By Dan Eggen and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 9, 2009
Before he was a war president, George W. Bush fashioned himself as an education president. He campaigned as a school reformer and held his first policy speech at a Washington elementary school, where he began laying the groundwork for the controversial No Child Left Behind education law.
Nearly eight years later, Bush devoted his final public policy address to the same topic, traveling to an elementary school in Philadelphia yesterday to claim success in education reform and to warn President-elect Barack Obama against major changes to the landmark federal testing program.
Bush argued that No Child Left Behind has "forever changed America's school systems" for the better, forcing accountability on failing public schools and leading to measurable improvements among poor and minority students.
"I firmly believe that, thanks to this law, students are learning, an achievement gap is closing," Bush told the audience at General Philip Kearny School.
He also suggested that Obama, who has vowed to overhaul the program, should tread carefully before following through on promises of reform. "There is a growing consensus across the country that now is not the time to water down standards or to roll back accountability," Bush said.
With less than two weeks left in office, the address marked Bush's last formal attempt to burnish a political legacy tarnished by two intractable wars, Hurricane Katrina and the devastating financial collapse of recent months. In a series of recent speeches and selected broadcast interviews, Bush and his senior aides have sought to argue that his presidency was in fact successful on a wide range of fronts, from nuclear proliferation to trade to education.
With No Child Left Behind, Bush clearly left his mark. Passed with bipartisan support and signed into law seven years ago yesterday, it marked an unprecedented federal foray into locally controlled public schools and transformed the education system for teachers, administrators and nearly 50 million public school children.
The law, which requires states to rate schools based on annual testing, aims to boost the achievement of students from poor families. With the objective of having every child master grade-level reading and math by 2014, schools must meet steadily rising test-score goals or risk sanctions.
The Bush administration says the improvements have been widespread, including narrowed achievement gaps between black and white students; record high math scores among African American and Hispanic students; and significant increases in reading and math proficiency among many students.
Despite continued debate over test results, there is broad agreement among education experts that the law has forced schools to focus as never before on the progress of minority students, those with disabilities and those in poverty.
"It has made accountability a national issue, and it has certainly shined a flashlight -- if not a floodlight -- on low-performing schools, as well as suburban schools and rural schools where the achievement of low-performing groups would have been swept under the rug," said Margaret E. Goertz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education.
But many educators and lawmakers have soured on the law's details, complaining about the quality of tests, the "pass-fail" system of judging schools, and a focus on reading and math that some say neglects history, the arts and music. Teachers unions and some school officials say the law is too rigid and punitive, and argue that schools need more federal dollars. Some Republicans say the federal role in schools is too intrusive.
Efforts to overhaul No Child Left Behind fell apart last year as Congress awaited the new administration. Obama has said the law's goals were admirable, but he has vowed to "fix the failures" and add funding. He has also pledged to improve testing and to create a more nuanced system for judging schools.
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, urging more funding and flexibility, yesterday called the law "President Bush's failed education experiment."
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, yesterday praised the law for calling attention to the performance of minority students. He said he would support additional flexibility, but he said he worries that too many changes would water it down.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the law's architects, said the law has made schools better, but it has flaws that need to be fixed. "No Child Left Behind is one of President Bush's significant achievements," Kennedy said. "It's brought long-overdue national attention to the unacceptable achievement gaps in the nation's schools and their greatest needs, and we've made real progress. But problems have emerged, and the new Congress has a responsibility to correct them."
In his speech yesterday, Bush said that the "most important result" of No Child Left Behind is that "fewer students are falling behind" and "more students are achieving high standards." He also dismissed widespread complaints that the system encourages too much reliance on test scores.
"How can you possibly determine whether a child can read at grade level if you don't test?" Bush said, adding: "To me, measurement is the gateway to true reform."