States Get Federal
Warning on School Standards
by Diana Jean Schemo, October 23, 2002, New York Times
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The Education Department sent a blistering warning to school
commissioners across the country today, calling educators who
try to sidestep the intent of President Bush's signature
education act, No Child Left Behind, "enemies of equal justice
and equal opportunity," and vowing, "they will not succeed."
The letter praised state education commissioners who were
trying to carry out the law, which sets ambitious goals for
recruiting qualified teachers in the neediest schools and
eliminating disparities in achievement among whites, blacks
and Hispanics while giving children in chronically failing
schools the option of transferring.
But after a month of meetings to discuss the law with some 40
state school chiefs, Education Secretary Rod Paige appeared to
draw battle lines. Dr. Paige brushed aside complaints from
local officials that Washington had been slow in giving
guidance on the law and warned that the administration would
strike back at efforts to dilute the law's impact.
"Some states have lowered the bar of expectations to hide the
low performance of their schools," the letter said, adding
that others were discussing how to "ratchet down their
standards" or redefine proficiency to limit the number of
"This is not worthy of a great country," Dr. Paige wrote, and
he urged school officials to "rethink their approach."
"Those who play semantic games or try to tinker with state
numbers to lock out parents and the public stand in the way of
progress and reform," the letter said. "They are the enemies
of equal justice and equal opportunity. They are apologists
for failure. And they will not succeed."
The steps by state educators to revise academic standards in
light of the new law were the subject of a recent article in
The New York Times. Federal officials said in the article that
they would issue such a warning to states, but today's letter
still took educators by surprise.
"I guess they're not coming to our Sweet 16 party," said T. J.
Bucholz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education,
which has arguably the strictest standards in the country.
Under its criteria, 1,513 schools — the most in the nation —
were deemed "in need of improvement" in July.
Michigan's superintendent of schools, Thomas D. Watkins Jr.,
said today that he was encouraged by parts of the letter, in
which the Education Department agreed not to label "schools in
need of improvement" as failing schools. While Mr. Watkins
wants to maintain Michigan's tougher standards, he said they
would be unworkable when penalties kicked in for 1,513
Patricia Sullivan, deputy executive director of the Council of
Chief State School Officers, said she saw the letter as "a
signal that they don't want people gaming the system"
delivered, not incidentally, two weeks before Election Day.
But Ms. Sullivan said revisions were inevitable, since states
set achievement levels before the law and its raft of
Despite the Education Department's saber rattling, the law
gives states wide latitude to set the bar for student
achievement where they choose. Today's letter appeared to be
an effort by federal officials to wield what they describe as
the law's most potent tool: the power of public opprobrium to
shame schools into delivering their best efforts.