In a final push to bolster his legacy before leaving office, President Bush is touting the success of his education reforms, mainly the federal No Child Left Behind law, and he is not alone in doing so. Margaret Spellings, the outgoing education secretary, is also trying to put a favorable light on the controversial testing law before she leaves Washington. The two also have wasted no public opportunities to warn the Obama administration against any changes that could weaken the law's accountability measures.
During a tour of an elementary school in Philadelphia last week, the president said that NCLB has led to greater accountability in schools as well as higher levels of achievement among low-income and minority children. "I firmly believe that thanks to this law, students are learning and the achievement gap is closing," Bush told a crowd at General Philip Kearny Elementary School, a K-8 school serving a racially diverse student population that has met the goals of NCLB for the past four years.
It was fitting that the president chose to make education the topic of his last policy address. Nearly eight years ago, before the September 11 terrorist attacks shifted his attention to matters of national security and war, Bush toured an elementary school in Washington, D.C., where he presented NCLB as the engine of his education plan to close the achievement gap. Since then, though, much of the excitement and bipartisan support for NCLB has eroded.
President-elect Barack Obama said during the campaign that he wants to overhaul NCLB. Critics, including lawmakers and teachers, complain that the law's emphasis on testing in math and reading is too narrow and that the "pass-fail" system of judging schools is too rigid. U.S . News has reported on NCLB's shortcomings. Aware of the law's unpopularity, Bush sounded this warning last week: "Now is not the time to water down standards or roll back accountability."
In his remarks, the president thanked Spellings, whom he referred to as his "buddy." Spellings was a key architect of NCLB and has vigorously defended the law as education secretary. She, too, has used her last months in office to tout the success of the administration's education reforms. Last week, her office released a 65-page report, titled "Great Expectations," which calls the passage of NCLB a civil rights issue and describes the past eight years as "a consequential time, filled with action and accomplishments." More recently, Spellings has let several states experiment with new methods to measure student achievement. But she insists that the focus remain on measurable outcomes.
Tell us your thoughts on how the federal government can improve education. How would you describe the past eight years in education? And what should be the focus of the new president and the next secretary of education?