Child Left Behind Could Spell End for Triage Teaching
by Karin Chenoweth, Washington Post, December 11, 2003
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The No Child
Left Behind Act has been taking a beating lately. When National
Education Association President Reg Weaver came to Prince
George's a couple of months ago for County Executive Jack B.
Johnson's education summit, he blasted the law as "one size fits
all." Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean recently
called it "No School Board Left Standing." And many educators
say they are worried that the law is unfair to schools because
it labels so many of them failures.
More than 100 black and Latino principals and superintendents,
including André Hornsby of Prince George's, see the law
differently. They say it could be as significant as Brown v.
Board of Education in its potential to widen opportunities for
black and Latino students. With a nudge from the Education
Trust, a group that helped draft and push for the law, the
superintendents of color have signed a letter supporting
provisions in the law on accountability.
Brown v. Board of Education -- the Supreme Court case that began
the end of legally segregated schools -- is a pretty powerful
comparison. And it is one that could be hard to understand if
all you have heard is fear-mongering about the unfairness of the
Those principals and superintendents believe that, at its heart,
the No Child Left Behind Act represents the most powerful
attempt ever to end the long-standing practice of triaging
children into those who can be expected to learn a lot and those
who can't be expected to learn much.
The law simply declares that all children can learn a lot and
that it is the job of adults to figure out how to teach them.
Such a radical notion makes some educators very uncomfortable,
because triage has been the organizational model of schools and
school systems for generations.
When my children were younger, I regularly volunteered in their
classrooms. One fourth-grade teacher often would assign the
"low" (her word) kids to me, while she worked with the "high"
kids. The kids I was assigned were a mixture of recent
immigrants (from Central America and Russia) and African
American boys who were bright and interested in the world, but
One day I took them into the hallway while the teacher gave the
other kids a test. The devastated look on one child's face will
never leave me. "I can't take the test?" she asked, quizzically.
She was asking, "Am I so stupid -- so 'low' -- that I can't even
take a test?" I worked with the kids for a half-hour, and even
had some success preparing them to take that day's test (no one
had ever pointed out to the Spanish speakers the similarity
between the Spanish word for earth -- tierra -- and terrarium,
one of the words being tested.) But a half-hour with a parent
volunteer was not what they needed. They needed all the time
they could get with an expert teacher. Unfortunately, their
teacher unloaded them onto any warm body who walked into the
classroom -- teacher aides, parent volunteers, whomever. I
should say that she was not a bad teacher. She was, in fact, a
pretty good teacher -- for her "high" kids. But, like thousands
of her colleagues, she -- wittingly or not -- sorted her
students, putting most of her energy into the kids she had
deemed able to learn and writing off the "low" kids.
Such different treatment leads, not surprisingly, to quite
different results. Kids can be considered "low" by their
teachers -- the people entrusted with their education -- only so
long before their performance suffers, and they become trapped
in a downward cycle of not doing much because they're not
expected to do much.
And it isn't long before entire categories of students --
learning disabled, poor, black, immigrant -- can be written off
as unable to learn, not long before it affects our ability to
function as a democracy, where power is invested in the
abilities and common sense of ordinary people.
Writing off the "low" kids is what President Bush has called the
"soft bigotry of low expectations," and it is the main target of
the No Child Left Behind Act.
But -- and this gets at the bipartisan nature of this effort to
revolutionize education -- No Child Left Behind is not the first
attempt to end the practice of running separate school systems
for different kinds of children. The main difference between
this law, which could not have passed in 2001 without serious
backing from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George
Miller (D-Calif.), and the previous reauthorization of the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 1994 under
Democratic President Bill Clinton, is that President Bush's
education department has targeted its money toward educational
programs with scientific research undergirding them and has
refused to grant waivers to states that don't want to comply
with the law.
Essentially, both the 1994 and 2001 laws required states to set
standards that every child would be expected to meet and then to
report on how well schools are doing in helping students meet
those standards. What makes many school officials uncomfortable
is that they now -- because they are no longer being granted
waivers -- have to report student performance by race, income
and special education status. In the past, a school with a large
enough "high" group could mask the performance of the "low"
Now, many states are discovering what has been clear in Maryland
for a long time.
One of only 11 states deemed compliant with the 1994 education
act, Maryland has been breaking down test scores by gender,
race, income and special education status since 1992, not only
for statewide data but within each school district,
demonstrating discrepancies in academic achievement among those
groups in Prince George's County and in districts that had been
considered among the best in the nation, such as Montgomery
Simply exposing such discrepancies is not sufficient, however.
After all, many school officials are very comfortable with
discrepancies. They have built a tiered system on the assumption
of discrepancies and have lots of excuses for why, say, poor
kids can't learn (they're poor), or kids with learning
disabilities can't learn (they have learning disabilities) or
black kids can't learn (they don't have a "culture" of
To make sure they focus on what does help children learn, school
systems need the kind of accountability provisions built into No
Child Left Behind. As Paul Ruiz, principal partner of Education
Trust, the advocacy group that organized the superintendents'
statement, said, "We have heard from superintendents that the
law is indispensable to them in doing the heavy lifting. This
work is very, very hard. To move systems, we need good leaders,
great teachers, good curricula -- but we also need to speak from
the basis of law."
The law is what gives superintendents the clout to be able to
demand new practices and new teaching methods. The law is what
gives school systems the heft to demand more resources from
their states, such as the demand from Prince George's that
Maryland finance schools more adequately. The law is what allows
everyone to say that what we were doing before is no longer
After all, a conservative Republican president has declared
reading to be the new civil right. No Democratic politician --
however much he or she believed such a thing -- could have
gotten away with such a sweeping pronouncement.
This creates an extraordinary opportunity to figure out how to
make schools work for all children, instead of just some.
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