President Bush sought to honor a campaign promise by making education one of his first "issues of the week" and releasing his "No Child Left Behind" proposal. Bush's plan includes traditionally Republican themes such as support for charter schools and consolidation of federal programs. A controversial voucher provision for children stuck in chronically "failing schools" was also included, but Bush quickly expressed willingness to drop it and initial Senate legislation did just that.
Vouchers might reappear on the Senate floor or in a House bill, but the centerpiece of Bush's plan is its call for school accountability through increased standardized testingwhich contrasts sharply with the recent moves in higher education away from standardized testing in the form of the SAT.
Clearer standards and public accountability have been the driving force behind politically driven school reform since the early 1980s. Most American children take either a commercially produced basic skills test or a state-produced curriculum examination every two or three grades. But the president's plan raises the ante significantly, requiring states receiving federal support (all of them) to test children every year between grades three and eight. In addition, the Department of Education would administer its own tests to samples of 4th and 8th graders every year to confirm the legitimacy of the results reported by individual states.
What is new about Bush's testing proposal is that it explicitly addresses what he calls the "achievement gap" between poor and middle-class students by requiring states to report their scores separately. School districts that fail to make adequate progress in closing the achievement gap would risk losing monetary assistance through Title One of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is earmarked for schools serving high numbers of poor students. However, while Bush deserves some credit for ensuring that the problem of unequal achievement between poor and middle-class children will remain a part of the national conversation, critics rightly charge that testing alone will not solve the problem.
Indeed, recent history should make us suspicious when the executive office offers inexpensive solutions such as increased testing for enduring American problems such as economic and educational inequality. One must note the irony of Bush introducing his education reform plan just months after the target year had passed for his father's agenda, "America 2000." Bush Sr. wanted all children to start school ready to learn, every school in America to be free of drugs and violence, and every adult American to be literate. But as his son introduces his own plan, 70 percent of inner-city children do not read at a "basic level," we are currently enduring a horrifying stream of school violence, and about one fourth of American adults cannot read well enough to accurately complete their income tax returns.
Recent hisitory also suggests a place to turn for better solutions. Unlike the majority of congressional Democrats today, many Democrats during Clinton's first term infused integrity into the debate by demanding that states construct a set of "opportunity-to-learn" standards to stand alongside new student performance standards. If students in poor schools were to be held accountable for high-stakes tests that impacted grade promotion and graduation, they argued, then states needed to ensure that school facilities, curriculum materials, and teacher quality were sufficient for these students. These provisions endangered the widespread practice of funding schools through local property taxes and consequently found only a weak and temporary place in Clinton's education act.
President Bush should be commended for ensuring that educational inequality will remain on the minds of policymakers in the coming years, but his testing-centered plan is woefully incomplete. It might be true that a few schools need the threat of cutting off Title One funds to stimulate meaningful change, but these are a small minority. The vast majority of educators serving in high poverty areas deserve our support rather than the threat of fiscal abandonment. As for what "support" might mean in practice, revisiting earlier conversations about opportunity-to-learn standards would be a good place to start.
Gregory Fritzberg is assistant professor of education at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, and the author of In the Shadow of "Excellence": Recovering a Vision of Educational Opportunity For All.