The good Bill Clinton crusades - in Gambrills and across the country - for voluntary national standards and tests in public education. And his efforts could pay off: In spite of rejection last week in the House, the Senate has approved them, giving the president a fighting chance to prevail.
Meanwhile, the bad Clinton grossly inflates what national standards and tests by themselves can do to elevate student achievement. Worse, the president flinches when it comes to staking out a bolder national role in reforming American schools, particularly in inner cities.
The United States is almost alone among industrialized countries in failing to enact national standards. The 50 states and more than 15,000 local school districts go their own way, well below the "world class" standards of our foreign competitors. And it shows. Our students rank near the bottom in most international comparisons.
This competitive disadvantage persists because local control remains ideologically sacrosanct to liberals and conservatives, and each side is afraid that the other will gain pedagogical supremacy. The left fears national standards and tests will lead to a curriculum that's too drill-and-kill and unicultural while the right worries they will turn out excessively dewy-eyed and dumbed down.
As a result, previous attempts to set even voluntary national standards and tests flopped. President George Bush tried, backed by the bipartisan "education governors" of the 1980s (led by Govs. Clinton of Arkansas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee). And so did President Clinton in his first-term Goals 2000 bill.
To his credit, the president is trying again. But even if higher national or state standards are adopted, then what? U.S. students perform poorly, so even more will fail - further stigmatizing inner-city students - unless classroom instruction changes. As one observer put it: You don't fatten cattle by weighing them. What instructional practices at what cost will enable students to come up to the standards? And do poor school districts, particularly in large cities, have the wherewithal to bring about the changes?
Clinton ignores these obvious questions. Instead, he claims that the standards and tests will raise expectations among parents, students and teachers; teachers will teach to the tests; and, presto, academic scores will soar.
But neither Clinton nor anyone else can cite any persuasive evidence that this kind of educational levitating will occur. It's as if the president had set standards for state and local eradication of a major health epidemic, without knowing whether any cure was available.
Since the mid-1980s, most states have acted on their own to raise standards. In the first wave of reform, they imposed higher graduation requirements and standardized competency tests. More recently, they set stiffer curriculum standards and mandated tougher performance tests. Yet, the states have little to show for it. As existing national tests and other indicators show, students overall are barely progressing, and poor and minority children are falling further behind. The Council of Chief State School Officers, in a 1995 report, admitted: "Test results tell us what students know and can do, but they do not tell us why achievement is poor or how to improve it."
The president refuses to acknowledge this because he wants to avoid what, in prior congressional debates, became known as the "opportunity to learn" (OTL) issue. Many liberals refused to support national knowledge standards and tests unless combined with OTL standards that defined what resources were necessary for students to meet higher mandates.
The logic of such a linkage was rejected even before the Republicans captured Congress. During the deliberations over Bush's America 2000 initiative, a bipartisan coalition of governors (with Clinton in a leadership position) contended that OTL standards were too hard to prescribe and would infringe upon local control. But their unspoken fear was what they saw as a backdoor attempt to eliminate the "savage inequalities" in educational opportunity described by Jonathan Kozol. Despite decades of litigation and legislation in virtually every state, wide disparities endure between high and low wealth school districts in per pupil spending and test scores. Governors are politically -- afraid to take on the affluent suburbs and pay the bill for equitable school funding.
The recent settlement between Maryland, a relatively liberal state, and Baltimore City netted city schools only about 25 percent of the additional aid justified in 1994 by a state commission. The Governor's Commission on School Funding estimated that it would cost at least $200 million a year to meet the needs of city students. The settlement was for $254 million over five years.