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NCLB Outrages

Two Views of Accountability

Ohanian Comment: Be sure to read Alfie Kohn's response following this putrid argument.

In 1998, when Ronald Ross took over the schools in Mount Vernon, N.Y., only a third of the students were scoring at acceptable levels on state reading and math tests. Yet teachers claimed they were doing their best with the mostly poor, minority students.

The one cudgel Ross could wield was the state's tough new accountability system, which dramatically raised standards for students and required each school to publish its test results. Using them, Ross rooted out educators who accepted failure and realigned the curriculum. Within a year, half the students met state standards. Last year, 80% achieved them.

Now Ross is among 100 black and Latino school superintendents who signed a petition by the Education Trust, a school-reform group, embracing the accountability rules of the new federal school-performance law, the No Child Left Behind Act. The superintendents understand that without new mandates requiring schools to identify and help struggling children, the problems of school districts such as Mount Vernon again will become invisible.

Critics of the law, such as the National Education Association, the powerful teachers union, are trying to stir up opposition from educators and Democratic presidential candidates. But a victory for them would strip superintendents such as Ross of the outside pressure needed to find better-qualified teachers, adopt more effective curriculums and educate children who in the past were allowed to fail.

Critics' arguments against raising standards and holding educators accountable don't stand up. Among them:

There's no money to support reform . The federal funding of poor schools has grown 33% during the past two years.

The reform goals are unrealistic . The law demands that by 2014, all children must score as "proficient" learners on state tests. Most educators agree that the ambitious goal probably won't be met. But it is worth striving for. Extending the deadline now would slow down the pace of school reform.

The law relies on one-size-fits-all testing . In fact, the tests that critics revile identify the children whom teachers are failing to reach. In Gainesville, Fla., for example, Abraham Lincoln Middle School received an "A" under the state's grading system. But federally required tests revealed a wide racial learning gap. While 90% of Lincoln's white students were proficient in math and reading, only 22% of the black students were proficient in reading and 15% in math.

In Mount Vernon, George Albano is the principal of Lincoln Elementary School, where half the students are black and half are poor. In 1999, Albano used the threat of higher state standards as leverage to launch intensive tutoring programs, adjust the curriculum to fit state standards and make sure all classes, including art and gym, pass along academic skills. It worked: In 2002, 99% of the nearly 800 students scored at or above state standards.

The new federal accountability law is neither perfect nor funded as well as it should be. Even so, it demands the same type of results that proved so successful in Mount Vernon schools. As the minority superintendents know, such accountability is their students' best hope.

Alfie Kohn's response

Reform's 'hammer' fails

"The beatings will continue until morale improves." That's the theory underlying what should be called the Many Children Left Behind act.

The law's many critics don't favor neglecting troubled schools. That poor and minority children long have received an inferior education is true and disgraceful. But this cure is worse than the disease; it mostly punishes the victims.

Look at the supposed success stories of current policies. What typically improves isn't learning, just standardized test scores. And the scripted instruction used to raise those scores has dumbed down classrooms. Instead of learning to think, inner-city kids take endless practice tests. If that's not "lower expectations," what is?

Thus, Mount Vernon, N.Y., school Superintendent Ronald Ross, who supports accountability in theory, says he's no fan of "the current test mania engulfing our public schools. ... It's ridiculous to test every year (and) provide scarce support." In half the states, diplomas are withheld from students based on a single score. The result: More poor kids drop out. The breezy response from Kati Haycock of the Education Trust: "At least they failed something worthwhile."

I hear anguish and anger about the No Child Left Behind Act from minority educators across the country. Some of the best have quit because good schools are labeled "failures" for falling short of ridiculous requirements. Many Congressional Black Caucus members have denounced the law as a sham. Even early supporters have grown disenchanted.

What's the point? Can you name a single school whose troubled status was a secret until yet another wave of testing was required? Or is the Bush administration's real agenda to undermine the public school system? If privatization were my goal, I, too, might favor the reform act.

Schools alone can't erase the effects of poverty and racism. Those are real barriers, not excuses. Now President Bush is failing to fund the law as promised, leaving states with the bill for annual tests that Washington requires. Meanwhile, a new report by the civil liberties group People for the American Way reveals the administration has funneled $75 million to pro-voucher groups.

Wildly swinging a hammer labeled "accountability" hurts the very kids (and schools) who most need help.

— USA Editorial and Alfie Kohn
School-reform critics ignore power of accountability
USA Today


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