‘Let’s Not Weaken It’: An Exclusive Interview with George W. Bush on NCLB

On the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the former President spoke with TIME's education columnist about the law's successes and why it's a "convenient punching bag"

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The former President speaks at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in April 2011

No Child Left Behind turned 10 this week, and former President George W. Bush, who led the effort to enact the landmark federal education law, marked the anniversary with an exclusive interview with TIME education columnist Andrew J. Rotherham. Bush discussed the law and its legacy, criticized both parties for trying to walk away from its hard-nosed accountability efforts and called on President Obama to resist “the temptation to take the easy path.”

Mr. President, 10 years in, what’s your take on No Child Left Behind?
First of all, I am extremely proud of the effects of No Child Left Behind. For the first time, the federal government basically demanded results in return for money. It started by saying, We expect you to measure [student performance]. As a result, there has been a noticeable change in achievement, particularly among minority groups. And I’m proud of that accomplishment and proud of the fact we were able to work with people from both parties to get it done.

When I think back about No Child Left Behind, it’s one of the really positive things our Administration accomplished along with Congress. So on the 10th anniversary, it’s time to celebrate success, but it’s also a time to fight off those who would weaken standards or accountability. I don’t think you can solve a problem if you can’t diagnose it, and I don’t think it is fair for parents or students not to be informed of how their schools perform relative to other schools and how their children perform relative to other children. So I’m pleased with the progress and concerned about efforts from people in both political parties to weaken it.

What do you think is driving those efforts?
Some on the right think there is no role for the federal government [in education]. Some on the left are saying it’s unfair to teachers — basically, union issues. People don’t like to be held to account.

So when NCLB is finally re-authorized, what changes would you like to see?
Progress toward excellence. [Former Secretary of Education] Margaret Spellings recognized that in order to be able to accurately judge, you need to measure progress toward the absolute. But what I’m worried about is the pressure to have too many goals or measure the wrong thing.

What will it take to rebuild a consensus on accountability?
Well, I think it’s going to take presidential leadership. The President is going to have to be very firm in resisting the temptation to take the easy path. The President has to take the lead and say, Wait a minute, No Child Left Behind has worked. Let’s not weaken it. And he has to find leaders in both parties to be willing to step up and make the change. That’s why [Democrats] Ted Kennedy and George Miller were very effective. We didn’t agree on the funding formulas and certain issues, but we did agree on the basics. And that is, you cannot expect excellence unless you measure.

I understand that No Child Left Behind became a convenient punching bag for some during certain political seasons, but to push back requires leadership from the White House and the Congress.

In your view, how much of the criticism of the law is about the specifics, and how much is just partisan politics?
In some circles, punching No Child Left Behind is a way to basically say, I’m against Big Government. In fact, No Child Left Behind is a way to promote efficient government. In a lot of these debates, you don’t hear real detail or analysis about how to improve the law. In essence, it’s No Child Left Behind is big government. Well, No Child Left Behind basically says, If you’re going to fund [schools], like we’ve been doing for years, we in the federal government ought to demand accountability, which seems to me a very conservative principle. Yet some conservatives are saying No Child Left Behind is an improper role for federal government. In that case, it’s more philosophy than actual analysis of how No Child Left Behind works and its effectiveness.

People like [former school superintendents] Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, people who are willing to challenge the status quo, tell you that one thing that made it effective was the accountability. I know many people in the Republican Party are reformists, but I don’t see how you can justify reform until you can measure success or failure. Some of the biggest advocates for a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind without weakening the spirit of the law are those who actually sit on the front lines of education reform. The critics ought to listen to them.

MORE: Rotherham: In Defense of No Child Left Behind