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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON Testing Limits Can the President's education crusade survive Beltway politics?   />by Nicholas Lemann
Nicholas Lemann is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and the author, most recently, of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999). He was the national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly from 1983 to 1998, and from 1981 to 1983 he was the executive editor of Texas Monthly. This article is reprinted from the July 2, 2001, issue of The New Yorker.

The New Yorker - July 2, 2001

Sandy Kress is on temporary assignment as the White House's chief lobbyist on education. He's really a lawyer in Austin, and since Inauguration Day he has been spending weeks in Washington and weekends back home. One weekend, he rummaged around in his desk and found a notebook he'd bought in the summer of 1999, which he brought to Washington to show me. It is a flimsy little drugstore notebook, green, maybe four by six inches. Inside, Kress had written, two years ago, "A Draft Position for George W. Bush on K-12 Education," and, under that legend, a mad scrawl fills the whole book.

"Unhappily, after spending billions and billions of dollars on education, the federal government has made virtually no meaningful difference in helping educate our children," Kress wrote. "As a result of this cynical, shameful, and wasteful behavior, other politicians have decided that there should be no federal role in education at all." This was going to change when Bush became President: "Our citizenry, which regularly says that education is the nation's most important cause, needs to understand the sharp contrast between Governor Bush's vigor and the utter sloppiness of the keepers of the status quo."

The Bush campaign, at least in the inner circle, had the feeling of a crusade. Part of it was restorationist sentiment, and part was Texas chauvinism and a concomitant dislike of Eastern liberals -- but, to the extent that the crusade was about a specific government policy, it was education reform. In 1999, Bush people talked about tax cuts a bit dutifully, but they talked about education with real passion. Governor Bush's proudest accomplishment, by far, was education reform. It was the one area where he showed a Clinton-style proclivity to discuss the details of programs, and the best example of his ability to govern in a bipartisan way. Sandy Kress, a former president of the Dallas School Board and one of the architects of the Texas education reforms, is a Democrat, but he and Bush had been working together successfully for years.

As President, Bush would take the Texas reforms national, and so actually accomplish something, instead of shillyshallying around, the way the last few Presidents had (including his father, who declared himself the "education President" but didn't pass any major legislation). Kress wrote in the notebook "No magic bullets. No press events every three or four months to announce a few new federal education programs to show he 'cares' about education. No 'accountability proposals' without accountability. Just an experienced, steady, capable, and ongoing effort to match the quality and, even more, the effectiveness of the federal effort to the noble cause it serves."

In a little over a month, Congress will go on its August recess, which means that the part of a new Presidency in which it is easiest to make dramatic changes will be over. During his opening run, Bush will have passed two major initiatives, the tax cut and education reform. The tax cut, in a sense, is a negative achievement: a diminution in government revenues that will lead to a diminution in government action. The education bill is affirmative. It will directly affect the lives of tens of millions of people -- soon. Especially now that the Republicans have lost their Senate majority, education is likely to be the first and the last of the big Bush programs.

Sandy Kress's notebook lays out the essentials of the Texas education reform. The state adopted standards -- sets of basic knowledge and skills that all students in public school are supposed to master -- and then wrote tests based on those standards. Students in most grades were tested every year. The material on the tests fell well within the bounds of basic, non-tricky stuff that you'd want your kids to know. (For example, a question on a fifth-grade math test shows a rectangular flag, gives the measurements of the sides, and asks what the perimeter is.) The scores were published, and sent to parents, and used to rate the performance of schools. What's more, every school was rated not just on the performance of its student body as a whole but also on the performance of its African-American and Latino and poor students specifically. ("Disaggregation' is the jargon for this.) If a school didn't raise the test scores of its black students, it was put into receivership: new curriculum, new teachers, new principal. To protect itself from the temptation of writing meaningless tests that everybody would pass, Texas also used an independent national test as a benchmark. And, sure enough, since the system was put in place, the performance of Texas students, including minority students, has risen steadily, on both the state tests and, in most subjects, on the national one, too. This was what lay behind Bush's education slogans, the promise to "leave no child behind" and to eschew "the soft bigotry of low expectations." (It's also what gave substance to his broader slogan, "compassionate conservatism.") Unlike previous Presidents, he would deliver a real education for the worst-off American kids.

