Saturday, December 29, 2007

Democrats Make Bush School Act an Election Issue

A letter on this piece by Dr. Stephen Krashen. -Angela
Sent to the New York Times, Dec. 23, 2007
No debate: NCLB hasn’t worked

Sam Dillon (“Democrats make Bush school act an
election issue,” Dec 23) notes that “policy makers
debate whether [No Child Left Behind] has raised
student achievement.”

There is no debate among those who have looked at the
data. NCLB has not produced improvements on state or
national reading tests, nor have achievement gaps been
narrowed. Also, there has also been no change on
American fourth graders’ scores on the international
PIRLS reading tests between 2001 and 2006 (NCLB was
introduced in 2002-2003).

There has been no improvement, despite huge increases
in instructional time and billions spent.

Stephen Krashen

Democrats Make Bush School Act an Election Issue
By Sam Dillon, NY Times, December 23, 2007

WASHINGTON — Teachers cheered Senator Hillary Rodham
Clinton when she stepped before them last month at an
elementary school in Waterloo, Iowa, and said she
would “end” the No Child Left Behind Act because it
was “just not working.”

Mrs. Clinton is not the only presidential candidate
who has found attacking the act, President Bush’s
signature education law, to be a crowd pleaser — all
the Democrats have taken pokes. Gov. Bill Richardson
of New Mexico has said he wants to “scrap” the law.
Senator Barack Obama has called for a “fundamental”
overhaul. And John Edwards criticizes the law as
emphasizing testing over teaching. “You don’t make a
hog fatter by weighing it,” he said recently while
campaigning in Iowa.

This was to be the year that Congress renewed the law
that has reshaped the nation’s educational landscape
by requiring public schools to bring every child to
reading and math proficiency by 2014. But defections
from both the right and the left killed the effort.

Now, as lawmakers say they will try again, the
unceasing criticism of the law by Democratic
presidential contenders and the teachers’ unions that
are important to them promises to make the effort even
more treacherous next year.

“No Child Left Behind may be the most negative brand
in America,” said Representative George Miller of
California, the Democratic chairman of the House
education committee.

“And there’s no question about it,” Mr. Miller added.
“It doesn’t help to have people putting themselves
forward as leaders of the party expressing the same
disenchantment they hear from the public, saying ‘Just
scrap it.’ Congressmen read the morning papers just
like everybody else.”

Democrats had long dominated the issue of education
until Mr. Bush seized it in his first presidential
campaign, making frequent stops at schools to condemn
the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for minority
children and to pledge that schools in poor areas
would improve test results or face federal sanctions.
The No Child law passed in his first year of office
with the support of a strong centrist coalition.

Seven years later, policy makers debate whether the
law has raised student achievement, but polls show
that it is unpopular — especially among teachers, who
vote in disproportionate numbers in Democratic primary
elections, and their unions, which provide Democrats
with critical campaign support.

“There’s a grass-roots backlash against this law,”
said Tad Devine, a strategist who worked for the past
two Democratic presidential nominees. “And attacking
it is a convenient way to communicate that you’re
attacking President Bush.”

These political realities are making it extremely
difficult to rebuild the bipartisan majorities that
first approved the law during Mr. Bush’s first year in
office, when he worked on the legislation with Mr.
Miller and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts
Democrat who is now the chairman of the education
committee. Mr. Miller, a passionate advocate of school
accountability, took the lead this year in trying to
draw up a bill that would change troublesome
provisions but preserve its core goals.

He faced obstacles from the start, including
opposition from many Republican lawmakers, who say the
law intrudes on states’ rights, and from Democrats,
who say it labels schools as failing but does too
little to help them improve. And by all accounts Mr.
Miller worked doggedly to build consensus.

But virtually every proposed change in the law ignited
fierce battles, and when Mr. Miller released a draft
bill for comment in late August, it pleased no one.

“His bill got creamed,” said Amy Wilkins, a vice
president of Education Trust, a group that advocates
for disadvantaged children, who has worked closely
with Mr. Miller’s staff.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings also threw
herself into the effort, meeting with scores of
congressmen and barnstorming through Ohio and Indiana
in a school bus, seeking Republican support.

“I killed myself,” Ms. Spellings said. But she
acknowledged that the effort now faces tremendous
obstacles. “It’s a minefield. If I were George Miller,
I’d be saying, ‘How can I put Humpty Dumpty together

Mr. Kennedy now plans to take the lead with the bill
early next year. “We have to convince people that the
bill we introduce, that this will not be a rubber
stamp of the current law,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Kennedy tried to clear the air last month by
quietly inviting Mr. Miller and the presidents of the
two largest teachers’ unions to a meeting on Capitol
Hill. All four pledged to strive for agreement, but
both union presidents said later that it remained
unclear whether Congress could produce a bill
acceptable to union members.

“I don’t think you recognize the magnitude of the
anger that’s out there,” said Reg Weaver, president of
the National Education Association. “My members are
driving me, and if they think I’m not doing everything
I can to change this law, they’ll take me to the

What is not acceptable to union members is unlikely to
be acceptable to Democratic presidential candidates.
The teachers’ unions have little influence with
Republicans, and several Republican presidential
candidates, including Mitt Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani
and John McCain, have voiced support for the law. But
the Democratic candidates can hardly ignore unionized
teachers in Iowa and New Hampshire, who are calling
for sweeping change.

Alan Young, president of the National Education
Association affiliate in Des Moines, got some
television exposure about a year ago when he addressed
Mrs. Clinton during a town-hall-style meeting.
Pointing out that she was on the Senate education
committee, Mr. Young urged her “not to be too quick to
reauthorize the law as is,” but rather to rework its
basic assumptions.

In the months since, Mr. Young said he has spoken
about the law personally at campaign events with Mr.
Richardson, John Edwards and Senators Barack Obama and
Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“We want them to start over with a whole new law,” Mr.
Young said.

Three of the Democratic presidential candidates, Mrs.
Clinton, Mr. Obama and Senator Christopher J. Dodd,
are on the education committee. Mr. Kennedy
acknowledges that campaign criticism of the law could
complicate his effort, but pointed out that even
though the candidates have criticized the law, most
have also expressed support for its core goals.

Mr. Obama, for instance, in a speech last month in New
Hampshire denounced the law as “demoralizing our
teachers.” But he also said it was right to hold all
children to high standards. “The goals of this law
were the right ones,” he said.

When Mr. Edwards released an education plan earlier
this year, he said the No Child law needed a “total
overhaul.” But he said he would continue the law’s
emphasis on accountability.

And at the elementary school in Waterloo, Mrs. Clinton
said she would “do everything I can as senator, but if
we don’t get it done, then as president, to end the
unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.”

But she, too, added: “We do need accountability.”

Even though the candidates hedge their criticism of
the law with statements supporting accountability, it
is hard to imagine their accepting revisions that fall
short of a thorough overhaul — and that could be
difficult for Mr. Bush to stomach, said Michael J.
Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham
Foundation. Even Mr. Bush’s catchy name for the law is
likely to disappear in any rewrite, he said.

“I can’t imagine that Democrats could write a bill
that would satisfy their caucus but not be vetoed by
President Bush, at least in the current environment,”
Mr. Petrilli said.

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