homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
the president's big test

Nicholas Lemann, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, talks about the surprising politics of George W. Bush's education bill in a Web-exclusive FRONTLINE interview.

March 28, 2002

Writing in The New Yorker last July, with President Bush's landmark education bill in danger of being watered down by House and Senate negotiators, Nicholas Lemann suggested that "the next month will be a pure test of Bush's level of energy, commitment, attention to detail, political skill, and courage on the issue that took him to the White House and that he cares about most."

Nobody foresaw then that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would sweep nearly all domestic issues off the table and into legislative limbo. Education was one of the few exceptions. Soon after Sept. 11, the president and the leaders of both parties in Congress announced that education reform, as the nation's top domestic priority, would go forward.

While it didn't exactly steal headlines away from the war on terrorism, the education bill, now officially known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, was signed into law in early January, having emerged from the House-Senate conference in December with Bush's priorities essentially intact. In fact, if the overwhelming bipartisan support for the president's bill is any indication, the idea of enforcing standards and accountability for schools turned out to be less controversial than one might have expected -- at least on Capitol Hill. (The issue remains plenty controversial, of course, within the education establishment and in some communities around the country where parents and students have staged protests against high-stakes tests.) The true test now, it seems, is whether the Education Dept. will be able to implement the new law as intended and hold firm with states whose governors fought to weaken the bill's accountability measures.

We recently asked Lemann, who writes the "Letter from Washington" column for The New Yorker and is a nationally recognized expert on education politics and policy, to talk about the debate over this bill and its outcome. What were the major issues? Who were the real winners and losers? What are the obstacles to its success? And what did the president achieve with his first major legislative victory, the most significant federal education-reform act since 1965?

Lemann is the author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999), about the creation of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and its impact on American society, and The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991), which was the basis for a PBS documentary. He is also known to PBS viewers by his appearances in such documentaries as "School: The Story of American Public Education" (2001) and FRONTLINE's "Secrets of the SAT" (1999). Before joining The New Yorker in 1998, Lemann spent 15 years as the national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and from 1981 to 1983 he was the executive editor of Texas Monthly. He spoke with Wen Stephenson, managing editor of FRONTLINE's website, on March 11, 2002.

Let's talk about Texas. You've written that the Bush education plan -- the "No Child Left Behind" plan that has now, more or less, been passed and signed into law -- was basically the Texas model applied on a national scale. And we know that education reform is the issue that really made Bush president -- at least, one can make a strong case that that's true.

You can make the same case for Clinton, by the way.

How much credit does Bush deserve for what happened in Texas?

It clearly was a sort of consensus effort in Texas that predates Bush's governorship, and spans both parties. The first reform stuff was done under [Democratic] Governor Mark White, who appointed the Perot Commission in the early '80s, which by today's standards was kind of rudimentary education reform. The first of the modern education reform, the first big bill, was passed by [Democratic Governor] Ann Richards. So it's definitely true that Bush was signing on to a movement that was already going on.

Related Features:

"Testing Limits," by Nicholas Lemann
"Can President Bush's education crusade survive Beltway politics?" The New Yorker, July 2, 2001.

The New Rules
A brief overview of the testing and accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Can This Bill Live Up to Its Name?
What are the underlying arguments in favor of the president's education plan? What are the pitfalls of the new testing policy? Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with education policy experts, including Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Government Links:

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Executive Summary
The Education Department's official site includes this summary of the legislation, as well as a fact sheet and a document entitled "Testing for Results," which explains the administration's position on testing.

Fact Sheet: Accountability for Student Achievement
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce offers this overview of the testing and accountability provisions of the final bill. The House Committee also offers this summary of the overall bill.

On the other hand, to Bush's credit, most people would say he sort of "got it" more, felt more passion about it, and moved it forward more forcefully than Richards would have, or did, when she was governor. So most of the education-reform people like Bush. And Bush, at least in those days, was very good about not claiming credit. He was careful, always, to say, "I didn't start this," and so on. And indeed, you can argue also that even in the national bill Bush was building on Clinton's efforts. Some of the features of this bill were put in place in '93 and '94 by Clinton [in the Goals 2000 bill].