Education was the issue that made Bush President. The movement for educational standards has been a growing force in American politics for the better part of two decades. The standards movement started in the South and wound up propelling several Southern governors, including Bill Clinton and Bush, into national politics. (Bush was not the first standards-embracing governor of Texas; the basic system was enacted under his Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards.) The South, as America's Third World, was the first part of the country to realize that economic development requires better public schools. But by the end of the century, just about every state's governor had come around, and had launched a standards program. The politics of the standards movement are especially propitious for Republicans, because at least some of their interest groups are much more enthusiastic about it than the Democrats' interest groups are. Businesses see educational standards as a way to insure a supply of better workers. Teachers' unions and minority organizations worry that all the new tests (tests are an inevitable part of every standards regime) will be used to declare black and brown kids, and their teachers, to be subpar. So standards present Republicans with an opportunity to steal middle-class suburban voters -- who overwhelmingly send their kids to public school and who think of a good education as the best way to guarantee their economic future -- from the Democrats.

Standards were also a way for Bush to promote the Republican view of life, in which discipline and toughness produce better results than misty-eyed understanding. Liberals always accuse conservatives of being uncaring; Bush was saying, in effect, I'll show you who's uncaring: liberals think they're giving poor kids a progressive education and protecting them from the harsh negative judgment of standardized tests, but they're actually consigning them to poverty by sending them out into the world not knowing how to read or figure. Much of what deep-seated pain and cynicism there is in American life comes from the persistence of low academic performance by minority students, despite decades of efforts to do something about it. Bush would claim that Texas was working on a solution to the problem.

During the Presidential campaign, Al Gore usually spoke about education in a strained, careful voice, obviously trying to find a way to support standards without alienating his constituency. One of Bush's cleanest scores in the debates came when he said, repeatedly, that he was going to test students every year in reading and math, and Gore didn't say whether he thought that was a good idea. In the early stages of the Presidential campaign, I watched Gore, in Dallas, make a speech on education to a group of African-American mayors, in which he tried, without much evident conviction, to cast Bush's record on education in a bad light. Sandy Kress was there to run an after-the-speech spin room for the Bush campaign, which entailed publicly opposing the Presidential candidate of his own party. The intense loyalty of Bush's close aides can be startling -- is there something there that they see and we don't, or do we see Bush more clearly from a distance than they do up close? In one of my conversations with Kress, when he was talking about an early Bush maneuver on behalf of the bill -- nothing terribly unusual, just chatting up some members of Congress -- a wave of emotion came over him and, with a murmured apology, he started to cry.

With the fervor of true believers, Kress and his partner in the White House, Margaret La Montagne, the head of domestic policy and formerly Bush's education adviser in Austin, wanted two things: education reform on the Texas model and a big win for their boss. They've got the big win -- the most significant piece of federal education legislation since at least 1965. But whether they've also achieved education reform of the kind they got in Texas is not at all certain. A great deal depends on what Bush does this month, when nobody's looking.

On the day after the House of Representatives passed the education bill, by a vote of 384 to 45, I went to see George Miller, of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Having spent half a year covering the Bush Administration, I found it jarring to enter what was obviously the lair of a liberal. There were no portraits of Friedrich von Hayek or Winston Churchill on the walls; instead, there were books by Jonathan Kozol, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Randall Robinson, posters commemorating the Mondale-Ferraro campaign and the struggle against the Contras, an old summer-camp bunk pressed into service as a coffee table. Miller is a big, muscular guy with a bristly white mustache. He was wearing a tie but no jacket, and his sleeves were rolled up to reveal giant forearms. He looked like the high-school history teacher who also coached the football team, and then got promoted to principal.

Several years ago, Miller went into what he calls "a slow burn" about educational standards and began pushing them in the House, with no success. He thought Bill Clinton had lost his old gubernatorial fire on standards during his Presidency, as he came to rely more heavily on the support of the traditional Democratic interest-groups. In 1994, Miller proposed an amendment to an education bill that would have required teachers to have been certified in the subject they teach. It failed by a vote of 424 to 1, and Miller's office had to shut down its switchboard for three days; an orchestrated political telemarketing campaign by homeschoolers had flooded it with calls. In 1999, Miller wrote a bill proposing a major federal standards-and-teacher-quality program, but it never became law.

