For years, nothing helped. America's children weren't reading as well as they should. An achievement gap showed black and Latino students trailing behind their white counterparts in reading and math. Educators and politicians agreed Something Must Be Done, but they made halting progress. Until now.
This month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- also known as the national report card -- released good news on long-term educational trends in America. Reading competency for 9-year-olds has reached its highest level since NAEP began measuring progress in 1971.
What is more, the achievement gap is narrowing. The gap between black and white 9-year-olds tested for reading was 44 points in 1971 to 26 points in 2004, while the gap between white and Latino students narrowed from 34 points in 1975 to 21 points in 2004. Half the gap-narrowing has occurred since 1999.
Of course, educrats are scrambling to make sure that no credit goes to President Bush or his No Child Left Behind program. The American Federation of Teachers issued a statement through an official, who noted that efforts that led to the higher scores predate the Bush presidency.
The AFT is right. The reforms that boosted scores predate the Bush presidency.
That said, when he was governor of Texas, Bush had the good sense to jump on the right horse. He believed in pushing basic literacy, even if he wasn't as strong on phonics as I would have liked. He urged better testing to hold failing schools accountable. The approach paid off. When Bush was governor, black eighth-graders in Texas led the country in math and reading.
While Bush was on the right horse, some teacher groups and top educrats were leading a stampede of bad horses, carrying American children headlong toward ignorance. They eschewed phonics, dispensed with multiplication tables, denounced testing -- unless it gave credit for wrong math answers with clever essays -- and preferred failed bilingual education programs to English immersion programs for children learning English.
Look at any reform that has boosted student performance -- phonics, direct instruction, English immersion -- and the chances are, the educrats were against it.
When parents revolted against whole language -- which teaches children to read language as a whole, without teaching them to decode words -- the educrats argued against a return to phonics, which they dismissed as "drill and kill."
When reformers pushed for tests that could show which curricula worked best, educrats denounced testing. If children steeped in phonics scored well on reading tests, they were not impressed -- it was because the children were brainwashed, not literate. And if whole-language learners scored poorly, well, it was because they were so creative.
When Bush and company demanded accountability, they complained that standards would hurt poor children -- as if under-educating poor and minority students didn't hurt poor and minority kids.
The educrat lobby in California opposed the switch from bilingual education to English immersion. Fortunately, California voters, not educrats, had an opportunity to switch to English immersion programs, and now more immigrant children have mastered English.
Over time, classroom teachers have seen their students make progress. Many have come to see the wisdom in emphasizing phonics -- it may be boring for teachers, but it helps kids learn to read better.
Bush packaged his approach under his promise to fight "the soft bigotry of low expectations." For years, educators blamed parents, demographics, money -- you name it -- for poor student performance.
Bush didn't want to hear the excuses -- and his Texas swagger paid off. As Hoover Institution fellow and sometime Bush adviser Bill Evers noted, "There's no doubt that high expectations and trying to hold the system accountable from top to the bottom is having an overall positive effect."
And so the educrats are left with weak criticisms. They complain that No Child Left Behind is underfunded -- even as Bush budgets money for the Department of Education. They argue that students have no motivation to apply themselves when they take tests -- and still the NAEP numbers are up. They note that NAEP high-school scores are flat without acknowledging that they opposed reforms that are helping more of today's 9-year-olds read.