With support from the Democratic leadership, Congress passed the Bush education plan, which will require public schools to administer basic skills tests in math and reading to students in grades 3 to 8 by the 2005-2006 school year.
The rhetoric used by George W. "leave-no-child-behind" Bush suggests that he supports the goal of closing the academic achievement gap between black and white students, and between poor and 'middle class' white students.
Is it possible to eliminate most of the academic achievement gap without lowering the bar for high achievers? Is the Bush plan actually designed to close the gap?
CLOSING THE GAP: IS IT POSSIBLE?
Commissioned by the first Bush administration and completed in 1990, a report prepared by the Sandia National Laboratories (a branch of the Department of Energy) concluded that America's public schools had made tremendous progress toward closing the academic achievement gap without lowering the bar for high achievers during the 1970s and 80s. The Sandia Report was also suppressed by the administration of George Herbert Walker "the education president" Bush and quietly released by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s. [Berliner and Biddle, 1995, The Manufactured Crisis, pages 24-27]
The Sandia report used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows that the performance of high achieving students steadily improved while the test score gap in reading and math steadily decreased between 1971 and the late 1980s. The gap in reading scores between white and black 13 year-olds, for example, declined by about 50% during that period. ["Long Division," an article which appeared in the September / October 2001 issue of 'The New Crisis', the NAACP's magazine]
Since the late 1980s, most of the progress made toward 'closing the gap' in the previous period has been wiped out. This change from closing the gap to opening the gap can be explained as the result of a major shift in educational policy, and not as the result of unrelated changes in black culture, parent involvement, peer pressure, student behavior, summer vacations, etc.
The truth is that the goal of 'closing the gap' was abandoned in the wake of a propaganda offensive launched in 1983 with a report entitled "A Nation at Risk." Prepared by a blue ribbon panel of K-12 education experts selected by the Reagan administration, "A Nation at Risk" warned that America's public schools had gone too far with efforts to 'close the gap,' and claimed that the educational needs of high achievers were being neglected.
THE SHIFT IN EDUCATIONAL POLICY AFTER 1983
The shift in educational policy after 1983 included the promotion of 'ability-grouping' in elementary schools and a return to racially segregated neighborhood schools.
Ability-grouping is a method of tracking students into watered-down academic and nonacademic curriculum programs. It was promoted by the departments of education at the federal level and in all 50 states by the early 1960s, but it didn't catch on in many school districts due to opposition from parents and teachers. When black students were integrated into white schools where the curriculum was differentiated by ability-grouping, most black students were excluded from the academic curriculum programs.
Black students are still greatly underrepresented in academic curriculum tracks. For example, scores on the 2000 Minnesota Third Grade Comprehensive Assessment in reading and math suggest that roughly 11% of black students and 53% of white students are assigned to college preparatory curriculum tracks. [The State of Students of Color 2001, page 19; Figure 13; prepared by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Inc.]
The test score gap between white and black students is also a reflection of how resources are allocated within a school district. For example, inexperienced teachers are heavily concentrated in "community schools" that serve poor, predominantly black neighborhoods in Minneapolis and other cities. A study done by the research department of the Minneapolis Public Schools found that teacher expertise accounts for about 40% of test score variability. Ratings of teacher expertise give a lot of weight to teaching experience.
THE BUSH EDUCATION PLAN
Bush's plan to fix poor performing schools has already been tried in Texas and Minnesota, with mixed results. A major component of the plan is high-stakes testing: Students have to pass a set of basic skills tests in order to receive a high school diploma. The high stakes test in Minnesota, the Minnesota Basic Skills Test is administered to 8th grade students. Students who don't pass it can retake the test at least once per year until they pass it. Almost all of the students who stay in school until they accumulate enough credits to graduate pass the MBST exams. However, there has been no progress made in reducing high school dropout / push out rates or in closing the test score gap.
In the Minneapolis (MN) Public Schools, the high school 'dropout' rate was about 50% for all students entering the 9th grade in 1996. The on-time graduation rate was about 40%. The dropout / pushout rate for blacks and American Indians is greater than 60%. Most of the MPS students who do not pass all of the MBST exams on the first try never pass all of the MBST exams. On the other hand, pass rates on the MBST exams are greater than 95% for 8th grade students in some suburban school districts.
High stakes testing was also part of the education agenda of the first Bush administration. The Basic Skills tests complement changes in the K-12 curriculum that are designed to prepare students for their future roles in the workforce with a minimum of academic training. This retooling of the work readiness curriculum was endorsed by the Clinton administration, which called it "Goals 2000."
An example of how the curriculum has been dumbed down for many K-12 students is the reintroduction of the discredited 'look-say' (whole word) method of reading instruction, which displaced phonics instruction in the 1930s. Much better results are generally obtained with a combination of phonics instruction and exposure to rich literature [Diane Ravitch, 2000, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, pages 252-53, 354-60,.443]
The Bush Education Plan recently passed by Congress calls for the suspension of tenure rights at some poor performing schools, i.e., teachers may be fired for cause without the right of appeal (due process). This enhancement of management rights is known as 'fresh start' authority. However, many of these schools are already run like banana republics precisely because most of the teachers are inexperienced and do not have tenure rights. Teachers employed long enough to acquire tenure rights (typically 3 years) ordinarily do not stay at or bid into such schools, especially if they run the risk of being "fresh started" by doing so.
WHY VOUCHERS ARE NOT THE ANSWER
Another feature of Bush's education agenda is the promotion of vouchers as a means of escaping the public school system. It has an obvious appeal to parents who want to pull their kids out of the public schools or have already done so.
I think that most parents want their children to get an education that prepares them for college, but college preparatory curriculum programs in most big city schools are reserved for a minority of students designated as academically 'gifted and talented.'
However, with a voucher program, what you end up with is an even less equitable distribution of educational resources than you ordinarily have in the public school system. For example, in Cleveland, which has a voucher plan, many of the best private schools don't accept vouchers because very few of the parents who are eligible to use them can afford the tuition. The best schools that are accessible to students from low-income families are generally religious schools, the bulk of which are run by the Roman Catholic Church. The schools that were set up to accommodate many of the students who are fleeing the public schools, also known as 'voucher schools,' are usually pretty revenue-challenged. 'Disadvantaged' students may actually be worse off in most of the 'voucher schools' than they were in the public schools.
With a voucher program, the units of government that pay for the public schools are actually shifting some of the educational costs to parents. That leaves more tax dollars for corporate welfare programs, like giving away baseball stadiums to billionaires.
The public school system is stratified in order to prepare children for their future roles in the work force or prison system. It is in the interests of the capitalist class to keep it that way because a large pool of undereducated workers competing for low-wage jobs gives employers a means to bid down wages across-the-board.
The fight for a quality, public education for all can only be carried through to the end by the working class organized through a labor party with a socialist program. The working class has no interest in preserving the capitalist system, which is based on economic exploitation and nourished by racism and sexism. And a fundamental change in the social order will require a fundamental change in the educational system.