Bush Effort to Set Goals For Education Earns Praise
But skeptics wonder if programs will match his rhetoric. THE WHITE HOUSE
WASHINGTON — THE national goals George Bush has outlined for education are sweeping and ambitious. Education analysts generally see the White House approach as methodical and valuable in first establishing national goals and ways to measure progress.
The sustained attention from top levels of the Bush White House alone is invaluable, in the view of many educators.
Skeptics - including some leading congressmen - look for programs and new money to match his rhetoric but don't see them.
The goals laid out in the State of the Union address last week have been hammered out between White House staff and a handful of state governors since before the unprecedented education summit of the president and the 50 governors last September.
The governors hope to refine them further by the National Governors' Association (NGA) winter meeting here later this month.
But the most ambitious goal - that US students lead the world in math and science achievement in 10 years - is the one greeted with the most skepticism.
It had little support from the governors when the White House decided to write it into the State of the Union address. Gov. Bill Clinton (D) of Arkansas say he protested that the goal was neither ``achievable'' nor ``valuable.''
``Lightning would have to strike,'' says Chester Finn, a former top official in the Reagan Education Department. ``If we were going to reach the world average, I'd say we could do that.''
US students now measure consistently at or near the bottom in math and science tests among industrialized nations.
Mr. Clinton, a co-chairman of the NGA task force, instead proposed the US aim for at least comparable math and science performance with its major trading partners.
The leading player in developing education policy in the Bush administration is Roger Porter, the president's domestic policy adviser and erstwhile professor of business and government at Harvard University.
Dr. Porter, like many education experts now, stresses the need for measurable results in education. Spending per student, after correcting for inflation, has risen nearly 30 percent in the 1980s, he points out, without any sign of progress for that investment.
The president's proposed education budget for 1991 increases only 2 percent, well below the projected rate of inflation. But this offers a skewed picture. Because the cost of subsidizing student loans is expected to drop substantially with declining interest rates, the budget for all other education programs is actually expanding by 6.2 percent.
The single biggest increase is a 36 percent expansion of funding for Head Start, a program to prepare poor children for school with a widely acknowledged record of results. The proposed Bush budget claims the expanded program could reach as much as 70 percent of eligible children.
Although the federal government supplies only about 6 percent of school budgets, Bush's effort to establish national standards and a national direction for education has strong support from the business community, which is worried about international competitiveness.
The governors likewise support the Bush approach of establishing a clear direction before launching new programs and spending substantial new money.
``The intention all along has been to get the goals right,'' says Mike Cohen, NGA education program director.
The programs and money can come later, he says.
The six national goals are pegged to the year 2000, when current first-graders will be high-school sophomores.
All children in America will start school ready to learn. The expansion of Head Start is a strong step in this direction, but this is a difficult goal to measure. And, says Susan Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University: ``That goal has big monetary implications.''
High school graduation rates will reach 90 percent. The current rate is 72 percent. ``We will find ways to keep those kids in school,'' says Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, although she notes that 88 percent of Americans have high school diplomas by age 24.
Students will leave grades four, eight, and 12 having demonstrated competency in English, math, science, history, and geography. National testing is already being upgraded to better measure higher-level skills and subject mastery and to show results state by state, where they are more useful.
US students will be first in the world in math and science achievement. In one of many examples that show abysmal US performance, a 1988 study found that 78 percent of Korean 13-year-olds can use intermediate math to solve two-step problems. Only 40 percent of their American peers can do the same.
Every American adult will be literate. Some 13 percent of adult Americans have less than a fourth-grade education. An Educational Testing Service study to define and measure illiteracy will be complete in 1993.
Every school will be a disciplined environment free of drugs and violence. Teachers increasingly report social problems from beyond the classroom.