The President’s Bully Pulpit and School Reform

By 04/09/2012

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If one compares the growth in student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) during the years the Bush Administration was in office with the growth during the first two years of the Obama Administration, as I have done in a recent op-ed piece, it becomes pretty clear that the annual growth rate was substantially higher when George W. Bush was in office.

Neal McCluskey of the CATO Institute does not think the comparison should be made—on the grounds that the data are “too blunt to tell us much about a single administration’s policies.”  Perhaps, but the same can be said for the growth of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the growth in the number of Americans who are employed. Both are gross, blunt numbers, affected by many factors other than presidential decisions, but the public holds presidents accountable for what happens under their watch. For that very reason, Obama is doing everything he can to pump GDP upward, and the White House staff seized up last Friday when employment figures revealed that the gains were only half what had been anticipated.

The public is right to insist that basic numbers on the ground move in the right direction, no matter how distant from direct presidential control they seem to be. When presidents know they are being held accountable for economic performance, they act more responsibly—or suffer the consequences. If presidents come to learn that they are also being held accountable for the nation’s educational performance, they will think more carefully about the consequences of their actions for students, not job holders.

But, says McCluskey, presidents can’t do much about education in any short period of time. Neither Bush nor Obama should not be given credit or blame for events that happen early in their term of office.   That wave of the hand allows him to slice and dice the numbers to suit his convenience.

But such hand-waving ignores one of Teddy Roosevelt’s keenest insights: The bully pulpit is the most powerful weapon in a president’s arsenal. True about governing in general, it’s of particular significance when it comes to education. For learning to take place, teachers, students, administrators, parents and neighbors must all be committed to the enterprise.

To mobilize broad movement toward a common goal is a job for presidents.  They are the ones best placed to energize a nation, and some presidents have done just that.

Ronald Reagan reversed the downward trend in SAT scores almost overnight when his National Commission on Educational Excellence galvanized the nation to take the educational crisis seriously. At the time Congress passed no law, and no pile of money was added to the pot, but the White House message had a major impact nonetheless.  (For details, see chapter 8 in my book, Saving Schools).

Similarly, George W. Bush, both in his 2000 campaign and immediately upon assuming office, insistently called for accountability reforms that would lead to No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  It was not the law’s rules and regulations but the national attention that had the impact.  Schools, students, and teachers were put on notice that more was expected.  NAEP scores jumped noticeably—from the very beginning of the Bush term.

Though presidents usually enjoy the biggest bully pulpit, Martin Luther King proved no less influential.  When he called for equal educational opportunity in the South, the test scores of African American students in southern states rose dramatically. The biggest gains were among the high school students most susceptible to the calls of the civil rights movement.

The U. S. Department of Education has encouraged a certain amount of reform with its convoluted Race to the Top initiative.  But President Obama’s first—and most powerful— education message to all Americans came with his stimulus package. He urged its passage not so that children might learn but in order that teachers might keep their jobs. That was precisely the wrong signal, and it is not surprising that NAEP gains slowed to a virtual halt.  The stimulus package did little for the nation’s GDP, and it has had a negative impact on its education GDP.

-Paul Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Brook Brayman says:

    Mr. Peterson,

    While I fundamentally agree with your argument that leaders–federal and religious and, I would add, state and local–can and should do more to call for educational improvements, I remember Obama giving a speech early into his presidency in which he directly urged school children to take their educations seriously. He was pilloried for that by those who claimed that it was propaganda or a stunt or whatever.

    Perhaps if the grownups would stop fighting like parents heading for divorce, the children would take us seriously and listen to all of our collective wisdom and desire for what’s best for them, but any young person over the age of ten who watches the news with his or her parents will see a nasty marital spat between our nation’s leaders.

    So while Obama should use his bully pulpit, so should other leaders, and we should all say to our young people that while we may fight over the best way to educate our children, we remain, at bottom, committed to their growing up to have strong literacy and numeracy.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    SAT scores bounce around, and the SAT is not given to a representative sample of students, so we don’t know what a few points increase or decrease mean (nor does the SAT have very good predictive validity across the college years, so why are we even talking about it?) But just for fun, if Reagan did have such an impact on SAT scores, why didn’t “The Great Communicator” have a bigger effect on verbal scores, whose meager changes were merely within the margin of error?

    There are many possible interpretations of these NAEP data you report. Fatigue with test-driven education may be taking its toll, as teacher morale is at its lowest level in decades. The NAEP reading gains during the Bush years were noticeable in 4th grade, but not eighth grade, and we know that direct instruction in reading subskills does boost reading subskills faster in the short run but doesn’t improve comprehension in the long run, so the 4th grade reading NAEP scores may have gotten a misleading “bubble” following the National Reading Panel Report, but one that doesn’t pay long-term dividends.

    Teachers and students are tired of all the bullying–let’s reduce the role of far-off politicians and businesspeople in dreaming up educational policies, and give more control to parents, students, and teachers.

  • Doug says:

    Karl exactly. Well said.

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