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A summit of states turned around US education 30 years ago — it’s time for another

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Thirty years ago today, former President George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors for a historic meeting: the first — and, to date, the only — national education summit.

The goal of this meeting, known as the Charlottesville Education Summit, was to identify national goals that would create a new pathway toward educational excellence. While the event gets little attention today, it set in motion a standards and accountability movement, the impacts of which continue to ripple through federal and state policy today. With learning outcomes for our nation’s children once again stagnating and achievement gaps persisting, policymakers should consider another summit to coalesce around a new set of national goals.

This summit was no small feat: Because education is largely a state and local responsibility, state leaders have near complete freedom to set and pursue their own education goals, and little incentive to collaborate. But at the 1989 summit in Charlottesville, poor student outcomes and support from Washington motivated them to do just that. 

The Charlottesville Education Summit didn’t come out of the blue. For several decades, education had been slowly making its way into the national spotlight. The 1983 publication “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” described a “rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s schools and called for wide-scale reforms. This report spurred a flurry of state-level education policy reforms, particularly across the South. Governors championed loftier goals and graduation standards for students, higher standards and improved professional development for teachers, additional funding for pre-K and college, revamped student assessments, and stricter accountability for poor performance. 

By the 1988 presidential election, education reform was core to the platforms of both candidates. Republican George H.W. Bush declared to a room full of high schoolers: “I want to be the education president.” Once elected, Bush set to work, meeting with leaders of the National Governors Association (NGA) to organize a summit, from Sept. 27-28, 1989.

Nearly all of the nation’s governors attended, and over the course of two days adopted a set of six national education goals, known as America 2000: 

1)    All children in America will start school ready to learn
2)    The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent
3)    American students will leave grades four, eight and 12 demonstrating competency in English, math, science, history and geography
4)    U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement
5)    Every adult American will be literate
6)    Every school in American will be free of drugs and violence

While these goals were never signed into law, they had a lasting effect on education policy at the state and national level. Bill Clinton, who played a key role in the summit as governor of Arkansas and co-chair of the NGA’s education task force, and who was subsequently elected president in 1992, made these goals the foundation of two key pieces of legislation. In 1994 Clinton signed both Goals 2000: Educate America Act and a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known as the Improving America’s Schools Act. Both laws sought to help states create frameworks for standards-based reform efforts.

For the next two decades, federal education reform efforts built on the goals of America 2000: In 2001, George W. Bush signed a reauthorized ESEA, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which strengthened school-based accountability policies. The Obama administration’s NCLB waivers allowed states flexibility from some more rigid components of NCLB, but maintained its contours. This flexibility from NCLB carried into the 2015 reauthorization of ESEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The Charlottesville Education Summit helped catalyze all these reforms — and led to real progress in some states. Florida, for example, has seen improved test scores in reading and math across subgroups following an overhaul of the state’s education system based on higher standards and increased accountability.

But beyond select states, America’s education outcomes are largely stagnantGaps across subgroups remain a challenge. International test scores put American students behind their peers in other developed nations like Australia and the United Kingdom. Given this, it’s time for the nation’s governors to reconvene and create a new set of national education goals that reflect what we’ve learned and define where we want to go.

To be sure, centralizing education isn’t a popular opinion these days. The collapse of the Common Core a few years ago is a particularly salient example. Other widespread reforms, such as school choice, also demonstrate the desire for local control over execution and implementation of education reforms. But it’s possible for the nation’s governors to coalesce around a set of common goals while still leaving room for local implementation.

Given the far-reaching effects that a common set of goals can have on the nation’s education policy system, the 30th anniversary of America 2000 is the perfect time to recalibrate.  

Kelly Robson is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, at national nonprofit focused on improving education.

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