Time to Put the Candidates to the Test

In this primary season, one major issue has been all but missing in action: education. Most experts agree that No Child Left Behind, President Bush's plan for closing the achievement gap between rich and poor kids, is a noble effort. But it has serious downsides. It punishes struggling schools, turns classes into test-prep factories and has caused some states to lower, not raise, standards. How will the next president fix it? NEWSWEEK asked two experts, the Education Sector's Thomas Toch and Jeanne Allen, chief of the Center for Education Reform, to evaluate each candidate's plan. Then we assigned grades.

The Stance : She has Bill bashing NCLB on the campaign trail but also pushed for more federal money to help schools give higher-quality tests. Would track every student in every grade. Wants more money for early-childhood education.

The Reality Check: Allen say she's currying favor with the largely Democratic teacher's unions, who hate the rigid NCLB, while still backing accountability. Toch says look for her to warm up to the idea of performance pay if she's the nominee.

The Stance : Wants the federal government to measure skills such as conducting research, defending ideas and solving problems. Wants schools to use test data to help shape lessons. Favors performance pay for teachers.

The Reality Check: Well intentioned, but Allen warns that the skills he likes are hard to test statewide. Toch applauds efforts to test kids on thinking, not regurgitation. Performance pay, he warns, is easy to talk about but hard to execute.

The Stance : Wants to give states more power to decide the benchmarks for NCLB; eliminate test-prep factories by ensuring all kids get music, arts education, and give parents the option of transferring kids out of failing schools.

The Reality Check: States set benchmarks now, says Toch, and they range from laudable to laughable. (Arkansas: the pits.) Allen says locals are often the worst culprits in bad schooling. A national barometer ensures states educate all kids.

The Stance : Likes NCLB but wants to change the tone: support, not confront, failing schools. He'd revamp Head Start and improve rates of high-school graduation, too. Supports the spread of charter schools and vouchers.

The Reality Check: Allen applauds his stance on school choice but frets that supporting schools means coddling school boards and unions. Ensuring more kids graduate from high school is a good idea, says Toch, but how exactly do you do that?