Is Bush smarter than a fourth-grader?

Notes from the political sidelines.
May 17 2007 3:58 PM

Is Bush Smarter Than a Fourth-Grader?

Maybe he's failing on purpose, to help our young people make gains in civics and history.

80_thehasbeen

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Don't Know Much About History: Hillary Clinton just asked supporters to choose her campaign song, but Republican candidates already agreed on theirs. Perhaps the next debate will feature a barbershop quartet of Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney singing:

Don't know much about history/ Don't know much biology/ Don't know much about a science book/ Don't know much about the French I took.

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To be fair, the Republican race is a particularly difficult kind of history test. In order to pass, a GOP candidate must persuade Americans to miss the '80s, fear the '90s, and start the current decade over without Bush. For some, like Romney and Giuliani, traveling back to the Reagan era has the additional benefit of rewinding past all the positions they've taken in years since.

Once again, Republican candidates and the American people are headed in different directions. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported yesterday that while political leaders are doing their best to ignore history, young people are doing much better at it.

The educational standards movement appears to be paying off. Between 1994 and 2006, the number of fourth-graders performing at or above basic level in U.S. history jumped from 64 percent to 70 percent. Civics scores went up, too. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post points out that scores even rose among high-school seniors, who hadn't improved in any subject in the past eight years.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was quick to attribute the progress to No Child Left Behind, glossing over the inconvenient fact that fourth-grade history scores rose slightly faster between 1994 and 2001 than in the years since NCLB was passed. In any case, if young Americans are making progress on these two subjects, Spellings' boss deserves the credit. At last, President Bush may have found the perfect excuse for his failures at home and abroad. The Imperial Presidency isn't a way to abuse power—it's a way to teach civics. Never mind Iraq's failures as a war—it has been a great history lesson.

If anything, the Bush administration might well be accused of teaching to the test. The NAEP report says that to perform at basic level in history, fourth-graders must be able to "interpret a presidential quotation." Give Bush credit—he has been quizzing those kids every day.

While Mickey Kaus may be despondent about where the Senate is headed on immigration, he should take heart that the next generation aces the issue. On the civics test, 75 percent of all fourth-graders correctly answered that noncitizens can't vote. If Monica Goodling were still around, those 9-year-olds would be made U.S. attorneys.

The nation's eighth-graders showed no progress on civics, but we can't fault Bush for trying. Consider this question from the eighth-grade test:

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