WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The other day the Senate was doing the usual, issuing imperious commands to the future, when a senator did the unusual: He said the future will not be impressed.
The Senate was debating the ''Goals 2000'' education bill when Pat Moynihan rose to compare two of the goals -- the only quantifiable ones -- to grain-production quotas in the Soviet Union. The two goals are that by the year 2000 the high school graduation rate will be ''at least'' 90 percent, and that American students ''will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.'' Said Senator Moynihan, ''That will not happen.''
Other goals range from the difficult to define (all children will start school ''ready to learn'') to the difficult to imagine (every school ''will be free of drugs and violence''). Such goal-setting is progress, of sorts: Policy makers are speaking the language of cognitive outputs rather than monetary inputs. But it is not much progress because policy makers are still preoccupied with inputs.
In 1966 sociologist James Coleman published data from a huge survey of public schools and students. Postwar education policy had been focused where the public-education lobby wanted it, on financial inputs such as per-pupil spending, teachers' salaries, pupil-teacher ratios. However, Coleman's report, which Senator Moynihan says was so ''seismic'' that the government considered not releasing it, concluded: ''Schools are remarkably similar in the effect they have on the achievement of their pupils when the socio-economic background of the students is taken into account.''
Or as a sociologist had said to Mr. Moynihan at an academic
gathering when Mr. Moynihan was an academic and Coleman was still compiling the data, ''Have you heard what Coleman is finding? It's all family.'' That is, the best predictor of a school's performance is the quality of the homes from which the students come to school.
In 1989 a researcher reported in confirmation of Coleman that ''variations in school expenditures are not systematically related variations in student performance.'' And later: ''Researchers have tried to identify inputs that are reliably associated with student achievement and school performance. The bottom line is, they have not found any.''
Paul Barton of the Educational Testing Service estimates that about 90 percent of the differences among the states' schools in average proficiency can be explained by five factors: number of days absent from school, number of hours spent watching television, number of pages read for homework, quantity and quality of reading material in the home, the presence of two parents in the home. Now, unless the government has a plan for making those variables vary, positively and quickly, the goals about graduation rates and math and science achievements are airy puffs of legislative cotton candy.
Between 1910 and 1969 the graduation rate rose from 8.8 percent to 77.1 percent. By 1980 it had receded to 71.4. The
government estimates that it was 73.8 last year. It has never been higher than 77.1. It will not be 90 in six years. In 1991 American 13-year-olds ranked 13th among 14 nations surveyed in math and 12th among 14 in science, rankings that are essentially unchanged in three decades and will not be substantially changed in six years.
Senator Moynihan says the ''official delusion'' indicated by such goals may be ''evidence of a dysfunction in the political world far more portentous than that in our high schools.'' Actually, ''Goals 2000'' involves less delusion than calculation, and there are three reasons for it.
First, government cannot do much, and can do next to nothing quickly, about the quality of families, other than stop making matters worse with today's welfare system, a system that would be expensive and politically risky to reform.
Second, government may now use the vocabulary of outputs but it is still addicted to dispensing financial inputs and defining the dispensing as progress.
Third, the Democratic Party is in alliance with, and most politicians are in fear of, the National Education Association, the public-education lobby that has a huge stake in inputs like the $700 million in 1995 budget authority for ''Goals 2000.''
One of the legislation's goals is to ''increase parental involvement.'' One way to do that would be to make parents active shoppers for education, using school-choice programs. But confronted with an amendment that would have authorized a small ($30 million) demonstration project empowering poor children to choose among public and private schools -- the NEA's nightmare -- the Senate said no. Enacting the practical is politically impossible and promising the impossible is routine politics.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.