Education officals, critics please with new programs, standards

January 15, 1995|By Anne Lewis | Anne Lewis,Special to The Sun

The last Congress' fleet of new federal legislation for education sneaked in under the cross fire over more controversial issues such as health care and what to do in Haiti.

"A quiet consensus" heralds the U.S. Department of Education. Secretary Richard W. Riley, once known as the "education governor" of South Carolina, says, "We passed more good legislation than in the last 30 years."

His assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Thomas Payzant, declares, "There has never been a more coherent, focused" agenda for education at the federal level.

And on the outside, even some of the most consistent critics of education policy over the years since it began to build up in the mid-1960s seem pleased. Phyllis McClure, for example, a civil rights expert and chair of a congressionally ordered study of the federal program for disadvantaged children (Title I), thinks the relationship between the federal government and public schools changed forever."

Surprisingly, these remarks may not be exaggerated. In two years' time, the Clinton administration passed:

* Goals 2000: Educate America Act. This makes the six national goals adopted by the White House and governors in 1989 official federal policy. It adds two more -- on teacher development and parent involvement -- and provides seed money to states to carry out education reforms that support the goals, including setting higher learning standards and developing assessments to measure student progress with the new standards.

For the first time, standards are to be set in broad occupational skills as well as well as academic ones, to make sure the education of the non-college-bound student is also tied to higher standards. A separately funded program under Goals 2000 will support state plans for better use of technology in schools.

* Reorganization of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement. This is the data-gathering and research arm of the department, and, like the aim of other legislation, its new job is to focus on the national goals and equity issues.

* Improving America's Schools Act. This is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965 and now the largest pre-collegiate program at $9.2 billion in fiscal 1995. It covers all sorts of programs -- Title I, bilingual education, migrant education, teacher development, magnet schools -- with most of them targeted at underserved children and youth.

* School-to-Work Opportunities Act. This is a jointly administered federal initiative with the Department of Labor to develop skills standards and to encourage the expansion of school-to-work programs. The legislation also uses state plans to spur efforts at preparing young people for work.

* Head Start. As important as increasing the funding is the emphasis in the reauthorization upon quality programs, such as greater investments in training staff.

* The National and Community Service Trust Act. One of the first education-related items passed, it allows students to do community service work in return for credit toward college tuition or forgiveness of student aid loans. By next year, its staff estimates more young people will be involved with this program than were enrolled in the peak years of the Peace Corps.

* Direct Loan Program. Being phased in gradually, this allows campuses to issue loans directly to students rather than through fee-charging middlemen (such as banks) and gives students the option of paying back their loans as a percentage of their income over a long time.

The list may be long, but, one might ask, where's the big deal?

At the elementary-secondary level, the deal is in how the different pieces fit together and what they say about being accountable for results. Title I, for example, the program to aid the disadvantaged, used to be evaluated on the basis of what is known as "inputs" -- how much money was spent, how many students received services or how many hours of extra help were provided to eligible students. Use of nationally standardized tests worked as a disincentive, in a way, because if student performance improved, schools often lost their Title I funding.

Under the new legislation, schools will receive Title I funding based on indexes of poverty, no matter how much achievement improves; within two years the number of schools that can use their money flexibly, that is, for schoolwide planning rather than on individual students, will jump from the current 11,000 nationwide to 22,000.

The biggest change, however, is that programs must produce good results. The legislation says that students in programs for the disadvantaged, including bilingual and migrant as well as Title I, are to be held to the same high standards as all students. These are the standards that are to be set under state plans for Goals 2000.

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