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30th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 30, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

The No Child Left Behind law, dear to the heart of the president, is due for reauthorization. And unlike the good feelings that surrounded the initial passage, the debate surrounding reauthorization has already taken on an ugly tone.

The first time this came up, Washington was a different town. For one thing, the Republicans ruled the roost on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. It was early in the Bush administration, just after September 11, that short interlude when partisanship seemed somehow inappropriate.

In that magic moment, President Bush and Senator Kennedy joined in a rare show of solidarity, coming together for the nation’s children. The president had a reputation as the “education governor” of Texas, vastly increasing school spending in a state with a long-standing reputation for underfunding its schools. Out of this came his reputation as a “compassionate conservative.”

Mr. Kennedy has long been considered the liberal’s liberal. Yet, somehow, these two political polar opposites crafted a new national direction in education.

The president’s proposal provided for increased funding for schools with a high concentration of poor students, which made it palatable for Democrats. But NCLB is about more than just money. It encourages widespread reforms, challenging Republicans and Democrats alike.

It requires that all students read and do math at grade level by 2014. Since this premise is unrealistic, many aspects have become troublesome, and the annual academic progress needed to achieve it creates bitterness. Test results are disaggregated by race, poverty status, special education status, and fluency in English. If any of these subgroups fail to make progress, the entire school is labeled “in need of improvement,” translated by the press into “failing school.” The law mandates harsh consequences for such schools.

Most of the attacks on NCLB are directed at the requirement that states test their children every year to see if they are making the required progress. Some oppose the testing provisions for fear that instruction becomes too directed at proficiency in only reading and math at the expense of history, science, art, and music.

Some reform of these sections of the law, based on experience, would be welcome.

But the most exciting part of NCLB is one that accounts for perhaps only 2% of total federal education expenditures, a program called Reading First.

It has demonstrated the ability to actually improve results, often dramatically. It is based on the premise that funding to help schools teach reading must be spent on programs that have been proven to work by scientific study, just as the federal government evaluates prescription drugs for safety and efficacy. Unfortunately, charges of cronyism and corruption have marred the program, leading to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education referring the manner in which the program was administered to the Justice Department for investigation.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education Committee, “said Reading First ‘officials and contractors created an uneven playing field that favored certain products,’ particularly those that emphasized phonics.”

But that is exactly the point. It is only those programs that emphasize phonics that have been proven, by extensive scientific study, to actually work.

Take the example of the Richmond, Va., school district. When the program took effect in 2002, the district was ready and willing to apply for the funds and use the approved methods. The results are striking. Some 95% of the district’s 25,000 students are black, and 70% qualify for free lunch. Before the program began, only five of 51 schools were fully accredited by the state.

Now that number has grown to 44, and the reading scores of the Richmond children are approaching the results for the adjoining largely white, affluent, and suburban Fairfax County school district. When disaggregated, Richmond’s black inner-city students outpace black Fairfax students by an impressive 15 percentage points.

How did this happen? Fairfax County education officials refused to accept Reading First money because it mandated scientifically validated instruction, as Richmond embraced those methods.

Similar results were achieved here in New York. Of the city’s 10 regions, only one, Region 5, covering areas of Brooklyn and Queens, aggressively and enthusiastically pursued Reading First funding for many of its schools. Region 5 is led by perhaps the last standing advocate of traditional instructional methods in the city Department of Education, Kathleen Cashin. The results? Year after year, improvement in reading scores in Region 5 outpaced the other nine regions.

A more extensive account of the Reading First success story, This Bush Education Reform Really Works, by Sol Stern, appeared in the Winter, 2007 issue of City Journal. On May 22, the Manhattan Institute will host a conference on this subject that will feature Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

With the president’s popularity at a low point, and with the sniping from the sidelines by “progressive” educrats, the supporters of the failed status quo of whole language and so-called “balanced literacy,” Reading First and other positive aspects of No Child Left Behind are at grave risk.

It is time for everyone concerned to step back and look at the evidence. New York’s great Mayor LaGuardia often maintained that there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. He was right. Similarly, there is no Republican or Democratic way to run the schools. There is only what is proven to work.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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