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At the Front of the Fight Over No Child Left Behind

Ohanian Comment: Interesting detail that is probably important: Betty Sternberg is the only child of two teachers.

DANBURY, Conn., April 15 - In 2003, as Betty J. Sternberg was about to be named the first woman to run Connecticut's Department of Education, one local newspaper sized her up as an accomplished insider whose one drawback was her "limited experience in the political arena."

The last few months have provided an unexpected crash course on politics, as Dr. Sternberg has emerged as a national leader in the fight against provisions of No Child Left Behind, the 2001 law pushed by President Bush that requires students to take annual proficiency tests.

Connecticut is challenging the frequency of those tests and the limited exemptions the law provides for more than 5,000 of the state's special education students and 28,000 who are learning English.

Seeking to persuade policymakers to be flexible in carrying out the law, Dr. Sternberg has taken her campaign to Washington - and anywhere else she can. In an address to students at Danbury High School on Friday, the topic was violence in schools, but she managed to insert a few digs about the law into her remarks and discussed how it felt to be called un-American for taking on the Bush administration.

On Monday, she will make her case before the official who used the "un-American" description for opponents of the law - Margaret Spellings, the secretary of the United States Department of Education. Dr. Sternberg had tried for months to get an appointment with Ms. Spellings, which was scheduled only after Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, appealed to the White House.

Dr. Sternberg, 55, who was not well known outside Hartford until recently, will also meet with four of the seven members of Connecticut's Congressional delegation.

Dr. Sternberg, a registered Democrat who grew up in Lower Manhattan as the only child of two teachers, said there is still much of the New Yorker in her, as her opponents are learning. "There's a feisty side to me," she said.

She graduated from Brandeis University in 1971 and earned a master's degree in math education from Teachers College at Columbia University the year after. After moving to Connecticut in 1975, she raised a son and a daughter, who are now in their 20's, and completed the doctorate in education she had started at Stanford University. She taught for a few years, then moved up the ranks of the state's Education Department.

She does not hesitate to turn her experiences - her battle with weight, an attack by a gang member - into lessons for her commentaries and speeches. She talks freely about her 1987 divorce from Robert Sternberg, a psychology professor at Yale, and the pressures that imposed on her career. She turned down conferences and speaking engagements that she now relishes.

Her recent marriage to Howard Stromberg, a businessman with three grown daughters, including one who qualified for special education services, gave her a peek into some of the system's shortcomings and insights into problems with the No Child Left Behind law, such as its insistence that all but the most severely disabled students be given annual grade-level exams. Earlier this month, Ms. Spellings said she would consider allowing alternate tests for more special education students.

"The federal government is going to have to understand that they're going to see more states raising the kind of questions Betty is raising now," said Gerald N. Tirozzi , who was Connecticut's education commissioner and then an assistant secretary in the United States Department of Education during the Clinton administration.

Topping her grievances is the requirement that schools begin testing proficiency annually from the third through eighth grades, twice as often as Connecticut does now.

Ms. Spellings has argued that schools cannot manage what they do not measure, and that the yearly tests are a core principle of the new law. In a recent television appearance in which Connecticut's problems with the law were discussed, Ms. Spellings said it was un-American and demonstrated the "soft bigotry of low expectations" to oppose tests that might help close the gap in performance between rich and poor, and white and nonwhite students.

Dr. Sternberg took offense at the comments and demanded an apology. Ms. Spellings's office said it received the demand on Wednesday and was preparing a response.

Dr. Sternberg says she has nothing against standardized testing, and notes that as the state Education Department's director of curriculum in 1990, she was part of an agency The Wall Street Journal singled out for praise for pushing standardized testing to make schools more accountable.

But she said that the state would glean little from additional testing and that the money it would cost - some $8 million - could be better spent in the classroom. Not one to show up on Monday unprepared, Dr. Sternberg has already figured out that she may have something in common with Ms. Spellings, a longtime associate of President Bush whose biography notes that she is the first Education Department secretary with school-age children.

"Someone has told me that for a while, she was also a single parent," said Dr. Sternberg, whose information turned out to be correct. "So we have a little bit of common ground."

— Alison Leigh Cowan



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