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
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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.