TOPICS > Education

Bush Literacy Plan

March 29, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: In poll after poll, Americans say improving the nation’s schools is a priority issue for them. Not surprisingly, the presidential candidates are stressing education reform too. And yesterday, Texas Governor George W. Bush unveiled a new element in his education platform, a $5 billion, five-year plan to make sure every child learns to read by the end of the third grade.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: The key to excellence for every child begins long before the third grade. It starts with basic education. It starts with the fundamentals. And there is nothing more fundamental than teaching our children how to read. America must confront a national emergency. Too many of our children cannot read. In the highest-poverty schools — I want you to hear this statistic — in the highest-poverty schools around America, 68% of fourth-graders could not read at a basic level in 1998. In the last 15 years, 15 million students have graduated from high school without being able to read at a basic level. More and more, we are divided into two nations: One that reads and one that can’t, and, therefore, one that dreams and one that doesn’t. Reading is the basics for all learning, and it must be the foundation for all other education reforms. To succeed in science or math, our children have to read. To be able to access the Internet, the children have to read.

MARGARET WARNER: Bush calls his program “Reading First.” It would spend $1 billion a year to do the following:

  • Help states develop and administer diagnostic tests to identify which kindergarten and first-grade students need special reading help
  • Subsidize special training for kindergarten and first-grade teachers in reading instruction, using research- tested methods such as phonics
  • And, subsidize intervention programs for the students who need help including tutors, after-school programs, and summer school.

Schools receiving the federal money would be required to adopt all these elements, and would be held accountable for the results.

Aides to Vice President Al Gore dismissed the Bush plan as a copy of a program already enacted by the Clinton administration. Gore himself, in an interview, said Bush can’t pay for his “Reading First” idea if he also enacts his $1 trillion 10 years tax cut plan. Gore went on to say that Bush’s tax proposal “puts a huge cloud over everything he says about education.”

MARGARET WARNER: For more on Bush’s plan, we’re joined by Margaret LaMontagne, Governor Bush’s education adviser, and William Galston, senior policy adviser for Vice President Gore and a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. Welcome, both of you.

Ms. LaMontagne, first of all give us a few more details on this plan. How many students? The handout from the campaign talked about 900,000 students. Is that the scope of the problem? Is that how many students can’t read at the grade level in those grades? And would this fully address it?

MARGARET LaMONTAGNE, Bush Education Adviser: Well, that’s a good estimate and a good start. I mean, I think one of the things about trying to derive a number about how many kids are really in need of special help to be readers — because we know that if kids are not on track to be readers by the end of third grade, the likelihood is very high that they won’t ever be and that they’ll not be able to succeed in school or in life. And so it’s a game that’s fought and won early.

But one of the things I think about the number is that it speaks to the need for more accountability, more data, but we do believe that approximately 900,000 children would need special assistance to make sure that they’re on track to be readers. We’ve modeled this program after something the governor launched here beginning in ’96. The governor called for all children in Texas on grade level reading by the end of third grade. And that was followed by some acknowledgment of reading as a major problem in the country by the Clinton-Gore administration. This is a plan that’s developed on a successful model that we’ve used here in Texas.

MARGARET WARNER: And then would every school in the country, would the kids take these tests at every school? How would the schools be picked out and how would the teachers be picked out?

MARGARET LaMONTAGNE: This is focused at Title I kids, kids most in need.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean kids… Just explain Title I kids briefly.

MARGARET LaMONTAGNE: Those are kids who are in high poverty schools and who at risk of failure, shall we say. Those who are neediest of intervention and help very likely. What we know from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the NAEP, test is that 58% of those kids score below basic by the time they get to the end of fourth grade. So working back from that, we think it’s somewhere in the 900,000 to one million kid range of kindergarten and first graders that are going to need the special help.

MARGARET WARNER: And would every school that received Title I funds be required to participate?

MARGARET LaMONTAGNE: We would… Actually, the way the plan is structured is that we would set aside this money and states would elect to participate in the program if they wanted to. So there is a high degree of local control and autonomy in the plan. They would assess kindergarten and first graders who would be Title I eligible. That’s about 1.6 million children across the country. Obviously more kids need assessment than are likely to need intervention. Some of those kids are succeeding in public schools, and we’re glad of that.

So there’s more assessment than there is intervention naturally. The teacher training component obviously is for teachers that might serve kids who are also non-Title I. But the emphasis for the intervention is those kids most in need of help.

WILLIAM GALSTON, University of Maryland: There is absolutely no question about the fact that reading is fundamental. And there is no question about the fact that too many kids in this country today finish third grade not being able to read. And it is, I think, a very welcome development that the American people are getting a real discussion and a real debate about a real problem. So far, so good. I have two fundamental comments about the Bush proposal.

