A weak Rx for schools

With his education reform bill, President Bush dishes up a watery bouillabaisse of warmed-over measures that are moldier than they are bold.

Published July 12, 2001 3:38PM (EDT)

"My second working day as president," George W. Bush said during his latest weekly radio address, "I sent to Congress the boldest plan to improve our public schools in a generation." Boy, the political establishment must have given up on real reform if this watery bouillabaisse of warmed-over measures is considered the boldest plan it can come up with. Or perhaps it was another of his endearing malapropisms, and he meant to say "moldiest."

That would explain his continued use of the tired and already empty mantra that his education bill will "make sure no child gets left behind." Unfortunately, by the time these kids catch up, they'll be eligible for Social Security -- also desperately in need of bold reform, but that's another column.

Meanwhile, the president's latest behind-the-scenes actions give the lie to his preposterously rosy pronouncements. As the bill heads into a House-Senate conference committee, the White House is backing away from the House version on the grounds that its requirement that all students -- including poor, black and Hispanic kids -- master the basics within the next 12 years is an impossibility. So, which is it: bold reform or cowardly retreat? Even a failing student could tell you that it cant be both.

I can't think of a more damning indictment of our educational system than the fear that requiring all children to master the basics would, in the words of the White House's education advisor, Sandy Kress, lead to "nearly every school in America" being branded a failure.

Washington's desiccated definition of bold reform is also evident in the Senate version of the bill, which requires all students -- regardless of race, creed or socioeconomic standing -- to improve at least 1 percent a year. One percent? Were they worried that mandating a .05 percent improvement would be harder to spin as "fundamental change" -- or that a 2 percent increase in test scores would be setting the bar too high?

"We stand," proclaimed Bush, "on the verge of dramatic improvements for America's public schools."

Trust me, we don't. Anyone who has been following the long-running charade Washington calls education reform should be experiencing a "dramatic" sense of déja vu right about now. There was Bill Clinton in 1998, also promising that his "proposals" would "result in dramatic improvements of our schools." And just what were Clinton's bold proposals? Nearly identical to Bush's: smaller classes, better teaching, higher standards, expanded choice, more discipline, greater accountability.

Or, for more of the same, you can flash back to W's dad asserting his bold commitment to "revolutionize America's schools." "By the year 2000," Bush pere vowed in his 1990 State of the Union address, "U.S. students must be the first in the world in math and science achievement. Every American adult must be a skilled, literate worker and citizen ... The nation will not accept anything less than excellence in education." I hate to break it to the former president, but the latest international rankings show that, among 21 nations, only those educational powerhouses South Africa and Cyprus fared worse than the U.S. in both math and science.

Far from accepting nothing less than excellence, we've grown accustomed to the system's chronic failure, content to point out the occasional jewel spotted amid the dung: a marvelous charter school here, an inner city academy there. And nothing in the current bill will disrupt the downward slide that guarantees that by the end of the Bush administration things will only have gotten worse.

For things to get better, we first need to acknowledge when they started going bad. And that was pretty much at the beginning. Ours is an education system that has been broken from its inception. Based on the Prussian model, which was designed to produce obedient soldiers and compliant citizens, the American version was a product of the Industrial Revolution -- designed to ensure a pool of pliant, homogenized worker bees. Factories to produce factory workers, an assembly line to produce assembly-line drones. But this one-size-fits-all model is grotesquely out of step with the creativity and problem solving our modern age requires.

And from the beginning, parents were seen as more of a nuisance than central to the education of their children. As Horace Mann, who became the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, put it: "We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to the cause."

Just how disempowered parents have become was made clear when George W. boasted that the current bill gives "parents unprecedented new choices to help their children get a quality education." Sadly, what the president considers "unprecedented new choices" comes down to allowing parents in failing schools to use taxpayer money to hire a tutor for their kids. Which is like tossing the flimsiest of life preservers to children drowning in a stormy ocean. It may keep them afloat a little longer, but will rescue none of them.

The president has called his limp education bill Congresss "final exam," and has urged legislators to pass it before their August recess. Here's hoping they risk detention and aim for extra credit with a bill that offers real solutions.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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