School accountability. Quality middle schools. Strong principals. Those issues were front and center in the Bush Institute’s work on education in 2014. Here’s a look back at what we said about these subjects and why these areas matter to parents, educators and taxpayers.
Education is a civil right
President George W. Bush commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by reminding an audience at the LBJ Presidential Library how education and civil rights are connected. “Through civil rights laws, we assure justice in the present,” the president observed. “Through education, we secure justice for the next generation.”
The president highlighted education gains over the last half-century, but he also warned:
“There is a growing temptation among public officials in both political parties, at the federal, state and local level, to lower expectations. But any education gains we make will eventually be undermined by lowering our sights in the classroom. Without meaningful accountability, our sights into reality will be dimmed. Without meaningful accountability, it is poor and minority children who suffer the most.”
Echoing the president, Bush Center President Margaret Spellings wrote in a Huffington Post piece about the danger for poor and minority students in lowering academic expectations. Spellings, who served as U.S. education secretary from 2005-2009, put her concerns this way:
“We really haven’t made up our collective mind that students from disadvantaged and minority families can be — and should be — educated to the highest levels. Of course, many say they want that. But recent policies suggest we aren’t serious enough about education being central to the forward march of civil rights.”
Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, explained in a Bush Institute blog essay that Hispanic parents don’t want to see a retreat from higher standards and accountability for schools. That includes any retreat from annual, independent exams, which, he says, are a clear way to measure classroom performance without paying attention to the color of a student’s skin or their ethnic background.
Bush Institute fellow Mark Dynarski wrote several blog posts debunking the conventional wisdom about annual, independent tests. In one piece Dynarski likened the argument against testing to telling a doctor to stop assessing a sick patient. He also delved into the issue about how much time testing takes away from the classroom. Actually, Dynarski wrote, research into testing requirements for third and seventh graders in 12 urban districts showed that annual state exams took only about four to 15 hours out of about 1,000 hours of instruction time each year.
Looking at Texas, Bush Institute editorial director Bill McKenzie warned in a Dallas Morning News column how a retreat in Austin from annual testing could hurt Texas students, especially poor and minority students. He also reported on the Bush blog how other countries are dead serious about annual tests. So much so that nations like Japan, England and Finland require make-or-break exams that determine their next level of schooling. In short, the stakes are much higher.
These pieces, plus others on the Bush Institute’s education blog, explained this critical point: The annual, independent exams that states offer matter because they show schools where they are succeeding and where they need to improve.
Quality Middle Schools, Strong, Trained Principals and Bush Institute Reports
Of course, testing is only a means to the larger goal of greater student achievement. Reaching that goal requires a number of fundamentals. They include having strong leaders in a district and middle schools that ensure a student is on the road to graduation once they reach high school.
The Bush Institute’s Middle School Matters initiative held two conferences this year to showcase the research that can help educators in the pivotal middle years keep their students on track toward high school graduation. Students who are behind by the time they leave middle school often are at risk of not graduating.
The year in education also included significant reports by the Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership team. They focused on how school districts can create the conditions that enable all principals to be effective.
Bush Institute reports also included a series of papers on the productivity of schools. They looked at the question: what bang do schools get for their bucks? You can read more about the papers here and here.
This year also saw the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries become part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Started in 2002, the foundation awards grants annually to school libraries across the United States. The former first lady summed up the mission this way: “Help schools in need expand their library collections so students can develop a love for reading.”
So, another blockbuster year in education at the Bush Institute. Stay tuned for more in 2015, as we advance accountability, quality middle schools and strong campus leadership.