US Standards Program Gets Mixed Reviews

Federal 'Goals 2000' aims to help states establish academic benchmarks, but money is often spent haphazardly

In Green Bay, Wis., "benchmark" is the new buzzword among educators.

Students there are now required to meet higher standards in math, science, and social studies. Teachers are getting new training. School officials are reaching out to involve parents in helping their children reach academic goals. And Uncle Sam is footing the bill.

It is all part of a federal program, called Goals 2000, to provide funds for state initiatives that help establish and raise academic standards in the nation's schools. The aim is to shift the balance from an emphasis on critical thinking to learning facts. And according to Gayle Frame, Goals 2000 coordinator for the local school district, the federal money has made all the difference.

"If people came into our schools, they'd see us setting specific benchmarks for students ... and holding students accountable," says Ms. Frame from her Green Bay office.

Her colleague, Fred Stieg, backs her up. "Twenty years ago, I asked myself, 'What is an A?' Now, there's a standard to take to the parent and tell them how their child is doing."

At a time when President Clinton is pushing for national standards and testing as part of his education initiative, Goals 2000 may get closer scrutiny. Some educators point to successes in Wisconsin, Washington, and Colorado as evidence that the federal government can have a positive role in guiding locally run schools. But it may be too soon to give a grade to the program.

Some states, like Wisconsin, have worked for years on creating a core curriculum. Others, such as New Hampshire, Wyoming, and California are just getting started. And there is still little agreement on how to measure their success.

Anything but standards

"Goals 2000 has been a mixed bag. It's impossible to call it either a success or a failure," says Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University and a former Department of Education official in the Bush administration. "I think it's helped some in that it's made standards important. The problem is that many places are using the money to do anything except standards."

When Goals 2000 was enacted in 1994, the Democratic Congress set academic goals as well as guidelines. Recipients of federal funding were required to work toward a set of goals: Children will start school ready to learn; students in fourth, eighth, and 12th grade will demonstrate competence in English, math, science, civics, and other subjects; teachers will improve their skills; and schools will promote parental involvement.

Although most educators agreed with these goals, some state and local school officials saw the possibility of federal intrusion on local control of schools. They worried that federal bureaucrats, not local teachers or parents, would decide the most important events, discoveries, or works of literature for their children to learn. As a result, a few states rejected Goals 2000 money.

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, many of these guidelines were softened. The result, ironically, is a $340 million standards program that sets very few standards of its own on how that money is spent.

"The bottom line is that states have the responsibility for how these funds are spent," says Jennifer Davis, spokeswoman on Goals 2000 for the US Department of Education. "In most cases, states have been very thorough, very strategic in thinking of the best ways to use Goals 2000 money. But some states are farther along than others."

Looser approach

Some conservatives say the new, looser approach of Goals 2000 may be more productive and less wasteful in the long run.

"There's $30 billion trundling out of the Department of Education, and all of it is potentially open to abuse," says Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Foundation in Washington. While some Goals 2000 money may be wasted, he adds, "that's more true of the larger, multibillion-dollar [federal] Title I program" that targets remedial education.

Other supporters of standards wish the federal program had more teeth.

"There's a lot of good going on with Goals 2000," says Matt Gandal, of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington. "But the program could have been better if the law had kept some form of federal guidance. That way, you don't have kids in a poorer district getting an A in a subject that doesn't mean anything out of that district."

Some states, like Wisconsin and Massachusetts, claim to use Goals 2000 strictly for staff development and curriculum. But current rules allow states to decide how to use the funds, from teaching self-esteem to buying state-of-the-art computers.

This diversion of funds may be unfortunate, says Pauli Nikolay, a state coordinator for Goals 2000 in Wisconsin, but it is also understandable. "For many districts, technology is concrete. You can see it. It's much more abstract in people minds to talk about standards and curriculum."

Even so, some educators say the higher standards sought by Goals 2000 will eventually show concrete results of their own.

"There was a time when parents used to call us and ask where the good schools are, and we had no way of telling them," says Jane Thomas, assistant to the deputy commissioner of education in Massachusetts. "Once assessment is implemented next spring, we'll be able to tell parents which schools are performing or underperforming."

Goals 2000: its aims

* All children will start school ready to learn.

* At least 90 percent of students will finish high school.

* Students will leave Grades 4, 8, and 12 with demonstrated competence in English, math, science, a foreign language, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.

* Teachers will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their skills.

* The United States will be first in the world in math and science achievement.

* Every adult will be literate and possess the skills to compete in a global economy.

* Every school will be free of drugs and violence.

* Every school will promote involvement of parents in their children's education.

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