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Without help, education reform will be left behind

Ohanian Comment" Additional federal resources aren't going to save a bad law. More important, children will still be deprived of a rich education when they are stuck in federally-imposed scripted curriculum classes.

Flint doesn't need more charter schools. Flint needs jobs that provide a living wage. Maybe Michael Moore didn't visit Brownell Elementary, because the school isn't the source of the city's problems but rather a victim of them.


Michael Moore's 1989 movie Roger & Me showed the nation how Flint, Mich., had fallen on hard times after General Motors' downsizing. Moore never visited Brownell Elementary School, located in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods, but the school illustrates Flint's problems.

Year after year, a breathtaking number of Brownell students fail state exams. Last year, 14% passed the math test and 31% passed the reading tests. That forced Brownell Elementary into a mandatory makeover.

Brownell Elementary might strike some as a sad but irrelevant symbol of the Rust Belt past. Not so. In an odd way, the school offers a window into the future of the president's signature reform, No Child Left Behind.

Because of a quirk in Michigan's law, its schools are among the first to face forced restructuring. By next year, hundreds of schools nationwide will endure similar fates.

As goes Brownell, so goes No Child Left Behind. And the future isn't looking rosy. A report by the independent Center on Education Policy shows that Michigan's restructuring efforts need help. The problem is not a lack of trying but a lack of resources.

To date, here's what Washington has given Brownell to rescue itself: funds for a full-time language coach and a part-time math coach.

That little bit of coaching helped. This past year, Brownell students scored better. But principal Lucy Smith is not celebrating. Each year, about 45% of her student body turns over, along with 15% of her staff, making it likely test scores will plunge, she concedes.

Enduring success at Brownell will come only from radical improvements. Among the steps the federal government could take:

•Accelerate start-up schools. A handful of experimental programs have proven successful. Forty-five KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools operate successfully in 15 states and Washington, D.C. Aspire charter schools, based in California, show similar promise. With federal help, those schools could expand faster into districts such as Flint.

•Create model math/science schools. The United States is at risk of losing its long-held lead in technology, a study panel from the National Academies on science and math concluded last month. Helping states build top-notch math/science schools in neighborhoods unaccustomed to having quality schools would meet two goals at once.

• Take over school data collection. Many districts churn out mandatory reports that track overall school performance but not individual students. That's no help to teachers.

•Add talent. Teacher-training coaches such as those sent to Brownell are needed across the country.

The Education Department defends its actions by pointing to a 45% increase in spending for poor schools over four years. But in the past two years, just when states are taking on the responsibility for re-making failing schools, the spending has flattened.

The Education Department has eased parts of No Child Left Behind that have been criticized for inflexibility. Even so, if President Bush wants to salvage his reform, he needs the department to do less finger-pointing and more rolling up the sleeves to help out.

The future is there to see in Flint.

— Editorial
USA Today


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