In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush hailed the progress of his No Child Left Behind Act in the nation’s elementary schools and called on lawmakers to extend the program to high schools.
“Standards are higher, test scores are on the rise and we’re closing the achievement gap for minority students,” Bush said of primary schools. “Now we must demand better results from our high schools so every high school diploma is a ticket to success.”
Bush’s proposal stirred opposition on both sides of the aisle.
Democrats were eager to criticize the administration for what they said was a failure to provide adequate funds to carry out the law. Conservative Republicans vowed to fight what they saw as further federal usurpation of local school control.
But as children head back to school eight months later, combatants have put down their arms. As things turned out, they had nothing to fight against.
Legislation to make the president’s words a reality was never introduced. The House held some hearings on the issue, but the Senate did not. And the proposed mechanism to pay the $1.5-billion price tag for extending No Child Left Behind to high schools -- eliminating vocational education and a program to help low-income students -- was rejected by Congress.
“The president’s idea was dead on arrival,” said Robert Schaeffer, longtime public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “Now it is well beyond rigor mortis.”
Publicly, administration officials insist their commitment has not flagged to extend No Child Left Behind’s system of academic standards and testing through 12th grade.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings continues to talk about it. The president sometimes includes a plug for it in his speeches. And some officials, as well as some outside experts, say the idea could get a new lease on life when the original law comes up for congressional reauthorization in 2007.
Still, there has been no White House push for a second phase of education overhaul comparable to its campaign for private investment accounts in Social Security. And Spellings, in an interview in Los Angeles on Monday with reporters and editors at The Times, acknowledged that the administration had a long way to go in selling its idea to Congress.
“I see lots of support for it in the states,” she said. “I think smart governors know, all governors know, that if you don’t have an educated workforce, you’re not going to have a strong and thriving state economy.”
She acknowledged resistance in Congress and suggested the administration was counting on business leaders and local education officials to apply the pressure needed for a high school overhaul.
“It’s really more of a grass-roots approach than a top-down approach,” she said.
Even with presidential backing, most experts agree that it would be more difficult to bring about changes in the way U.S. high schools operate than it was in elementary schools.
“High school reform is really hard,” said Susan Traiman, director of education for the Business Roundtable, an organization of corporate leaders who recently issued a call to improve the nation’s high schools. “The experience in the reform movement is that it takes hold most easily in elementary school.”
The reasons are myriad.
For one thing, said Tom Loveless, an education specialist at the Brookings Institution, bolstering academic standards would clash with the social, athletic and other elements of high school that are important to many students and their parents. It’s “a cultural thing,” he said.
“Kids in high school want to spend time on sports, and there’s a huge percentage who work part time,” Loveless said. Given that most parents seem to want their children’s high school years to be filled with proms and football games and socializing, he added, “I don’t see any groundswell of support” for extending No Child Left Behind to high schools.
Also, many elementary school officials found the act’s requirements expensive and difficult to satisfy, especially in the early days when Washington was unwilling to grant exemptions or ease the rules. The experiences of grade schools made many high school educators leery of the whole idea.
“Accountability is a good thing, but educators need to be given the resources,” said Michelle White, spokeswoman for the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals. She said many elementary schools incurred substantial costs when they were forced to meet federal standards.
For instance, the law allowed parents of children in low-performing schools to transfer to high-performing campuses after a certain amount of time, and White said some substandard school districts in Alaska had to pay for helicopters to transport pupils to the better schools.
Also, since elementary schools were penalized if students failed to achieve high enough scores on standardized tests, schools with large numbers of learning-disabled students had difficulties.
Initially, schools were not allowed to bypass the standard tests and use other ways of measuring academic progress for more than 1% of their “special needs” children. But White said the administration and Education Department were “now more willing to grant some flexibility.”
In addition, the federal purse strings are less powerful at high schools. Once Title I, the main federal entitlement that funds education, reaches the states, about 85% of it goes to elementary schools, 10% to middle schools and 5% -- about $635 million -- to high schools.
“That’s a drop in the bucket,” White said.
Some think the funding issue is a red herring. The real sticking point, said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the House education reform subcommittee, is that conservative Republicans, besieged by worried school districts and educators, have grown weary of dictating policy.
“A lot of conservatives, particularly in the House, have expressed disdain for expanding” No Child Left Behind, Castle said, “because of the interference with state and local jurisdictions.”
Finally, there is considerable debate about whether a culture of testing helps or hurts education, and whether standardized tests dilute the joy of learning and instead reduce it to drilling for a specific set of facts.
The No Child Left Behind Act was the signature achievement of Bush’s first term. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, and his predecessor, President Clinton, made efforts to enact federally mandated tests. Schaeffer said a coalition of diverse groups, including Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and the NAACP, had rallied to defeat earlier overhaul efforts.
Few dispute that improvements in the country’s high schools, where reading and math scores have been flat since the 1970s, are needed.
A recent study by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project found that although 75% of white students finished high school, 53% of Latinos and 50% of blacks graduated.
If the administration is pushing for an overhaul quietly, others are more outspoken.
Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in a speech in May to the Economic Club of Washington, said leaders should work with local school systems to transform high schools and to demand that all students graduate from high school prepared for college, work and the community.
And the National Governors Assn. has made overhauling high schools a key initiative. To date, 47 governors and 12 national organizations have signed an agreement that recommends measures for assessing high school achievement.
As private and local efforts move forward, their success could blunt the political will in Congress to intervene.
“It will take political salesmanship,” Castle said. “The administration really has to make the decision to get this done.”