T Nation

Bush's Education Reforms Working


On the less nutty side of examining No Child Left Behind, this article from the most recent issue of the Economist suggests the reforms are paying dividends for the students, if not for the conspiracy theorists and unions:


George Bush's education reforms may be working

Get article background: http://www.economist.com/background/displayBackground.cfm?story_id=4198655

THERE is no shortage of bad news for the White House these days. The Washington press corps is on death watch outside the house of Karl Rove, George Bush's chief adviser, and the car bombs continue to explode across Iraq. Yet last Thursday also saw some rare good news. It is buried in a pretty obscure place, in a report published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But it has some big implications?not only for Mr Bush's much-maligned claim that he is a different sort of conservative, but also for the future health of American society.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress has been periodically testing a representative sample of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds since the early 1970s. This year's report contained two striking results. The first is that America's nine-year-olds posted their best scores in reading and maths since the tests were introduced (in 1971 in reading and 1973 in maths). The second is that the gap between white students and minorities is narrowing. The nine-year-olds who made the biggest gains of all were blacks, traditionally the most educationally deprived group in American society.

The education establishment?particularly the two big teachers' unions?were quick to pooh-pooh the result. The critics argued that Mr Bush cannot take credit for the gains because his chief educational reform, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, had been in place for only a year when the tests were administered. They also pointed out that the gains are not universal. The results are mixed for 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds. The reading skills of black and Latino 17-year-olds were nearly identical to those of white 13-year-olds.

All this is true, but self-confounding. Mr Bush's act may be very new. But the ideas that lie behind it?focusing on basic subjects such as maths and reading and using regular testing to hold schools accountable?have been widely tried at the state level since at least the mid-1990s. Mr Bush deserves credit for recognising winning ideas thrown up by America's ?laboratories of democracy? and then applying them at the federal level. Thirteen- and 17-year-olds may not have shown as much improvement as nine-year-olds. But that is precisely because reformers have focused their energies on the earlier grades.

These results matter. In domestic policy Mr Bush has put more emphasis on education reform than on anything else except tax cuts. He first introduced himself to the American public as an educational reformer who had pioneered both testing and accountability in Texas. In his first year in office he teamed up with Ted Kennedy (he was then ?a uniter, not a divider?) to push his education reforms through Congress. On the morning of September 11th 2001 he was famously reading ?My Pet Goat? to a group of Florida schoolchildren. If Islamic terrorists hadn't changed the world that morning, Mr Bush might have been remembered mostly as an education president.

Mr Bush sold himself to the American people as a new kind of conservative. From the Goldwater revolution onwards, American conservatives defined themselves by their hostility to government. They were particularly keen on closing down the Department of Education. But Mr Bush argued that active government was quite compatible with conservative principles, provided that it was active government guided by sensible values and disciplined by internal and external competition. Mr Bush increased the Department of Education's funding by a staggering 40%, more in percentage terms than the increase given to the Pentagon. But he justified the extra spending on the ground that the department was introducing testing, transparency and accountability. The act not only requires states to measure the general progress of their children. It also requires them to disaggregate their data to reveal the performance of specific groups such as Latino children or poor children. The aim is to prevent states from boosting the overall performance of their children while leaving vulnerable groups behind.

A challenge for the Democrats
Mr Bush's embrace of the Department of Education has caused severe friction on the right. Free-market purists have criticised him for abandoning market solutions in favour of central planning. And state education authorities have criticised him for imposing a one-size-fits-all solution on the education system. But Mr Bush can now reasonably reply that his policies are beginning to have the desired effects.

They need to have. The poor quality of America's schools is arguably the biggest threat to America's global competitiveness, a threat that will only grow as the best brains from India and China compete in an ever-wider array of jobs. And the growing gap between the educational performance of the rich and the poor, and between the majority and minorities, is arguably the biggest threat to America's traditional conception of itself as a meritocracy. The test results are thus doubly good news. They suggest that America may be able to improve its traditionally dismal educational performance. And they suggest that sharpening up schools can especially help minority children.

These results pose a new challenge to Mr Bush. He needs to move quickly to extend his reforms to America's high schools, now clearly exposed as the weakest link in the education chain. But they pose even bigger challenges for the Democratic Party. Democrats were once champions of education reform: Bill Clinton first attracted national attention with his reforms of schools in Arkansas. But since the passage of NCLB they have increasingly sided with an education establishment that is bent on defending the status quo from inconvenient reforms. This is surely both a mistake and an abuse of power. For it is now clear that at least some of those reforms offer a much better start in life to America's children, particularly the poorest.



While I commend the attempt to use credible news sources such as the Economist it should be pointed out that the statistics being used in this article cannot point to any correlation between "No Child Left Behind", which has not even been implemeted for half a decade yet, and a narrowing margin between minorities and whites. I'm sure the WH will spin it as such though.

A better test would be to compare American students to each other as well as to whole samplings of other countries. This would help gain understanding in the fluctuations we see in our own country's learning curve. For example, it would give a good basis of comparrison to what other countries experience with similar programs in place and those with no programs. As stated in the article when the original data was collected NCLB was only a year old. It requires years to gain any usable data.

