Touting the success of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), President Bush urged Congress to “strengthen this good law” by increasing accountability, adding flexibility for states and districts, reducing the number of high school dropouts, and providing extra help for struggling schools.

“Six years ago, we came together to pass [NCLB], and today no one can deny its results,” Bush said in his State of the Union address Jan. 28. “Last year, fourth and eighth graders achieved the highest math scores on record. Reading scores are on the rise. And African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs.”

Congress is scheduled to renew the law, which determines how schools must focus their resources to ensure that all students are meeting grade-level standards by 2014, later this year. And while there is broad consensus on the changes mentioned above, another of Bush’s proposals—a scholarship program to help poor students attend private schools—is likely to meet with stiff opposition in Congress.

“To open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids,” the president said in his address to lawmakers. “We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential. Together, we have expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now, let’s apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”

Bush also addressed the nation’s competitiveness by calling for more funding for scientific research.

“To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow,” he said. “Last year, the Congress passed legislation supporting the American Competitiveness Initiative but never followed through with the funding. This funding is essential to keeping our scientific edge. So I ask the Congress to double federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences and ensure America remains the most dynamic nation on earth.”

Yet, education and global competitiveness were minor themes in a 5,700-word speech that began by seeking to ease Americans’ fears about the economy and ended with talk about the war on terror.

With the specter of recession supplanting the Iraq war as the top U.S. concern, Bush acknowledged in his final State of the Union address that growth was slowing, but he insisted the country’s long-term economic fundamentals were sound. He prodded Congress to act quickly on a $150 billion economic stimulus package laid out last week and to resist the temptation to “load up” the plan with additional provisions.

Bush also urged Americans to be patient with the mission in Iraq almost five years after the U.S.-led invasion. He touted security gains in Iraq, which he ascribed to a troop buildup ordered last January, but gave no hint of any further troop reductions there, asserting that such decisions would depend on his commanders’ recommendations.

Calling on Iran to “come clean” on its nuclear program, Bush issued a stern warning to Tehran, which he had branded part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech.

“Above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf,” he said.

Bush, a latecomer to the fight against global warming, also pledged $2 billion for a new international fund to promote clean energy technologies and combat climate change. And he addressed illegal immigration, saying it “must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals.”

Bush has faced international criticism for repeatedly rejecting caps on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the world’s biggest polluter.

Education groups reacted strongly to the president’s speech.

“Instead of rushing to renew a broken law with fatal flaws, we need to first engage in a thoughtful debate about what is best for our nation’s children. While the president agrees that changes need to made to the law, we need to overhaul—not tweak—the law to help every child succeed,” said the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) in a statement.

“The six years since passage of NCLB have demonstrated that neither Congress nor the president had the will to finance an expanded federal role in education. We must continually examine our public schools and make system-wide changes to ensure schools are teaching children the skills they need to compete in the rapidly changing global environment. These 21st-century skills include collaboration, ingenuity, problem solving, creativity, and more—none of which is tested under NCLB.”

AASA continued: “As part of retooling our schools to prepare all children to achieve at their highest levels, we need to find new ways to measure students’ progress. Rather than assessing students on a single test score as NCLB dictates, schools should be able to use multiple measures that more accurately reflect students’ individual growth and learning during the school year. In addition, schools need flexibility to meet the individual learning needs of students in special education and students with limited English proficiency.

“The devastating effects of poverty have a significant impact on student achievement. While schools systems currently work hard to address the effects of poverty, they cannot eliminate the causes of poverty. Federal efforts to improve student achievement should coordinate with other systems, such as health care, housing and judicial systems, to alleviate the fundamental inequities that perpetuate poverty.”

In response to Bush’s Pell Grants for Kids proposal, AASA had this to say:

“Every year, President Bush pushes for voucher programs under a new name in a new disguise. While the president has repeatedly failed to fully fund NCLB, he has pushed for voucher schemes that would siphon resources away from public schools—and the 90 percent of children in the United States who attend public schools—to pay for children who are often already in private school. Vouchers are a failed idea that has repeatedly been rejected by voters. In 10 different states, ballot initiatives to implement voucher programs have been placed before the public, and in every instance public aid for private schools has been rejected by a margin of two-to-one or greater.

“Rather than race to reauthorize NCLB or implement voucher programs that weaken our education system, the president and Congress need to build a new agenda for education that will help every child succeed.”

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing was even more blunt in its response to Bush’s address.

“President Bush’s diehard commitment to renewing the flawed No Child Left Behind law reflects a triumph of blind faith over classroom realities,” said Monty Neill, the group’s executive director. “The truth is that the pace of educational improvement across the country has slowed since NCLB passed, according to the federal government’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress. NCLB is forcing many schools to become test-prep factories. That has not improved school quality.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

White House

2008 State of the Union address