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NCLB Outrages

First Lady defends criticized 'No Child' tests

Ohanian Comment: Resorting to the medicial model to talk about education is a sign of desperation. I expect a doctor to be able to choose a test specific to my need--at that moment. Not even the test makers claim that standardized tests are specific to an individual child's needs and should be used for "diagnosis." This "diagnosis" claim is left to corporate politicos--and their uninformed spouses.

by Greg Toppo

WASHINGTON â No Child Left Behind can't catch a break lately on the campaign trail. Barack Obama last week slammed its "broken promises" and John McCain called it "a good beginning" that "has to be fixed."

Ask first lady Laura Bush and she'll tell you that, come what may, the 2002 education law, championed by President Bush, will be a lasting part of her husband's legacy.

Its requirement for annual testing in reading and math for virtually all children in grades three through eight has led critics to charge that it focuses too much on testing, but Mrs. Bush says she doesn't buy it.

"We would never go to a doctor and say, 'I'm sick, you can't try to diagnose me ⦠you can't use any kind of test," she says.

She calls the annual testing â and its consequences â "the most important piece" of the law. "That's what lets us know that we're not just shuffling kids through school and that poor kids aren't being the ones who make it to the fifth grade and can't read, or make it to the ninth grade and drop out." It would be "embarrassing and a tragedy if we don't address those problems."

In a wide-ranging interview last week, Mrs. Bush also flatly rejected complaints that the education law, which is up for reauthorization, has narrowed public schools' focus, forcing them to jettison rich subject matter such as arts, history and sciences, in favor of explicit reading and math instruction. She says state and local school boards, not the federal government, still lay out what teachers teach.

"Maybe there's a lot of pressure on teachers from administrators and from school districts to have really high scores, and so they feel like that's what they spend their time doing," she says, "but if the test, which it should be, is actually over the curriculum, then you're teaching students what your state and what you and what your school district want them to know and then that's what the test is. So I just don't buy that 'teaching to the test.' "

She also says it's a "tragedy" that Democrats in Congress have effectively killed the Bush administration's $1 billion-a-year Reading First program. Several Democrats say it's ineffective and riddled with conflicts of interest, but Mrs. Bush ascribes some motivation for the budget cut to Democrats' desire to kill a program the president likes.

"I think it's embarrassing, frankly, to have zeroed out money that was directed at first through third (grade) in reading," she says. Pointing to moderately positive test scores, she adds, "If you can't judge it on that as being effective, then I don't know how they â the Congress, I mean â think we should evaluate whether or not it's effective."

Mrs. Bush spent about an hour last Wednesday chatting about education with a group of teachers selected to spend the upcoming school year as "Teaching Ambassadors" to the U.S. Education Department. A former teacher who taught briefly in Texas schools in the late 1960s before becoming a librarian, she told the group that when she first began her career, she had "no earthly idea how to teach second-graders to read."

Forty years later, as her daughter Jenna, 26, begins teaching at a Baltimore charter school, Mrs. Bush says teacher preparation has come a long way.

Though Jenna doesn't hold a Maryland teacher certificate, she's being mentored by a master teacher â "It's been so valuable to her," Mrs. Bush says â and benefits from a system that quickly assesses children on a weekly basis and closely follows state academic standards.

Asked what she says to teachers who complain about No Child Left Behind, she says, "I don't hear that from very many teachers."

She adds, "When I talk to teachers they're nearly always very happy. They're happy to be teachers. I really think really good teachers are called to be teachers. It's not easy and most of the teachers that I meet around the country are very satisfied with the life they've chosen for themselves, which is not an easy life â and it's not a really high-paid job, as you know, but the satisfaction that teachers get when they really reach kids, I think, makes it one of the jobs where people are very, very happy, very satisfied with their career choice â and I see that everywhere."

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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