Parting Liberal Waters Over 'No Child Left Behind'
Ohanian Comment: Mr. Taylor is very naive to equate high test scores of suburban students with allegiance to high standards on the part of their teachers. Let the inner city teachers change place with the suburban teachers for a decade and watch what happens. The effects of grueling poverty can't be overcome by a teacher's "high standards."
By Samuel G. Freedman
WILLIAM L. TAYLOR rang in 2006 among the Nobel laureates, heads of state and sundry muck-a-mucks gathered in Charleston, S.C., for Renaissance Weekend, the mother of all networking events. In the weeks ahead, as America marks Martin Luther King's Birthday and Black History Month, he will be speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and the City Club of New York. His memoir, "The Passion of My Times," (Carroll & Graf, 2004) is about to be reissued in paperback.
All this activity for a septuagenarian reflects Mr. Taylor's stature as a grandee of the civil rights movement. His career as a lawyer, lobbyist and government official spanned nearly a half-century. He wrote the legal brief that persuaded the Supreme Court in 1958 to order the integration of Little Rock's public schools, and four decades later, his wavy black hair having long turned into an unruly gray cumulus, he was in court fighting to preserve a desegregation program for the St. Louis region.
In the past several years, though, Mr. Taylor has added a more controversial line to his résumé, as a public advocate for the No Child Left Behind law. From conferences of state legislators to conclaves at education schools, he has defended a statute closely associated with President Bush, parting ways with many of his lifelong allies on the left and bewildering the audiences that would otherwise venerate him.
He acknowledged as much when he strode to the lectern one evening last fall at Teachers College at Columbia University, a redoubt of progressive education.
"I want to say to the skeptics, if there are any in the room," he began, and some awkward chuckles sounded from the 70 graduate students in attendance. By the time Mr. Taylor had made his presentation and three faculty members had offered formal responses, by the time an event scheduled for one hour had passed two, the bonhomie was in short supply.
For their part, Mr. Taylor's faculty critics had assailed No Child Left Behind as punitive, poorly financed and too oriented toward standardized tests. Without remaking the larger society, without markedly reducing both racism and poverty, no meaningful change could occur in the classroom, they argued.
Mr. Taylor had heard it all before, and something combative crept into his tone. "I really have not heard an alternative," he put it. "To say more of the same, just give more money, is not an answer. It is not good enough to say this is a societal problem, though certainly that is the case. If you say everybody is responsible, then nobody is responsible."
A moment later, he threw out a dare: "If you've got some better ideas, then let's hear them. It's time for them now."
A professor chastised Mr. Taylor for overlooking "the fact these kids have no health care." A graduate student, who had taught for several years in Philadelphia, said the law's reliance on standardized testing would "drive out all the creative teachers." Neither side conceded an inch.
This kind of intellectual gridlock has come to characterize even some of the closest professional relationships in Mr. Taylor's life. He has known Gary Orfield, a professor of education at Harvard who specializes in civil rights issues, for nearly 40 years. In litigating school desegregation cases, Mr. Taylor has relied on Professor Orfield as an expert witness - an unpaid one, at that, to make it clear that the professor's credibility was not up for sale.
"Now we have a serious disagreement," Mr. Taylor said the other day with some delicacy. "I try not to break friendships. So there's a sadness, not a bitterness. But I'm sure he doesn't understand my position and I don't understand his."
Professor Orfield sees himself sharing Mr. Taylor's beliefs in separating out student academic data by race and income, and in allowing students to transfer out of failing schools, both of which are provisions of No Child Left Behind. He said he shares Mr. Taylor's frustration with the paltry progress on desegregating schools, indeed with a pattern of growing resegregation.
But on the broadest precept of the law - what Professor Orfield described as the "conception that Congress can effectively mandate specific high levels of educational growth, relying on sanctions and assessments" - he does indeed think No Child Left Behind is, in a word, wrong. Which is tantamount, of course, to saying that his friend and comrade is wrong, too.
To any listener willing to hear him, Mr. Taylor will portray his support of No Child Left Behind as a position consistent with his career. He has kept saying so as many of the liberal Democrats who initially supported the law have disparaged it as being too rigid and inadequately financed (the law remains more popular with centrist Democrats). Mr. Taylor has kept saying so even as it was revealed a year ago that the Bush administration paid the syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams to promote the law.
WHILE working in Lyndon B. Johnson's administration as staff director of the Commission on Civil Rights, Mr. Taylor recalled, he saw firsthand the utility of backing up laudable values with tough enforcement. Only a decade after the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education did Southern schools start to comply, he said, because only then did Washington threaten to withhold federal dollars from districts that defied the integration order.
In the desegregation program in metropolitan St. Louis, Mr. Taylor has seen 12,000 black students who attend suburban schools record higher marks and better graduation rates than their peers left behind in the city.
"These suburban schools are accountable to their communities," Mr. Taylor told the audience at Teachers College. "They have high standards and the students respond to those standards. And if a teacher or a principal is falling short, you know they will be gone. That's not the case in most central-city schools."
The legal reality since a 1974 Supreme Court ruling is that such regional integration plans cannot be imposed, but only entered into voluntarily. So, for Mr. Taylor, still crusading for something at age 74, No Child Left Behind offers not a pancea but an obtainable possibility.
"I can't think of any other issues on which I agree with Bush," Mr. Taylor said. "Iraq has been a disaster. There was no basis for privatizing Social Security. There's a growing inequality due to tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts in social programs. Nevertheless, I can work with the administration on this issue. You can't wait for a perfectly ordered universe."
Samuel G. Freedman
New York Times
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