Let's move on to the education bill itself. Your New Yorker article posed the question, "Can the president's education crusade survive Beltway politics?" So the obvious question at this point is, did it? Did Bush's education crusade survive Beltway politics?

Yeah. It basically did. The main dangers are the underfunding danger, which the Democrats are obviously very attuned to, and then that the Education Department will not enforce it strictly, and they'll grant [the states] a lot of waivers.

But there was one actual loophole in the bill that I can see. There was a fight over the question of what they call "comparability." In other words, how do you prevent states from using ridiculously easy tests, or changing tests all the time? The supporters of the bill wanted some kind of national benchmark against which the state results would be measured.

And that's the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) [a national achievement test given every other year to a statistical sample of students in every state]?

Right. Well, there was a big debate about [NAEP comparability], and when I wrote the article it wasn't settled. A lot of conservatives were actually against it. The administration held firm on the principle of NAEP comparability, which was good. But what happened was, there's no consequence to it. A state can have ridiculous tests. It still has to compare its scores to NAEP, and it has to publish the results, but if its scores keep falling behind NAEP relentlessly, year after year, there's no actual punishment mechanism for that. The idea is that the embarrassment factor will take care of it.

Say what you mean by falling behind NAEP, year after year, in their scores. How does that work?

Let's say, in a hypothetical situation, a state concocts a test where its students show a 5 percent skill gain every year, so at the end of five years its students have gone up 25 percent in skills on its own test. But during the same period they've dropped 10 percent on the NAEP. Well, that tells you that you're rigging the system with your test -- as long as you believe the NAEP is legitimate, which I do.

The thing about NAEP is that people trust it. It's a huge issue. There's a lot of mischief that goes on in testing, and NAEP is a trusted professional test, so it's very important to keep that around as a yardstick.

Tell me about the politics that led to that loophole.

There was a lot of politics of all sorts. But on the NAEP, first of all, the test publishers -- and they were an important lobby in this whole thing -- were against NAEP comparability, for two reasons. One is, it's essentially a test of the quality of their tests. So for the same reason that nobody wants to be held accountable, or evaluated, if given the choice, they didn't want the NAEP. The second reason was that they felt if the NAEP wasn't used, there was hope that they could devise their own. They dreamed of a bidding process on a brand new national test, other than the NAEP, that they could write.

The other important group that was against the use of NAEP was the ideological right, which feared that it was a step toward a national curriculum -- which it is -- and that there would be problems down the road with things like creationism and so on.

You say it's a step toward a national curriculum?

Yeah, it is. I think this whole bill is a step toward a national curriculum -- which I applaud, by the way.

Do you want to say anything more about that? I'm not sure that that's really understood, necessarily.

It's not understood partly because Bush has accompanied the bill with standard Republican rhetoric. But, you know, this bill clearly takes federal control over local public education to a heretofore unknown level.

Is that what makes this, as you put it, "the most significant federal legislation on education since 1965"? The expansion of the federal role?

Yes. It vastly expands federal oversight over local education.

And it moves us toward a national curriculum. How much further toward a national curriculum does it really move us?

It's a significant step, because if there are going to be achievement tests, and if they're going to be at least nationally judged -- that is, states can choose their own tests, but they're judged against the NAEP -- you'll have a great deal of convergence in curriculum.

And the truth is, you already do. I mean, these people who are against national curriculum drive me crazy, because we have a national curriculum now. It's just that it's done by the test publishing companies. You know, we have a choice of about three or four flavors -- Houghton-Mifflin, [McGraw-Hill], and so on and so forth. But there is not significant, meaningful curriculum difference in high school American history courses depending on where you are in the country. There are just a few standard textbooks, and they're national products, they're not local products. In deciding what textbooks they use, the states are adopting, in effect, a national curriculum.

You mentioned that the test publishers were a major lobbying influence on this bill. How much power do they wield at the state level? If it's fair to say that the public and most politicians don't really understand what makes a good or appropriate test versus a bad test -- it just isn't an issue that people are educated on -- how do you see it playing out on the state level, in terms of the testing business influencing what kind of tests are adopted?

