March 28, 1996

An Education Conference With a Corporate Agenda


PALISADES, N.Y. -- It was not the president who willed the conference into existence this time. The agenda of rigorous standards and better technology had all the sex appeal of cold oatmeal.

Although the two-day National Education Summit of the nation's governors and corporate leaders, which concluded here Wednesday, received far less attention than the meeting called by President George Bush in 1989, it may in the end prove to be more important.

By drawing in the most powerful corporations in the United States and moving forcefully toward a politically palatable agenda of tough state and local rather than national standards for the public schools, the meeting here almost certainly moved forward a national commitment to educational improvement, experts said.

"I believe this meeting will prove historic," President Clinton told the gathering at the IBM conference center here. He did not call the meeting and was careful to defer to the clear sentiment here that education is primarily a state and local enterprise.

"In 1983, we said we've got a problem in our schools," he continued, alluding to the "Nation at Risk" report by then-Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, who drew widespread attention to the nation's educational ills.

"In 1989, we said we need to know where we're going; we need goals," the president continued. "Here in 1996, you're saying you can have all the goals in the world, but unless somebody really has meaningful standards and a system of measuring whether you meet those standards, you won't achieve your goals. That is the enduring gift you have given to America's schoolchildren and America's future."

The conference left hanging at least two major questions. The first is whether high standards alone will really increase achievement, particularly in troubled, low-income rural or inner-city schools. The second is whether, in the end, states and communities will be committed not just to tougher standards, but also to such sanctions as holding students back, withholding diplomas or denying college admission to students who do not meet the standards.

But as education reform nationally has been derailed by a lack of focus and persistent conservative distrust of ceding local school decisions to federal control, the meeting here was an effort to reinvigorate the movement that began in 1983 -- this time in avenues suited to the conservative temper of the times.

In a final policy statement, the governors, only six of whom were in office when the 1989 summit conference was held, committed themselves to developing "internationally competitive academic standards" in their states and the tests and accountability systems to make them work.

The nation's most powerful corporations, including IBM, AT&T, Eastman Kodak, Procter & Gamble and Boeing Co., agreed to work on improving public education, to begin looking not just at whether prospective employees have a diploma but also how well they did in school, and to consider school quality and standards in determining where they establish their businesses.

They also agreed to form an "external, independent non-governmental entity" to work as a clearinghouse on school standards that could help coordinate standards and prod lagging states or school districts into coming up with better ones.

The panel was a reaction to the reality that even though national standards might be politically unpopular, it made no sense for 50 states or thousands of school districts to come up with their own standards. Indeed, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the proposed clearing house was just another form of the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, the national panel formed to oversee state standards as part of the Goals 2000 legislation, then killed because of conservative opposition.

Similarly, Diane Ravitch, who was assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the Bush administration, said a system of standards that would be national but not federal was evolving.

"If this is a success, what we'll end up with is national standards, even if we don't want to call them that," she said. "If 50 states came up with their own standards, it would be chaotic and ridiculous."

The conference left many people unsatisfied. Some conservative Republican governors here wanted it to address a broader agenda of school choice, such as charter schools or vouchers, with the notion that schools will not improve until they are changed structurally.

Many liberals, none of whom were on hand, were appalled by the notion of conservative governors and corporate executives putting together an agenda whose main purpose was to better prepare students for the work force.

But most of those who attended the conference viewed the corporate involvement on a scale never before seen as a positive sign.

"They're the ones that do the hiring, so it makes sense to know their needs," said Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League and one of the few African-Americans who attended. "This isn't the whole agenda, but it's a fundamental part of it."

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