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NCLB Outrages

A High School Finds Itself Left Behind and Drowning

by Neil Genzlin

"Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card" is,
despite that subtitle, a draw-your-own-conclusions sort of documentary.

The film, which has its premiere Monday on HBO, observes the 2005 school
year at Frederick Douglass High in Baltimore, a troubled institution
that has not fared well in meeting the benchmarks established by No
Child Left Behind, President Bushâs education initiative.

But No Child Left Behind occupies relatively little of the two-hour
film, which is by the veteran documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond. And
the standard complaints about the law â for instance that it forces
schools to be preoccupied with test taking at the expense of more
enriching types of education â donât seem to interest the Raymonds.

Instead they take lingering looks at Douglass's teachers and
administrators as they work and at its students as they, more often than
not, don't work. Though eventually the Raymonds (just barely) take sides
â they seem not to be fans of Mr. Bush's program â their dismaying film
isn't really asking whether No Child Left Behind can help Douglass. It's
asking whether anything can.

The film finds a few success stories among the school's 1,100 students,
but it is filled largely with teenagers who are drowning in apathy and
attitude, those who seem well beyond any "To Sir With Love"-style rescue.

It is filled as well with emptiness. At "back-to-school night" for
parents early in the school year the camera pans the auditorium; it is
largely empty. At the Christmas concert the school's well-regarded choir
is belting out a lovely "Messiah," again to a largely empty auditorium.

Against such obstacles, No Child Left Behind seems at best a
well-intentioned irrelevance. In one of the film's starkest moments a
young enthusiastic English teacher quits in the middle of the year, his
third at the school.

It had been "the year that I stopped seeing progress in kids," he says
as he's packing up, "the year I stopped finding the little joys."

He is not alone apparently: 66 percent of the Douglass educators are not
certified, we're told. The school is running on substitutes and other
emergency fill-ins.

And that is the bottom line for schools like this. Bureaucrats can make
all the rules and set all the benchmarks they want, but none of it will
change anything if no one can be found to do the hands-on work of
teaching. As seen in this film, itâs not just a thankless job; it looks
disconcertingly as if it might be an impossible one.

— Neil Genzlin
New York Times


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