A year ago, President Clinton signed into law his administration's ambitious Goals 2000: Educate America Act. "Today will be remembered as the day the United States got serious about education," the Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley said within hours of its passage.
The high-minded ideals of Goals 2000 seem universal. Who could dispute the importance of sending children to school "ready to learn" or the need for schools "free of drugs and violence," -- two of the eight National Education Goals.
But support for Goals 2000 erodes with the looming prospect of national curriculum standards -- standards designed to provide a way to meet the goal that "all students will leave grades 4, 8 and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter."
Last fall, suggestions for the "challenging subject matter" were released by various education experts and agencies for math, arts, geography, history and civics. Standards in science, economics, foreign languages, English and reading are in various stages of development.
Development of the standards was initially pushed by the Bush administration -- which provided federal funds for the development panels -- and embraced by the Clinton administration.
But the release of proposed standards, paired with the GOP sweep last fall, turned what had seemed like a consensus into a heated debate, within the education community and among politicians in Washington.
The history standards, in particular, were criticized for going too far to satisfy "political correctness." Lynne V. Cheney, who provided funds for standards development (she chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan and Bush administrations), complained, "The things that we have done that are successes, the triumphs, the progress that we have made have not been given sufficient emphasis, so that students learning history would have a very warped view of our past."
"The American history standards make it seem that Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism -- mentioned 19 times -- are far more important than George Washington -- mentioned twice -- or Thomas Edison -- mentioned not at all," she wrote, in an opinion column published in The Evening Sun.
In January, the U.S. Senate condemned the history standards in a 99-1 vote. And new Republican committee chairmen in both houses vowed to pass bills to kill the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, a board that was to review state and national standards and to which no members have yet been named. The review role will probably be assumed by the National Education Goals Panel, whose members are mostly state officials.
Bruce Manno, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said that national curriculum standards -- which he calls "outcome-based education" -- are a good idea gone wrong.
"Parents want to know what the schools expect their children to know and do, how well their children are learning what they're taught," he said. "So it seems common sense that outcome-based education should meet with little resistance and even become quite popular."
The problem, he said, is that some of the "outcomes" are hard to measure because they concern attitudes and values rather than academic achievement.
Mr. Manno is concerned that national curriculum standards will remove control from families and political leaders and give it to Education Department specialists, minimizing state and local control over schools.
The U.S. Department of Education has lately been busy deflecting criticism regarding national curriculum standards, and the key word in all of the Goals 2000 literature has become "voluntary." Department of Education reports and officials are careful to emphasize that curriculum standards are models and should supplement, rather than supplant, state and community efforts to improve education.
Maryland is among the 44 states participating in the Goals 2000 program. More than 770,000 students in Maryland's 1,200 public schools have been measured against state-developed standards similar to those being developed for Goals 2000.
"Overall, students in Maryland have made performance gains each year. They're not huge leaps, but we are moving forward in meaningful ways," said Margaret Trader, a spokeswoman for Maryland's Goals 2000 program.
She said Maryland "welcomes the program, as long as it's not mandated" by the federal government.
"The guidelines offer an effective means to measure state education efforts against what is important nationally. Students graduating from Maryland schools will not stay in Maryland," she said. "What needs to be emphasized in schools today is the global economy."
Without national curriculum standards, Ms. Trader said, "this would be very difficult work."
Even before Goals 2000 was enacted in Washington, many state education departments had been moving to develop standards and measure what students know and can do. Maryland, for example, unveiled its "Schools for Success" reform program in 1989, which set goals almost identical to those of the Clinton administration's Goals 2000 program, including emphasis on competency in specific subject areas.
Because of the programs' similarities, adopting Goals 2000 -- and receiving grant money for its implementation -- was easy for the state. Today, the Maryland initiative is titled simply "Schools for Success/Goals 2000." Maryland schools received nearly $1.5 million from the federal government for the state's participation in the program; local school systems apply for the money to use in programs toward meeting state and national goals.
The movement for national education standards reached a high point in 1983 with the publication of the federal report "A Nation at Risk," calling for widespread school reform. Dozens of reports followed citing the same low performance of American students and American schools.
In 1989, at the Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va., then-President George Bush and the nation's governors (including Bill Clinton of Arkansas) agreed the nation needed ambitious education goals. The Bush administration's National Education Goals are the basis of Goals 2000, which had bipartisan support as it passed Congress last year.
With the controversy heating up, some school administrators are resisting the guidelines outlined in Goals 2000.
Georgia is one of six states that has chosen not to apply for Goals 2000 grants. Linda C. Shrenko, state school superintendent, intentionally distanced Georgia's education reform from Goals 2000 when applying for $2.3 million from the U.S. Department of Education.
In a statement issued last week, Ms. Shrenko said the state's school improvement plan is "a 100 percent Georgia plan developed from the grass-roots up."
"Some have asked if this funding request will make Georgia a Goals 2000 state. As far as I can tell, the answer to that question is 'No.' "
But proponents of national education standards are fighting hard for the program's survival. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, testified on Capitol Hill in March to garner support for education standards.
"I am proud to say the AFT has been an ardent advocate of the movement to establish clear and rigorous academic standards for what students should know and be able to do as a result of their education," he said. "I believe that standards are the lever for turning around the mediocre performance of our education system."
But the larger national teacher union, the National Education Association, is much more wary of national standards. Glen Cutlip, a spokesman for the National Education Association, said it is the portrayal of education standards as the sole answer to all the school's problems that's troubling.
"The problems afflicting schools are complex," he said. "Higher standards and assessment systems are only one aspect of school reform. We're afraid the message is 'Here's your answer, schools haven't been trying hard enough,' " he said.
He said the NEA supports standards that are flexible "on the state, local and even the classroom level" and is waiting to see how specific standards are implemented in the schools.
NATIONAL EDUCATION GOALS
By the year 2000:
* All children in America will start school ready to learn.
* The high school graduation rate will reach 90 percent.
* Students in grades four, eight and 12 will demonstrate competency in challenging subject matter.
* The United States will be first in the world in math and science.
* All American adults will be literate and skilled.
* All schools will be free of drugs and violence.
* Teachers will have access to programs to improve their professional skills.
* Every school will promote parental partnerships and participation.