A decade ago, when President George Bush convened the nation's governors for the first education summit, they set goals for the year 2000 that included making the nation's students the world's highest achievers in math and science, wiping out adult illiteracy and raising the high school graduation rate to 90 percent.
With 2000 a few months away, President Clinton and half the nation's governors gathered today for a third education summit with none of the eight education goals set in 1989 yet within reach. Despite a decade of reforms, efforts to meet those goals have generally failed.
But speaking to the conference hall full of governors and prominent educators, Clinton was upbeat, noting that public interest in improving the nation's schools has been sustained over two decades.
"More and more, we're leaving behind the old divisions between one side saying we need more money and the other side saying we shouldn't invest any more money in our public schools, it's hopeless," Clinton said. "By and large, there is a new consensus for greater investment and greater accountability."
The president urged the governors not to shrink from enforcing new academic standards, advising that students should be told that not mastering academic skills would "cost you more personally, psychically and eventually, financially, than any pain that comes" from being held back a grade or not graduating with their class.
The president, who played a key role in drafting the 1989 goals as Arkansas governor, did not dwell on them today. Progress toward the goals has been marginal at best, based on tracking done by an independent panel created for that purpose.
The loftiest of the goals, for example, is for American students to "be the first in the world in mathematics and science" by the year 2000. In the latest international comparison, the nation's high school seniors were behind their counterparts in every country tested except Cyprus and South Africa.
The seven other goals have remained similarly elusive: getting every preschooler "ready to learn," graduating at least 90 percent of students from high school, ensuring all students have "demonstrated competency" in nine subjects, involving parents in every school, providing all teachers access to professional training, wiping out adult illiteracy, and eliminating "drugs, violence and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol" from schools.
A 1998 report by the National Education Goals Panel showed that of 49 indicators chosen for tracking progress, 10 had improved, 12 were unchanged, 7 were worse and 20 didn't provide enough information to make a judgment possible.
Clinton explained the failure to reach the goals in part by saying that progress has been slowed by a decentralized school system that divides responsibility among the federal, state and local governments.
But the president added that the involvement of big business leaders such as IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr. since the second summit in 1996 has been "a huge advantage."
Gerstner noted that the 1996 summit had provided momentum for the adoption of achievement standards, which are now in place in every state except Iowa, compared with just 14 states three years ago.
Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R), the only governor who was present today as well as in 1989, was blunter in discussing the failure to reach the goals. "I think the goals were too high. There was no teeth in them, and though they were good points to get out there, we really didn't have much chance to achieve them," he said at a news conference that opened the summit.
Thompson noted that the goals had had trouble winning political acceptance--it took five years, for example, to pass the federal legislation embracing the goals and committing modest resources to helping states develop higher academic standards. "Congress was a little bit miffed they were not involved" in developing the goals, he said, and some "governors felt they were 'federal standards.' "
The two-day education summit will continue through today, focusing on concrete plans to implement achievement standards and improve the quality of teaching.