Last December, Bush held a meeting on education at the Texas governor's mansion, in Austin. "The New York Times asked somebody how come I wasn't invited," Miller told me. "So I got invited. It was a lunch. Everybody spoke about what they thought was possible. I spoke at the end. I said, 'I've been at this for twenty-six years. I went to Washington at twenty-nine.' Bush said, 'Hell, you should have met me at twenty-nine!' I said there's a reason for the federal role in education: to equalize the funding. You have to put in more money. You can't do it without money.

"We hit it off. We hit it off very well. We sat next to each other. He has" -- Miller chuckled helplessly -- "a very relaxed manner. I was sitting next to him, and he was giving me a running commentary on what people were saying." By the end of the meeting, Miller had acquired his official George W. Bush nickname, Big George, and Bush had acquired an important ally.

Around this point in our conversation, the phone in Miller's office beeped. Miller's press secretary picked it up. "The President is on the phone," he said. Miller went into a small anteroom to take the call. Through the closed door, I could hear, periodically, his low, rumbling chuckle. After a few minutes, he came out with a big smile on his face. "Well!" he said. "He was nice enough to congratulate us for a good job."

Bush's relationship with Miller is a relatively rare example of a way of operating that was supposed to characterize his Presidency. He'd reach out to Democrats, he'd give them responsibility and credit, he'd compromise. Miller and the Republican chairman of his committee, John Boehner, of Ohio, were remarkably effective in steering the education bill through the House. Boehner had to defy the sentiment of his own party in dropping a provision that would have created federal education vouchers; Miller had to go against his party in keeping the feature that was most important to Bush, yearly testing. Still, they got the bill passed by a huge margin.

The Senate was trickier. In a departure from the usual protocol, the White House did not treat the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, James Jeffords, of Vermont, as the person in charge of the bill; his switching parties surely has something to do with the fact that he was not given control over the most important piece of legislation ever to move through the committee during his tenure as chairman. Instead, the White House treated a whole bunch of senators -- including Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts; Judd Gregg, of New Hampshire; Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut; and Evan Bayh, of Indiana -- as quasi-managers of the bill, with the result that all of them are bursting with parental pride, in amounts totalling more than a hundred per cent, and that the bill didn't move along as quickly as it had in the House.

The last thing the White House wanted was a long, slow period of national debate in which the many interest groups involved in education could marshal lobbying campaigns. That was what had killed the equivalent initiative in the Clinton Administration, health-care reform. On the education bill, neither the House nor the Senate even held hearings. Still, in early spring, criticism of the bill began to appear, and to hold things up in the Senate. The most significant opposition from the White House's perspective came from a group of Republican governors led by John Engler, of Michigan, who were worried that the bill would declare too many of the schools in their states to be falling below standards, and that they would be blamed for it.

As originally written, the bill would be brutal on schools that had low test scores. Every school would have just ten years to bring up to standards every subgroup, and the federal government would begin to require corrective action -- new curriculum, new staff -- after three years if it didn't. (Texas law stipulates that students with unacceptably low scores not get promoted or graduate; in the federal bill, there are no consequences of bad scores for students, only for schools.) I went to see Engler not long ago, during one of his visits to Washington. "I think there will be tremendous pressure on schools," he told me. "The bill said, All right, if only fifty per cent can do math, in ten years it has to be a hundred per cent. That's five per cent better a year. If it was only twenty per cent who could do math, then they'd have to gain eight per cent a year. These are rates of annual progress heretofore unknown. Two things happen. One, you dumb the test down. Two, every school, even good schools, gets labelled non-performing. So when this language emerged, drafted by the gnomes in the Congressional Research Service, or wherever they are, we said, 'Folks, we're not happy with what you've written."' Engler's cause got a boost when Jeffords's staff director, Mark Powden, distributed a series of charts showing that the overwhelming majority of schools in several states -- including Bush's home state, Texas, and Lieberman's home state, Connecticut -- would be labelled low-performing under the bill.

