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Education Law Leaves Children Behind

THE "NO CHILD Left Behind" Act is a stirring rallying cry for many of the nation's political leaders. Signed into law by President Bush two years ago, it conjures up the most noble ideals of American life: that the combination of first-rate education and students' hard work will yield high academic achievement, success in life, and a strong economy.

No Child Left Behind is based on faith in strengthened school accountability, increased freedom for states and communities in using federal education dollars, use of "proven" education methods, and increased choices for parents.

In practice, the act is painfully simplistic, and its results are remarkably different from what its sponsors predicted.

This pretense at education reform takes our eyes away from the child who lives in poverty, comes to school hungry, and has parents who themselves cannot read. It focuses us on test scores and throws criticism at the school that cannot "educate" this child. And it pretends that the 25 to 30 percent of young people who drop out of school simply do not count.

President Bush has expressed concern that "too many of our neediest children are being left behind." And he is correct. But No Child Left Behind focuses on schools, not on children and their families. It focuses on annual testing and public reports of test scores, not on hunger, inadequate health care, and homelessness.

The numbers in Rhode Island are alarming: 16.5 percent of children under 18 live in households with incomes below the federal poverty line. Providence recently tied for fourth place among U.S. cities of over 100,000 with the highest percentage of children living in poor families: 40 percent.

A "No Child Left Hungry" Act would be an enormously important piece of legislation. This would respond to the 13 million children in America who are "food-insecure" -- that is, living in a household in which income does not ensure enough to eat. Hungry children cannot learn effectively; it makes no sense to test them.

A "No Child Left Unhealthy" Act would respond to the 44 million Americans -- about 15 percent of the population -- who have no health insurance. Sick kids do not attend school. Kids whose teeth are decayed and aching, who do not get immunizations, whose parents cannot afford to give them medical care, do not do well in school.

Finally, a "No Child Left Homeless" Act would do wonders for both children and the building industries. In Rhode Island, the shelters are full -- mostly with families. Nowadays, the typical people with no place to live are families with children who cannot find affordable housing.

Mandatory standardized testing, as imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, does not address any of these problems that fundamentally affect our ability to educate children. No Child Left Behind is disingenuous -- duplicitous. It has almost nothing to do with the approximately 30 percent of American children who, because of unmet basic needs, are being left behind.

And almost no one is talking about them.

William Lynn McKinney, a University of Rhode Island professor of education, is dean of the university's College of Human Science and Services.

— William Lynn McKinney
Providence Journal


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