The first issue for education policy today is how to judge quality in education. As noted, the focus on outcomes began as a legitimate effort to hold individuals, schools, and school systems accountable for their efforts and to appraise quality by investigating what children are learning. The alternative is to focus on inputs and judge quality primarily by the resources going into the system—for example, costs per-pupil, number of courses taken or years spent in school, and teacher-to-student ratios. This approach, however, cannot tell us much about what children are learning.

If we reject the approach that judges quality by outcomes or results, the only alternative is to utilize one that emphasizes resources and bureaucratic control of the means of delivering education. Although some school systems are indeed impoverished and there are fiscal disparities between communities, focusing on resources will not solve the problem of too many of our young people not learning nearly enough to live, work, and compete as adults. As a whole, American public schools spend plenty of money. Public school per-pupil expenditures have tripled in real terms since the 1950s and doubled since the mid-1960s, and they rose by a third during the 1980s.

Killing off accountability for results—as a focus on resources does—plays into the hands of education's special-interest groups (though not all members of these groups share such views). They are far more often the reason for the problem rather than the source of the solution to what ails America's schools today. Eliminating accountability for results plays into the hands of the following groups:

  • civil-rights and child-advocacy groups who fear that tests and assessments will cause more poor and minority youngsters to fail;

  • multiculturalists who believe that what children should learn and those from whom they should learn should depend on their race and ethnicity;

  • teachers' unions, who do not want real consequences and unpleasantness to fall on educators whose incompetence causes their students to fail to learn;

  • teacher-training institutions, the occupants of which believe that only graduates of accredited teacher- or administrator-training programs should be allowed to teach in or lead schools or school systems; and

  • educational progressives (those who adhere to the tenets of John Dewey and his followers) who believe that competition among students harms a child's self-esteem-or, when competition is applied to other levels of the school, will harm the reputation of a principal, a school, or a local or state superintendent.

In sum, killing off accountability plays into the hands of almost every education interest group that has money set aside for it and is likely to lose that set aside if the means of delivering educational services are radically deregulated and the focus turns to results.

The Clinton administration, in its recently enacted Goals 2000 Educate America Act, has abetted the effort to shift the focus from what our children learn to what education bureaucrats spend. Though ostensibly committed to some version of goals and standards, most of what this plan establishes in law will do more to harm than help American elementary and secondary education. There are three particularly onerous provisions in Goals 2000 that will undermine the establishment of genuine academic standards for all our children.

First, a nineteen-member panel—the National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC)—will certify education standards (on "content, performance, and opportunity to learn") that states "voluntarily" submit to it. In reality, it will be a sort of national school board whose members will be the usual education—establishment suspects—experts in school finance and equity and the long laundry list of educators, activists, and interest-group representatives. Goals 2000 will make these bureaucrats more powerful than, for example, the National Governors' Association's Education Goals Panel. For this reason, the NGA withheld their endorsement of the final Goals 2000 legislation.

Second, in judging educational quality, Goals 2000 creates NESIC-sanctioned national delivery or opportunity-to-learn standards. The latter term is simply the new educational jargon for inputs and services. These standards will measure whether there is an "adequate" supply of money, programs, and other human and physical resources in every school, every district, and every state. These are standards for schools, not for students. Moreover, these standards will certainly provide the impetus for new lawsuits aiming to force states to redistribute resources among various schools and districts.

Third, new federal dollars disbursed under Goals 2000 may not be used for at least the next three years for "high stakes" tests that have consequences associated with them. This means that NESIC will not certify any test for promotion, high-school graduation, admission to college, or employment. The result will be neither a meaningful accountability system for educators nor any meaningful national testing system.

These three actions—expanding federal control of education by the education establishment bureaucrats, emphasizing delivery standards for schools at the expense of performance standards for students, and blocking the development of an exam system—do not bode well for the effort to focus on results. Other pending federal elementary and secondary education legislation mirrors this alarming trend. None of this will provide our students with an enhanced opportunity to learn. It will, however, provide education bureaucrats with expanded opportunities to spend, litigate, and regulate.

Examining and clarifying the fundamental and unbridgeable difference between judging educational quality from an inputs or resources perspective as opposed to an outcomes or results perspective (as we have done here) is instructive. Such an investigation demonstrates that the only hope for true education reform is to place primary emphasis on outcomes and results. If we accept the outcomes focus, the next challenge is to define academic outcomes in a way that allows for a standards-driven, results-centered, highly accountable education.