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NCLB: Conservatives borrow from liberal's stores of wishful thinking

April 24, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

Despite some misgivings, serious local educators have always been slow to criticize the No Child Left Behind Act, much in the way children are slow to criticize Santa Claus the first time they experience Christmas in a down economy.

NCLB is designed to give every kid in America an equal shot at success. It sets high standards, demands strict accountability and punishes school systems that fail to progress.

Administrators, who in my opinion never met a new test that didn't make them feel the way a bass fisherman does about a new jig, cautiously bought in. Even the most suspicious educators, inside the classroom and out, seem to believe NCLB has some very strong points in its favor.

The other reason educators embraced the law is that it was generated by conservatives. Unfair as it may be, the stereotype through the years was that of a Republican turning a deaf and disinterested ear toward the needs of education. Educators were so pleased the Other Party was giving them the time of day, they were willing to overlook a few more warts than they might have otherwise.

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If NCLB got the benefit of the doubt for the first couple of years, such is no longer the case. States and teachers unions are lining up to sue the feds for making a bargain it failed to live up to.

The federal government demanded responsibility and accountability in schools, then failed to be responsible and accountable itself. Specifically, it demanded huge outlays of time, energy and money, with no thought to helping schools secure the needed resources that the law required.

This has opened the door for cynics (hi there) to argue that NCLB was a hollow shell of a program whose goal was not to help the kids, but to curry political favor with the education-driven voters by making it look as if the president and Congress actually cared.

Lack of funding is an easy enough concept to grasp. Coupled with the rigid standards in the law, this actually has the potential to make things worse than they were before. So high are the standards, not only will bad schools "fail," but a number of adequate schools will fail as well. So, as a conference of state lawmakers found, resources will be "spread too thinly over too many schools, (reducing) the chances that schools that are truly in need of improvement can be helped."

But money aside, there are other fundamental flaws in the law - and curiously, they come in areas where the act deviates from true conservatism.

Most obvious, and what should be ringing deafening warning bells in the heads of conservatives, is that NCLB hasn't just paved the path of federal control over the schools, it's made it a six-lane Interstate.

Under the Constitution's 10th Amendment, the states should clearly have control over their own schools. The feds have previously gotten around this little constitutional inconvenience by holding the gun of federal funding to the states' heads.

So the feds tell the state, "fine, you don't have to pass mandatory seatbelt laws or test for auto emissions, but if you don't, no more highway funding for you."

Is that the kind of interference we want in our local classrooms? Whatever your party, there will come a time when your boys will not be in power. And under the NCLB model, it would be a piece of cake for Congress to say "You must (or must not) teach evolution; you must (or must not) hand out contraceptives in classrooms; you must (or must not) serve gravy in the cafeteria. And if you balk, we'll cut off the money spigot."

Federal intervention is not a conservative value. And neither, we are told, is political correctness. Yet NCLB starts from the politically correct notion that all children are capable of learning equally.

This is a topic that makes both sides nervous, so it's liable to receive less play than the funding issue, but I believe it deserves equal attention.

NCLB is what it says: no child left behind. As beautiful as this concept sounds, it is wrong and patently unworkable. A borderline retarded child is expected to make the same progress as a child with a 130 IQ? How?

And as teachers devote more and more time to teaching the unteachable, both children get left behind - one because he is incapable of getting ahead, the other because he is ignored and unchallenged.

Teachers will tell you that it is not uncommon to have an entire class that is above average one year, and an entire class that is below average the next. Yet under the rules of "make progress or else," the teacher is pressured by rigid guidelines to somehow get the slower children to meet or exceed the high standards that the smart class set the year before. This is akin to telling Barry Bonds, "Congrats on the 73 home runs. Now next season you have to hit 74 or you're fired."

Imagine the stress this places on the classroom teacher. So demanding was the old Maryland performance test, that some teachers in other parts of the state felt compelled to cheat. Other teachers frantically jettison meaningful learning in the name of test preparation.

NCLB is by no means a disaster, but to get a passing grade it needs three F's: Funding, flexibility and, perhaps most important, fair expectations of what children and teachers are capable of doing - and the wisdom to know the difference between what is true and what we wish were true.

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