against the highest-performing nations in the world in mathematics and science achievement.
  • We had no recent national data on the literacy skills of American adults and no comparable state-level literacy data at all.
  • We had no comparable state-level data on school crime, student drug use at school, and availability of drugs on school property.

We now have this information. By identifying serious gaps in our ability to measure progress toward the National Education Goals, the Goals Panel helped focus national, state, and local data collection efforts. Over the past ten years, both the quantity and the quality of education data, particularly at the state level, have improved markedly. In 1990, for example, Congress expanded the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to allow the reporting of comparable state-by-state results in mathematics. Since then, the overwhelming majority of states have participated voluntarily in eight state-level NAEP assessments in reading, writing, mathematics, and science. States can now benchmark their academic performance in all four core subjects against the highest-performing states in the nation, and they can benchmark their performance in mathematics and science against the highest-performing nations in the world.

During the same period, the National Assessment Governing Board established student achievement levels for NAEP in reading, writing, mathematics, science, civics, history, and geography, so that now we can characterize the level of performance students must reach in order to be considered competent in challenging subject matter. Comparable high school completion rates are now available for every state, and comparable dropout rates are available for 26 states. We now have baseline data on adult literacy rates for the nation and for 13 states. We now have comparable state data for more than 25 states on measures of school safety and student drug use. And we will soon have for the very first time, comprehensive national data on kindergartners and direct measures of their readiness for school.

The Goals and the work of the Goals Panel have also helped promote and build interest in international comparisons. When the Goals were announced there was considerable skepticism about our ability to attain “first in the world” status in mathematics and science achievement. However, according to one mathematics and science expert, “the formulation of Goal 5 and the steady annual reporting on it have helped to lend importance and credibility to international studies and comparisons, with people more willing to learn from the educational practices of other countries.

5. Informing local and state efforts nationwide to improve educational performance, particularly higher levels of student academic achievement and better learning environments for young children.

Although we are still awaiting end-of-the-decade updates and this report shows mixed results on many indicators, we already know that the nation has improved its educational performance in several important areas. Since the Goals were established, we have seen significant declines in the proportion of infants born with health risks, and significant increases in immunization rates among 2-year-olds. More parents are reading and telling stories regularly to young children. The gap in preschool participation rates between children from high-income and low-income families has narrowed. More 8th graders are proficient in reading and more 4th, 8th, and 12th graders are proficient in mathematics. The proportion of college degrees awarded in mathematics and science has increased for minority students and female students, as well as for all students. The percentage of students who report that they have been threatened or injured at school has decreased.

We also know that some individual states have made remarkable progress toward the Goals, and that some have made progress in multiple areas. Fifty states have increased the percentage of mothers receiving early prenatal care. Forty-nine states have increased the proportion of children with disabilities participating in preschool. Twelve states have reduced their high school dropout rates. Twenty-seven states have increased the percentage of 8th graders who are proficient in mathematics. Fifty states have increased the proportion of scores on Advanced Placement examinations that are high enough to qualify for college credit. Thirty-nine states have increased the percentage of their high school graduates who immediately enroll in college. Seventeen states have witnessed a significant increase in the influence of parent associations on public school policies. And 23 states have made significant improvements toward the National Education Goals on ten or more measures of progress.

The National Education Goals have prompted new investments in education and new federal and state legislation to raise expectations for all students and speed educational progress. New initiatives focused on young children have been mandated in the majority of states. The federal government has increased investments in early childhood programs such as child nutrition, immunization, Head Start, Even Start, and Early Head Start to improve the chances that children will arrive at school ready to learn. The federal student loan program has been improved to ensure continued access to higher education. Emphasis has been placed on the identification of promising and effective actions to achieve the National Education Goals, and on helping states, communities, and schools develop and implement comprehensive, long-term education improvement plans.

However, much remains to be accomplished. Progress has not been uniform across the Goals or across the states. Much more must be done, especially to strengthen teacher education and professional development, improve mathematics and science achievement in the upper grades, reduce student drug and alchohol use, and ensure that our schools are safe and orderly places of learning. Clearly, the Goals are very ambitious and will require continued and intensified effort to reach them. Nonetheless, the existence of the Goals has helped inspire the educational system at all levels to aim higher, to stretch further, and to expect more in order to improve performance. And that is, after all, the fundamental purpose of Goals.


We believe that the National Education Goals have moved America forward and, on balance, encouraged greater progress in education. We are clearer about what appropriate Goals are and how to measure progress toward them at the national and state levels. There is no doubt that the National Education Goals have encouraged a broad spectrum of educators, parents, students, business and community leaders, policymakers, and the public to work toward their attainment. Reporting progress toward the Goals has provided valuable information to states and inspired them to reach higher. Can we do better? Of course we can. But we are convinced that our gains have been greater because we have had National Education Goals to guide our efforts. Ten years of progress have shown us that the Goals are working.

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