The first comment might be called “Welcome aboard, Governor Bush.” The year 1996 was mentioned. That happens to be the year that the Clinton-Gore administration fought for and enacted the Reading Excellence Act, launched the “America Reads” program. An army of volunteers has fanned out across the country. So, the idea that this is a dramatic departure from the status quo, I think, will not really survive inspection. Has the problem been licked? No. But we are beginning to see signs of progress as revealed, for example, by improvements in scores, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 1994 and 1998.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you agree that this– that the key is to identify these kids very early and then to train the teachers specially and then to give them, if it takes one-on-one tutoring, just give them intensive training until it… Until they get it.

WILLIAM GALSTON: Absolutely. That’s why the administration, the Clinton-Gore administration, fought for and has enacted a professional development fund. That is why the administration has proposed an early assessment and an early intervention program. So, there is no dispute about any of these, but the idea that this represents some sort of policy breakthrough, I think will not survive inspection.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. So Ms. LaMontagne, what is in the governor’s plan that is above and beyond what has already been enacted?

MARGARET LaMONTAGNE: First, let me say from a little historical correction point of view, the governor launched the Texas reading initiative in January of ’96 and recognized and we have waged war on illiteracy in Texas. Subsequent to that, the Clinton administration did follow up. There has been a major focus by the Congress and the administration on reading and literacy.

I think the difference here — and this, you know, hangs with the rest of the governor’s proposal — is that this is part of a greater reform package. That is, that you have to have measurement and accountability and consequences coupled with local control and then investments targeted to solving a particular problem. So I don’t want to leave the impression that this is the stand-alone program because it does fit very much with the rest of the governor’s proposal.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean if I have a child in a Title I school somewhere in, I don’t know, Maryland, what would that child be getting under your program or the governor’s program that he or she wasn’t already getting under the program that Congress already enacted?

MARGARET LaMONTAGNE: The program that Congress already enacted does not specifically call form… while states may choose to diagnose individual kids or not, this is… we believe this is the recipe — and we have enacted this in our own state — that will cause kids to gain literacy. It’s coupled with three things. It’s having teachers who have the very best knowledge and information possible. It’s identifying kids who need help and who don’t need help and it’s getting the kids the help. So there are some critical components to this that are not specifically called for in current federal plans.

WILLIAM GALSTON: Well, since the issue has been broadened out to general education philosophy, let me say that the philosophy of the Clinton-Gore administration, which is emphatically the philosophy of Al Gore, is investment in reform with accountability for results. And that is why the administration, starting in 1994 with its first reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, linked Title I and other funds to the national education goals and measurable movement towards the national education goals for the first time. So, the debate is not between accountability and no accountability. The question is, accountability how? Who is accountable? And to whom?

MARGARET WARNER: Would Vice President Gore yank funds from schools that didn’t show measurable improvement?

WILLIAM GALSTON: Vice President Gore last may gave a speech in a randomly selected state, Iowa, in which he proposed a comprehensive program for failing schools, which among other things said that states are going to be incentives… given incentives to shut down failing schools. That is to say, schools on the elementary level that aren’t teaching kids to read and either reopen them under new leadership or reconstitute them as charter schools. So, yes, absolutely. There are big consequences for failure in the Gore approach.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Ms. LaMontagne, on the accountability issue, how does Governor Bush differ?

MARGARET LaMONTAGNE: The problem there is that there is no real accountability system in place under that plan. What we’ve learned in Texas is that unless you’re measuring every kid every year, as the governor has called for, and disaggregating the data. And we’ve called on states to develop systems that do that, you don’t have any information. You don’t know who the bad actors are and who the good actors are. You don’t know who is doing the job and who isn’t. So, you’re right. I mean, everyone calls for accountability, but you can’t have an accountability system unless you’re measuring every kid every year, unless you’re reporting the data by student group, unless there are consequences and a walking of the last mile for the kids. And so those are the things that I think are missing from these national calls for accountability that are frankly anemic.

MARGARET WARNER: So, under the governor’s plan though, if a school was in this program and after two or three years not many of their students were reading a lot better, what would happen?

MARGARET LaMONTAGNE: We would allow portability and up to $1500 per child to be matched by the state and to flow to the parents so that they could make a difference choice. I think what the governor laid out yesterday that expands on his previous proposal is that we’re willing to put some skin in the game to make sure that we have as few kids as possible portable but at some point in time we have to say, if kids are not getting opportunities in public schools, then they need options.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And Vice President Gore would not go that far?

WILLIAM GALSTON: Well, let me say a couple of things. On the subject of accountability, Vice President Gore has proposed that by the year 2005, every teacher who walks into a classroom must be certified to teach that subject — no more out-of-subject teaching for teachers and school systems receiving federal funds. Secondly, Vice President Gore has proposed that every teacher before he or she first sets foot in the classroom must pass a test which tests not only pedagogical ability but also knowledge of content. And so we’re talking about an accountability revolution so that teachers who are teaching are first and second and third graders are really trained to teach kids how to read, Number One. Number two, if you really are serious about licking America’s reading problem in the early grades, you’ve got to do two things: First of all, you’ve got to make sure that every kid reaches first grade ready to learn and that means universal pre-K. Secondly, you have to reduce class sizes.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry. We’re going to have to leave it there. We’re already over time. But thank you very much and thank you, Miss LaMontagne.