The test publishers are not rich enough to have a kind of Enron-like political effect, where they're able to be really major financial contributors to any state's politics, and to be able to say, "We've got our people salted through the entire Gray Davis administration." Their power comes largely from the fact that they have superb contacts with state education departments. That's what they do all day, is send people out on the road to talk to state education commissioners. So they have a tremendous amount of access to state education departments. Their voices are heard. And the states have to deal with them, because they don't want to write their own textbooks. The analogy would be the defense contractors' relationship to the Pentagon. The test companies are where the state has to go to buy their equipment, and they have a very close, complicated, intense relationship with the state Ed. Departments, so they tend not to get left out of the process.

In terms of what actually goes on in the classroom, the pedagogical issues, you said in your New Yorker piece, "As soon as people figure out what the bill does, there will be caterwauling throughout the land." And you list some of the complaints that the parents and educators who are against testing always raise, like the prevalence of drilling and test prepping and "teaching to the test," and "dumbing down the curriculum." How real are these issues? Do you worry about these things, especially when the stakes are so high?

The overall answer is that there are good tests and there are bad tests. The overarching principle of what is known in the trade as "curricular alignment" is crucially, crucially important. And this is one reason I'm for a national curriculum.

The cart-horse order here is curriculum first, then tests. A lot of the worst stuff that I've seen goes on when for various reasons a school district has to purchase a test as an isolated act, not having to do with any curricular decision. That is when you get into the bad test-prep stuff. I mean, one of my kids was actually in one of these situations, and they actually have a class every day called "Test Prep." But that was because it was a non-curriculum-aligned test. If you have a curriculum-aligned test, what you want to do is create a situation where the test prep is the course itself, so you don't have to worry about test prep as a separate, free-floating thing.

In other words, just teaching the material that's supposed to be learned in a given course is what prepares kids for the test?

Exactly. Right. To give you a simple example, if you're going to be quizzed on Friday on ten French verbs, and I'm your French teacher, I'm going to teach you those ten French verbs during the week, right? Does that count as "teaching to the test"? Yes. And what's wrong with it, if that's what you want the kids to learn?

You don't seem to have major qualms about the effects on the quality of instruction and learning in our country as a result of all this testing.

I don't. It's a huge issue, but it's one of these issues that really depends on the details. I'm very suspicious of dealing with this in a kind of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" way -- that all tests are bad and all tests lead to soulless drilling, or crush the life out of students.

What you're really seeing here, in part, is an iteration of the long, long, long-running -- since the early 19th century -- progressive education wars, which are well described in Diane Ravitch's book Left Back [2000]. It's very similar to the phonics versus whole language fight in reading instruction. It's almost a theological issue. You very quickly get from the arguments you just mentioned to what I think underlies the real views of a lot of the opponents, which is, "Why should children have to learn to spell? Why should children have to learn these meaningless dates in American history? Why should they have to know the names of presidents?"

It gets into this very deep-seated idea of education -- which, I guess, begins in Rousseau's Emile -- that the best education is one that does not focus on facts at all and instead allows the child to be creative, and, of course, the teacher to be creative. I don't want to say that has no place in education, but I do think it's pretty clearly demonstrated that there's a basic set of skills, and if you don't have them, you're screwed economically. The high school diploma is not a meaningless credential. It is a proxy for saying, or should be a proxy for saying, "This person has these basic skills."

To acquire the basic skills, in many cases, you do have to drill at least somewhat. And the purpose of testing is to make sure people are acquiring the basic skills. My argument is, once you've acquired the basic skills, you're a free kid, and you can study whatever you want. You can be creative and you can do all these portfolios and constructed-response projects and authentic assessment and all that stuff. But you need the skills.

And where the testing opponents scare me, actually, is this "just trust us" attitude. There's a faith that if you have no oversight at all, but adequate funding, you can be sure that teachers will do a good job of teaching kids, and kids will learn. And that just makes me feel uncomfortable. I would like to have a check on that, and I can't think of a check other than tests.

