On his second working day in office, George W. Bush launched an unprecedented expansion of federal involvement in local education through federally mandated standards and tests for all children. It's a far cry from the Republican Party agenda of five years ago that the U.S. Department of Education be abolished.
I'm all for a federal role in education, particularly in providing resources to public schools in economically depressed rural and urban areas. If education is a national crisis, then the national government must be involved.
But Bush's plan will not take us where we need to go. And even if it were a sufficient blueprint, the looming question is: where's the money? The Bush proposal makes no mention of any dollar figures.
As a result, Bush's plan is like telling children to run a marathon on a gravel path, but some will run barefoot while others will wear $100 running shoes. It's not hard to guess who will come in first.
Bush's 28-page education agenda has two major components: tests and vouchers. Bush immediately signaled that the highly divisive issue of vouchers was negotiable - leaving tests at the heart of his vision. Interestingly, the religious/radical right, which in the past has likened federal calls for tests and standards to federally mandated mind control, has been oddly silent on Bush's proposal. We'll see if that lasts.
Bush dubbed his proposal "No Child Left Behind" - welcome rhetoric from the leader of a party that opposes affirmative action and abhors universal health coverage. The issue is whether Bush will come up with the resources to deliver on his slogan.
There are two main components in Bush's testing proposal:
A mandate that states test students in math and reading every year in grades three to eight.
A promise that the federal government will use the test results to "reward success" and "sanction failure."
The proposals rest on two faulty assumptions. First, that standardized tests are the best way to measure academic success. Second, that schools are failing because they aren't trying hard enough and that the threat of sanctions will magically transform these troubled schools.
Most people will hopefully recognize that it's cruel-hearted to give more money to schools already doing well and to take money from failing schools. But the rhetoric of tests is far more seductive, especially when couched in terms of accountability. Who, after all, opposes accountability?
Educational researchers routinely disagree on any number of issues, from how best to teach reading to how best to prevent drop outs. But there is near unanimous agreement that students should never be evaluated on the basis of a single test, especially a fill-in-the-bubble standardized test. While Bush has said states can choose their tests, the likelihood is they will opt for the low-cost option of buying a standardized test from one of the handful of companies that control testing.
One concern is that standardized tests measure only the most rudimentary of knowledge - in essence, rewarding low standards. They rely on memorizing and regurgitating isolated facts, a style of learning out of date in this Internet era of information overload where the real issue is how best to access and analyze data.
Second, standardized tests generally permit only one correct answer. They penalize multiple perspectives and avoid questions that require a complicated, thoughtful answer.
Third, standardized tests ensure that half of our children will always be "below average." That is the way they are constructed - to rank children so one can sort the smart kids from the dumb kids. Because socioeconomic status plays such a crucial role in test scores, it's easy to predict which students, schools, and districts will routinely be condemned as "below average."
Finally, it's revealing that standardized tests have their origins in the Eugenics movement earlier in this century and its belief in the intellectual superiority of northern European whites. In fact, standardized testing in our schools didn't really exist until it was decided that IQ and similar tests were a valid way to identify "superior" and "inferior" students.
As Kenneth A. Wesson, a founding member of the Association of Black Psychologists, wrote in a recent essay in Education Week: "Let's be honest. If poor, inner-city children consistently outscored children from wealthy suburban homes on standardized tests, is anyone naive enough to believe that we would still insist on using these tests as indicators of success?"
Bush's plan also mandates that all states develop history and science standards. The next logical step, of course, is testing to ensure the standards are being met. The question is, who gets to decide the standards?
The history standards promise to be particularly contentious. Six years ago, for example, second lady Lynne Cheney led the charge against then-proposed US history standards because they were insufficiently "patriotic." Whose version of history will dominate the next attempt - that of Lynne Cheney and John Ashcroft?
WHAT WAY FORWARD?
US students already take more standardized tests than children in other industrialized countries. We don't need to test them even more. If Bush is serious about his promise of "No Child Left Behind," here are some alternatives that would truly make a difference:
Most important, federal dollars to address the savage inequalities in school funding.
Financial incentives so that the most qualified and experienced teachers and principals work in low-performing schools. A good teacher and a well-run school mean far more to a child than another test.
A federal jobs initiative for depressed urban and rural areas so that all families and all children are lifted out of poverty and receive adequate housing and health care. You cannot separate the plight of low-performing schools from the problems afflicting their families and communities.
I agree with George W. that no child should be left behind. But we need to make sure it's not just another meaningless slogan. Even "below average" children are smart enough to see through hollow rhetoric.