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Reading Between the Lines | The Nation

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Reading Between the Lines

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On the morning of September 11, President Bush was sitting in the second-grade class of the Emma E. Booker Elementary School. The location is revealing: Up to the moment Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered in his ear, Bush believed he was going to be an Education President. The second plane put an end to that, of course; and when he signed his education plan into law on January 8, the celebration was understandably muted.

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Stephen Metcalf
Stephen Metcalf is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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The establishment verdict is in: President-elect Bush made an astute choice by tapping Rod Paige, Houston's School Superintendent, to head his Education Department. The New York Times blessed the nomination as "wise," and both major teachers' unions have chimed in with support.

On most of the hot-button questions, Paige is a relatively uncontroversial pick. About vouchers, he has written, "We believe that public funds should go to students, not institutions, and there may be a time when vouchers will be part of the mix." (A limited voucher program in Houston was so modest and so narrowly designed that virtually no one took advantage of it.) Paige is a supporter of "performance pay" for teachers and a fairly strong proponent of a skills-based curriculum, especially phonics, but not to the point where he has openly horrified anyone in the teachers' unions or on the educational left. (Privatization, however, is Paige's one potential skeleton. He contracted with the for-profit Community Education Partners to renovate an old Wal-Mart and take in students expelled from other schools in the district. The Houston Press has reported that CEP falsified academic records to stay in good standing in the district. Paige defends the school, and the local teachers' union loves it because it exiles troublemakers. But when Paige touts the decline in violence in his district, it's important to keep this warehousing policy in mind.)

The basis for Paige's seeming pragmatism, and the core of his relationship with Bush, is "accountability." Both men believe strongly in a descending order of public liability, beginning with the governor, on down to district administrators, principals, teachers and ultimately arriving at pupils themselves: All get measured, and publicly lauded or shamed, by the outcome of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the state-designed standardized test administered annually to public schoolchildren in third through eighth grades. (Passing a tenth-grade TAAS is required before a student can graduate from high school.) Both Paige and Bush staked their reputations on rising TAAS scores, and clearly both would like to see the Texas system--blending autocratic, centralized accountability standards with flexibility on how to satisfy them--bumped up to the federal level. But were the numbers truly what they said they were? And was placing both students and schools on a single-indicator model of performance good for Texas public education?

To begin with, almost none of the independent measures of student performance have confirmed the gains Paige and Bush trumpet on the TAAS. ACT and SAT scores have stagnated, and on the single achievement Bush takes most seriously--early reading ability--the National Goals Panel, by Bush Senior in 1989 to monitor each state's progress on education, found that "between 1992 and 1998 there was no significant change in the percentage of [Texas] public school fourth graders who met the Goals Panel's performance standard in reading." A recent RAND study has come to, at best, mixed conclusions on the Texas "miracle." The most recent compared TAAS scores with the performance of Texas schoolchildren on a national exam. By this benchmark, only the math scores of white fourth graders showed meaningful improvement. The common explanation for these discrepancies has been that emphasis on TAAS, having developed into an institutional mania, forces teachers to teach test-preparation materials in lieu of a full subject curriculum. In other words, instead of receiving an education, students are drilled on how to pass a single multiple-choice exam. Worse, schools now shunt more kids into special ed (where they are exempted from TAAS), hold them back in the ninth grade (to avoid the critical tenth-grade assessment) or even quietly encourage the worst test-takers to stay home on TAAS day (there is no makeup date).

The Bush-Paige system of accountability put such enormous pressure on educators to produce rising scores that inflating special-ed exemptions--and eventually out-and-out cheating by teachers and principals--became scandals. When Paige cracked down on both in 1999, scores went, in Paige's own words, "violently" down. Furthermore, with graduation rates part of the accountability mix, not to mention Paige's own compensation package, a kind of, well, fuzzy math now governs the calculation of who actually completes school. Both a conservative and a liberal gadfly group have protested, independently of each other, for years that Houston's graduation rates are wildly exaggerated, and recently Walter Haney, a Boston College education professor, has noted that "there was a sharp upturn in numbers of young people taking the GED tests in Texas in the mid-1990s." The GED, a high-school-equivalency test, allows students to evade TAAS, and it removes them from the official graduation scorecard.

The simple question to Paige should be: Before we confirm you, and before we move to a Texas-style system of accountability nationally, can you assure us that Houston's educational gains weren't a mirage? That the culture of testing is good for schools? There have been widespread reports of test-prep rallies, school-sanctioned all-night crams, schools forgoing basic educational services to buy expensive commercial study guides.

