Comment by Michael W. Kirst
Robert B. Schwartz and Marian A. Robinson offer a significant contribution to the historical understanding of the federal role in establishing and moving toward national goals. The Goals 2000 legislative debate was the most high-profile initiative of the early Clinton administration but has faded from the limelight as the administration and the Republican Congress have pursued other issues. I agree with the authors that it would be best for the administration to declare victory (whether justified or not) and move on to new grant approaches. Goals 2000 has been lost as a Clinton priority and overtaken by more general aid strategies such as class-size reduction and school construction. The year 2000 is almost here, so another target date is needed to meet the goals if this focus is to continue.
As the paper reveals, it is impossible to isolate the distinctive contribution of Goals 2000 legislation to the rapid spread of standards-based state and local policy. Goals 2000 has helped, but how much is uncertain. The state-level funding was only 10 percent of the total, but it added flexible state money for test and standards development as well as systemic initiatives that state categoricals rarely permit. But 90 percent of the money was allocated to local school districts and its effectiveness was problematic. The General Accounting Office did not provide the authors with the grant applications, and the summary statistics do not reveal much. The California local grants were often add-on projects that did [End Page 206] not focus on broad Goals 2000 activities or systemic reform. Small amounts of Goals 2000 money could easily get lost in a blizzard of state initiatives in California and other states. As education has become the nation's top issue, states have passed many bills to fix education, in addition to Goals 2000.
Goals 2000 was headed in the same direction as the recent intensive state reform activity on standards. Goals 2000 reinforced three key reforms that have had mixed results:
1. Challenging academic standards for what all students should know and be able to do. Forty-six states by 1999 had done this in most academic subjects--a remarkable change in the historic state role.
2. Aligning policies--such as testing, teacher certification, and professional development--and accountability programs to state standards. All states but Iowa and Nebraska had statewide student achievement tests in 1999, and most were addressing the other systemic components.
3. Restructuring the governance system to delegate overtly to schools and districts the responsibility for developing specific instructional approaches that meet the broadly worded academic standards for which the state holds them accountable. Only a handful of states have done this.
Known as standards-based systemic reform, the overarching objectives of this policy approach are to foster student mastery of more rigorous, challenging academic content and to increase the emphasis on its application. More data are available on what states did to galvanize standards-based reform than local districts, but local districts got 90 percent of the Goals 2000 money.
Goals 2000 was one aspect of a multipronged federal strategy to stimulate systemic standards-based reform. The National Education Goals Panel (NEGP) began in 1991 to monitor progress on meeting the education goals that came out of the 1989 Charlottesville, Virginia, education summit between President George Bush and the governors. But the NEGP role is not clearly linked in the paper to the Goals 2000 legislative evolution. Is there a rationale for continuing NEGP as a separate federal organizational unit, or should it fade away like Goals 2000? It is not clear why the U.S. Education Department--specifically, its National Center for Education Statistics--could not update progress toward the goals after 2000, which is the main task of NEGP. [End Page 207]
Goals 2000 legislation was eclipsed in 1995 by Clinton support for a voluntary national test (VNT). This proposed fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math test, however, has never been authorized, because of bipartisan opposition. Clinton tried to use the VNT as another installment in the attempt to enhance the federal role in standard setting. A logical successor to Goals 2000, it ended up stymied by a rare congressional coalition of conservative Republicans, blacks, and Hispanics. The Republicans were wary of excessive federal control from the VNT, and the minority Democrats were concerned about lack of opportunity to learn the content of the federal test in low-income schools.
This inability to build a federal policy upon and around Goals 2000 has left a murky view of the proper federal role. Goals 2000 envisioned the federal role as featuring systemic reform. Consequently, recent reconsideration of the systemic concept has added to the political problems associated with aligning national tests with national standards. The current federal role is a mélange of categorical widgets that have accumulated over the past thirty-five years. In 1970 the federal role seemed to focus upon special-needs students (Title I, handicapped, bilingual) rather than general unrestricted aid to schools. But recent Clinton initiatives are general-aid oriented, such as class-size reduction and construction. Even more narrow categories are increasing such as after-school and computer grants. Goals 2000 clearly has not been an overall framework for a new and improved federal role. Standards-based reform began at the state level in the 1980s, briefly was a federal issue through Goals 2000 and the VNT, and now appears to have returned to the states for the foreseeable future. The federal role remains confused and opportunistic, but Goals 2000 does not seem to be the answer to the problems.