Guess what? Because of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law, fewer children are being left behind in America's public schools, and you can thank the even more maligned president of the United States for that.
George W. Bush, after all, was the prime proponent of this idea of holding schools accountable through testing students, and pursued its implementation in a bipartisan spirit. The Senate's strongest, most persistent liberal voice, none other than Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was both a sponsor and author of the legislation.
The bill was signed into law in 2002, eventually incurring Kennedy's wrath mostly because of what he considered insufficient funding but nevertheless instigating higher student achievement just as it was supposed to do.
As much seems clear from a comprehensive study six years later by a nonpartisan group, the Center on Education Policy. Examining both state test data and results from the federally conducted National Assessment of Educational progress, researchers found that scores had gone up in reading and math and that differences between different groups of students had been narrowed.
There's no way to say for sure just how much the federal law was responsible for the good news, especially seeing as how any number of states and local districts also undertook programs to improve student performance during the period, a summary of the report notes. It adds, however, that many of these state and local programs were interwoven with No Child Left Behind, and in some instances undertaken because of it.
Interestingly, despite the criticism from great numbers of teachers, politicians, editorialists and others about the program, both presidential candidates wish to maintain it. Both nevertheless want changes, especially Barack Obama. Like Kennedy, he thinks the funding has been insufficient, and he also moans and groans about the time spent preparing students for standardized tests and wants to reward schools that are doing badly, apparently believing that all carrots and no sticks will make things better.
Among those thinking the low funding argument is pretty much hogwash, count one of the foremost experts on the law, Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who does think most state standards are pretty poor.
"The costs of complying with No Child Left Behind setting standards, testing children, publishing the results and intervening in low-performing schools are actually relatively modest," he wrote. "Instead of demanding more money for No Child Left Behind, critics should ask why states and local communities get such dismal returns on the half-trillion dollars, or nearly $10,000 per student, that they already spend on primary and secondary education every year."
Improving the state tests would be to the good, but Obama's idea of diminishing the role of anything standardized on behalf of something done in a more "individualized manner" makes little sense. And as first lady Laura Bush said in an interview with USA Today, the concern about teaching-to-test and spending too much time in preparation is hard to justify if the states are doing their job the way they should.
"Maybe there's a lot of pressure on teachers from administrators and from school districts to have really high scores, and so they (teachers) feel like that's what they spend their time doing," Bush told a reporter. "But if the test, which it should be, is actually over the curriculum, then you're teaching students what your state and what you and what your school district want them to know, and that's what the test is."
Unlike Obama, who of course sends his own children to private schools, McCain is a vouchers advocate, commendably wanting it to be possible for low-income parents to have a private-school option when testing and other facts convince them public schools aren't doing the job.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at [email protected].