Sunday, March 8, 2015

On Education: Can't See the Forest for the Bushes

Remember the education president? That would be George H.W. Bush, who promised that he would focus on improving schools so that the United States would be number one in educating its children for the new millennium. His Goals 2000: Educate America Act had terrific political nuggets such as:

All children in America will start school ready to learn. 

The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.

United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning. 

Of course, these goals were not met because they aren't realistic. Public institutions that suffer from inadequate funding and political interference can't guarantee that all students or every adult will do anything except be disappointed that as a nation, we couldn't do better.

The along came his son, George W. Bush, who promised that the No Child Left Behind Act would do for America what its smaller implementation had done to Texas in the 1990s. This meant that all students would pass state tests by 2014 and schools that didn't perform, either overall or because any subset of racial, ethnic or gender categories did not score well enough on said tests, would be closed. Bush even made Houston Superintendent of Schools Rod Paige the Secretary of Education.

That's when the real story of how the Texas Education Miracle became one more Bush myth. It turns out that Paige and Bush cooked the graduation rate books, inflating the number of students who met school standards and essentially erased the records of students who dropped out or had discipline problems.

The NCLB was based on faulty numbers, but that didn't stop it from infecting every aspect of school reform for the next decade. Testing became rampant and disruptive. Private testing companies like Pearson Education got very wealthy creating tests and changing the curriculum. President Obama's embrace of this model was disturbing, and has led us to where we are today, wasting huge chunks of time modifying what students need to know and testing them not once (March), but twice (late April or early May).

Now word comes that the third Bush who wants to be president, former Florida Governor Jeb, promoted a charter school in Miami that is now closed, but he's running as if the school is a shining successful example of his education agenda. The basic problem seemed to be that as a private citizen, Bush was able to raise money and be the face of the school, but as governor, he could not have his name on the school's letterhead nor could he raise funds privately. Other issues also intervened, namely that Bush had to balance the state budget and unfortunately there wasn't enough to pay for public schools and charters. Simply, the toy lost its luster.

But at least he has a policy that applies to the classroom. Compare that to Governor Chris Christie's approach to education. He's focused solely on economics and making sure that teachers, and indeed all public unions, pay more and more for their benefits while he skirts his own law and refuses to make full payments to the pension system.

In fact, you would think that Christie and the New Jersey Education Association made a major agreement on teacher benefits, according to a speech Christie made in Florida last week. There is no agreement, and there won't be one on his terms. But I guess that when you're running for president, you can say anything you want, and in the end, most people won't know or care to know the difference.

That's what happened with the two previous Bushes. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again.

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