And also, all these testing people, they do listen to the critics, and they have moved in the direction of constructed-response answers and such. It's not all multiple choice. The more complicated part is when you get into things like American history. I can't really argue that you need to know American history in order to survive economically. But I would argue that it's good for America to have some kind of national, agreed-upon material that every kid, every high school grad, should know about the history of our country. And once you have that, then you get into some of the territory that the progressives don't like, of dates and wars and presidents, and things like that.

But you're also getting into territory that the conservatives don't like, either.

Exactly. Which is fear of liberal brain-washing.

Right. "Who's going to decide what my child has to learn."

And my argument is, those fights happen anyway in states. And so let's just let them happen nationally instead of in states. We debate a lot of things as a country without falling apart. I just don't buy the argument that that debate will be so brutal and divisive that we can't possibly get to a good result, and so it's better left at the state level.

If we can go back to the debate over this bill. We keep hearing the term "strange bedfellows." You've got George W. Bush thanking Ted Kennedy in his State of the Union Address. You've got California Democrat George Miller and Ohio Republican John Boehner (who not that long ago wanted to get rid of the Education Dept.) working together in the House. On the other hand, you've got the liberal Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank and the conservative Michigan Republican Peter Hoekstra teaming up to try and kill the testing provisions. It seems this was one of those issues that cut diagonally across ideological lines.

Yeah, I think that's basically right. It definitely has cross-over appeal. I would just add a little bit of spin to the ball, if I could.

Politically, what Bush is trying to do here is steal the education issue from the Democrats in the same way that Clinton stole issues like welfare and crime from the Republicans. And I think it's working. He's been very smart about it. This is an issue that the Democrats are a little ginger about, for two reasons. There are two core Democratic constituency groups that tend to be nervous about this. Those are minority groups, because of the feeling that getting lower scores is branding you a failure, and teachers' unions. So I think Bush, and the people around him, cleverly and correctly figured out that there was an opening for them to take over the education issue from the Democrats. Very smart on Bush's part.

And again, a key reason Bush is president is that he figured out that, instead of doing the usual Republican thing and becoming a voucher guy, which his father had done, he should be a standards guy, because that's an issue where the Democrats have trouble leading, because it makes their constituency groups nervous. It's very significant that Gore never found his voice on education during the 2000 campaign. And one of Bush's clear "win" moments in the debates was when he said he would test every student, every year, in reading and math. And Gore just kind of sat there.

So the impetus was Bush. I think that George Miller really buys the issue and thinks it's important. I think that's true to some extent of Kennedy, but also, Bush very cleverly played on Kennedy's fear of irrelevance by opening up a separate line of communication to Joe Lieberman and implying to Kennedy, you know, "We can get this done without you."

And what happened there with Frank and Hoekstra?

The single biggest threat to this bill came when it was up for a vote in the House. It was being debated on the floor, and there was an amendment put in by those two guys to take out the testing provision, essentially, which is the key selling point of the bill. And it got [over 200] votes. I think that was what the people pushing the bill were most worried about.

Why was Hoekstra, as a Republican, so opposed to it?

I think he was afraid of federal control and national curriculum, and that kind of thing.

He's from Michigan.

Yes, and very conservative.

And Michigan's John Engler was one of the governors who led an attack on this, too, right?

Well, the governors had a different issue. Governors tend to run on public education and get the credit or the blame, as the case may be, for the performance of public education in their state. And so what they were afraid of was, first, an unfunded mandate. But what they were most afraid of was headlines saying, "90 Percent of State Schools Sub-Par." So they got relief on some of those issues. They were most concerned with where the bar is set and how A.Y.P., Adequate Yearly Progress, is defined.

They didn't want to be in a situation where, in an election year especially, they were seen as presiding over failing schools.

Right.

Should this bill be seen as a great victory for George W. Bush and a truly historic piece of legislation? Did he win on all levels here? Can you analyze the win for Bush?

Well, it was a win for Bush in the sense that he passed a major piece of legislation. And they really stuck with it, you know, for over a year, including after Sept. 11, and they got it done. So, in that sense, it was a win. In contrast, it wasn't as big a deal as Clinton's health-care plan. But one can say that Bush passed his No. 1 domestic legislative priority in his first year, as Clinton did not.

