If anything was clear about the will of the American people in
the last presidential election, it was their concern for education.
In poll after poll, Americans said they wanted their new president
to address the issue. Be careful what you wish for, America. It
looks like you're going to get it.
George W. Bush differs in some important ways from his recent Republican
predecessors, who recommended abolishing the federal Department
of Education altogether. Bush has proposed an increase in federal
education spending--one of the largest percentage increases of any
of his cabinet-level departments. He has thrown a spotlight on the
importance of early literacy and reading. He has brought needed
attention to the gap in standardized test scores between black and
Latino versus white students.
But the devil is always in the details, and critics of Bush's proposed
education plan say his agenda threatens to obliterate any good instruction
in the nation's most challenged public schools; to push thousands
of low-performing students out of school altogether; to scare off
the most creative educators during a teacher shortage; to divert
funds meant for poor students or English-language learners; and
to take several small but sure steps toward privatizing public education.
Critics say his plan is based on politics not pedagogy, and is guaranteed
to drive a wedge even further between the education of white students
and their black and Latino counterparts.
Bush's budget proposal increases funding for K-12 education by
$1.9 billion in 2002. That amounts to a whopping $40 per public
school kid. In terms of the percentage of federal government funds
that go to education, the United States actually spends less than
it did 20 years ago, thanks to inflation and steady annual reductions
during the '80s. Under the Bush plan, the United States would spend
a little more than two cents of every federal taxpayer dollar on
education. Defense gets a quarter.
Democrats in Congress have called Bush's bluff when it comes to
funding, and education bills in both the House and Senate call for
greater spending than Bush has proposed. Democrats also have fought
vehemently to keep private school vouchers out of any education
bill. But many of the most insidious and far-reaching proposals
in Bush's plan are emerging unscathed from negotiations--high-stakes
testing top among them. And whatever the final education bill looks
like, it's worth remembering what's on Bush's wish list. These proposals
probably will appear again, likely under a softer spotlight than
the one shone on a first-term president in his first 100 days.
With the Democrats negotiating some compromises, the stage is set
for a Rose Garden signing of what will surely be hailed as a bipartisan
education bill. When Bush first released his education blueprint,
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) gushed about how Democrats
and the president saw eye-to-eye on education. "There are some areas
of difference," Kennedy said after a January meeting with Bush,
"but the overwhelming areas of agreement and support are very, very
Bush's grand plan for closing the achievement gap between minorities
and whites, between poor students and "their more advantaged peers,"
is high-stakes standardized testing. His proposal calls for annual
testing in reading and math of every student in the country in grades
three through eight. "Schools, districts, and states that do well
will be rewarded," says No Child Left Behind, the blueprint for
Bush's education agenda. "Failure will be sanctioned."
Determinations of success or failure will be based on one number:
aggregate standardized test scores. Schools that fail to raise test
scores will lose federal Title I funds, originally instituted to
offset the effects of poverty on education. In a sort of reverse
Robin Hood, schools that continue to do poorly will lose more money,
as students are given $1,500 tickets out in the form of vouchers.
Schools that improve test scores will get bonuses.
It's clear that urban schools and minority students take the biggest
hit under Bush's plan, as schools try by any means necessary to
get test scores up. Such efforts have included narrowing instruction,
cheating, pushing students into special education classes, or forcing
them out of school altogether. Bush's threat of lost Title I funds
for schools that don't improve won't even apply to middle-class
suburban school districts, which don't receive Title I funding.
And Bush's promise of choice for public school students is empty
for all but the rich. Bush will up the limit from $500 to $5,000
on tax-free Education Savings Accounts, a move that subsidizes private
school tuition for those able to put away that much.
Students in schools that can't move test scores up will get $1,500
vouchers to spend at Kaplan Inc. (which once limited itself to helping
college or graduate school hopefuls prepare for admissions exams,
but in the age of high-stakes testing has found a new market in
the K-12 crowd) or other tutoring services. The $1,500 vouchers
are more in some cases than what the local school receives per child
under Title I.
While Bush says struggling schools will be helped to improve before
they lose funding or students via vouchers, the only earmarks in
his 2002 budget summary are an increase of $459 million under the
Title I program "to turn around failing schools" and $400 million
to do the same for "low-performing" schools. That's about 2 percent
of the federal spending on education to improve reading scores among
65 percent of all black students and 60 percent of Latinos. "These
schools won't do better because they don't have any capacity to
do better," predicts Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest,
a group that opposes high-stakes standardized testing.
Under a compromise plan worked out in the Senate, students will
also be able to use vouchers to transfer to other public schools,
but only in the same district. If the feds forced states to allow
inner-city students to attend schools in well-endowed suburbs, some
basic funding inequities might begin to be addressed. But Bush hasn't
dealt with issues that should trouble even supporters of vouchers--whether
they're going to pay private school tuition, a tutor or transportation
to another public school--such as the effect they'll have on students
left behind in "failing" public schools.
The effect of Bush's testing plan will be nothing less than a total
routing of curriculum and instruction in schools across the country,
and schools serving poor and minority students will be under pressure
to boost scores fast. "Teachers teach to the test in an effort to
get the scores up to avoid the bad consequences," says Neill, who
adds that the tests used tend to measure lower-level skills and
rote memorization and undermine teachers' efforts to make sure that
kids really understand concepts and can apply knowledge in different
contexts. "This kind of narrow teaching to the test dumbs down curriculum
where it's good, and certainly doesn't improve it where it's not
Indeed, just as Bush proposes his testing jihad on K-12 education,
the number of colleges and universities choosing to make standardized
admissions exams optional has grown to more than 380 nationwide.
