No Misconception Left Behind
Kudos to Jac Wilder VerSteeg, who knows a naked emperor when he sees one.
by Jac Wilder VerSteeg, Deputy Editorial Page Editor
If it's impolite to say that No Child Left Behind doesn't work because
it's based on lies, let's just say that the federal law suffers from
fantasy and wishful thinking.
The bedrock fantasy is that every child in America will be able to read
and do math on grade level by 2014. Everybody knows that can't happen.
Yet the federal law, which has its five-year anniversary this month, is
set up to punish schools, districts and states that don't make "adequate
yearly progress" toward that impossible goal.
In her speech this week marking the anniversary and advocating
reauthorization of the law, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings
told the typical whoppers about No Child Left Behind. The most egregious
was this: "Before this act became law, kids often moved from grade to
grade, and nobody knew whether or not they had learned to read, write,
add, or subtract. We invested billions of dollars and basically just
hoped for the best."
Well, bull. When I went to public school in a small North Carolina town
in the 1960s and early '70s, we all knew who could read well and who
couldn't. Teachers tried to help the kids who couldn't. Some they could
help, some they couldn't. Yes, lots of the kids they couldn't help got
social promotions after repeating a grade or two. And lots of them
dropped out of high school. For all the hoopla about No Child Left
Behind and Florida's A+ Plan, which began in 1999 and misuses the FCAT
to assign school grades, that's exactly what happens in schools to this day.
As the parent of a student who attended Florida public schools in the
1990s and 2000s, I also can attest that, well before No Child Left
Behind came into existence, teachers regularly identified students who
were having trouble reading or doing math and enrolled them in special
programs that often worked.
It simply is not the case that, before No Child Left Behind and FCAT,
"We invested billions of dollars and basically just hoped for the best."
Before the FCAT and No Child Left Behind, most public schools tried
their best to teach students to read and do math. Much of the time, they
Still, there's this notion that schools just "hoped for the best." The
claim that public schools just were winging it helped to sell the public
on greater federal and state involvement. It justified taking decisions
out of local hands. But the idea that public schools didn't work because
they didn't try has turned out to be a big problem for No Child Left
Behind and the A+ Plan. It created a false expectation that bringing
order to the mess and improving the outcome would be a relatively easy
All we have to do, reformers said, is give some tests, flunk some
schools, put on the pressure, and schools will shape up.
In fact, that works only to a point. There is some low-hanging fruit.
Intensive, small classes will work with some kids. So will tutors. And
if FCAT grades and No Child Left Behind analyses got those things for
more children who needed it, great. But it turns out that setting up a
system to exhaustively identify and report all those who need help is
not the same thing as actually helping all those who need it. That's why
so many high school kids still can't pass the FCAT and graduate. That's
why so many schools aren't meeting No Child Left Behind standards.
And speaking of those standards, they also are a fantasy. Every state
got to decide for itself what constituted "adequate yearly progress." As
Congress gets ready to debate reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, some
groups are advocating for a national standard. Still other groups want
even more flexibility for states to set their own. In the meantime,
there's a lot of measuring going on, but what's getting measured and
achieved isn't always clear.
Before No Child Left Behind, a small circle of people - teachers,
parents, classmates - knew that a kid couldn't read. Now, the state and
the feds have statistics out the wazoo about who can't read and do math.
What to do about those kids? The answer still is elusive.
Jac Wilder VerSteeg
Palm Beach Post
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