Will it be a win for Bush in the political sense, and will it be a win for Bush in the policy sense? Politically, it really depends on the execution, I think. When Bush is running for re-election, these tests should be in place in a lot of places. I mean, he's taking a gamble, in a sense, because it's possible that people will hate this, and that his opponent can say, "Bush is the person who brought you these horrible tests that they're torturing your children with." So it could be a political loss, or it could be a big win if their testing regime is popular.

And in the policy sense, it might not make a big difference in the short term, especially if they start really slow. In a sense, as I said before, it establishes a principle of a certain level of federal involvement in education, from which we can move forward, presumably. Whether by the time Bush is running for re-election this will be where it's supposed to be -- which is a really meaningful guarantee of educational quality for every kid, the "no child left behind" idea -- it's too soon to tell. It depends a whole lot on the execution.

And in terms of that execution, how hard a job does Secretary of Education Rod Paige have?

Well, his job is basically to hold the line as states present plans, and not cave in to bad state plans with strong political support from powerful governors.

People point back to 1994 and the Clinton education bill, and say that the federal government didn't really enforce what was passed in '94, so why should we believe that they'll be able to do it this time?

Right. That's why it's a matter of will. In other words, it's not like the '64 Civil Rights Act where such and such thing is now illegal and that's the end of the story. It depends on the implementation process. And so, we'll see.

Are there big, unresolved issues at this point?

It's a devil-is-in-the-details story. A huge amount depends on what tests the states use, how good those tests are, how well aligned they are with curriculum. It's very much state by state.

Some people voted against this bill. Who's disgruntled? Who are the losers here? Who got left out in the cold?

It was more of a loss for the conservatives than for the liberals in a lot of ways, because the voucher people lost, as did those who are really against any federal role in education.

In general, the teachers' unions were not crucial players in this whole process. They clearly made a decision that they weren't going to fight it hard, and in that sense they're not big losers. They were sort of weirdly invisible when you think about it: the biggest education legislation in a generation, and they're the biggest education interest group, and you just don't see them mentioned a lot in these blow-by-blow accounts of what happened. So that's curious. They felt they would look bad for being all-out opponents. Of the teachers' unions, the AFT was more supportive than the NEA.

I also think it is eminently possible that Bush will have indeed stolen a really important issue from the Democratic Party. You know, the Democrats cooperated -- they clearly decided they weren't going to fight it, which I think was smart. But I don't see any Democrats out front on education, with a vision. Now, maybe by the time the next presidential campaign comes along there will be one. But I think the Democratic Party, in that sense, is the loser.

If we can step back and look at the background of the Bush education plan, and the origins of the standards and accountability movement, what role has big business played? We've seen business figures like Ross Perot and Lou Gerstner [of IBM] making standards a high-profile issue. We've got the Business Roundtable, with its lobbying arm in Washington, and the National Education Summit, which is a gathering of business leaders and state governors. Is it fair to say that the standards and accountability movement is more or less a product of the business lobby, of a push from business?

No. Here's what I think it is fair to say. I think it's coming from two directions, or from two forces -- neither of which, notably, is education. What I would add to the business lobby is parents. Parents are complicated, because you run into these parental revolts against standards regimes here and there. But my read is, on the whole, parents are for standards. And the reason they're for standards is just basic raw fear that their children are not going to have the skills they need to make a middle-class living after they graduate. I don't have poll data in front of me to support my position, but I think it's pretty unassailable. And that needs to be put into the mix. Because the reason standards have swept the country so quickly is not just that business wants them, but that they're popular with voters, they're popular with parents.

So I think it's wrong to say it's only coming out of business. But it is right to say that the most important wholesale reform movement of the last generation in American public education has been imposed on educators from without, rather than having been suggested by them. And indeed many, or even most, educators are against standards, or are very lukewarm about them.

I should say, by the way, that my kids go to public school, and take these standardized tests, and I have not made any effort to absent them from this. My eighth grader just took the one that everybody's rebelling against [in New York]. So I'm not preaching something I don't practice myself.