My point is Bush will be long gone before we can pat him on the back for his NCLB act.



The Administration is definitely playing it that way, and I'll grant you it's not perfect. But as the article pointed out, the programs in No Child Left Behind weren't really new -- just codified and nationalized versions of programs that seemed to be working at the state level previously.

This post (12:28 AM, Monday, July 18, 2005 - no permalink) by Mickey Kaus on the Kausfiles weblog on Slate makes the point well:

Test Scores Improving, NEA In Full Damage-Control Mode!

Want to know what to make of those recent encouraging NAEP test score results, which the Bush Administration promptly hailed ( http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2005/07/07142005.html ) as "proof that No Child Left Behind is working." As usual, Eduwonk is the place to start ( http://www.eduwonk.com/archives/2005_07_10_archive.html#112135117927167904 ). ... Anti-NCLB groups (e.g. the National Education Association) argue that since the NCLB had only been in effect for a year prior to the test, it can't be credited with the results ( http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/15/education/15educ.html?ex=1279080000&en=bebeb69688cb3ba4&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss ). But as Education Week noted ( http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2005/07/14/43naep_web.h24.html? ):

many states had already begun making such changes and focusing intensely on improving reading and math instruction after the 1999 national assessment and prior to the federal law's implementation.

There's a similar argument in the welfare debate: Why did all sorts of indicators (e.g., teen pregnancy ( http://www.brookings.edu/dybdocroot/wrb/publications/pb/pb08.htm ), caseloads ( http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/news/stats/6097rf.htm )) start to improve in the years before the enactment of the 1996 federal reform? President Clinton attributed the results to state reform efforts that preceded the federal law. The case for a similar effect in education seems at least as strong, if not stronger. Weren't pre-NCLB state efforts to require more testing and accountability far more pervasive than pre-1996 state efforts to require more welfare recipients to work? ...

P.S.: The good news in education, of course, may in itself also be good news for welfare reform. One of the dreamier welfare reform theories, remember, was that kids whose parents worked (and who lived in neighborhoods in which more other kids' parents worked) would do better in school. Liberal writers have made big splashes by noting individual cases ( http://slate.msn.com/?id=1007707 ) in which this dynamic did not seem to be at work, in part because welfare reform pushed poor single mothers to hold down jobs that took them away from their kids. All welfare reformers could say, in effect, was "Let's wait until we see how these big changes in neighborhoods play out across the whole population over many years." Well .... Certainly results like the NAEP's (which showed especially big gains for black 9-year-olds ( http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/sub-reading-race.asp )) make it harder to argue that the 1996 welfare law, by requiring mothers to take jobs and leave their kids, has had a negative overall effect on kids' school performance. ... 12:48 A.M.


Yes, some students are testing higher. Too bad teachers are spending so much time making students test well, that they no longer have time to teach.



Nice articles.

The left trully dislikes you.

You bring overwhelming logic to the table. They recoil from it and you like a bad smell.

Keep it up!!!



Jerffy, he posts biased stuff, admits the bias, agrees with why it isn't really correct, agrees the article acknowledges it too, then posts more.

What on earth are you talking about?


Those are wise words!

From a personal standpoint my wife and I dealt with this problem throughout the school year.

The teachers are teaching "to the test" and nothing more.


Actually vroom,

What I did was post a good article from the Economist, talk with LIFTICVS about what the article did indeed say concerning the data measure, and then discuss other reasons beyond that particular data measure for why the reforms underlying No Child Left Behind really should be credited for the improvements.

You should follow the Eduwonk and Edweek links from the kausfiles post for more good stuff.


Flat out, those are just shitty teachers. If you know your subject and teach it well for 90% of the year, you can prepare your students for the test in a couple of weeks.


A couple of weeks? No, that is not possible. Forgoing the complexities involved in whether states utilize norm-referenced vs. criterion-referenced assessments, no child can be prepared for an NCLB-mandated test in a few weeks. It would be like saying that you could prepare for the SAT in a couple of weeks ... or your bench could go from 200 to 400 in a couple of weeks because all you have to do is lift everyday and add 10 lbs. each time ... simple right?

You could certainly pick up some test-taking tips, but these assessments statistically represent overall student growth. It's hard to wrap your head around this, but just think about the extreme difference in academic cognizance that occurs betweens grades 1 and 4, or any grades for that matter.

I've been a public school teacher in a highly successful inner-city school for six years, have two Masters degrees in education, and ... I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I think I?m one of the few people on this board who has actually read the No Child Left Behind Act in its entirety. NCLB tests are not (in most cases) the "basic skills tests" that many of us remember from childhood.

Hell, the score reports are so complex that we can't even send them home to parents ... testing companies provided a simpler, Dick-and-Jane version for parents to read.

The fact is that the public education system is very screwed up and both political parties use schools, teachers, and students to demonize their enemies and placate their constituencies. And I'm sure that this siege will continue under future presidents and governors and whoever else

... and I'll still be the one in the classroom, doing the best that I can.


