I went ice skating about five years ago for the one and only time in my life and, to my surprise, did not have any major spills.

To get better, I would need to set goals. Under one scenario, I might decide to become an Olympic figure skating gold medalist, which would be difficult considering I am a 43-year-old married father. Plus, I can barely touch my knees, let alone my toes, and spinning around three times makes me sick-to-my-stomach dizzy. But, hey, shoot for the moon, right?

Under another scenario, I might decide to skate one hour once a week. Once my confidence grew, I might set some performance goals – perhaps to skate 10 laps in a certain amount of time, and then I might see how fast I could skate backwards.

Which scenario is more likely to end positively? Under Scenario B, the realistic goal one, I could gain a new skill, get some exercise, and have a little fun with my family. Scenario A, where I dream the impossible dream, would leave me frustrated, broke, injured, and embarrassed – not to mention wet and cold. Plus I would look ridiculous in spandex.

I’ve reached the fifth paragraph, so I’d better have a point to all this. In a recent Harvard study, three researchers – Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann – reported that Arkansas ranked ninth out of 41 states in the rate of improvement shown by fourth- and eighth-graders on recent international test scores. Unfortunately, the United States placed 25th out of 49 countries.

There are lots of reasons why the United States lags, but it’s not for lack of trying. According to the report, governments at all levels in this country spent 35 percent more in real dollars on education in 2009 than they did in 1990.

The report said the country’s middle of the road standing was caused in part by this contributing factor: "Education goal setting in the United States has often been utopian rather than realistic."

How utopian? In 1990, the nation’s governors called for the United States to be number one in math and science by 2000. Needless to say, we didn’t make it. Also in 1990, President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors set a goal of all American students graduating high school. Today, only about 75 percent graduate on time.

The ultimate in shoot-for-the-moon policymaking came in 2002. No Child Left Behind decreed that every single American student be proficient in math, reading and science by 2014 – even if they couldn’t speak English; even if, because of developmental challenges, they couldn’t speak at all.

No Child Left Behind did introduce a needed element of accountability into schools, but educators have invested tremendous energy into complying with its demands, and, lately, into working around them. It’s 2012 and, not surprisingly, the country is nowhere near reaching perfection.

Every president wants to be John F. Kennedy, inspiring the country to go to the moon by the end of the decade, and where better to do that than education, an area almost all Americans believe is important?

But let’s be honest: Schools are never going to achieve perfect success any more than I am going to be an Olympic figure skating champion.

However, the country could see better results in education the same way I could get better at ice skating – by setting realistic, attainable goals. Instead of calling for 100 percent of this or that, maybe it’s time to just get our numbers up – maybe to 80 percent graduation rates in five years and 85 percent in 10, knowing that our second chance society makes it possible for some of the rest to earn their GEDs.

Because of its other strengths, the United States does not have to be the absolute top dog in K-12 education to maintain its world leadership, but it must rise above mediocrity. To do that, the education system should be expected to achieve the merely difficult instead of the impossible, and to shoot for academic excellence rather than the moon.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com