One size won't fit all schools

President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" assumes that America is like the fictional Lake Woebegone, that "all the children are above average." Sorry Mr. President, they aren't. Children come to school unequal economically, culturally, emotionally, physically and intellectually. Nevertheless, No Child Left Behind is supposed to make 100 percent of them proficient in math and reading by the year 2013-14.

Imagine what would happen if that same 100 percent rule applied to other endeavors. Could federal, state and local governments show that 100 percent of eligible voters vote? Could they guarantee that all drivers are safe and sober, that all parents take good care of their children, that doctors cure all patients, that dental patients are 100 percent cavity free? Heck, the president can't even guarantee that 100 percent of his senior officials can keep a secret.

Last Tuesday, Mike Watty, associate superintendent of Carson City Schools, reported that each school in the district was well above the NCLB-required level of proficiency in both reading and math as a whole. However, one school "needs improvement" and all but two others were placed on the "watch list" because their subgroups didn't make adequate yearly progress. Subgroups break down the school population into Hispanic, white, children with individual education plans (special education), limited English proficiency and free or reduced lunch. Every child's test scores are considered equally, except that some are more equal than others. Middle class, white children without individual education plans have their scores counted once. Children who are poor, Hispanic and who are learning English have their scores counted four times.

A cynical person might think that this law was designed to make good public schools look bad, to fail. What could possibly be the motive for such mean-spirited regulation? As the rolling blackout of No Child Left Behind continues to declare more and more schools inadequate, there will be no school to run to. No public school that is. A small hidden agenda item that may be the real goal of the Bush administration's efforts here is vouchers. If all the public schools in our community are declared inadequate, the government wants us to have the choice - and a little financial assistance - to put our children in private school.

You should know that private schools aren't held to the No Child Left Behind standard. It's hard to tell if they really do better. Besides, private schools can send all the hard-to-teach children - those with learning disabilities or second-language issues - to the public school. So much for the belief that a free and public education is the foundation of free and democratic society. Public schools take everyone, teach everyone. It is our prime directive. Yet, the law is hitting those schools with the neediest children the hardest. Teachers who toil in what are sometimes called "high risk" schools deserve credit for doing a noble job most of us wouldn't or couldn't do.

President Bush recognizes that schools across America will need to hire 2.2 million teachers in the next decade and that they will need special skills to teach an increasingly diverse population. The quality of teachers and teaching has never been more important. And yet the additional regulations and paperwork imposed by No Child Left Behind rob teachers and principals of time and autonomy - time to teach and the autonomy to meet the individual needs of children. Principled, passionate professionals are actually debating how much time to take away from authentic learning to devote to test preparation drills. The president's chosen method of school improvement - guilt, shame and public humiliation - will make simply keeping the educators we have an impossible task. Legislators might even justify low teacher salaries because schools are deemed inadequate by NCLB standards. No Child Left Behind? How about No Teacher Left Standing?

More importantly, our children have the right to be thought of as more than a test score. The whole notion of ranking schools by anything that can be measured on a multiple-choice test is simplistic at best and misleading at worst. What makes a school excellent is not merely how well it performs on standardized tests. Excellence is also about the sense of community, acceptance, support, involvement and safety students and their families feel. Schools do not exist in a vacuum. They reflect the communities they serve. That's why local control has until now been the hallmark of public education.

Along with educators, both Republican and Democratic politicians could fall under the weight of No Child Left Behind. How many incumbent governors and members of Congress can run on their education records when more schools are deemed inadequate than when they took office?

Furthermore, which incumbent president can ask taxpaying parents and grandparents for another four years to fix excellent schools he labeled as inadequate? Maybe he'd better choose to run on his victory in Iraq and the booming economy. Oh, right. Never mind.

Lorie Schaefer is a reading specialist at Seeliger Elementary School, an excellent school now being watched by the No Child Left Behind police.


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