Here is an odd thing about Washington. The education bill is hardly an arcane piece of legislation, like revisions in the capital-equipment-depreciation schedules or intercontinental-ballistic missile basing. Ninety per cent of the schoolchildren in America are going to take the tests it requires. And yet, when it comes down to the crucial point in the negotiations, the community of people who know and care about what's going on with a bill like this is quite small -- intimate, really. That's because Washington's master narrative -- what gets talked about at parties and on television public-affairs shows -- has to be kept simpler than any bill of this importance can ever be. To the extent that there was public discussion of the education bill outside the trade press, it was mainly about whether vouchers would be a part of it. The cognoscenti knew that vouchers had been dead from the beginning. Bush didn't push hard for them when he was governor of Texas, and he hinted broadly as early as the post-election meeting in Austin, and several times thereafter, that they were a weak preference for him. What he cared about, what the bill had to have, was testing for every student every year. Nonetheless, "Will there be vouchers?" was the official Washington question about the bill through the winter and spring.

Part of the fun of belonging to the cognoscenti is knowing what the real drama is. In late April and early May, the education insiders knew that the White House was getting hammered by the governors on the "A.Y.P. formula" (A.Y.P. stands for "adequate yearly progress"), and that was what everybody was E-mailing and voice-mailing everybody else about. One Saturday afternoon, word spread instantaneously within this group (while the world slumbered on): Sandy Kress had just rewritten the A.Y.P. formula.

Kress softened the strict Texas-style requirement -- which sailed right through the House -- that schools would be judged not on their over-all performance but on the progress made by each individual subgroup, including poor and black and Latino students. As the bill was originally written, if you taught your white kids algebra successfully but not your Mexican-American kids, the government would come and get you. What Kress did was to create a new measure of adequate yearly progress, in which every group would have to advance one per cent a year, but the over-all progress of the school would be gauged by a new statistic that would blend the groups' results into a single number. He retreated, in other words, from the majestic moral simplicity of the Texas system.

The Senate began to debate the bill. Then, a few weeks later, word spread again: at a meeting with groups that had been suspicious of the bill, such as the teachers' unions, Kress and the participants had mused together over the possibility of softening the A.Y.P. formula even further. He even discussed the idea of using a non-race-specific requirement that every school raise the performance of the bottom quarter of its students every year, and dropping the directive that all students be proficient by a particular date. In that case, "the soft bigotry of low expectations," to the extent that the phrase is meant to have a racial connotation, would live to see another day.

I asked Kress about all this, and it was clear that he'd got caught up in the classic reformer's dilemma of trying to find a position that was neither so workable as to be impure nor so pure as to be unworkable. It sounded as if he was no longer at all comfortable with the House version of the bill, but he called the language he'd written into the Senate bill "Rube Goldbergesque," and didn't seem comfortable with that, either. He was trying to find a way to make sure that the law would label only a small percentage of schools non-performing. "I worry about these arbitrary systems," he said. "If we create a system where some schools are very likely to fail, what teachers will go there? What principals? What about a school that's at forty per cent of proficiency and has to gain six per cent a year? Do you go there? You might say, 'I can get three per cent a year.' We reward those schools! To say that we're going to call it a failure if you fail for African-American kids for one year, that we're going to put a big ol' badge on you -- we just don't think that's the right way to go."

Kress did, however, vigorously insist that the White House will push as hard as it can for a law that requires progress by every subgroup every year, rather than one that allows schools to hide the low performance of their poor and minority students behind over-all averages. "We will not -- we have been blood-committed to disaggregated data," he said. "Not only producing it, but using it. That's at the core of the President's views -- lift all groups above the bar. We're never backing off of that. We will never side with a proposal that allows ranking based on how the whole student body is doing." So his marker is down.

The education bill now goes to conference, where the differences between the versions the House and the Senate passed will be resolved. Then both houses will pass identical versions and Bush will sign it into law. At the moment, two things are certain: Bush will have passed an important bill, and there will be a lot of new, federally required testing of American schoolchildren. (The commercial test-publishing industry, which will be called upon to produce many of these tests, is the one indisputable winner the bill has produced thus far.) Whatever else it accomplishes, the bill will be significant for substantially increasing federal control over what has long been the developed world's most localized education system.

So far, though, headlines about the bill, when they appear at all, tend to be along the lines of "HOUSE PASSES MAJOR OVERHAUL OF SCHOOLS." As soon as people figure out what the bill does, there will be caterwauling throughout the land. Teachers and principals will complain about having to submit their students to torturous drills, instead of true learning, to bring their scores up. Poor and minority districts will get the lowest scores and will complain that they're being anathematized. Rich districts will complain that teachers are "teaching to the test," that their children's education is being dumbed down. All of this has been going on at the state level ever since the standards movement got rolling, and now it will go on nationally.

