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President Bush once made improving American high schools a top priority for his second term. It’s a task widely regarded as vital to the nation’s future. But his plan is going nowhere in Congress.

Business leaders, governors and pundits say, and test scores confirm, that U.S. high schools are failing to equip graduates with the skills they need to compete in a global economy. [IMGCAP(1)]

Yet Bush’s proposal to extend his No Child Left Behind regime of standards, testing and accountability to high schools hasn’t even been introduced in Congress.

And both houses rejected Bush’s $1.5 billion plan for funding high school reform when it refused to eliminate federal aid for traditional vocational education.

Instead, the Senate in March voted 99-0 to reauthorize the $1.3 billion Perkins Act without writing in any performance standards for shop courses. In May, the House passed a bill with modest upgrades, 416-9.

In an interview, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told me that “the people who don’t want to change [are] our problem — the people who live off the vocational education program. They’re a very powerful interest group.”

But Mike Petrilli, a former Bush education official who’s now vice president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said that Bush erred in trying to fund high school NCLB by zeroing out voc-ed. “That was dead on arrival,” he said.

Bush should have found new money for high school reform, he said. And, he added, “one major problem with Bush’s plan is that it wasn’t much of a plan. It lacked any specificity.”

Spellings said that the administration probably won’t propose a full-blown high school reform plan until the 2001 NCLB law, which currently applies only to elementary and middle schools, comes up for reauthorization in 2007.

That means that Bush is likely to be out of office before the federal government has any real impact on the problem of high school performance, despite the promises made in the 2004 campaign, his State of the Union address and his budget.

And, as Spellings said, the need for applying NCLB-style reform to high schools was demonstrated anew in the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, released in July.

It showed that American 9-year-olds have made significant improvement in reading and math, especially in the past five years. Thirteen-year-olds made have made some progress, but 17-year-olds have made none at all.

“There are a lot of pundits talking about when the changes happened,” she said. “All I know is that we have had more progress in the last five years than in the entire history of the test, starting in the early 1970s. So, you do the math.”

If it’s true that NCLB has had a major impact on student performance in lower grades, then why doesn’t the administration press harder for high school reform and put real money behind it?

In general, the administration is far behind the curve on the whole issue of science, math and engineering competition with other countries, especially China and India.

Bush believes that free trade will help expand both the U.S. and world economies. But the corollary has to be that if low-skill U.S. jobs are going to migrate overseas, then the United States must excel in high-technology and have a high-skill work force to do it.

Report after report has documented the need for an all-out effort akin to that which followed the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik in 1956.

Among other things, Congress passed the 1958 National Defense Education Act, a $4 billion program to boost science and math education, basic research, foreign language instruction and area studies.

A new study issued last week by some of the nation’s major business organizations called for doubling the number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math by 2015, partly by upgrading math and science teaching in U.S. schools.

“The critical situation in American innovation threatens our standard of living at home and our leadership in the world,” said John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, one of the study’s sponsors. “We cannot wait for another Sputnik to propel our energy forward in this area.”

The report noted that in a recent international assessment of problem-solving skills among 15-year-olds, the United States had the smallest percentage of top performers and largest percentage of low performers of any participating developed country.

It also reported that the percentage of U.S. students planning to pursue engineering degrees declined by one-third between 1992 and 2002.

And, it said, federal funding for basic research in the physical sciences as a percentage of GDP has declined by half since 1970. Bush is doing nothing to increase it.

Defense officials proposed a new NDEA-style program for science and languages, funded at $900 million a year, but the White House asked for only $155 million over a five-year period.

Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are proposing to double the first-year budget of $10.3 million when the Defense Department authorization bill comes to the Senate floor.

There’s good news in the fact that the nation’s governors are beginning to act to improve high schools, knowing that their states’ future depends on a trained work force.

But except for Spellings cheering the governors on, there’s no leadership coming from Washington.

Spellings told me, “We need to engage the general public around this crisis because people do not turn on their TV sets and see any Russian satellites up there. How do you make this compelling for the American people?”

One answer clearly would be for the president to take it on and propose a major initiative to upgrade math and science education, research and foreign language instruction. First, though, he’d have to understand that there’s a problem.

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