President George W. Bush kept his campaign promises concerning education by attending to public schooling during his first weeks in the Oval Office. Bush's education plan includes traditionally Republican themes such as support for charter schools and consolidation of federal programs. A voucher provision for children stuck in chronically "failing schools" aroused both supporters and critics, but Bush has publicly signaled his willingness to concede on this issue if necessary. The centerpiece of his plan is its call for school accountability through increased testing.
Bush's call for testing students more frequently and publicly reporting the results is not new. Clearer standards and public accountability have been the driving force behind politically driven school reform since the early-1980s. Most American children take either a commercially produced basic skills test or a state-produced curriculum examination every two or three grades. But Bush's plan raises the ante, requiring states receiving federal support (all of them) to test children every year between grades three and eight.
What is new about Bush's testing proposal is that it explicitly addresses what he calls the "achievement gap" between poor and middle-class students by requiring states to report their scores separately. School districts that fail to make adequate progress in closing the achievement gap would risk losing monetary assistance through Title One of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is earmarked for schools serving high numbers of poor students. However, while Bush deserves some credit for ensuring that the problem of unequal achievement between poor and middle-class children will remain a part of the national conversation, critics rightly charge that testing alone will not solve the problem.
Indeed, recent history should make us suspicious when the executive office offers inexpensive solutions like increased testing for enduring American problems like economic and educational inequality. One must note the irony of Bush introducing his education reform plan just months after the target year had passed for his father's agenda, America 2000. Bush Sr. wanted all children to start school ready to learn, every school to be free of drugs and violence and every adult American to be literate. But as his son introduces his own plan, 70 percent of inner-city children do not read at a "basic level," we are currently enduring a horrifying stream of school violence and about a quarter of American adults cannot read well enough to accurately complete their tax returns.
Recent history also suggests a place to turn for better solutions. Unlike the majority of Congressional Democrats today, many Democrats during Clinton's first term infused integrity into the debate by demanding that states construct a set of "opportunity-to-learn" standards (OTL) to stand alongside new student performance standards. If students in poor schools were to be held accountable for high-stakes tests that impacted grade promotion and graduation, they argued, then states needed to ensure that school facilities, curriculum materials and teacher quality were sufficient for these students.
Thanks to "equalization monies" drawn from the sales tax, Washington state is among the nation's best in per-pupil funding equity. Thus, litigation fears alone cannot explain the disappearance of OTL standards from state reform documents after the "Contract with America" legislation in 1996 eliminated the federal monetary incentive. Surely, many equity provisions remain under different names, but the emerging OTL conversation had promised to lend coherence and status to concerns about equal educational opportunity in relation to the standards-based "excellence" movement. Both our nation and our state have squandered a critical moral and political opportunity by sweeping them under the table.
Why is this a moral problem? Because the American dream is just that, a dream, to a great many children in our own community. Educational success, and the occupational success it buys, is not solely determined by talent and effort, but also by economic factors entirely beyond a child's control. Consider some WASL data from elementary and middle schools that feed either Lewis and Clark or Rogers high schools: More than 20 percent more fourth graders from the South Hill schools meet the state standards in reading, writing and math than their Hillyard peers. By eighth grade, the gap between children from these communities approaches 30 percent. This pattern is neither acceptable nor unique across the nation.
President Bush should be commended for ensuring that educational inequality will remain on the minds of policy-makers in the coming years, but his testing-centered plan is woefully incomplete. It might be true that a few schools need the threat of cutting off funds to stimulate change, but these are a small minority. The vast majority of educators serving in high-poverty areas deserve our support rather than the threat of fiscal abandonment. As for what "support" might mean in practice, revisiting earlier conversations about OTL standards would be a good place to start.
Greg Fritzberg is a professor of education at Whitworth College.