Topic: Education Reform

Interview Date: November 23, 2003

[Prof. Noll mentioned cynically to Dr. Baker that the Nation seems to be doing a very good job at teaching illiteracy, and Dr. Baker then responded as follows.]

WILLIAM O. BAKER: Illiteracy. Yes, I think so. The records are certainly downhill. It’s a controversial business, of course. They love to argue and make big issue of it as to whose fault it is and what the reforms in the legislatures are doing. See, the forty some legislatures have now established standards, but I don’t think the White House— I would guess they don’t even know what you mean when they say standards, what they are talking about. So I don’t think there is much to be learned from that.

Well, I think there’s something on independent kind of educational base. But, and the people are learning and the teachers have to be taught and all that sort of thing. But you are talking about the White House components. I don’t think there’s anything there. I don’t think there is any reaction to that.

The political White House elements are very sluggish, and there’s just not very much going on there. So I don’t think we are going to get much action out of that. You see, the activity, you sort of touched on it or implied it a little bit ago, has been in schools and colleges that have ingenious people and well qualified people in teaching and learning. And the Federal government and the presidency, I think really don’t have any significant part in that. We have identified people who have that had some capabilities there. But, you see, they don’t have the political leverage.

It takes a lot to move a government like the USA. … And for general improvements or reforms, you can’t depend on just ordinary reactions or visions of the government. They, of course we said a few or some minutes ago, they don’t have any leverage and they don’t really— They are very much the captives of the school system and educational politics of literacy and school programs and development. I don’t see any real change in that. I can’t imagine the president or any significant White House component having any activity of that sort.

Now, the activity we have more recently seen, of course, has been national security and that’s where things could come back if we had crisis. There could be some reactivation, reanimation. But Iraq and the situation in Asia is not likely to cause much reaction, it seems to us. The fact we have bungled, in the press sense, in the local press, a lot of this security business, and defense, and the like is just underscoring what we have been saying. They aren’t going to worry about that. Bush will have an explanation, or Bush will have an excuse or something. But when it comes to really penetrating the fog and indicating how you really change the security balance or the political balance of the country, I don’t think anybody is going to do it.

The state is disorderly and disoriented, I think, forty some revisions of standards. And I mean by forty some revisions, they have that many changes, that many qualification shifts.

What I’m wondering here is, you see, whether is it conceivable to have any condition where criteria that you have wisely applied to national security, national policy, national leadership would have to be reapplied or reconstituted. And that’s the part that I think is a little baffling in that—I don’t immediately see— Of course, nobody can forecast history, and the forecasts of what is happening there could be a dramatic change. But I don’t see a way of getting much comment on that, in that these people are heavily occupied—I follow the mechanics of the situation—heavily occupied with appointments, congressional committees. Congressional committees are endless and utterly hopeless as far as focus or change are concerned. And when you got a country that is sufficiently prosperous and preoccupied so that it spends a major amount of time with these congressional committees, subcommittees, sub-subcommittees, I don’t think that you are going to find very much leadership or change.