EVEN before his election, Bill Clinton was saying that the focus of his administration's education policy would be on the two ends of the spectrum: very young children, on the one hand, particularly in such things as the expansion of Head Start; and the transition, on the other, from high school to work, with focus on the development of more effective German-model apprenticeship programs for those not going to college.
But the most revealing element in the Clinton program -- and potentially the most influential -- will be the attempt to develop national education standards and the assessment program that goes with it. And in searching for such a policy, the administration will be buffeted by two very contradictory forces. How it responds to those forces will tell a great deal about how tough and committed Mr. Clinton is to serious educational reform and to the high-skill work force that he hopes will come with it.
One of the forces at play seeks the development of criteria that would move the country toward what Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, calls world-class academic standards -- meaning criteria in student achievement in math, science, literature, history and foreign languages that approach those of Western Europe, Japan and Taiwan. The other is the force demanding "equity" of treatment and, at the extreme, of outcome -- meaning that where different ethnic groups achieve at different levels, the standards or the tests would for that reason alone be regarded as unfair and inappropriate.
The two principles are already in conflict within the Department of Education, where Undersecretary Marshall "Mike" Smith, on leave from his post as dean of the School of Education at Stanford, is drafting a "Goals 2000: Educate America Act." And they will certainly be in conflict when the administration submits its legislation to a House Education and Labor Committee dominated by old-line liberals with no agenda other than delivering more money to their constituencies.
The legislation Mr. Smith is drafting covers a wide range of issues (all under the heading "systemic reform"), from the restructuring of existing federal programs like Chapter I, which is designed to help economically disadvantaged children (but often fails) to the setting of national goals. But it's in how the administration handles the certain clash between what the act's language describes as ensuring "equitable educational opportunities" and pursuing "high levels of educational achievement for all American students" that the test will come.
What's most troubling about the draft bill is its call for every state to establish "opportunity-to-learn standards." Those standards are supposed to ensure that schools have resources and staffs adequate to the task of providing the programs that will enable students to meet the upgraded academic criteria and pass the tests that the national goals call for.
That may seem reasonable, but "opportunity to learn" can become an endless source of litigation, and an endless set of excuses for students who don't make the grade: "The reason I failed to make the goals or pass the test is that there weren't enough books, the classes were too large, and the teachers were not good enough." Or, "the program wasn't tailored to my particular set of intellectual, social or physical handicaps." If tougher standards come to nothing but another fight over resources, forget it.
And then there is the question of whether there should be one or multiple academic standards for every grade and subject. As Mr. Shanker points out, if there is one standard for all students, it's likely to be something like California's "minimum competency" -- a minimal demand that almost everyone can meet and that will be no challenge even for average students.
What might make much more sense would be a set of differentiated standards for different students that will force all to stretch and improve to levels, one hopes, that will eventually be comparable with those attained in other nations. That probably means some form of tracking, but as Shanker says, everybody is tracked now, even if it's only in the teacher's mind. But there is also a danger that in multiple standards there may be no standard at all.
Bill Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, and Richard Riley, as RTC governor of South Carolina, were both among the nation's leaders in trying to upgrade academic standards during the 1980s. The question now is whether the administration, in its eagerness to cater to its liberal constituencies, will give too much away for "equity" and "diversity."
That would be easy, and in view of Mr. Riley's recent endorsement of race-based scholarships, much too likely. But if higher national standards along with effective assessments are not put in place in the next four years, all of Mr. Clinton's talk about improving this country's intellectual firepower may remain only that.
Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchy News Service.