On September 25th, 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush, then the Republican nominee for President, was in a debate with his Democratic Party rival, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and declared that he wanted to be “The Education President.”
I want to be the education President, because I want to see us do better. We’re putting more money per child into education, and we are not performing as we should. […] And I would like to urge the school superintendents and the others around the country to stand up now and keep us moving forward on a path towards real excellence.
Eventually, the Republican nominee would become President George H.W. Bush, and his education agenda was a continuation of the path forged under Ronald Reagan that led to the era of test-based accountability. Presidents and Presidential aspirants have all set their sights on making an impact on our nation’s education system, whether it was Bill Clinton calling for 90% graduation rates and “meaningful” national examination standards, or George W. Bush claiming standardized test scores were stagnant and promoting new accountability for teachers and students – including a system of rewards and punishments that would become known as No Child Left Behind, or Barack Obama promising more aid to the neediest schools, touting merit pay plans, and decrying too much focus on testing.
But who was the most recent occupant of the Oval Office who deserves the title “The Education President”? When was the last time an American President signed into law an education bill that has had a substantial, sustained, and positive impact upon education?
This is not sarcasm because it was President Gerald Ford who, on November 29th, 1975, signed PL94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, into law. President Ford issued a signing statement expressing his concern that the law would cost too much, but over its 40 year history and re-authorization as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the legislation has improved educational opportunities and outcomes for millions upon millions of students who had previously faced neglect and discrimination within school. While the law continuously needs reflection and improvement, especially in the realm of federal funding which has never approached the 40% promised by Congress in 1975, the legislation remains a landmark that provides the basis for a vastly expanded mission for our nation’s schools and progress towards fulfilling opportunity for all.
PL94-142 was not an isolated case of federal legislation signed by the President improving our nation’s schools. President Richard Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that included Section 504, providing protection from discrimination based on disability when an employer or organization receives federal funding. Section 504 meant that schools could not bar students with physical and mental impairments from receiving an education and required them to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all qualified students. Prior to signing this legislation, President Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 which included Title IX, stating, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
President Lyndon Johnson, following the landmark Civil Rights Act, signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law on April 11th, 1965. The original law provided federal funds for research, strengthening state departments of education, and, perhaps most importantly, funding to assist the schooling of low income students, and among its earliest amendments were provisions for handicapped children and bilingual education programs. The Title I provisions, especially, noted the inequitable ways in which schools are funded using property tax revenues that immediately place communities with high percentages of low income families at a disadvantage. Although the ESEA has since been subsumed by the standardized test based accountability regime of the 2001 amendments known as No Child Left Behind, the original legislation was intended to help with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” by bringing resources that only the federal government could leverage to schools serving our neediest children.
Indeed, that focus upon using federal reach and the enforcement of civil rights to expand resources available to schools while requiring them not to discriminate upon race, gender, language spoken, or disability status marked a robust period of education legislation premised upon equity and the recognition that certain populations of students were historically marginalized and required direct action of the law aimed at states and municipalities that might have otherwise ignored them. In many regards, these efforts were astonishingly successful. In 1971, before the passage of Title IX, women were 3.7 million of 8.9 million college students. In 1991, they were 7.7 million of 14.1 million. Before the passage of PL94-142, 5.9% of students in public schools were identified as disabled with no data available on the numbers with specific learning disabilities. In 1989, 11.4% of students were identified as disabled, including more than 2 million classified with specific learning disabilities. These efforts were substantive, aimed at increasing access and equity, and their positive benefits have continued for decades and likely more to come.
Since then? Not so much.
President Ronald Reagan, after campaigning on abolishing the newly minted cabinet seat of Secretary of Education, set education policy away from equity and opportunity and into standards and accountability with the harsh language of school failure that has dominated our discussion ever since the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the Nation’s commitment to schools and colleges of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land.
The Reagan Administration followed in 1988 with amendments to the ESEA requiring states to “document and define” academic achievement for disadvantaged students using standardized test score measures, and ESEA funds began being tied to academic performance of disadvantaged children. President George H.W. Bush proposed his “America 2000” legislation calling for national standards and testing of students but which failed due to conservative opposition in the Senate. Standards based education policies were similarly advanced, however, by President Bill Clinton whose “Goals 2000” agenda focused upon student achievement, tougher academic standards, application of those standards to all students, and monitoring reform efforts via standardized testing.
The stage, then, was well set by three previous administrations for the 2001 re-authorization of the ESEA which was touted as “No Child Left Behind” by President George W. Bush. NCLB required all schools to demonstrate annual yearly progress for all students in all subgroups, and failure to meet AYP for five years in row could result in school closures, turning schools over to private charter operators, or giving school operation to private or state managers.
