When George W. Bush took office, his intention was to become known as the "Education President." Persuading Congress to pass legislation ratifying his No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was a leading domestic policy priority. Bush's confidence level was high, as similar reforms he had instituted as Governor resulted in the touted "Texas miracle," when students in that state greatly improved their standardized test scores.
Bush accomplished passing the top two items on his domestic agenda, NCLB and tax cuts, in his first year in office. These essentially became his only domestic priorities after 9/11, when the nascent Education President turned into The War on Terror President. NCLB does hold the distinction of being the topic of both Bush's first and last policy speeches as president.
There was a colossal bi-partisan effort that went into crafting NCLB. Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative George Miller took up the Democrat side of the cause and worked with Republicans Senator Judd Gregg and Representative John Boehner (who earlier had wanted to eliminate the Department of Education.) When they struggled to agree on the necessary compromises for a passable bill, centrist Democrats Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh were brought in to facilitate the process.
NCLB overwhelmingly passed in both houses. There was some grumbling on the Right that the Feds were overreaching into State business. There was grumbling from the Left, as the major teacher's unions opposed the tenets of the bill for various reasons.
A chief author of NCLB was Margaret Spellings, who would go on to become Secretary of Education during Bush's second term. Spellings possesses a B.A. in Political Science and is a partisan hack with no background whatsoever in any area of education. Another author was Sandy Kress, a lawyer and lobbyist whose presence was notable for the money he steered toward the test publishers for whom he grovels.
The respected far-left rag The Nation made quite a to-do about NCLB being a scam to line the pockets of Bush's cronies, namely his long-time buddies at McGraw-Hill. Big Oil, Haliburton, and publishers of school tests and textbooks must be the liberal version of the Axis of Evil. Sure, there was a profit motive present in the writing of the bill, as it is in most all legislation from anyone with the power to write the laws of the United States. So, let's move on...
The Bush team used words like "liberation" and "empowerment" to describe some of the guidelines of NCLB. Some described it as the opposite of Affirmative Action. Bush's first-term Secretary of Education Rod Paige said he would not go that far, but that NCLB did strive to produce common standards and resources for the entire spectrum of students. Bush declared the phenomenon of "soft bigotry of low expectations" to be at an end. The Feds were going to open their pocketbooks in an effort to close the much-discussed "achievement gap" that saw White and Asian students far outperforming their Black and Hispanic counterparts.
If a school failed to meet the goals that it set for itself, after-school tutoring would be provided to struggling students free of charge. Or, parents could decide to send their child to a higher-performing school, with the district picking up the tab for transportation costs. Schools deemed "unsafe" would also be subjected to possible student flight. This would put the onus on schools to show progress, or face losing its' clients.
I use the word "client" purposely, as the Bush team approached school reform the way it approached everything else: as a business. The Feds would make an investment, allow local control, and expect a return in the form of productive tax-paying citizens. Ultimately, very few students and parents have taken advantage of after-school tutoring, and even less have transferred schools.
The aspect of NCLB that garnered the most attention and controversy was the testing regimen. Public school students in grades 3-8 would take annual math and reading tests. The goal set by the Federal Government is that 100% of the students tested will be considered "proficient" in Math and Reading by 2014. The test data would be disaggregated and broken out into the categories of poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and limited proficiency in English. This was to not only further identify "achievement gaps," but also to take away the means for school districts to hide ugly statistics.
The notion of 100% of students across the nation encompassing six grade levels passing math and reading tests every year is not a realistic or even worthwhile goal. Another ridiculous ambition of NCLB is that every child will know how to read by the third grade. The Bush team heaped scorn on Head Start for being ineffective babysitters, with under-qualified teachers caring more about nutrition and emotional availability. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs states that our most basic needs must be met before any advanced learning or experience can take place. These toddlers need to feel safe and be eating well before being subjected to any kind of measurement of knowledge.
George W. Bush was sure that the high standards set by NCLB would be met, and he explained how that would happen: "People say, can you possibly meet the goal you set? And the answer is absolutely we can meet the goals we've set. And not only is it absolutely-confident we can meet it, I know it's necessary that we do meet those goals." So, that settles that.
Bush and his team were proud that they had developed "science-based" measurements to study the progress and performance of students and teachers. Unfortunately and ironically, the Bush team did not see the need to make science one of the core subjects to be tested as part of NCLB. Nor was social studies necessary, nor foreign languages, nor any kind of art.
Proponents argued that there has to be some way of measuring a student's knowledge and progress, and testing is the only real way to accomplish that. Reading and math are the most basic skills that need to be acquired, so that is a good place to start. Opponents argued that the threat of punitive measures against school districts for under-performing actually encouraged the lowering of standards, to make it easier to achieve the yearly academic goals. The threat of Federal action was an idle one meant to shame school districts into raising proficiency levels. Schools that consistently failed to meet their goals would at worst be slapped with an inconsequential "probationary" tag, which was unknown to everyone anyway, except those employed at the bad schools. And no one there was going to advertise that fact, unless it could be used as a plea for more funds.
The official measure of a school's status is its' Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) report. It is telling that the administration and teachers at one of the schools for which I taught consistently insisted that the correct term was Annual Yearly Progress. These people would never miss an opportunity to loudly state their visceral hatred of George W. Bush and NCLB, but could not be bothered to get even the most basic of facts straight.
States are allowed to write their own tests and set their own standards. This has prompted questioning of the legitimacy of AYP, as standards could be lowered so that more students are considered proficient. This would have the opposite of the intended effect of NCLB, and further contribute to the "dumbing down" of our children. Some states did choose to establish low standards. These rogues were shamed when the results of NCLB tests showed major discrepancies when compared to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) tests, which are identical nationwide.
There are plenty of advocates for a national school curriculum. Standards, materials, and tests would be the same across the land. While some teachers passionately decry the inevitable abolition of creativity and independence, many other teachers would welcome not having to write, or fake, lesson plans. You see, one of the first tricks that a new teacher learns is to get their hands on an entire school year's worth of lesson plans previously written by a veteran teacher. Then the new teacher changes the dates and names, and proceeds to teach whatever and however they want. The paperwork satisfies the Principals who cannot be bothered to visit the classroom, and the teacher needs only to know when the official observation by a superior will take place. On that day, they will follow the lesson plan to a "T".
To be continued....
Coming up next: NCLB Part 2