In a speech aimed at bolstering his legacy on education as he prepares to leave office, President George W. Bush today touted the success of the No Child Left Behind Act in raising student achievement and called on Congress to renew the law, without weakening its core principles of accountability and testing.
“As president of the United States, this is the last policy address I will give,” Mr. Bush said Thursday morning at General Philip Kearny Elementary School, a K-8 school in the Philadelphia district, on the seventh anniversary of his signing of the federal education law. “What makes it interesting is that it’s the same subject of my first policy address as president of the United States, which is education and education reform. I hope you can tell that education is dear to my heart. I care a lot about whether or not our children can learn to read, write, and add and subtract.”
The president acknowledged that critics have charged that the NCLB law focuses too heavily on standardized tests and sets unrealistic goals, but he called on lawmakers to reject those claims and continue to hold schools accountable for students’ progress.
“For the sake of our children’s future, this good law needs to be strengthened and reauthorized by the United States Congress,” Mr. Bush said. “Now is not the time to water down standards or to roll back accountability.”
Mr. Bush also addressed the oft-repeated criticism that the law focuses too heavily on test results.
“I’ve heard every excuse in the book why we should not test—‘Oh, there’s too many tests; you teach the test; testing is intrusive; testing is not the role of government,’” the president said. “How can you possibly determine whether a child can read at grade level if you don’t test? And for those who claim we’re teaching the test, uh-uh. We’re teaching a child to read so he or she can pass the test.”
Mr. Bush recalled the NCLB law’s bipartisan support in Congress and credited it with expanding access to school choice, particularly for disadvantaged families, giving struggling students access to free tutoring, and boosting minority students’ scores on some indicators measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card.
“No Child Left Behind is working for all kinds of students in all kinds of schools in every part of the country. That is a fact,” the president said. “There’s still a long way to go, however.”
Mr. Bush thanked his “buddy,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who accompanied the president here today, and he praised her work at the helm of the Department of Education. He also had warm words for President-elect Barack Obama’s choice as education secretary, Chicago schools chief executive Arne Duncan.
“I have seen the resolve for reform and the belief in high standards in Chicago, where reading and math scores are soaring, and where every child still has time to study a foreign language and the fine arts,” Mr. Bush said. “The school in Chicago we went to, like other schools across the city, have benefited from the vision and leadership of a person named Arne Duncan. And he is going to be the next secretary of education. And we are fortunate he has agreed to take on this position. And we wish him all the very best.”
An Eye to the Future
The No Child Left Behind law calls for students to be tested in reading and mathematics every year in grades 3-8, and once in high school. Schools that fail to make adequately yearly progress for specified subgroups of students, or for the student population as a whole, are subject to a range of increasingly serious sanctions.
The law passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in late 2001, but has since come under attack from teachers’ unions and some school superintendents, school board members, and state lawmakers who say the Bush administration didn’t seek adequate funding for the law, and that the law unfairly punishes schools that are making progress, among other criticisms.
Conservative members of the president’s own Republican party have also lambasted the law as an overreach of federal authority. The law, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, was scheduled for renewal in 2007, but lawmakers haven’t been able to reach agreement on a reauthorization bill.
“I call upon those who can determine the fate of No Child Left Behind in the future to stay strong in the face of criticism, to not weaken the law—because in weakening the law, you weaken the chance for a child to succeed in America—but to strengthen the law for the sake of every child,” the president said in closing.
Before the president’s speech in the school’s auditorium, Mr. Bush, first lady Laura Bush, and Secretary Spellings toured the school, which is in a socioeconomically and racially diverse neighborhood near Philadelphia’s center city. The school has met the goals of the No Child Left Behind law every year since 2003.
The president and Ms. Spellings also participated in a roundtable discussion on education with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the 167,000-student Philadelphia school system; Eileen Spagnola, the principal of Kearny Elementary; as well as state lawmakers and other participants from the state and school district.
Also on hand were Roy Romer, the chairman of Strong American Schools, an advocacy organization based in Washington, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, an activist and a co-chairman of the Education Equality Project, an education reform organization.
After the speech, Ms. Ackerman, Mr. Romer, Ms. Spagnola, and others addressed reporters.
Ms. Ackerman acknowledged that she “wasn’t always supportive of every aspect of the law,” but said she supports “the concept” of the measure, and praised the Education Department’s decision to allow some states to restructure their accountability plans to better measure student growth over time. Mr. Romer called on the states to adopt more rigorous and uniform standards.
Ms. Spagnola said the law has helped her school better compare itself to others in the state because it requires all to take the same standardized exams.
But Margaret Bush, who has taught at Kearny Elementary for eight years, said the “law has not changed the school,” which she said was focused on student achievement before the NCLB measure was enacted.
“There are some parts of the law that are strong and are good,” said Ms. Bush, who is no relation to the president. “But the federal government doesn’t fund it completely.”
And she said the law’s deadline of bringing all students to proficiency on state tests by the 2013-14 school year may not be workable for some students in special education.
“That’s not realistic,” she said.