Upon passage, the law enjoyed support in both parties and numerous civil rights organizations, and the logic of that is not difficult to understand. By 2001, wide gulfs in test measured achievement remained stubbornly persistent between well off, mostly white, suburban communities and their poor, most African American and Hispanic, urban counterparts, and the language of NCLB demanded that states and municipalities address that through accountability systems with little wiggle room. Given the undeniable need for federal action in both civil rights and expansion of educational equity in the 1960s and 1970s, the federal accountability in NCLB was a logical, if ill-fated, marriage of federal standards and accountability efforts with vigorous enforcement from Washington.
The ill-fated portion of that assessment lies with what was obvious from the beginning: by tying lofty goals to punishing consequences dependent entirely upon the results of standardized testing, NCLB unleashed entirely predictable and increasingly damaging consequences to the depth and breadth of curriculum enjoyed by children, especially children in schools labeled as struggling:
In contrast, since the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its high stakes for schools, the traditional pattern of time allocation across subjects in elementary schools has changed markedly. Five years into NCLB, researchers found that 62 percent of a nationally representative sample of all districts in the United States—and 75 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement—increased the amount of time spent on language arts and math in elementary schools. These increases were substantial: a 47 percent increase in language arts and a 37 percent increase in math. Correspondingly, these districts decreased time allotted to other subjects and activities, including science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and recess (McMurrer, 2007).
President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 as a Presidential aspirant who was aware of these fact, deriding the test and punish focus of the law, the lack of resources given to schools and teachers working with struggling students, and the teaching to the test that was incentivized by the law:
“Math and science are not the opposite of art and music. Those things are compatible and we want kids to get a well-rounded education. Part of the problem we’ve had is that ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year…a whole bunch of schools said we gotta teach to this test, and art and music isn’t tested… It’s a shame.”
In reality, the administration of President Barack Obama, while loosening some of the proficiency targets of NCLB, has plainly made the most problematic aspects of the law even worse, and quite likely earning President Obama the label as the worst President for education policy in the post-World War II era. President Obama, acting through Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has made testing an even bigger focus of school by coercing states to adopt invalid and unproven measures of teacher performance using standardized tests. Instead of merely working in a school that faces negative consequences based on test scores, teachers themselves face career sanctions if they do not “adequately” raise student test scores. President Obama’s Department of Education has lavished money and favorable policies upon the charter school sector while thoroughly failing to oversee the money it has dispersed. The administration was so interested in fulfilling the long held goal of national standards, that it helped the Gates Foundation push through rushed and unproven standards to almost all states by using the promise of federal grants and waivers from NCLB provisions. These changes have been touted as voluntary and “state led,” but when Washington state did not pass legislation tying teacher evaluations to student growth measures, the Obama DOE brought down the hammer and revoked its waiver.
Today, 32 years after the beginning of the standards and accountability movement, 14 years into the test and punish era of school accountability, and almost 7 years into the Obama administration’s doubling down on standardized testing to measure teachers, teacher morale is at all time lows and the nation’s teacher preparation programs are struggling to find candidates. Far from continuing the vital work of expanded opportunity and equity that spanned administrations from President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to President Ford’s signing of PL94-142, the past five administrations have slowly tightened the grip of standardized testing on our schools until they have become a warped goal in and of themselves and have damaged the very children supposedly helped by them. Standardized tests used to sort children have always disproportionately harmed poor children and children of color, and the frequent, high-stakes, accountability testing of NCLB has both narrowed the curriculum and slowed progress in closing the achievement gap, progress that saw its most sustained and dramatic gains in the 1970s.
So what has been missing from the education policies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? Equity. The educational policies that came to fruition via the original ESEA, Title IX, Section 504, and PL94-142 all were premised on the federal role of expanding resources and equity for children facing discrimination in school and society at large. They marshaled funding and rules for schools so that they could not deny either access or equity, and they tasked the federal government with treating these as matters of civil rights. More recent “reform” efforts are entirely about accountability without increasing the resources available to schools in order to meet those goals in a meaningful way, nor does “reform” specifically address the conditions within which schools exist, leaving them with the sole responsibility to uplift all children regardless of circumstance. Where once federal education efforts sought to increase access to education and to increase the resources available for that education, today it demands that school increase performance in all situations without any other state actor taking responsibility for the well-being of the children in school. David Berliner noted this in 2006:
It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.
We won’t have a President who deserves the title “The Education President” until we once again have a public servant in the Oval Office who sets equity of access and equity of resources as primary goals of federal education policy. Five administrations ignoring the lessons of history and the evidence of research is enough.