State of the Union: What’s the State of Education?

Deciphering the spin — what it means for the classroom.

February 26, 2007

In his State of the Union address this week, President Bush outlined specific proposals for energy independence, health care, and the war in Iraq. His message on public education? Light on detail. In fact, Bush spent less than two minutes of his forty-nine-minute speech on education initiatives -- without elaborating on any specific plans.

No need to fret, though, say education advocates who believe that the paucity of specific initiatives is business as usual when it comes to the president's annual address. The speech is just a speech, they add, a first step in a complex dance that will ensue between the Bush administration and Congress over the specifics of laws and funding for education.

More telling than the words Bush delivered on camera Tuesday night is a slate of proposals for school improvement the White House released the same day. More definitive still, say analysts, will be what's in the federal spending plan Bush unveils next week.

"The budget's going to say so much about what the president really wants to do," says Jamie Fasteau, director of policy development at the Alliance for Excellent Education, which pushes for high school improvement. The budget will also demonstrate "if he's really willing to make the funding commitment that's going to be necessary to reauthorize No Child Left Behind," she adds. "We're happy that he's talking about high schools, but at this point we don't have a lot of information about what that really means."

In the speech, Bush called on Congress to renew NCLB, which expires this year, without "watering down standards" or taking control from local leaders. He also suggested boosting funds for struggling students and strengthening math and science education to ensure that the United States remains competitive in a global economy.

On paper, those vague goals enunciated in the crowded House chamber translate into specific White House proposals: The Department of Education announced its goal, pending congressional approval, to require annual science tests that all students must pass by 2020. It also seeks to raise awareness among parents of opportunities for their children to receive tutoring or switch schools, and to offer scholarships (critics call them vouchers) for students in failing schools to attend private schools.

In addition, the DOE proposes an expansion of the Striving Readers Program for adolescent literacy, boosting of Title I funds for high schools, and allowing states to judge schools by measuring individual students' growth instead of comparing groups from year to year.

At least some of these ideas gave education groups reason to feel (cautiously) hopeful. At the Alliance for Excellent Education, Jamie Fasteau celebrates Bush's proposals to help high schools, which she says have long been second to elementary schools in receiving federal money and attention. Jodi Peterson, director of legislative affairs at the National Science Teachers Association, says holding schools accountable for students' science achievement would give teeth to all the talk about the importance of science. However, she adds that her group would like to see the National Science Foundation given a bigger role in bolstering science education than Bush has proposed.

Other teacher groups have clamored for months to allow schools to be judged on individual students' progress, though John See, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), cautions that it's unclear, so far, exactly what model Bush has in mind.

Still, as See points out, it's hard to get excited or dismayed about much now, when it's unknown which of Bush's proposals will become law and which will be quickly forgotten. To hear Representative George Miller, a high-ranking California Democrat, tell it, some of the proposals -- such as vouchers -- are dead in the water. "I don't think that's going to sail in this Congress," says Miller, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Miller does believe, however, that the Democrat-controlled Congress has more in common with Bush on education than people might think -- for one thing, they share a deep belief in the importance of renewing NCLB. He says their differing plans are likely to converge around using the individual-student-growth model, bolstering professional development for teachers, and emphasizing math and science.

"Right now, we may be thinking of different ways to get there," Miller says, "but I think at the end of the day, we'll be relatively close."

Whatever Congress and the White House ultimately do, the AFT's John See says it won't accomplish much without a major overhaul of the education law's one-size-fits-all measurement system, in which terrible schools are lumped together with those where students enter with disadvantages and make great progress, but not enough to hit the mark. See says, "That's a fundamental flaw in this law, and until that's fixed, we're working around the edges."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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