Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—‘Goals 2000’ Scorecard: Failure Pitches a Shutout

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


‘Goals 2000’ Scorecard: Failure Pitches a Shutout

By  Richard Rothstein

In 1989, President George Bush and the nation’s governors set six education goals for the year 2000. In 1994, with President Clinton’s endorsement, Congress adopted them, adding two more.

We can now declare defeat, having flunked all eight goals we were to reach by the millennium. What went wrong?

Some “Goals 2000” were ridiculous in the first place. Others required substantial resources to accomplish, and these were not provided. Still others required far more than 11 years to achieve.

The very leaders who set these national goals now demand accountability from districts and schools: principals and teachers should suffer consequences for not meeting state targets that sprang from the nationwide goals. But when national leaders fall short of goals, why do they not face similar sanctions? Policy makers’ lack of candor about the irresponsible way the goals were set can breed local educators’ contempt for the entire standards movement.

The goals were these:

  • By 2000, all children will start school ready to learn.
  • Ninety percent will graduate from high school.
  • All will demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter in English, math, science, foreign languages, civics, economics, the arts, history and geography.
  • The United States will be first in the world in math and science.
  • All adults will be literate.
  • No school will have drugs, violence, firearms or alcohol.
  • Teachers will have needed skills.
  • All schools will get parents involved.

Faced with unmet goals, it’s easy to maintain that sincere effort was all that mattered. That is the approach taken by the National Education Goals Panel, an agency run by governors, members of Congress, state legislators and federal education officials. Ducking accountability, the panel earlier this year proposed changing the name “Goals 2000” to “America’s Education Goals,” dropping any mention of deadlines. Then, in its 1999 report, it stated that its “bold venture” had worked, because the goals had “helped stimulate reforms.”

Now, declaring victory may be O.K. for dieters who lose 5 pounds after aiming for 15, but defining success downward is dicier for national goals to improve education. If we’re serious about making schools accountable, then the lack of consequence when we set national goals and fail to meet them sends educators the wrong message. Will we permit schools to claim that standards were met if they merely “stimulate reforms”?

Perhaps the most irresponsible goal was the one calling for the nation to be first in math and science. We shouldn’t want first place even if we could have it. Koreans and Japanese score high not only with curriculum we might emulate but also by subjecting children to intense cramming and competitive test pressure. These days Japan’s news media are agonizing over the murder of a 2-year-old by the jealous mother of another toddler, who had scored less well on preschool exams. If this is what “first in the world” entails, we don’t want to go there.

Perhaps we should aim for fifth, not first. Or perhaps we should seek absolute standards and ignore international ranking. The glibness of “being first” is worrisome, because it invites districts and schools also to set glib goals. Can we expect them to be more responsible than presidents, governors and Congress?

A better goal, but one that was set without necessary resources, was that all children start school ready to learn. The goals panel says this meant that by 2000, all would “have access to high-quality and developmentally appropriate preschool.” Yet the national political leaders who set this goal have also failed, since 1989, to finance such programs. France, on the other hand, finances quality preschool for all 3-to-5-year-olds. If we really want first-in-the-world status, here is a more worthy competition.

Universal adult literacy was another goal where lack of financing made a mockery of our ambition. To fulfill it would have required expanded community and public-library programs, evening schools and instruction based in the workplace. Financing these was never on goal-setters’ agendas.

Academic proficiency is what most people want goals to inspire, but here we can’t monitor national progress because while Congress set goals for achievement, it couldn’t agree on national standards or tests to measure it. Thus, each state (except Iowa, which declines to participate) now sets its own standards. What is “competent” in one state is not in others, so we can’t know how far we are from “all” students’ demonstrating “competency over challenging subject matter.”

Standards-setting is serious business, and carefully reasoned goals can spur achievement, entitling those meeting them to rewards. But goals we can’t (or shouldn’t) meet only promote cynicism. To reform the school reform movement, holding those accountable who so recklessly established “Goals 2000” might be a good place to start.

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