President Bush's revamped second-term education agenda came into sharper focus on Tuesday night: improve math and science achievement, quoth he. This quest, however, while well intended and much needed, is likely to be impeded by the chief legacy of the President's own first-term education agenda: the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
The U.S. math/science crisis is the source of well-warranted anxiety about our economic competitiveness in a "flattening" and globalized world, and stems from two related problems. Too few young Americans are prepared for - and actually take - advanced courses in high school and college; and too few of their teachers have mastered these subjects themselves.
No Child Left Behind made some headway on these fronts, first by demanding explicit academic standards and an end to the "soft bigotry of low expectations," and second, by insisting upon a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom. It has yielded some important successes. Our public schools and those who run them are focused as never before on narrowing the stubborn achievement gaps between black and white, and rich and poor. States have also tightened their requirements for teachers, requiring them to demonstrate subject-matter knowledge before entering the classroom. These reforms are starting to pay off; the latest National Assessment results show reading and math scores edging up for low-income, African-American, and Hispanic fourth graders.
But NCLB has also yielded some troublesome results. Because it judges schools solely by students' prowess in reading and math, other subjects - including science - are being ignored. And because it focuses laser-like on children scoring below the "proficient" level, it tempts schools to ignore higher-achieving students - abetting an inexcusable waste of human potential.
NCLB also creates perverse incentives for states to set low standards and dumbed-down tests, which is happening. In a review of state math standards that the Fordham Foundation published last year, for example, a panel of mathematicians found that only six states had standards that were clear, coherent, and relatively rigorous. Of these, just three - California, Massachusetts, and New Mexico - set passing scores on their eighth grade math tests anywhere near the "gold standard" of proficiency as determined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That leaves 47 states with weak math standards, low passing scores, or both.
These flaws in NCLB undermine the President's big new idea, training an additional 70,000 teachers to lead Advanced Placement courses in high-poverty high schools. It's a swell objective. But if low-income students never learn basic science in elementary or middle school, and if nobody gets challenged in math beyond a middling notion of "proficiency," how can they succeed in rigorous A.P. classes in high school?
The President's answer is another federal program, a small one, called "Math Now," designed to boost the rigor of math courses in grades K-8. But so long as schools' accountability is pegged to low levels of achievement, these other efforts will be mainly symbolic. Incentives work - and the vast majority of schools will continue to teach precisely what is needed to pass the tests that actually count.
What about the critical shortage of qualified math and science teachers? (A shortage created largely by the unions' ignoring the law of supply and demand and insisting that physics teachers be paid the same as phys ed teachers and math instructors the same as music teachers.) Here, the White House offers a constructive proposal that explicitly maneuvers around an NCLB-created obstacle. Bush's "adjunct teacher corps" would encourage 30,000 math and science professionals to become high school teachers, at least part time, at least for a while. Importantly, these individuals would not be subject to NCLB's own "highly qualified teachers" requirements, including the mandate that such instructors be "fully certified." This exemption will keep math/science experts from having to return for meaningless ed-school degrees (or slog through those same courses at night in the name of some "alternative certification" program). But why not just fix the NCLB law itself?
None of these challenges is insurmountable. NCLB is up for renewal next year; with active leadership from the White House, its essential elements could be preserved while its glitches get fixed. Congress could add science to the accountability equation; judge schools by the learning gains of all their students, not just those at the bottom; and open the door to "highly qualified teachers" who never set foot in a school of education. It could even create national standards and tests in math and science, rather than leaving these essential pieces to the whims of fifty states.
Add those reforms to the president's new proposals - which dovetail with a bipartisan reform agenda already spearheaded by senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Bingaman - and we'd have a powerful formula for math and science success in the 21st century. Alternatively, we can keep tinkering and grumping and hoping that the education systems of our economic competitors remain similarly stagnant. (Don't bet on it.) The choice is ours.