And testing gets to a deeper commonality between Bush and Paige. As Paige has written, "Nearly three-quarters of Houston's students are disadvantaged, but the factors that make them disadvantaged have nothing to do with ability to learn," a sentiment Bush echoed neatly when at Paige's appointment he said, "He understands that we don't give up on any child, regardless of their background." This sounds caring enough, but it has an edge: Poverty will not be an excuse. This in turn dovetails all too nicely with the culture of testing, which is often Procrustean in ignoring the vastly different social legacies children bring with them to their first day at school.

The tendency to paper over a young pupil's background, as well as the comfort both Paige and Bush draw from purely quantitative, rather than qualitative, measures of a child's well-being, will make a critical difference at the level of policy: Bush has promised to move Head Start from the Health and Human Services Department to Paige in Education, converting it from an antipoverty program for preschoolers into, essentially, a phonics program for early reading. One Head Start founder has already publicly fretted that its broader mission--attending to the health and welfare needs of at-risk children--might be in jeopardy. Notwithstanding the friendly public reception thus far, there should be no shortage of questions for Paige before the reins of federal education policy get handed over.

Nonetheless, the legislation delivers a huge victory to Bush: This year's reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is widely regarded as the most ambitious federal overhaul of public schools since the 1960s. States will now test all students annually from third to eighth grade, while launching a federally guided drive for universal literacy among schoolchildren. Perhaps more strikingly, a political party that once called for the abolition of the Education Department has radically enhanced the federal presence in public schools. After repeating the mantra of local control and states' rights for a generation, the GOP now intrudes on both. What has happened?

The Bush revolution in education is the culmination of a decade of educational reform spearheaded by conservatives and business leaders. To gauge the significance of this trend, consider the original aspirations for an American public school system: As Horace Mann, and later John Dewey, saw it, public schools were necessary to fashion a common national culture out of a far-flung and often immigrant population, and to prepare young people to be reflective and critical citizens in a democratic society. The emphasis was on self-governance through self-respect; a sense of cultural ownership through participation; and ultimately, freedom from tyranny through rational deliberation.

Fast-forward to 2002: The new Bush testing regime emphasizes minimal competence along a narrow range of skills, with an eye toward satisfying the low end of the labor market. All this sits well with a business community whose first preoccupation is "global competitiveness": a community most comfortable thinking in terms of inputs (dollars spent on public schools) in relation to outputs (test scores). No one disputes that schools must inculcate the skills necessary for economic survival. But does it follow that the theory behind public schooling should be overwhelmingly economic? One of the reform movement's founding documents is Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America's Public Schools, by Lou Gerstner, chairman of IBM. Gerstner describes schoolchildren as human capital, teachers as sellers in a marketplace and the public school system as a monopoly. Predictably, CEOs bring to education reform CEO rhetoric: stringent, intolerant of failure, even punitive--hence the word "sanction," as if some schools had been turning away weapons inspectors.

Nowhere has this orientation been more frank than in George W. Bush's policies, first as Texas governor and now as President. When he invited a group of "education leaders" to join him for his first day in the White House, the guest list was dominated by Fortune 500 CEOs. One, Harold McGraw, the publishing scion and current chairman of McGraw-Hill, summed up: "It's a great day for education, because we now have substantial alignment among all the key constituents--the public, the education community, business and political leaders--that results matter."

The phrase "results matter," like the popular buzzwords "accountability" and "standards," means one thing: more standardized testing. The Business Roundtable, an organization of powerful CEOs (including Gerstner) intensely focused on education issues, admits in one position paper that "voices of opposition to these policies...emanate from parents and teachers." No matter: Testing is a "bedrock principle" for the Roundtable, and the "leadership and credibility of the business community is needed" to make sure standardized testing becomes a reality.

Why the infatuation with testing? For its most conservative enthusiasts, testing makes sense as a lone solution to school failure because, they insist, adequate resources are already in place, and only the threat of exposure and censure is necessary for schools to succeed. Moreover, among those who style themselves "compassionate conservatives," education has become a sentimental and, all things considered, cheap way to talk about equalizing opportunity without committing to substantial income redistribution. Liberal faddishness, not chronic underfunding of poorer schools or child poverty itself, is blamed for underachievement: "Child-centered" education, "progressive" education or "whole language"--each has been singled out as a social menace that can be vanquished only by applying a more rational, results-oriented and business-minded approach to public education.

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