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NCLB Outrages

When will truly no child be left behind?

by Alan Scher

I remember feeling like Caleb, entering the land of Canaan gingerly — a spy, an interloper, a fraud. I worked in education, true, but upon beginning the Progressive Jewish Alliance's Jeremiah Federation Fellowship one year ago, I was more of a social butterfly than a crusader for social justice.

I was, in essence, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's portrait of the apolitical teacher: naive enough to be passionate about students while blind to the opportunities their social class denied them, but clever enough to tether myself to an organization dedicated to repairing injustices.

We fellows have been working proudly in collaboration to embody, above all things, the PJA mantra, "To kvetch is human. To act, divine." In the year of study as Jeremiah Fellows, we surveyed the pressing, ongoing and relevant social justice issues facing the Bay Area today, and the many ways in which we can work toward their eradication. However, I think we gave short shrift to the subject of public school education.

Is this an oversight that plagues just the fellowship? Or do the pressing issues of public school education (Jewish day schools, in contrast, receive plenty of attention) fail to inspire American Jewry to act? If so, I worry that this cannot be happening at a worse time.

One of the first things President Bush did in 2008 was stump for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Designed to "eliminate, in just 12 years, the achievement gap between students of color and white students, as well as the one between poor and middle-class students," it has instead exacerbated an institutionalized system of inequity 200 years in the making.

The legislation, along with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent announcement of a $2 billion dollar rollback of spending for K-12 education, provides a frightening microcosm not simply for the current failures of our public school system, but the often racist reasoning behind such inadequacies.

As Jews we have a rich educational tradition — from Deuteronomy’s "Teach them diligently to thy children" to the prophetic ideal of an earth full of knowledge as water covers the sea. I struggle, then, to justify the silence.

We can't be blind to the educational apartheid of No Child Left Behind, which mandates 65 million more annual tests for students in grades three through 12, despite studies showing high-stakes testing does little to improve achievement and may actually worsen academic performance and dropout rates. We must question the forced sanctions on schools that fail to meet adequate yearly progress, especially in the face of further funding cutbacks.

Frustratingly too few of us seem to be questioning consequences that include the required privatization and market reform of public schools in the shape of for-profit companies, and the elimination of "cursory" subjects such as social studies and science. Organizations such as PJA should rise against this dark tide.

"If the schools are to be really effective, they must become centers for the building, and not merely for the contemplation of our civilization," George S. Counts wrote in "Dare the School Build a New Social Order?"

I find inspiration in his words, as well as the fellowship’s namesake, the biblical prophet Jeremiah, who preached and prayed despite being continually rebuffed. I think that by following in his footsteps we can organize against No Child Left Behind's narrowing of the curriculum and financial bullying. We must protest. We must speak out.

We can join with activists, such as Oakland educator Susan Harman ( http://www.calcare.org) who is organizing parental opposition against No Child Left Behind in the form of testing opt-outs. We must use the combined power of our voices to petition our leaders through the Educator Round Table ( http://www.educatorroundtable.org). By familiarizing ourselves with the "teacher outrages" of the act, compiled by Susan Ohanian ( http://www.susanohanian.org), we can begin to make an informed impact on the issue today.

As an educator, I am sure of one thing, above all others: the difference adults can make in the life of a child. One need not be a prophet to transform a student's life; one need only be present, consistent, loving, challenging and exemplary.

Alan Scher is an educator. He lives in Sebastopol and is a member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance’s Jeremiah Federation Fellowship.

— Alan Scher
Jewish News Weeklly


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