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