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Bush's Education Legacy

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Bush's Education Legacy

Six years after President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, it is clear that his education legacy is no different than in many other areas of domestic and foreign policy — a disappointment. Despite No Child Left Behind being the centerpiece of his education agenda, hailed as the vehicle for transforming American public education, the Bush Administration paid scant attention to its implementation.

No Child Left Behind was plagued by several design flaws, but even its positive attributes — such as a renewed emphasis on closing the achievement gap by improving the educational outcomes of low-income and minority students and demanding qualified teachers — were undermined by a severe lack of funding that guaranteed failure. Among its harmful provisions, the law focused accountability exclusively on science, reading and math test scores, to the complete exclusion of all other subjects and performance indicators.

Under the law's accountability method, which was modeled on the Texas system shaped by then-Governor Bush, schools either make "adequate yearly progress," or they don't. This simple binary system is based exclusively on math, reading and science multiple-choice testing. The law requires that all schools show adequate yearly progress on their scores and that all sub-groups in each school, such as girls, African-Americans, Latinos and students with disabilities also achieve "proficiency" in the three areas tested.

Based on this one-size-fits-all measure of success, schools failing to "make the grade" are labeled as failures and face draconian sanctions, including loss of funding and even school closure. Ironically, these penalties hurt the schools that take on the greatest educational challenges and need help the most. Moreover, they actually encourage schools to push out vulnerable students with low test scores, such as special-education students and English-language learners.

We need an accountability method that recognizes when schools are moving in the right direction and making substantial progress, though they may have not achieved rigid adequate yearly progress goals. Indeed, rather than threaten schools that serve vulnerable young people, we should provide them with additional resources and support.

An entire accountability system based on test scores in only three, albeit important, areas of learning, represents a narrow view of education. Furthermore, it restricts curriculum at a time when innovative instruction that focuses on creative problem-solving is needed more than ever to prepare students for a competitive global knowledge-based economy. The resulting curriculum centralization has led to the elimination of many vocational programs and overall reductions in other subject areas, such as the arts and civics. Students are developing their test-taking skills instead of their critical thinking.

In order to improve our public schools, we must identify indicators of achievement beyond standardized test scores. Test scores are a picture of how we are doing, and they point out areas where improvement is needed. But while testing is a valuable indicator of effectiveness in the areas it measures, it does not tell us everything we need to know about our schools and students' progress. We need to include assessment tools that measure learning broadly and across many areas, such as history, civics, geography, financial literacy and the arts. We need to know whether students can think critically, solve problems and communicate well — all essential skills for both college and professional work.

For any education reform to succeed, our schools need to be adequately funded. Not only did No Child Left Behind ignore the issue of addressing inequitable and inadequate funding among our nation's schools, but the Bush Administration failed to fund its own policies. Rather than live up to its promises in the bipartisan agreement, the Bush Administration delivered a series of unfunded mandates. While schools faced ever-more-rigorous requirements, they received less federal funding to reduce class sizes and hire highly trained teachers — two of the most critical factors for improving student learning. Without a serious investment, laws alone cannot yield the desired result. The federal government needs to fulfill its promises and provide schools with the tools they need to implement changes and succeed.

Perhaps some of the problems with No Child Left Behind could be overlooked if, in fact, the achievement gap had decreased.

However, after six years, the gap remains largely unchanged.

If any progress has been made, it has occurred in spite of the law, not because of it. The jury is in: the achievement gap has not closed and the students who were left behind before the Bush Administration are still being left behind, even by the metrics of the law itself. The Bush Administration's education legacy consists of many unintended consequences and little in the way of meaningful progress.

Jared Polis is an entrepreneur and the former chairman of the Colorado Board of Education. He represents Colorado's 2nd Congressional District in Congress.


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