But Bush is right that you can't figure out whether schools are doing a good job unless you have some way of measuring how much their students are learning. Go on the Web and read a Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test -- are you really comfortable with kids' not knowing that material? Even in adequately funded schools with small class sizes, it isn't safe to assume, with no proof, that the students are learning. A guarantee by the national government of a decent education for every child is a noble cause, and so is the idea that all Americans will acquire a common body of skills and knowledge as they come of age. (Memo to Scarsdale, New York, where parents have been boycotting state tests: Your kids should learn that stuff, too, after which they can go back to being little geniuses.) Bush isn't inclined to put these tasks directly into the hands of the federal government, and even if he were it would be politically impossible right now. He has to rely on states and local districts, which have an immense capacity for screwing up. That is why the guidelines the federal government gives them now are so important.

How will Bush's education bill turn out? There are a number of ways it could turn out badly. The states could be free to give local districts so much latitude to pick tests that it would be impossible to tell whether students are really learning. Instead of a single trustworthy national benchmark to check against the use of junk tests, there could be several different benchmarks. Instead of using tests that measure mastery of curriculum, schools could choose vaguer, "norm-referenced" tests that rate students in comparison with other students rather than on how much they know. (These tests, when they are made consequential, lead to a great deal of non-curricular test-prepping.) The Administration could fail to commit enough money to pay for good tests, and to make the worst schools better. The adequate-yearly-progress formula could get so watered down that genuinely low-performing schools wouldn't be identified as such. Schools could duck the obligation to improve the education of their poor and minority students by hiding their performance beneath averages. And the list of pitfalls goes on. A national tidal wave of lousy tests, sloppily administered and scored, could lead to a wholesale revolt against educational standards, and a return to the old business of the liberals wanting more money and the conservatives wanting vouchers.

Much of this will be settled in conference, and how it will be settled will depend on what the President pushes for and how hard. The whole world will not be watching. The whole world will be too confused to follow the action.

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. I asked Margaret La Montagne if she would have taken the job of chief of domestic policy in the White House, which has entailed spending weeks away from her children for nearly half a year, if Bush had told her that he wasn't going to push for the education bill. "Probably not," she said. "It's what I came here to do. It's what he came here to do." If Bush came to Washington to put the Texas-standards system into place, he has not yet done so, because of the weakening of the bill in Congress. But he will have another chance this month in the conference.

During my meeting with George Miller, once he had come down from the high of his Presidential phone call, we got onto the subject of the conference, and he sounded worried. "It's already starting to slide away," he said. "A lot of the governors -- well, nobody really wants to be accountable. It's select-a-test. Kabosh, kaboo, kabee -- it's like talking to the fucking Marx Brothers! It's up to the President of the United States. He's the only one who can rescue it now."

I asked Miller if he'd told Bush that. "Have I told him? No. Will I? Yes. It's his friends the governors who are leading the charge. You either have a tight system or a loose system, which works really harshly against poor and minority students. Averages, composites -- how can you ever figure out what's going on? It's the euphemisms that kill you in this business. Language is crucial. Words become important. What side Bush comes down on will determine the outcome. And so far we don't know how he comes down." Miller shook his head. "The President has a lot at risk. If it comes out squishy, it'll become apparent."

What if it comes out squishy and nobody notices, I asked. "Oh, I'll notice," he said. "You have a Republican President coming to Washington, saying, 'I want to target the poorest schools and get measurable results.' For it to work out now, he cannot go squishy. That's the trap Bill Clinton fell into. You either repeat history or you change history."

Related Features:

The President's Big Test
Nicholas Lemann, in a web-exclusive interview with FRONTLINE, talks about the outcome of President Bush's education bill, the real winners and losers, and what Bush achieved in his first major legislative victory.

Overview: The New Rules
A brief summary of the testing and accountability provisions of the education-reform bill signed by President Bush on Jan. 8, 2002.

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.

Links:

The 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.

"Testing Limits," by Nicholas Lemann. Originally published in The New Yorker, July 2, 2001. © 2001 by Nicholas Lemann. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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