The federal law he championed has been replaced by a measure touted as more flexible and fairer to schools, but former President George W. Bush sees clear reasons to stand up for the No Child Left Behind Act.
In an appearance here Monday at a conference of education business officials, the nation’s 43rd president defended the law he signed in 2002, which became a polarizing symbol of the testing-and-accountability era.
“For the first time, in return for money, people had to show results. I view it as one of the great pieces of civil rights legislation,” Bush said at the ASU/GSV Summit, which is playing out here over the next three days.
Previously, states and schools could skate by on middling student achievement and faced no consequences for not delivering results, Bush said.
“Finally, someone came along and said, ‘measure it,’” Bush said. “People said it’s unfair to teachers, or there’s no role for government in education like that…and my answer was, first of all, it’s fair to kids. And second, if we spend money, damn right we want to know if it’s working.”
Bush gave the keynote speech on Monday at the conference, which has become a magnet for education companies and startups, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and others with an interest in the K-12 and college markets.
The former president was interviewed in a packed ballroom by Carlos Watson, a former television journalist who is the co-founder of the news site OZY.
Bush, who left office after two terms in January of 2009, was jocular throughout the discussion, ribbing Watson about the quality of his questions and drawing laughter at several points with observations about politics and life as an ex-president.
He recalled how his mother, Barbara Bush, offered a blunt assessment of his prospects in challenging incumbent Democrat Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas governor’s race.
“’You’re not going to win,’” Bush remembers his mother telling him. The son did in fact win, and his testing-and-accountability policies in Texas offered a preview of the federal strategy eventually rolled out under No Child Left Behind.
If Bush hadn’t prevailed in the Texas contest, “I would have gone into a fetal position,” he told the ASU/GSV audience.
Bush told Watson he had no interest in commenting on the work of his presidential successors, Barack Obama or Donald Trump. Though he drew loud applause with a line that may have been aimed at the current leader of the executive branch.
“The office of the president is bigger and more important than the occupant,” he said.
Legacy of a Law
No Child Left Behind, which passed Congress with bipartisan support, required states to establish annual testing in reading and math, and required them to bring all students up to “proficiency” by the 2013-14 school year–though it allowed states to define the standard for proficiency.
Schools were required to make annual yearly progress on testing scores, or face increasingly stiff sanctions.
Critics of the law said it forced districts and teachers to focus way too much on preparing students for high-stakes tests at the expense of more well-rounded classroom strategies. The law’s backers argued that it cast a spotlight on under-performing schools, holding them to account and helping students whose needs were previously ignored.
In 2015, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law gives states and districts more flexibility in spending and policy, including decisions about standards for improving low-performing schools.
Bush told the ASU/GSV attendees that “maybe there was overtesting” under No Child Left Behind. But he also argued that the law forced policymakers to set expectations for students who too many educators and policymakers had given up on.
He also said that “for a period of time, the achievement gap started to close significantly” because of No Child Left Behind.
Educators and researchers have long debated the impact of No Child Left Behind on achievement. Student performance in math and reading improved modestly in the decade after 2003 on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a review by the Education Week Research Center found. But major disparities remain in the achievement gap between white and minority students, and among students of different levels of family income.
Bush argued that his administration’s oft-cited slogan describing the law’s value—that it was aimed at conquering the “soft bigotry of low expectations”—was about correcting a “system that did not measure,” and which previously tolerated the view, “Why test, if certain kids can’t pass?”
NCLB offered an “optimistic view of people being able to learn, and a trust in teachers and administrators being able to adjust so their kids can learn,” Bush said, “So yeah, [I’m] real proud of the legislation.”
Photo of George W. Bush inside the ballroom on April 16 at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, by Sean Cavanagh.
Correction: This post has been corrected with the proper name spelling of Carlos Watson, of OZY.