There was an article in the Boston Globe recently about MCAS. This is the test that students in MA need to pass to graduate. Also if the test is not given the state loses it's federal education money. Colleges and universities throughout the state are finding that college freshman need to take remidial english/math at an alarming rate. MCAS measures math and english. Kids in MA are passing the MCAS, but are lacking in the skills needed to actually do college work. They can take a test, but not write a 5 page essay because that's not what they were trained to do. Over the next few years history and science tests will be added as well. For science this means less time doing experiments and hands on things and more time getting force fed facts to pass a test. For history, classes will lack any real depth because all the material will need to be covered for the test. Testing and teaching to the test is less time spent actually learning. People that aren't educators (politicians) think the only way to tell if a kid is doing well is through a test, but a test is only a tool. The real work is everything that leads up to the test. The NCLB model is flawed because it only deals with one small part of education, test taking. I teach highschool so I'm biased, but I also speak from experience. There is more to teaching and learning than taking tests.


"Flat out, those are just shitty teachers. If you know your subject and teach it well for 90% of the year, you can prepare your students for the test in a couple of weeks."

doogie, where do you teach? Can you help me out on how to pull this off? I'm alwaways looking for some help.


You have to be kidding. What subject area do you teach? I've taught Math in Texas http://ideaacademy.org/ for four years. I spend less than two weeks prepping for the test (TAKS), and 93% of my students passed and 50% scored in the 90s. Most of my students are ESL, migrant farm workers.

Two Masters in education? I think we've found the problem. I have a B.A. in political science, and I'm not certified to teach. I don't make theoretical excuses for why my students can't do better on the test.


In Texas, isn't all the work already done for you? Don't they hand you lesson plans, test and such and that's that?


I missed that part at the end. Not certified to teach. According to NCLB you will be out of a job soon. Need certification and a Masters. You're basiclly a substitute teacher.


Doogie, I don't think you comprehend this. The entire school's fate, sometimes, is at risk in these tests. Entire school budgets and funding can be lost by the school falling below some arbitrary measure pre-determined in an office in D.C. somewhere.

Maybe your school was just handed something pre-built already and you just take what they give you. No idea.

The teachers have no choice. The school administrators have no choice. They have to re-gear their entire curiculum around making sure the kids pass these tests so their school funding doesn't get axed.

Hell, they're cutting out entire programs just to feed the testing monster. Some places are even cancelling PE classes to keep the test-beast fed. If that isn't anti-T-Man, then I don't know what is.


This is a good point that I think people miss. The data collected from tests that are taken merely from students that are taught from a perspective of the test will always be flawed. There will never be a baseline measurement. Not only this, students will spend a vast majority of time memorizing facts rather than trying to understand the facts they are supposed to be learning. These are the skills necessary for building critical thinking--a skill that hasn't been given enough time in primary education. Would you rather have a student that can think for himself or a robot that just remembers facts.

I tell my students all the time, "If you understand the principles behind the physics you will never have to remember any formulas. Everything can be derived from first priciples." Now when the tests are handed out I don't want them to spew out answers that came from plugging numbers into formulas, which is why they have to show thir work. I want to see the thought process. Just becsause they may have not come out with the correct answer numerically doesn't mean they were completly wrong. If they can show that they were on the right track I give partial credit for an answer.

Unfortunately standardized tests use bubble sheets and therefore the answer is either right or wrong and the child will not get feedback on the thought process and therefore will only learn the yes or no process, which further makes it hard to teach the necessary critical thinking skills. I realize not all tests need to be written out but certain subjects like math, science, english, and history would benefit from written tests--not to mentioon teaching valuble writing skills.


No. What gave you that idea?


I teach at a charter school. Every year the school has to send a letter to all of my students telling them I'm not certified. They also send them a copy of my TAKS results. No one has ever taken their kid out of my class.

I developed my curriculum, I develop my lesson plans, I make my tests. The only thing I didn't get to choose is the text that we use.


Their fates should be tied to their results. That is life. I realize it has never been the reality for "educators", but every one else in the real world has to perform to keep their budgets.

Actually my school started as an after school program run by two 23 year old teachers who knew their kids needed more work. The kids in the program drastically outperformed others in the district. Instead of expanding the program, the district shut it down.

Then the two teachers started their own charter school. From scratch. The first year we rented space in an old church. The next year we had 16 portable classrooms. Now we've built entire schools, K-12. We receive only $5000/pupil/year, and no money for buildings.

Every dime for construction has come from private donations (Gates Foundation, La Raza, ect). Nobody was handed anything.


This is an article about our school and two of my former students.

The tests check to make sure your kids can do simple math, read and comprehend articles/stories, write clearly enough to be understood, and have a basic grasp of science and social studies. If your curriculum was not already doing that, you should not be teaching.

That's a shame. We're able to have two complete orchestras, PE,a world class art program AND kids who can read.

Again, if you weren't already teaching in a way that ensured your kids could pass a simple test (and they are simple tests), then you needed the kick in the ass.