When it comes to the budget, education is clearly George W. Bush's fair-haired child. While most federal programs are being sent to their rooms without supper, the president's signature issue is being treated to a big spending increase.
But the response is completely inadequate to the magnitude of the crisis, for what we are facing is nothing less than an educational catastrophe, with 37 percent of fourth-graders unable to read.
Sadly, the solution the president and Congress are offering is little more than a watery bouillabaisse of warmed-over measures, a bipartisan betrayal that reinforces the worst aspects of the status quo: the standardization of education, the destruction of critical thinking, the categorizing of millions of our kids as failures.
"We stand," Bush proclaimed this summer, "on the verge of dramatic improvements for America's public schools."
Trust me, we don't. Anyone who has been following the long- running charade that Washington calls education reform should be experiencing a "dramatic" sense of déjà vu right about now.
Bill Clinton in 1998 promised that his "proposals" would "result in dramatic improvements of our schools." What was Clinton's plan? Nearly identical to Bush's: smaller classes, better teaching, higher standards, expanded choice, more discipline, greater accountability.
Or, for more of the same, you can flash back to W's dad asserting his bold commitment to "revolutionize America's schools."
"By the year 2000," Bush pere vowed in his 1990 State of the Union address, "U.S. students must be the first in the world in math and science achievement. Every American adult must be a skilled, literate worker and citizen…The nation will not accept anything less than excellence in education."
I hate to break it to the former president, but the latest international rankings show that, among 21 nations, only those educational powerhouses South Africa and Cyprus fared worse than the 12th graders tested in the United States in both math and science.
Far from accepting nothing less than excellence, we've grown accustomed to the system's chronic failure, content to point out the occasional jewel spotted amid the dung: a marvelous charter school here, an inner-city academy there. And nothing in the current legislation will disrupt the downward slide that guarantees that by the end of the Bush administration things will only have gotten worse.
The political establishment is a fashion victim of long standing when it comes to educational reform. Its gullibility in championing one too-good-to-be-true panacea after another is truly terrifying when you consider the vulnerability of their patients: our kids. This year's Dutch tulip craze is a scheme for elaborate standardized testing that will reward standardized thinking, a concept that most sensible people dared to hope had died with Josef Stalin.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, who is waging the good fight to derail the testing juggernaut, says "that testing, which was supposed to be a way of assessing reform, is now being treated as actual reform." Yeah. What he said. Taking one's temperature is not a cure for the fever.
But is testing an unreasonable place to start on a program of educational reform? Yes, because it will exacerbate the problem it seeks to address. Its conclusions will be rendered valueless by a quantum effect of observation: the obsessive calculation of just how poorly off our kids are will make them even worse off than before.
Why? Learning will be equivalent to quantifiable success on a standardized test. Effective teachers (according to the calculus of the standardized testing paladins) will be the drones who embed the information likely to appear on a standardized test in their students by rote. Forget individuality, flair and passion in teaching; your kids' "best" teachers will be drill instructors. Forget curricula outside the narrow tested canon -- like art, music and class discussion.
Surprise pop quiz time. Which of the following statements is true?
A) States will pay whatever it costs to have their students tested as comprehensively as possible.
B) Kind-hearted testing companies will charge the same amount to grade essay questions as multiple-choice questions.
C) Computers can grade subjective essay questions as well as people.
D) States will inevitably end up relying on multiple-choice questions instead of essays.
Sadly, the correct answer is D.
And even the cut-and-dried multiple-choice approach doesn't guarantee fairness and accuracy. More than 20 states have reported major errors in standardized tests, in most cases too late to undo the damage to students and their teachers.
Pick a state and you'll likely find a testing atrocity. In Minnesota, 47,000 students were punished for a mistake by a testing company. Some of them were not permitted to graduate as a result, a stigma they will carry for life. In Arizona, 12,000 students were shortchanged by a flawed answer key. In Michigan and Washington, similar mistakes were made; in the latter state, 204,000 essays had to be rescored.
As the importance of testing grows, so will the consequence of these outrageous (and inevitable) mistakes. The gulf between what the Bush administration is allocating for the testing mandate and what experts think is required is six and a half billion dollars over a period of seven years. I wouldn't fly an airline that is scrimping on maintenance, and I wouldn't subject my kids to an intellectual branding process that was based on bargain basement techniques.
But even the amount that Bush is offering, $320 million, would be better spent on education. The desperate need of public schools and programs like Head Start is apparent across the country.
This blithe indifference to the true nature and depth of the education crisis is the most disturbing aspect of the testing craze. It seems that the more blighted the school system, the more reliant it is on tests. The young victims of the test-centric curriculum have their noses rubbed in their failures each time they pick up the infamous number two pencil and mark the little circle next to the answer they've chosen. If they do well, another test will come along in a few weeks to try to discredit the previous result. Do poorly, and they'll get a chance to dig an even deeper grave in no time.
The pigheaded initiative comes in spite of contrary evidence, including a report from the National Research Council (solicited by Congress, no less) that concluded that testing "has the unwanted result of punishing and undermining the academic achievement of students who already face unequal educational opportunities."
These educational inequalities are being felt particularly deeply in the African-American community. It's not surprising that African Americans are at the forefront of demanding revolutionary measures to solve a crisis that is devastating their children's chances for a productive future; 63 percent of black fourth-graders are functionally illiterate. Mikel Holt, who chronicled the landmark battle for school choice in Milwaukee, has no illusions about what is at stake. "The old civil rights movement got us to the lunch counter," he says. "The new civil rights agenda is: Can our kids read the menu?"
Vouchers have become the hot-button topic of the education reform debate. But choice is precisely what millions of American families are exercising every day -- either by opting out of the public school system entirely or by moving to a neighborhood with a better-than-average school. It's only poor parents who are left with the ideological privilege of standing by an education system that practically everyone who can afford to has already deserted. It's hardly surprising then that, despite the massive propaganda against school vouchers, 60 percent of blacks support them. The number is even higher among the poorest blacks: 72 percent.
It's well past time to acknowledge that nearly 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we are witnessing a de facto resegregation of our schools. Jonathan Kozol, who studied the isolation of children in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, has observed it firsthand: "There are 11,000 children in the elementary school district and, of them, 26 are white. These are numbers that would have done honor to Mississippi in its darkest, most benighted hour."
But there is a glimmer of hope amid the gloom. Abandoned by politicians who simply sing the canticles of reform, students and parents all across the country are filing class action lawsuits -- demanding that their inner-city districts receive the same school funding as their better-heeled suburban counterparts.
In New Jersey, where less than 10 percent of the poorest students receive adequate preschool education, it's Abbott v. Burke. In California, where tens of thousands of low-income students are forced to endure roach- and rat-infested schools while making do without textbooks or credentialed teachers, it's Williams v. State of California.
Who knows, maybe if enough aggrieved parents, students and teachers follow suit -- literally -- the system will finally collapse under the weight of its own incompetence.
The American public v. the American education system. It's got a nice ring to it.
Arianna Huffington is a syndicated columnist and author of eight books including the recently published How To Overthrow The Government.