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Article of Interest - No Child Left Behind

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Bridges4Kids LogoNo 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 law.

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 wiggly.

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" group.

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 County.

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 learning).

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 enough.

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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