Ohanian Comment: Good editorial. But looking at poverty means looking at poverty, not looking at teachers.
The debate about the federal No Child Left Behind law offers an example of how large issues become shrink-wrapped into smaller ones.
No Child Left Behind touches on many large issues, such as the achievement of students from poor families, students not conversant with English, students with learning disabilities, minorities. In Vermont it has been useful to be told that students from impoverished backgrounds do not do so well in school, even if it is a case of stating the obvious.
As the law is administered, however, this large and important point has become tangled in a complicated debate about the burden of testing, inadequate funding, and the bureaucratic procedure for labeling a school as failing. There are many ways not to address an issue. Shrouding it in bureaucratic fog is one good way.
But if No Child Left Behind means for us to look at the problem of poverty, let's look at it. Sometimes it happens that a child shows up for first grade with little aptitude for school. Her parents have failed to read to her. His father makes a habit of hitting him. Her mother is alcoholic. His father is missing. These are common enough problems, and often they spiral out of the syndrome of poverty that accounts for those negative statistics on the No Child Left Behind tally sheet.
Certainly, any child facing these disadvantages needs the attention of teachers. Special education, often blamed for mushrooming school costs, represents our best attempt within the past few decades for dealing with problematic cases. But getting tangled in a debate about the efficacy of testing misses the point. The point is much more vast: the pathology of poverty and society's unwillingness to address it. Helping a child from a troubled background toward success in school is an essential component in responding to the larger problem. But it is like maintaining good lifeboats on the Titanic. It would be far more effective to steer clear of icebergs, or failing that, to attend to the leak in the hull.
And yet it is enormously difficult to focus attention on the larger problem. Two issues that represent huge burdens for people trying to get out of poverty are child care and health care, and yet the federal government remains unable to offer sufficient assistance in these areas. Its priority has been to shovel hundreds of billions of dollars to wealthy Americans in the belief that when rich people spend their money it will improve the lot of the poor. To divert our attention from the large problem, the Bush administration offers diversions, such as No Child Left Behind.
Poor children deserve extra attention. The good teachers and administrators in our schools understand that doing their jobs means working to help even the most troubled students. The trick is to foster the hiring of good teachers, which requires administrators who can recognize them when they see them and for good teachers to seek jobs in the first place. It is a highly personal endeavor enhanced by a sense of mission that only the dedicated can provide. For Washington to insist on high performance is not a bad thing. For Washington actually to help is even better.
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