George knocks Jeb's record

22nd August 2003 at 01:00

President Bush's hardline policies are bringing upheaval to America's schools. They have even embarrassed his brother

Teachers and parents in Florida were left confused and dismayed last week after nearly 1,000 schools feted by governor Jeb Bush were deemed failing under his brother's sweeping new test-based regime for rating and improving schools.

Just weeks after Jeb Bush trumpeted a sixfold increase in schools earning top marks in his "A+ Plan for Education", 78 per cent of the 1,229 A-grade schools fell short of benchmarks set by his elder brother's controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Just 6 and 2 per cent respectively of the state's B and C-rated schools - still fairly high up Florida's pecking order - met White House yardsticks, while together a staggering 87 per cent of them failed to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress".

Florida officials put a brave face on the contradictory assessments, describing the criteria in both as complementary and praising the diagnostic view provided by the White House's ratings.

But their plight highlights anomalies between local and national standards that have confused teachers and parents.

Last week, every secondary schools in Portland, Oregon, a city the size of Sheffield, was found wanting under the Bush legislation, even though many had been acclaimed locally.

Alex Molnar, professor of education at Arizona State University, said the new Act was plagued by "practical problems that in a reasonable world make it untenable, foolish and a waste of money.

"But it becomes imperative for politicians, who've invested a lot of energy in promoting it, to cling to it and interpret these massive failures not as problems of the policy but as evidence that it's working to uncover profound, systematic failure."

It is all too easy to "fail" under the NCLB regime. Its assessment breaks test scores down by ethnic and socio-economic subgroups, requiring each to perform to state standards. So, even if overall marks are high, it only takes below-par results among, say, Hispanic pupils, to drag the whole school down. Schools also fall foul of the requirement that 95 per cent of students should sit exams - a tall order in truancy-blighted inner cities.

Meanwhile, schools look set to suffer even more as the law's goal of universal reading and maths proficiency by 2013 approaches. In Florida schools this year, for instance, only 31 and 38 per cent of students were judged proficient in reading and maths, respectively.

America's schools had been subject to less scrutiny than Britain's, but Anglo-American education expert Clive Belfield, says under President Bush that is going to change. "America's leapfrogging over Britain - it started with less testing and accountability and is trying to go further," said Dr Belfield, associate professor at the US's largest teacher training institution, Columbia Teachers College.

White House officials argue that breaking down test scores forces schools to tackle underachievement by certain groups. Schools not measuring up under NCLB two years running are put on notice to pull their socks up or face escalating sanctions. To begin with they might have to pay for private tutoring or, controversially, for pupils to transfer to academically-stronger schools (so-called "school choice"). Ultimately they could face having to replace their entire staff.

Such measures are necessary to ensure no children are left behind in dysfunctional, academically lax schools, White House officials say.

But many rank-and-file educators fear the Bush administration is bent on discrediting and dismantling public education, paving the way for private schools to step in."There's a whole cabal of different groups interested in creating school choice outside public school systems, so it's reasonable for teachers to think there's a threat to (state) schools," said Belfield.

The White House is strongly backing local efforts to introduce state-funded vouchers deprived students can use to attend private schools, including a flagship $40 million (pound;25m) scheme in Washington DC, Dr Belfield noted.

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