On another level, you have some educators adopting almost a kind of business speak when they talk about standards and accountability: "setting objectives," "getting results," "the bottom line," that sort of thing. What do you think about this trend of applying a kind of "business model" to education, that the educators who are now on board are adopting almost a business-like philosophy? Does that interest you?

It doesn't blow me away, and I'll tell you why. First of all, remember, all this stuff has been going on for a really long time. Horace Mann, who is generally credited with being the father of American public education, wrote these famous annual reports when he was the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. I think the most famous is the one for 1848. The thing to remember about these reports, and about the whole subject, is that public education was not a founding principle of the United States. It was a sort of accidental invention. And so these reports of Horace Mann's are arguing for public education as a principle in a state that didn't have it, in a country that didn't have it. And what's striking is how strongly he makes the business argument. I don't think that's why he believed there should be public education, but he clearly believed, as you can tell from reading these reports, that in order to sell this idea, he had to sell it to businessmen as good for economic development in the then-underdeveloped state of Massachusetts.

So the argument has been around for a long time. The idea that there once was an ethic of public education, a firm commitment to public education, for reasons that had nothing to do with business, and now it's being taken over by businessmen -- I don't really buy that. There are definitely excesses in that direction. But, I think that argument tends to be used by the ed. school folks as a way of dismissing the whole project of standards. Yes, you hear some of that [business speak], particularly if you go to talk to the Goals 2000 people, and people like that. But it isn't as if therefore all there is to standards is an attempt to turn public education into a kind of training appendage of corporate America.

Clearly, in Texas, I think more than nationally, business has been the prime mover behind standards. But, the context there is, business runs everything in Texas more than it does nationally. I remember once, when I worked at Texas Monthly [in the early 1980s], the editor went on vacation, and he asked me to write the editor's column, which was in effect the editorial that month. So I wrote it, and I had some line like, "The highest purpose of government is to help people who are unable to help themselves." And the political writer for Texas Monthly went insane over that. It was really interesting. He came in and said, "We can't publish that. We can't publish that." And I said, "Why is that?" He said -- and this guy is a Democrat -- "Because the highest purpose of government is to help business. Everybody knows that."

Related Articles:

"Reading Between the Lines," by Stephen Metcalf
"The new education law is a victory for Bush -- and for his corporate allies." (The Nation, Jan. 28, 2002)

"Leaving Education Reform Behind," by Chester E. Finn, Jr.
"Bush will sign the bill. But there's not much good left in it." (The Weekly Standard, Jan. 14, 2002.)

"Why the Education Bill Is Likely to Fail," by Lorraine Woellert
"President Bush wanted a reform bill so badly that he may have compromised his way into a toothless one." (BusinessWeek Online, Dec. 26, 2001.)

"Long Road to Reform," by David S. Broder
"A partial account of how the landmark [education] legislation managed to survive intensive lobbying pressures and deep suspicions harbored by many in both parties, as well as a political upheaval in the Senate and the outbreak of a war on terrorism." (The Washington Post, Dec. 17, 2001.)

"How to Fix America's Schools," by William C. Symonds
"What would it take to achieve the President's goal of 'no child left behind'? A broad range of experts and educators helped us draw up seven strategies that, pursued together, would go a long way toward fixing America's schools." (BusinessWeek, March 19, 2001.)

"Hard Lessons," an interview with Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch, former Bush education adviser and author of Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000), argues for a return to academic rigor in our nation's public schools. (Atlantic Unbound, Nov. 1, 2000.)

"High Stakes Are For Tomatoes," by Peter Schrag
"Statewide testing of students, with penalties for failure, has run into opposition from parents across the political spectrum." (The Atlantic Monthly, August 2000.)

"Ready, Read!," by Nicholas Lemann
"A new solution to the problem of failing public schools is emerging: takeover by outside authorities, who prescribe a standardized field-tested curriculum. This runs counter to our long-standing tradition of autonomy for local schools and teachers, but it works." (The Atlantic Monthly, November 1998.)

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