OK, you asked for it. I think Bush will be talking more and more about education, so maybe it is worth the time to go through what he did about it in Texas and then talk about conservatism and character tomorrow. It’s true, as Joe Nick says, that educational reform was underway long before Bush came to office. What he did, to his credit, was to shift the direction of the Texas Education Agency and concentrate its attention on a few clear goals. And, Joe Nick, yes, Texas schools are being held up as models along with North Carolina’s. New York and California schools are lagging behind.
Here’s Bush and education in a nutshell. Bush believes in two principles: accountability and local control. He thinks the state should set standards and see whether or not they are met. The local authorities are free to decide how to organize and run their schools as long as they meet those standards. Obviously, there is a bit of logical inconsistency here, since if the state controls the standards, the state controls the schools, but the result is that there actually is change and innovation at the local level, and there is setting and enforcement of standards at the state level, and it pretty much works.
The curriculum set by the Texas Education Agency defines what each kid should learn in each grade. Thus the standards. The tests are the way that the standards are enforced. The TEA wrote a curriculum that Bush rejected as too vague and wishy-washy. They went to work on a new set of standards. The extreme right also went to work and wrote their own set of standards. There was a big fight, and Bush prevailed. This is one of the reasons why the right in Texas hates him enough to go to Iowa and New Hampshire to try to defeat him in the primaries, and why it’s so odd to see him portrayed nationally as a captive of the religious right. In fact the curriculum is a sensible three-R’s program that, as Patti says, includes the kinds of things we want kids to know. The tests are the means of enforcing accountability. They hold the students accountable for learning and the schools accountable for teaching.
The biggest failure of the Texas schools was that the kids weren’t learning to read. By junior high they didn’t know history, geography, or much of anything else because they couldn’t read. Bush set a goal of every student in Texas reading at grade level by the third grade and continuing to read at grade level until graduation. There were speeches, workshops, training sessions, etc., and it worked. The schools began moving in the right direction with a new emphasis on reading. The idea is that in the coming years there will be similar initiatives in math and science.
It’s right that in Texas the governor has little real power, and that is especially true in education. But Bush set the agenda and put his energy and prestige behind it. It was a simple agenda—accountability, local control, reading—but that was its strength. Schools are better because of it, and poor schools are proportionately a lot better. It wasn’t just him, and they weren’t even necessarily his own ideas. But he took up the cause and made things move forward. If he takes credit for education reform here, I think he’s entitled to.