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Bush's NCLB Swan Song


President Bush gave his very last policy speech as chief executive ever today—and he picked education as the topic.

Here in Philadelphia, Mr. Bush extolled the virtues of the No Child Left Behind Act, his signature domestic achievement, in a speech at the racially and socio-economically diverse Gen. Philip Kearny Elementary School, a school that has made adequate yearly progress under NCLB every year since 2003.

He didn't say anything new or surprising. He talked about how NCLB has helped expand access to choice, raised student achievement, provided parents with more information, and helped shine a light on groups of students and schools that were long ignored. You can read the transcript of his speech here. And he called on the incoming Congress and the new administration to keep the law's core principles in place during reauthorization.

It's obvious that President Bush sees NCLB as an important part of his legacy, and whether you like or hate the law, or like or hate the President, he's certainly right in claiming the law has reshaped American education, and its effects will continue to be felt in schools long after he's left office.

But, given Bush's rampant unpopularity, this may not have been the smartest move. If he truly wants the law to stay more-or-less intact, making such a high profile speech about it may not have been the best way to accomplish this. It's true that NCLB will, inevitably, always be associated with Bush. This big speech might give Democrats even more motivation to scrap the law.

And I'm not sure whether Obama's pick for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, bristled or smiled or both when he heard this from Mr. Bush:

I have seen the resolve for reform and the belief in high standards in Chicago, where reading and math scores are soaring, and where every child still has time to study a foreign language and the fine arts. The school in Chicago we went to, like other schools across the city, have benefited from the vision and leadership of a person named Arne Duncan. And he is going to be the next Secretary of Education. And we are fortunate he has agreed to take on this position. And we wish him all the very best.

The students and staff seemed thrilled with the presidential visit. But I overheard that some kids were disappointed that the visit wasn't from President-elect Barack Obama, who won Pennsylvania and trounced his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in heavily-Democratic Philadelphia.

Also...I overheard that Secretary Spellings lost her wallet at the school. After I file this, I'll have to take a look around here. I bet if I'm the one to return it, she'd owe me an exclusive for sure...


Thanks for providing the link to the actual speech. It contains this line, used over and over by Bush and Spellings during the last few years:

"For those who wonder whether or not we should strengthen No Child Left Behind, I want you to hear this: 4th graders earned the highest reading and math scores in the history of the test."

A glance at the actual data shows that the gains for grade 4 reading occurred before NCLB went into effect, and there are no gains for grade 8 reading. Math scores have been rising at the same rate for years, since well before NCLB. NCLB gets no credit for the high scores.

Did the gap get narrower? The gap between high and low-income children has not changed since 2003, not for math, not for reading, not for grade 4 or grade 8.

President Bush also stated:

"There's been a lot of debates about the requirements of No Child Left Behind. No question a piece of legislation like this encourages debate -- and that's fine. That's part of the democratic process. But there is no debate about the results –"

True. NCLB didn't work.

The country has been boondoggled into assuming that the all-important tests measure really useful learning. Instead, they measure a student's ability to respond to multiple choice tests, which is a specific skill in itself that has little to do with real-world performance. Reading First is a travesty. Students are great at decoding, but comprehension ability these days is pathetic.

Like most people in education administration, including Spellings and her predecessor, Rod Paige, Bush doesn't understand enough about how children learn to even know what a useful evaluation is.

How can anyone truly expect that NCLB would ever be successful, based as it was upon the lies and false data put forward in the Houston Schools? Now, the same thing seems to be happening in regard to Chicago's Schools. Here is a snippet from an article with a link....

"The failure of test-driven school reform in Chicago should provide a warning for the country," said FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill. "The Chicago schools most affected by test-based grade retention and takeovers continue to fare poorly. No wonder NCLB has not been successful in significantly improving academic performance nationally: it is based on a failed model."


If we don't scrap this disastrous policy and move away from these high-stakes exams, we are all destined to fail amid rising frustration among all affected parties.

Tony Nelson-

You express my concern that we are headed for "Houston, part 2." I taught in Houston all throughout Rod Paige's tenure, and saw the data manipulation and dishonesty from the inside out. The driving force behind most of it was $$$$$. Everything under Paige's administration was designed to cater to business interests, from Aramark food services to the companies that provided test practice materials and textbooks. Teachers were treated with utter contempt, especially if they questioned anything.

