For years, nothing helped. America’s children weren’t reading as well as they should. Black and Latino students trailed behind their white counterparts in reading and math. Educators and politicians agreed something must be done, but they made halting progress. Until now.
This month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress — also known as the national report card — released good news on long-term educational trends in America. Reading competency for 9-year-olds has reached its highest level since NAEP began measuring progress in 1971.
And the ethnic achievement gap is narrowing. The gap between black and white 9-year-olds tested for reading was 44 points in 1971 to 26 points in 2004. The gap between white and Latino students narrowed from 34 points in 1975 to 21 points in 2004. Half the gap-narrowing has occurred since 1999.
Of course, educrats are scrambling to make sure no credit goes to President Bush or his No Child Left Behind program. An American Federation of Teachers statement noted that efforts leading to the higher scores predate the Bush presidency.
The AFT is right. The reforms that boosted scores predate the Bush presidency. But as governor of Texas, Mr. Bush had the good sense to jump on the right horse. He believed in pushing basic literacy, even if he wasn’t as strong on phonics as I would have liked. He urged better testing to hold failing schools accountable. That paid off. When Mr. Bush was governor, black eighth-graders in Texas led the country in math and reading.
While Mr. Bush was on the right horse, some teacher groups and top educrats were leading a stampede of bad horses, carrying American children headlong toward ignorance. They eschewed phonics, dispensed with multiplication tables, denounced testing — unless it gave credit for wrong math answers with clever essays — and preferred failed bilingual education to English immersion for children learning English.
Look at any reform that has boosted student performance — phonics, direct instruction, English immersion — and the chances are, the educrats opposed it.
When parents revolted against whole language — which teaches children to read language as a whole, without teaching them to decode words — the educrats argued against a return to phonics, which they dismissed as “drill and kill.”
When reformers pushed for tests that could show which curricula worked best, educrats denounced testing. If children steeped in phonics scored well on reading tests, they were not impressed — it was because the children were brainwashed, not literate. And if whole-language learners scored poorly, well, it was because they were so creative.
When George Bush and company demanded accountability, educrats complained that standards would hurt poor children — as if undereducating poor and minority students didn’t.
The educrat lobby in California opposed the switch from bilingual education to English immersion. Fortunately, California voters had a chance to switch to English immersion. Now more immigrant children have mastered English.
Over time, classroom teachers have seen their students make progress. Many have come to see the wisdom in emphasizing phonics. It may be boring for teachers, but it helps kids learn to read better.
Mr. Bush packaged his approach under his promise to fight “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” For years, educators blamed parents, demographics, money — you name it — for poor student performance.
Mr. Bush didn’t want to hear the excuses — and his Texas swagger paid off. As Hoover Institution fellow and sometime Bush adviser Bill Evers noted, “There’s no doubt that high expectations and trying to hold the system accountable from top to the bottom is having an overall positive effect.”
And so the educrats are left with weak criticisms. They complain that No Child Left Behind is underfunded — even as Mr. Bush budgets money for the Education Department. They argue students have no motivation to apply themselves when they take tests, and still the NAEP numbers are up. They note NAEP high-school scores are flat without acknowledging they opposed reforms that are helping more 9-year-olds read.
Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.