In February, the president of the University of California system
proposed eliminating SAT scores as a requirement for admission,
saying that an overemphasis on admissions exams had led to the "educational
equivalent of a nuclear arms race."
At the K-12 level, the race is on and promises to heat up, thanks
to Bush. Last year states spent $400 million on designing, administering
and scoring standardized tests. Bush's proposed budget would pay
$320 million in federal funds to help states design and implement
tests. Just 14 states--nearly all of them in the South or Southwest,
many with the worst education records in the nation--currently test
students every year in reading and math from third through eighth
grade. The price students pay with lost time for meaningful instruction--because
they are taking practice tests or actual tests or being drilled
excessively on a small number of concepts that appear on the test--is
probably the most damaging.
Neill says that in high-stakes testing states like Texas, "You
can go in a school and the reading is all short passages, the length
of what appears on the test, followed by multiple-choice questions.
The worst is when kids are literally taught, 'Don't even read the
passage: Go to the questions and look at the answer options, and
then go back for what looks like the correct thing.' As test coaching
for something like the SAT, this actually makes sense. But to teach
someone to read this way is crazy."
In other parts of the country, teachers spend inordinate amounts
of time teaching students what similes and metaphors are, or how
to infer things from a passage--worthy if fairly trivial skills
that have become staples in reading programs because they represent
such a large proportion of questions on standardized tests. There
have been stories of cheating by students, teachers and administrators.
Companies have made--and then tried to cover up--mistakes in scoring
tests. Huge failure rates on high-stakes exams have topped headlines.
A third of the 24 states that have implemented high-stakes graduation
tests are retrenching: States have shortened tests, eliminated more
difficult questions and lowered passing scores. Rarely do significant
resources flow to schools to help them meet new standards. Tests
have prompted civil rights complaints in Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada,
North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.
Bush likes to point to Texas as proof that demanding accountability
through test scores improves education. Bush touts huge test score
gains on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), particularly
for minority students, and boasts stable dropout rates. But Walt
Haney, professor of education at Boston College, found that test
score gains only show up on the TAAS; Texas' scores on the National
Assessment of Educational Progress have remained constant, and scores
on a Texas college readiness test actually plummeted at the same
time TAAS scores went up. Moreover, the number of students counted
as special education students--whose scores don't factor into a
school's accountability rating--nearly doubled in Texas between
1994 and 1998. The number of students taking the GED to avoid TAAS
has shot up. And six of the worst 14 big-city graduation rates nationwide
are in Texas.
Testing is not the only harmful provision of the Bush education
plan. Immigrant students take another hit when it comes to bilingual
education, for which Bush wants to freeze funding in 2002, despite
surging enrollment in the Latino community. Bush proposes a three-years-and-you're-out
rule for immigrant students in bilingual-ed programs. Three years
is a number that people are "pulling out of their hats," says Angelo
Amador, national policy analyst for the Mexican American Legal Defense
and Education Fund. "There's no data that support that number. Some
kids learn English in a year; some take five."
What most concerns MALDEF, Amador says, is Bush's proposal to fund
bilingual education through block grants, offering local districts
"flexibility" in how they spend bilingual-ed funds, as long as they
improve test scores. Bush has proposed entering into "charter agreements"
with states, in which they would be free to spend bilingual-ed funds
and Title I money--currently targeted to low-income and low-achieving
students--how they see fit, as long as they meet specific goals
for increased student performance on standardized tests. "If you
have x amount of money, and you have to spend it on books for bilingual
education or new uniforms for the football team that has been winning
the state championship every year, some states might decide to go
with the football uniforms," Amador says. "We want to make sure
that there is accountability as to where the funding is being spent."
Amador says test scores can be manipulated too easily to provide
any guarantee that money is reaching students or that students are
learning. He notes that in states with high-stakes testing, low-performing
Latino students have been pushed into special education classes
or out of school altogether in an effort to keep their test scores
from counting toward a school's aggregate scores. In states that
have experimented with vouchers, 90 percent of Latino parents chose
to keep their children in a "failing" public school. And he says
the federal government is wrong to assume that states will do right
by poor and minority students once federal regulations disappear.
"States have already been found by their own courts to be in breech
of their own constitutions because they have not spread education
funding proportionally," Amador says.
The Center for Law and Education has been fighting a proposal
similar to Bush's "flexibility" provision since it was introduced
in Congress last year. Director Paul Weckstein says that trading
flexibility for improved test scores, called the "Straight A's"
provision, "is like saying, 'Send your child to a hospital. We're
getting rid of all standards of care, we're getting rid of all FDA
standards about how drugs should be administered, but have no fear,
because the hospital has promised to reduce its overall mortality
rates.' That's the trade-off."
How could Bush really improve education? He could force states
to provide not only equitable funding, but resource comparability,
says John Jackson of the NAACP: equal student-teacher ratios, equal
number of computers per child, equal percentages of certified teachers,
school buildings in comparable states of repair. Bush's budget does
little to address child or family poverty, despite overwhelming
evidence of the negative influence of poverty on educational achievement.
The National Education Association has criticized Bush for completely
eliminating $1.2 billion in funds for school repairs and renovation.
They've also protested a proposal to eliminate a class-size reduction
initiative--which under Bush's plan would be turned into block grants
in a flexible fund to improve teacher quality and reduce class size.
The Children's Defense Fund has taken to printing a copyright mark
after the key phrase in its mission statement--"leave no child behind"--ever
since Bush copped it for the title of his own plan.
More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. schools
are still separate and unequal. But the solution is no longer integration--which
banked on linking the destinies of poor and minority children to
those of better-served white students--or the mediation of poverty.
Now it's high-stakes testing, chump change tossed at one of the
nation's most enduring challenges, and, of course, open markets.