There is no doubt that in 2001, when George W. Bush took office, public education was falling innumerable students, teachers, and communities. America desperately needed executive leadership to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965.
Bush led the charge with the bilaterally supported ESEA update, widely known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The rhetoric of the legislation is laudable, trumpeting strong standards and high goals for universal proficiency. Sadly, the reality has fallen miserably short of the hype, and for good reasons. NCLB judges students solely through their standardized test scores and the pressure for teachers and administrators to come up with these high-stakes testing numbers poisons the culture of a school and does not teach kids the enduring, empowering skills that they need to go to college, get jobs, or do whatever they want. Massive under-funding has also strangled many school districts.
NCLB, in its implementation, is a disaster. The next President has to do something about this.
Bill Gates and Eli Broad agree. They are bankrolling a $60 million project called Strong American Schools, set to launch immediately, just as the primary presidential debate season commences. A press release claims this initiative to be the "Nation's Largest Multi-Million Dollar Single-Issue Presidential Advocacy Campaign." To put this kind of endeavor in perspective, its budget nearly triples that of the 2004 anti-John Kerry campaign by the ubiquitous Swift Vets and P.O.W.s for Truth. In short, this campaign will be too large for any would-be President to ignore.
Strong American Schools is going to force presidential candidates to take action on education, which is terrific and important. The eleven-page policy primer available on the Strong American Schools website basically reads like a dream come true for proponents of progressive education reform---except for one glaring, unclarified absence.
There is no mention of reforming the practice of judging children solely through high-stakes standardized testing. This makes all of the difference. Children can have teachers who are earning merit and hazard pay and have master's degrees galore, a zillion books in their classroom libraries, more computers than Microsoft's headquarters, and nine hours in the school day. But their engagement with learning will not improve if the system continues to measure learning only by how a child does on a standardized test!
I look forward to the debate that Strong American Schools will catalyze. At the heart of the discussion must be how we will measure proficiency and success. In a future post, I will describe how teachers and schools can assess children's academic progress---alongside, not in place of testing--- and do it in meaningful, supportive, and accurate ways.