Everything I have read about Duncan gives the impression that he is a more refined version of Paige, who is an imbecile who became a tool of the business community.

When will the responsibility of raising children rest on the parents? No test or teaching method will ever take the place of mom and dad. Either we are going to raise them ourselves with all parental rights or hold mom and dad responsible.

Elizabeth says: "The country has been boondoggled into assuming that the all-important tests measure really useful learning. Instead, they measure a student's ability to respond to multiple choice tests, which is a specific skill in itself that has little to do with real-world performance."

This is an often-expressed belief, but I am not certain that it holds much water when examined carefully. I have never seen much beyond opinion to indicate that lack of "test-taking skills" interferes with a student's ability to demonstrate their grasp of knowledge on standardized tests. Were that the case, one would think that the reinforcement of "test-taking skills" in multiple ways since the inception of the tests would have pretty much levelled the playing field. It has not.

The widespread inability of "test driven reform" to bring about changes in educational outcomes; following decades of "subsidy driven reform" (in the form of Title I dollars with few outcome expectations attached) to bring about change is testimony to our commitment to inequalities in education. At a minimum we are undisturbed by this state of affairs. At worst, we embrace it.

Moving resources in the direction of those who have the highest needs(as indicated by tests, demographics, or any other indicator)--is not a difficult thing on its face, whether the resources go for a longer school day or year, additional social services, nutrition programs, more experienced or highly trained teachers or intensive intervention programs. Where the difficulties come in is in preparing a more competitive class of poor people, or minorities, or other underclass members. This does not sit well with those who have traditionally received the advantage--through family resources or through publicly supported institutions. State after state has failed to confront funding inequities, as these inequities benefit a politically powerful few. We do not have a mindset that is accustomed to looking at how a state, or the nation, as a whole is faring. Achievement gaps that should shock us are routinely accepted as nothing new, and life as it should be.

And those who have been charged with making a change--dismiss the messenger.


I don't think we disagree. The problem is that many teachers, and especially administrators, believe that children need to constantly practice multiple choice format, and that it is the only valid measure of understanding. The stakes are so high for passing the standardized tests that everyone is afraid to not constantly practice the format.

In fact, there are some districts in which the playing field has been leveled, or close to it, in terms of test scores. But what's the point if the child has poor reading comprehension on anything else?

Very bright children must often be trained to "dumb down" their responses in order to do well. Otherwise, they over think the possible answers and end up with mediocre scores. What good is a high test score for these kids? It's a waste of time that could be put to much better use.

When I taught in Houston, money that was originally used for building classroom libraries was diverted into buying test practice materials which we were required to use every day. Can you imagine the cash cow this turned into for the publishing companies? Instead having the students read novels and write thoughtful book reviews, they had to read a series of short reading selections and answer multiple choice questions. And this was in a gifted magnet program in which the scores were already about as high as they could go, including for the minority kids.

The emphasis on teaching to a standardized test format is a dreadful disservice to all students, especially low SES children. By giving so much attention to test scores as proof of closing the achievement gap, these kid are being further deprived of higher level learning.

As someone who has been entrenched in NCLB and Reading First for five years, it frustrates me that we are still discussing what doesn't work when we should be looking at what does work and why.

While I am the first to admit the weaknesses of NCLB, what I have seen numerous schools and districts benefit from increased accountability - and the focus on the power of instruction - the power of the teacher. I have seen populations of students who have previously perceived as "unmoveable" perform equal to students who have typically performed well on state tests, other formal measures as well as informal measures. The parents have not changed, the quality and the focus of the instruction has. This is true professionalism.

I am discouraged by the negativity that meets improvements in our profession - while the improvements and reform efforts might not be perfectly crafted, I believe that it is our responsiblity as educators to show the public, students, parents and ourselves that they DO work and to innovate to make them work and think of the possibilities, rather than focus on what won't work.

The text of Bush's comments makes me so angry. He has had 60 years to learn to speak. His lack of subject-verb agreement and overuse of the word "and" at the beginning of sentences are appalling. Shame on the senior Bushes for not correcting him as well.

As an urban teacher for 40 years, I found the NCLB Act horrible. All school subjects deserve time in a child's life. Each child and each school should be accountable for improving. However, some children just can't improve on a mandated timetable. Bush is a prime example since he still hasn't learned basic grammar.

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