Commentary | Education

Lessons—Bush’s Confusing Message on Education

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Bush’s Confusing Message on Education

By Richard Rothstein

Gov. George W. Bush wants credit for improvements in education in Texas. But his message has been confusing.

At times, Mr. Bush has portrayed himself as a consensus leader who has built upon the reforms of predecessors.

But many of those programs resemble those supported by his opponent in the presidential race, Vice President Al Gore.

So to appear more confrontational and conservative, Mr. Bush has also posed as a savior of Texas’ failing public schools. In the campaign for president, Mr. Bush has advocated more ideologically conservative approaches to education, like vouchers or “character education,” that had nothing to do with Texas’ success.

Until he sorts out these messages, we can’t know what kind of education president he hopes to be.

Scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills have risen, over all and among minorities. State officials now intervene in schools when students fail to show progress.

Yet there are skeptics. Some argue that higher test scores have led to a narrowing of the curriculum, with teachers doing drills only intended to improve test scores. Some say more minority students are dropping out after failing the test. But others counter that the test is so easy, students are not learning much.

The jury is still out on these critiques. But there is better evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given by the United States Department of Education to a representative sample of students nationwide. Since 1990, the national test has made possible comparisons of state educational systems.

The test avoids many of the flaws in the Texas test. It has multiple choice questions but also asks for written answers to gauge original thinking. There are no student, school or district (only state) scores, so there is no pressure to drill and the test can disclose what students really know.

Texas has excelled on some sections of the national test. In 1996, the most recent year for math scores, fourth-grade students who were African-American or white scored higher than in any other state. Hispanic fourth graders scored higher than in any state with significant minority populations.

Eighth-grade math scores for these same groups were also in the top tier.

With more minority students who score lower, on average, than whites, the state’s overall scores are below those in many states where minorities are few. But a new report from Rand, a policy and research group, showed that, when students from similar families were compared, Texas’ achievement was already good in 1990, and posted greater gains from 1990 to 1996 than elsewhere.

Dr. David Grissmer, an author of the report, attributed this to a strong accountability system and to big investments in resources, both supported by Texas business and political leaders. For example, 22 percent of fourth graders in 1992 and 1996 had attended public preschool, far more than in any other state (New York had 9 percent). In 1996, 24 percent of Texas fourth-grade teachers spent more than 35 hours in math seminars, again more than in any other state.

Mr. Bush took office in 1995, so he can’t take credit for scores already high in 1990, or for gains that began then.

Indeed, if any Texan deserves praise here, it is Ross Perot. In 1983, he led a group of business leaders who demanded accountability and new money for schools serving the poor. It was in 1984 that Texas first required preschool for low-income 4-year-olds.

Mr. Bush strengthened accountability, with an emphasis on early reading skills. He increased financing for education to 49 percent from 42 percent of the state budget.

But he also threatened the reform consensus in Texas when he urged vouchers for private schools. The plan was defeated when business lobbyists opposed sending public money to private schools that were unwilling to administer the state test or be held accountable for results.

At times, Mr. Bush has acknowledged a debt to his predecessors, but at others does not.

He says that in 1994, “there were so many goals, there were no goals,” making Texas schools ineffective. His campaign Web site said until recently that when he was elected governor, “regulations were stifling. . . . Accountability and curriculum were focused on process not student results. The state education bureaucracy was growing unchecked. Teachers faced the menace of out-of-control, disruptive students.”

As the Republican National Convention neared, these contentions were removed from the site. Perhaps the campaign realized that if Texas schools were such a mess in 1994, they could not have been the best in 1996.

The governor can take credit, not for rescuing a failed system, but for strengthening a bipartisan consensus to combine more money with more accountability. He has led an education system that rejected vouchers while following some strategies Mr. Gore supports (like preschool for disadvantaged children and higher standards and salaries for teachers).

But it is still unknown whether as president, Mr. Bush would do as he actually did in Texas, or take a more ideological approach, as he often does in the campaign.

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