Bush's left turn for education system

12th November 2004 at 00:00
The election is over. No one knows what the next term will bring, but domestically, my money is on president George Bush's two terms being remembered primarily for a single piece of domestic legislation; the so-called No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).

The US education system is famous for its decentralisation. Schools are funded and regulated at local and state levels - the federal government provides carrots and wields the occasional stick, but it provides less than 25 per cent of total spending on education, and a great deal of that goes into special education.

Autonomy extends right into the individual classroom in many places. Most graduates have been evaluated solely by their own teachers, on the basis of work assignments designed, assigned and evaluated by the teachers alone, with no external moderation, even by colleagues.

Most departments have rough content guidelines but these are open to interpretation. Different people teaching the same course in the same department will vary enormously both in the content they teach and their standards. At the high-school level, collaboration in designing curriculums is unusual, and most teachers are rarely observed or even interviewed about their experiences.

For good or ill, Mr Bush's NCLB has established a historic centralising dynamic. It releases federal funds for education to states which are willing to begin a long-term process of establishing state-wide standards, and evaluate schools on their performance.

The law establishes certain loose rules governing evaluation, but each participating state has to negotiate particular methods with the department of education.

Schools are charged with raising the scores of the majority of each group of children, with groups defined in terms of household income and race. If a school is found to be failing, the state must impose penalties.

Many educators regard NCLB as a disaster. It introduced heavy reporting requirements for indicators like graduation rates, teacher licensing rates and achievement score. Funding for these requirements has not been generous.

Monitoring was previously patchy, so schools have borne large transition costs. All of the states have negotiated less-than-ideal measures of quality. Only Ohio has adopted "value-added" measures.

The perverse effects are already observable. In August, a local high school could not find a candidate certified in bilingual education. It reclassified the position as English, and hired an English teacher who speaks no Spanish. This looks better in NCLB terms, but the Spanish-speaking children get taught by someone who cannot communicate with them, instead of by the other candidate, a fluently bilingual SpanishEnglish speaker who is certified in neither English nor bilingual ed.

But the problems with implementing NCLB are partly because, as its advocates claimed, schools are sloppy about monitoring their own performance and often unaccountable. NCLB has set in motion an irreversible dynamic toward federal oversight and funding of education.

John Kerry who, like most Democrats, voted for it, criticised Mr Bush not for the Act itself but for under-funding it. States can remain outside its remit, but in doing so they forgo funding.

Mr Kerry's argument was with the incentives provided. Mr Bush's response was to promise more funds. If a Democrat had introduced NCLB, it would have been shot down as big government liberalism by Republicans. But because Mr Bush propelled it, Republican successors will leave it in place and Democratic successors will only increase its centralising tendencies.

Mr Bush has achieved something the social-democratic part of the left always dreamed of - increasing dramatically the power of federal government over education, and decreasing dependence on local funding. If he achieves anything so momentous on the domestic front in his second term I will eat this copy of The TES (without, of course, the jobs section).

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at Wisconsin university, Madison, US

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