Just as gross domestic product (GDP) growth is said to be a good measure of a president’s economic management skills, so the nation’s official report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), provides an objective indicator of the success a president has had at strengthening the American school.
According to this measure, George W. Bush beats Barack Obama by a wide margin. Overall, the annual growth rate in fourth- and eighth-grade math was twice as rapid under the Bush administration as under his successor’s. In reading, the Bush record in fourth grade is infinitely better, as no gains have been recorded under Mr. Obama’s leadership. Even in eighth-grade reading, the Obama administration can hardly be pleased with a 1-point gain over the course of two years.
A lot of education decisions get made at the local level, so it might seem unfair to hold the president accountable for student performance on NAEP tests. But both Mr. Obama and his predecessor pursued active educational agendas.
The enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a signature legislative achievement of the Bush administration. Fiscally, it approved modest increases in federal appropriations for K-12 education. The policies of the Obama administration have been almost diametrically the opposite. It used stimulus packages to double federal funding for the schools. Meanwhile, it declared NCLB to be a failed piece of legislation containing onerous and counterproductive regulations. Instead of enforcing its provisions, Mr. Obama asked states to compete for grants under a Race to the Top program and to seek waivers from NCLB enforcement by proposing acceptable alternatives.
More important, the White House “bully pulpit” was turned to quite different purposes. Mr. Bush placed school accountability high on the nation’s agenda. When NCLB was passed, school districts felt under strong moral pressure to ensure that students were learning. News outlets continuously checked to see how each local school district was doing.
But with the election of the new president, NCLB came under continuous attack, the demand for accountability was silenced, and school districts no longer felt strong pressure to show that student gains were being registered. Instead, the president used federal dollars for protecting jobs. “When I came into office and budgets were hemorrhaging at the state level,” the president said, “part of the Recovery Act was giving states help so they wouldn’t have to lay off teachers.” Almost nothing was said about using the money to make sure students continued to learn. The news media worried more about test-taking scandals in Atlanta and elsewhere than the overall progress students were making.
So whose education strategy turns out to have worked better? During the eight years of the Bush administration, the annual rate of increase in student performance in fourth- and eighth-grade math shifted upward by 50 percent over the rate prevailing during the previous six years. In fourth-grade reading, the upward change in growth rates was even steeper. Eighth-grade reading scores did not improve, but the overall Bush record was more than creditable.
The imposing math results during the Bush years are particularly significant. Because arithmetic and math are taught mainly at school, while reading skills are acquired in multiple contexts, student gains in math are more surely a product of what is happening inside the classroom.
If learning jumped forward during the eight years of the Bush administration, it nearly stalled out when the presidential baton was passed to Mr. Obama. Although NAEP data are available for just the first two years of his administration, the early returns are not pretty. Between 2009 and 2011, math scores in both fourth and eighth grade improved by only a single point. The same was true for eighth-grade reading. In fourth-grade reading, there was no improvement.
Obama defenders might attribute the recent slowdown to the overall economic situation, but if student gains are dependent on GDP growth, then the greatest gains should have been occurring in the late 1990s, not during the economic slowdown during the first years of the Bush administration. Of course, these results are only from the first two years of the Obama administration, but the early years are the ones when a presidential bully pulpit is most effective. As the Obama administration enters its campaign year, its education report card offers very few bragging rights.
Paul E. Peterson, professor of government at Harvard University, is director of its Program on Education Policy and Governance. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.