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No Child Left Behind waiver likely a good thing

June 03, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

Will Rogers said of communism, “It’s a good idea, but it doesn’t work.” No Child Left Behind was a nice thought, but it didn’t work either.

So, with the same quiet discretion with which you would usher a daft relative away from the wedding party, the remnants of President Bush’s signature educational reform are being disassembled piece by piece.

This week, Maryland became the most recent state to receive a waiver from the act’s more burdensome requirements. No one I’ve heard from is shedding any tears.

NCLB was a lovely idea, and had it been introduced by a Democratic administration it would have roundly (and correctly) been ridiculed as one of those lofty but unworkable ideas cooked up by starry-eyed liberals juiced on an overdose of chamomile tea.

And Democrats failed to call out NCLB because they were so thrilled at the apparent anomaly of a Republican with an interest in education that they were willing to overlook the warts.

In this case, the warts were wishes. NCLB wished that student test results could improve year after year, ad infinitum. NCLB wished for a world in which all human brains are of similar potential, and where all children are mentally capable of rising to academic challenges as a unit. NCLB wished that the slowest of students could be spun into geniuses by teachers whose talents echoed Rumpelstiltskin.

NCLB assumed what everyone who has ever watched an episode of Jerry Springer can assure you is untrue: That with proper instruction, we are all capable of scholarly success.

The truth is that the Declaration of Independence does not trump physiology. We might be equal under the law, but we are not equal mentally, physically or emotionally — and thank the Lord that we aren’t, or this world would be a pretty dull place.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t aim high.

NCLB was absolutely correct to guarantee each child equal opportunity to learn to the best of his or her ability. This notion is very different from schools of yore, where the 25 highest IQs formed the first class, the next 25 formed the second class and so on, until you got down to the last class, which met in the basement steam room where the groaning boilers would drown out any noisy misbehaviors.

In education, as in politics, we always have trouble finding a happy medium.

NCLB’s greatest failing was not in its soaring goals, but in its unjust and crippling punishments if this standard of perfection were not achieved.

Schools were expected to make Adequate Yearly Progress, a year-over-year improvement that would be much like a track coach insisting that each new class run a faster 400-meter relay than the previous year’s team. Be it athletics or academics, that’s an impossibility.

Unless, of course, you start resorting to steroids, or “teaching to the test,” or even making cheaters out of teachers and school systems, as was the case in Atlanta, scene of American education’s largest known cheating scandal.

A subsequent investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that screened raw data from across the country discovered suspicious test-score patterns in 200 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts.

This is what happens when a professional’s career is dependent upon teaching kids who might quite simply be incapable of learning as much and as fast as the government would like. And when two or three severely challenged students can sink an otherwise reasonably bright class — and the teacher’s career along with them.

The victims of cheating are the great majority of teachers in the country who have integrity, and, of course, the kids themselves. Those disadvantaged kids will never get the extra support that NCLB intends because, according to their cooked test scores, they do not need it.

Those who defend NCLB say that improper testing security is the problem, not the tests themselves. This argument has a “Guns don’t kill people ...” flavor to it, and glosses over a basic democratic truth: People will always feel justified in breaking bad laws, and when people begin to break the bad laws they also begin to lose respect for the good ones.

It is very easy to see how teachers might feel as if they were being told to turn water into wine, and the reaction is as predictable as the reaction was to Prohibition.

Where No Child Left Behind was concerned, the teachers were the first to become aware of its shortcomings. The government, as usual, was the last to know — but at least it’s learning.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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