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NCLB Outrages

Best of the worst: No Child Left Behind might be Bush's finest work -- but that's not saying much

Out of the mouths of babes. . . Actually the 10-year-old's questions are about the only thing in this column worth reading.

By Neil Steinberg

Opening shot...

The president of the United States is in Chicago today, ballyhooing his No Child Left Behind act. George W. Bush no doubt views No Child Left Behind as the greatest thing to hit public education since the McGuffey Reader and a highlight of his administration. He's right about that second point -- considering the fiascos he has inflicted upon our country, it has to be one of the brighter elements of his legacy of incompetence and disaster.

And buffing NCLB -- as it is referred to by time-pressed educators -- is fitting, given that the program is basically an exercise in cooking the books. Standards for success are established, annual tests are administered, then the results are manipulated, with low scores dumped en masse and other dodges employed to keep schools off the dreaded failure lists. Since improving schools is well nigh impossible, NCLB offers the next best thing -- the illusion of improvement.

The bright gleam of false success is not NCLB's most deplorable quality, however. There is also how NCLB burns up precious class time. In order to get test results to fudge, a worrying chunk of the school year is wasted with drilling students on what will be on the tests, plus administering the tests themselves.

The federal government shouldn't be writing school curricula. Education is traditionally a local matter. If Washington started mandating how 25 percent of city council meetings would be spent, we'd howl. Yet we are so desperate to fix our broken schools that we allowed our children and their teachers to be forced to waste their school days in busywork and farce. At least, before No Child Left Behind, we knew how bad things were. Now, with falsified test results showing sham continual improvement, we don't even know that.

I try to make conversation with the boys at dinner, which usually is futile. ("How was school today?" "Good." "What did you do?" "Nothing." "Nothing? Really? You just sat and stared blankly out the window in silence?" "Yes.")

But occasionally a gambit works. We were tucking into our barbecued chicken and spinach patties Saturday night. I observed that George W. Bush is sliding into town.

"If you could ask the president a question, what question would you ask him?" I trolled and, to my surprise, my younger boy, the reticent 10-year-old right hander, bit.

"Ask him why he tortures people," he said. "Ask him why he nearly drowns them. Ask him if he thinks power corrupts."

Who knew the kid was so plugged in? I was as surprised at his opinion on the president as I was when he informed me that Barry Bonds is a drug addict who should never, ever be allowed near the Hall of Fame. I didn't realize boys actually care about that kind of thing.

I try to be a full-service dad, and I contemplated seeking an answer to his question -- maybe showing up for lunch at the Union League Club today, hurling my son's impolitic query at the president.

But I'd end up with my arms twisted behind my back, hoisted to my toes and manhandled out the door and into federal custody for 48 or 72 very uncomfortable hours (or, who knows, the way things are nowadays, maybe to fall from sight for three or four years, until some curious sergeant peers into a dark cell at Guantanamo. ("That guy? He keeps claiming to be a newspaper reporter and an American citizen. Just ignore him.")

It isn't as if Bush would answer the question.

Although -- and I hate to be balanced, but I can't help it -- my son's view of the president made me think back to when I was 10, and Richard Nixon was in office. I hated Nixon and viewed him as the personification of evil. It mystified me that anyone could think otherwise.

Since then, Nixon looks better with every passing year. And as loathed as Bush is today, if we look to the past, the hatred that presidents generate in office never sticks to them. If I were to begin listing presidents who were most despised in their day -- Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lincoln -- it would also be a list of some of our greatest presidents.

Not that I think George W. Bush will someday be seen as a great president. Still, I can't help but wonder whether, by the time my 10-year-old is mired in his late forties, poor soul, the nation might not view old George W. in a more forgiving light.

Hillary Clinton was expounding on her ability to "make change" during the debate Saturday night, and I had a queasy moment of cognitive confusion, because to me "making change" is what the cashier at Sunset Foods does after you hand her a twenty. Hearing the putative president citing her ability to "make change" was unsettling for one second, as if she were bragging about being able to tie her shoes.

The word "change" is already suspect to those who pay attention to the book business, where no non-fiction account can be published without the word in its subtitle: SCISSORS! A Cleric, a Knife-Sharpener, And the Tool That Changed The World.

The rate we're going, with presidential candidates mouthing the word "change" as if it were a Tourette's tic, by Valentine's Day the word will take on entirely new meanings.

"There's been a change at work -- my job status has changed."

"You mean you've been fired?"

"Right, same thing."

"Oh that's terrible -- how do you feel?"


"Of course. They gave you a good changing over, and you're bound to feel all changed-up."

Today's chuckle . . .

This is from Hosea L. Martin:

After her grocery items had been rung up, the shopper began writing a check for the amount. "Sorry, ma'am," the clerk said to her. "This is the express lane. No checks."

"That's ridiculous!" the shopper snapped. "What does a person's nationality have to do with buying groceries?"

— Neil Steinberg
Chicago Sun-Times


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