Four years after Congress passed President Bush's ambitious No Child Left Behind educational reform plan, it's clear that the controversial measure has left too many children behind in Nevada and other states around the nation. Although the president regards NCLB as one of his major achievements, many educators, parents and voters (including your favorite Appeal columnist) disagree.
As Christian Science Monitor education writer Gail Chaddock noted, "The more Americans learn about Washington's new guiding hand in the nation's schools, the less they like it." In a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll released last month, two-thirds of respondents didn't think that a single, standardized test could provide a fair assessment of whether a school needs improvement - but that's exactly how NCLB works. And in a separate survey, teachers cited compliance with new federal testing requirements as the most serious problem they face as a new school year gets under way.
"The most important finding is that the public wants the achievement gap closed, but doesn't approve of the strategies used in No Child Left Behind," said Phi Delta Kappa poll director Lowell Rose. That's why many states, including Nevada, are rebelling against Washington's one-size-fits-all approach to educational reform.
The situation came to a head last month when the state of Connecticut sued U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings - one of the authors of NCLB -- for imposing a $50 million unfunded mandate on that state. You can be sure that Nevada School Superintendent Keith Reault and county superintendents will be closely monitoring that lawsuit as it moves through the federal courts.
One of the basic precepts of NCLB is that students, teachers and schools throughout the U.S. should be rigorously judged by a single standard; however, that's a dubious proposition in states like Nevada with high transient populations and where about one-third of school children come from non-English speaking households. Simply put, we shouldn't expect teachers working with disadvantaged students to have them reach the same level of performance on standardized tests as teachers in more affluent schools.
As one experienced Pennsylvania educator commented, "(NCLB) was a wonderful concept, but woefully inadequate when dealing with the realities of public education .... While I believe my brightest or hardest-working students can compete with anyone, I also know that I have many students who struggle just to get through life daily. Yet 'educators' (federal bureaucrats) expect these students to still excel on a standardized test." No way!
Responding to this criticism, Secretary Spellings told respected Washington Post columnist David Broder that such comments reflect "the soft bigotry of low expectations," one of the president's favorite phrases. On the other hand, Ms. Spellings acknowledged that teachers should be rated on the year-to-year progress their students are making and not just on their attainment of a particular national standard. That's encouraging news for dedicated teachers in at-risk schools like Empire Elementary School in Carson City, which has failed to make "adequate (NCLB) progress" for four straight years.
Appeal Editor Barry Smith identified the underlying problem in a recent editorial when he wrote that Empire Elementary faces "a number of fairly obvious obstacles - English proficiency, poverty (and) transience." It's simply unfair to expect struggling Empire students to achieve the same standardized test scores as students at more affluent schools in the capital city, at least in the short run.
Another negative result of applying rigorous national standards to at-risk schools is a shortage of experienced special education teachers. Just last week, a Reno daily told the story of a longtime (26 years) special ed teacher who decided to return to a regular classroom because of "extra hours, mounds of paperwork and emotional meetings" with parents and school administrators. "You ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this?'" she asked. "Why am I feeling frustrated all the time?"
On the other hand, I believe that students and teachers should be held to high academic standards despite continuing objections from teachers' unions like the Nevada State Education Association. A blue-ribbon national "Teaching Commission" has called for higher teacher training standards and more demanding licensing requirements. And the Washington Post reported that the Education Trust, "which has studied the extraordinarily weak content of teacher training curriculums, advocates rigorous quality standards that will make the entire teaching 'market' more effective by identifying better teachers and allowing them to command higher salaries." What a concept!
For my part, I favor a bill offered by Rep. George Miller of California that would provide federal funding to local school districts, allowing them to pay higher salaries to outstanding teachers willing to work in low-performing schools. That might help to keep experienced special ed teachers on the job in at-risk schools like Empire Elementary. And it might eventually mean that half of the incoming freshmen at UNR wouldn't have to take bonehead English and/or math. Because when it comes to public education, hope springs eternal, with or without NCLB.
Guy W. Farmer, a product of Seattle public schools and the University of Washington Journalism School, resides in Carson City.