Bush urges law on education be maintained
No Child Left Behind has helped, he says
WASHINGTON - President Bush urged President-elect Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress not to abandon the No Child Left Behind law, arguing that do so would "weaken a chance for a child to succeed in America."
"Now is not the time to water down standards or to roll back accountability," Bush said, his message aimed at his successor and at lawmakers who want to overhaul Bush's signature education law.
The president marked the seventh anniversary of No Child Left Behind yesterday with remarks at General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia. It was his final policy address as president.
Beforehand, he and first lady Laura Bush visited a second-grade classroom where children presented him with a flower bouquet and asked questions about his new home in Texas and about the number of bathrooms in the White House.
No Child Left Behind remains one of Bush's top domestic achievements, and he considers it vital to his legacy. Approved with strong bipartisan support in 2001, the school accountability law still has support from key Democrats, but it has grown deeply unpopular, and Obama has pledged to revamp it.
Bush said those who control its fate should "stay strong in the face of criticism."
"Because in weakening the law, you weaken a chance for a child to succeed in America," he said.
The law prods schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014.
Critics say the law's annual reading and math tests have forced other subjects like music and art from the classroom and that schools were promised billions of dollars that never showed up.
And they say the law is too punitive toward struggling schools; nearly 36 percent of schools failed to meet yearly progress goals in 2008, according to the Education Week newspaper.
That means millions of children are still a long way from reaching the law's ambitious goals.
Undeterred, Bush said the country will "absolutely" meet the goals. He spoke most strongly about keeping the law's testing requirements, and he dismissed the idea that teachers are forced to "teach to the test" at the expense of true learning.
His education secretary, Margaret Spellings, issued a report yesterday citing record test scores in several areas and gains across the board.
"No Child Left Behind is working for all kinds of students in all kinds of schools in every part of the country," Bush declared. "That is a fact."
In fact, students generally have made modest gains in reading and math under the law. And the high school dropout rate, a dismal one in four children, has not budged.
However, achievement gains were bigger among lower-achieving students, most of them minority children, who now are getting unprecedented attention.
"That's not an accident," Spellings said in a recent interview. "It is because for the last eight years, we have forced a focus around poor and minority kids."
Spellings said she had mixed feelings about No Child Left Behind as the administration comes to an end.
"I'm really of two minds; on the one hand, I feel like No Child Left Behind has been a historic, game-changing endeavor," she said.
"However, now we have adequately framed the problem, which is, we're in a world of hurt. And we've got to be much more committed and pick up the pace if we're going to close the achievement gap," Spellings said.
Spellings joined Bush in Philadelphia for the anniversary.
The occasion prompted a scuffle with critics of No Child Left Behind.
"No Child Left Behind is firmly cemented as President Bush's failed education experiment," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's biggest teachers' union.
Obama has pledged to overhaul the No Child Left Behind, although he has been vague about how far he would go. .