If there is one issue where George W. Bush can be lifted up bodily from his political context and examined on his own two feet, it is education reform. That's not to say he invented it, or that no one else has been involved, but clearly George W. Bush took public school reform, especially early reading, to heart when he took office in 1995, and he has pressed out ahead of the pack in pushing his agenda.
For those few of us in Texas who were more or less born to dislike him, no issue presents a stiffer challenge than this. There are faults to find with some of the mechanics of his reform, but what is so troubling to diehard Democratic sons and daughters of Roosevelt liberals who were never ever going to vote for him anyway so why even talk about it is this: The Bush education reforms seem to be driven by a genuine optimism about the potential abilities of poor kids from terrible backgrounds.
In fact, for people brought up to believe that optimism about human nature was an exclusive liberal franchise, it gets worse. The Bush reforms have decreed that poor kids can be taught to read as well as rich kids by the end of the first grade — and damn well better be. Every time a liberal stands up to offer excuses why Bush has set the bar too high, the words ring like last shots from racism's rear guard.
These are dark times here.
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To be fair to Republicans other than Bush, it should be said that they had a lot to do with launching education reform in the state in the first place. The big corporations drawn to Texas during the Sunbelt boom of the late '70s and early '80s liked the state's conservatism, but found they also needed their employees to be able to read. They spurred a wave of reform that started in 1984.
The Democrats have done good work, too. In 1993, Democratic leaders in the legislature set themselves the task of taking down the state's doddering education code and building up an entire new version in its place. They were still at it when Bush took office two years later, and he pitched in willingly with them. He forged tight personal alliances with the top Democratic leadership, including Paul Sadler, a soft-spoken litigator from East Texas who was the main legislative rabbi on school reform.
Sadler concedes now that Bush was a major force in helping give the statewide public school reforms their ultimate shape — a very strong emphasis on annual universal performance testing, with race-specific standards to force districts and schools to bring up the ones who were farthest behind and not just slick by statistically by averaging in high scores from rich neighborhoods.
Bush was the hammer on testing and performance. Sadler was Dr. Mercy. He reined Bush back in and made him accept a lot of summer school and other second chances, softening the edges of the reform considerably. But Bush and the Democrats wound up with a package that they took to town and endorsed together, to the considerable chagrin of ultra-conservative Republicans and ultra-liberal Democrats.
Bush still takes big lumps from the Christian right for not coming up with a plan to kick more black and Mexican-American kids out of school. And liberals tend to hate all the testing.
There are problems with the tests. Passing grades on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test are pegged to roughly the 25th percentile, which critics say makes it a standard of low expectations. This year a Massachusetts reading expert produced a report for a conservative protest group in Houston, telling them what they wanted to hear, which was that the TAAS reading tests had been dumbed down during a period when statewide scores were rising. Also this year, the entire local school district hierarchy in Austin, the state capital, was indicted on charges of organized cheating on the TAAS.
A growing body of academic research argues that whenever you do what Texas has done — offer cash rewards to educators who can get their kids' test scores up, and slap penalties on those whose scores go down — you get dumbing-down and test cheating.
Indeed, people can be very naughty.
But there are many other measures — the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, for example — that ought to be independent of whatever system of incentives may be in place in Texas, and those results tend to show real and substantial outcomes in the state.
According to a 1998 study issued by National Education Goals Panel, Texas and North Carolina have shown the greatest improvement of all states on all of the national tests taken together.
And anyway, the real debate on this issue is driven by much deeper causes and attitudes than quibbles over testing techniques. In Dallas, where I live, the school district is still in federal court fighting a desegregation order from the early 1960s. On any given Wednesday evening, the school board looks like a black-and-white newsreel scene from Little Rock in 1958. Last year San Francisco bequeathed to us its superintendent, Waldemar Rojas; we're wondering if our next present from the Bay Area will be smallpox blankets.
Dallas has spent $20 million in state and federal subsidies and private grants in the last two years trying to improve its abominable record in teaching children how to read in the critical first three grades. A recently released report revealed the Dallas “reading plan” to be a complete, unequivocal failure. More than half of third graders are sent on to the fourth grade unable to read — the same rate as before the $20 million was disbursed.
This is in the wake of a National Academy of Sciences report two years ago that said two things: 1) The right combination of instructional techniques and discipline can produce very high reading results, even in the poorest schools, and 2) If you don't get those results, and kids still can't read by the end of the third grade, they're screwed. They will never make it up. They will never know what's going on in class. As soon as they can, they will drop out in droves.
The Dallas Independent School District delivers 7,000 children a year to just such a fate.
What the Texas reforms are saying to cities like Dallas — especially the Bush part of the reforms, especially in the last two years — is direct: “Get it together. Teach those children. Get the little ones reading on national grade-level by the end of the first grade. Or else.”
Bush is now championing what could be the most revolutionary reform yet — the end of “social promotion” by 2003. That means school districts like Dallas — districts that for years have passed kids up the grade ladder and out the door, regardless of whether they had acquired even rudimentary skills — won't be able to ignore their failures any longer. For once, the districts will be screwed, instead of the children. If their kids don't make passing grades on the TAAS reading test at the end of the third grade, the districts will have to try, try again.
Inside Bush's insistence that public schools teach children to read and do arithmetic, there is a core moral assertion — that all kids can read and do arithmetic, and that there is no excuse for not getting them there. The sight before my very eyes in Dallas is of 7,000 children per year condemned to lives of half-literacy and second-class economic citizenship by a school district that's always got an excuse.
I'm afraid that may make Bush right. And I really hate that.
Jim Schutze is a columnist for the Dallas Observer.