Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2001 / 7 Shevat, 5761
Education reform will affect the entire country. But Bush's target, and that of many others, is obviously the central cities: His goal is to "leave no child behind," and in so many inner-city schools almost every child is left behind. It need not be so. In the 1990s, central cities improved in ways long thought impossible. As Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio argue in their recent Comeback Cities, "Cities can be–and increasingly are being–made more livable, more attractive to businesses and investors, and more inviting to people of various levels of income."
What's been happening? Community development groups have built and renovated housing, formed block watches, and recruited businesses. Retailers have discovered that money can be made in low-income central cities just as Wal-Mart discovered that money can be made in low-income small towns. Lenders have discovered that extending credit can pay in core cities as well as in suburbs. The enormous drop in crime has made life more pleasant and has increased the value of housing and commercial real estate in what are now low-crime neighborhoods. Welfare reform and demolition of housing projects are replacing pathologies caused by well-meaning federal programs with incentives to healthy behaviors. There remains one "final frontier of inner-city revitalization," Grogan and Proscio say: Education. "All the other incipient positive trends will fall short of their potential if city schools continue to push huge numbers of working- and middle-class families out of the city."
Shift in thinking. Enter the Bush education bill. It is a profound change from federal policy since the first aid-to-education act in 1965. In the last major revision, in 1994, Democrats heading House and Senate committees retained the bill's multiple micromanaging programs and passed what they called "opportunity-to-learn standards"–in fact, just a label for pumping more money into the system. Anyone voting "No" was labeled antieducation.
The old bill measured inputs; Bush would measure outputs, by requiring that states test students annually and that consequences follow when students fail to meet standards. This is not new. Most of the states have required tests and have adopted standards of some sort, though as Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has shown, those standards are often laughably low and even then some parents are demanding they be lowered. Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Evan Bayh have sponsored a similar bill that doesn't include Bush's provision granting vouchers to parents of children in schools that have been failing for three years. Seven years ago, Democrats refused to hold schools accountable and sparked no lively political argument. This year, there is no lively political argument against Bush's and others' determination to hold schools accountable. Polite comments came even from Sen. Edward Kennedy, who went so far as to join Bush at an inner-city Washington school last Thursday.
This is just another instance of the public sector catching up with changes in the private sector. As Diane Ravitch points out in her recent book Left Back, since the days of John Dewey at Columbia Teachers College in the 1920s, American education schools have unleashed "unrelenting attacks on the academic mission of the schools." They hate memorization, testing, and accountability, and want to produce self-esteem. They created a system in which no one–principals, teachers, students–is held accountable. This came as the larger society was moving in the same direction. Buffeted by Depression and war, and then underwritten by postwar prosperity, America became a country in which big government, big business, and big labor micromanaged employees and promised security in return.
Today, the larger society is changing again. Sluggish big-government programs, like welfare, are reformed. Sluggish big business can no longer guarantee security, and growth comes from a more supple, creative private sector. CEOs and workers are held accountable by the market. Public school systems and teachers unions for years insulated themselves and their students from accountability. But there is increasing dissatisfaction with their performance. Americans scrambling to meet standards can't understand why teachers and students shouldn't do so too.
The biggest impact will be felt in the places where the schools have performed the poorest: the central cities. George W. Bush's insistence that every child can learn strikes squarely at the fatalism that has infected the central cities–an infection that, Comeback Cities teaches, is mostly on the wane. There was never any reason central cities had to have abandoned neighborhoods, empty storefronts, high crime rates, dangerous housing projects, and mothers demoralized by welfare. Now, Bush is proclaiming, they don't have to have bad schools
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