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Column: Schools need support more than ever

The news that our public school system is among the 11 worst in the state by No Child Left Behind measures probably made a lot of parents wonder about their children’s education.

I did, for a second. Our daughters graduated from Rowan-Salisbury Schools between 2000 and 2005. One now teaches fifth grade in Arkansas; the younger two are in college. Does No Child Left Behind’s apparent condemnation mean my children received a substandard education, one of the worst in the state?

Far from it.

Theirs may not have been the best education in the world; you’d probably have to go to an elite prep school for that. But they have proved in test-taking and college classes and beyond that they have a good academic foundation on which to build the rest of their lives.

Besides, No Child Left Behind is less about my children and probably yours than it is about students for whom a good education seems to lie beyond a high wall — a wall of language incomprehension, poverty or learning disability. Go back to the name of the program, No Child Left Behind. While the federal program strives to raise teacher quality and graduation rates across the spectrum, its main thrust is in reaching students who in the past tended to fall through the cracks — kids whom educators may even have expected to fail.

No Child Left Behind says failure is not an option, and it forces schools to persist in trying to get through to their toughest cases.

Rowan-Salisbury schools have not succeeded with some of those subgroups of students as well as No Child Left Behind requires, and at the middle school level, the system has not made adequate progress for the student body as a whole. Those are serious problems that need to be corrected.

But the presence of a state assistance team in the months ahead should not be interpreted to mean public education here is a sham. Anyone who’s seen their own children graduate from the system and go on to lead productive lives — favorite teachers’ voices echoing in their heads from time to time — knows that is not the case.

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This is a balancing act, like explaining how you can support U.S. troops stuck in the quagmire of Iraq and oppose the leadership that got them there. You can support the schools that have fallen to the bottom tier and question the leadership that got them there. In fact, you should.

It’s a good thing that Dr. Wiley Doby, our former superintendent, has moved on. That doesn’t let everyone else in the schools off the hook for this situation. But it takes care of the first item on the agenda, setting the schools in a new direction.

Dr. Judy Grissom has stepped into the office of Educator-in-Chief at the best of times and the worst of times. She had nothing to do with the test scores that have gotten Rowan into trouble, but she finds herself in charge of directing a system that has worked its way into a bad position.

Grissom and the schools may have to make drastic changes, and they will need the community’s full support. Climbing our way out of this hole is the most urgent item on the community’s agenda.

Industries and individuals who consider relocating to Salisbury do their homework. They go online to check us out, and school test scores can be a major factor in their decision. Rowan-Salisbury needs to turn this situation around fast.

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Here’s another balancing act: Criticizing No Child Left Behind and demanding that schools meet its goals. Many educators despise the federal program, and editorially the Post has chimed in. No Child Left Behind has major flaws. But like it or not, the schools must strive for the program’s goals. The consequences of falling short are real.

In a recent letter to the editor, reader John Sims responded to one of those NCLB-bashing editorials by reminding us that the program serves a worthy purpose.

“Let’s look at our local system. We have an alarming dropout rate. The SAT scores are lower than the state average. Schools are not meeting the state averages.”

” … Maybe the Post should concentrate on our local situation. Let’s hold these bureaucrats responsible, not blame their failures on a test or federal program. If our school system turns out a superior student, that student can take anyone’s test and pass.”

Well said.

But as Congress debates reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, it should make sure some rules change. For instance, right now a student can be counted in more than one subgroup, and if that student doesn’t do well on tests, his failure is counted in each group, as if multiple students performed poorly, not one. That skews results.

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Teachers feel battered by No Child Left Behind. A career of good work falls into the shadows, while the spotlight stays on the failure of some students at some schools. Torture.

It’s too bad the schools can’t purge students of problems that set everyone up for failure — like a bad upbringing or rebellion against the good upbringing they’re lucky to have.

Sometimes I think test scores reflect the wealth and education levels of parents more than they do the quality of the schools their kids attend. That’s just what No Child Left Behind is trying to change; success shouldn’t be limited to those who are middle class or better and whose parents are well-educated. The cycle of poverty needs to be broken. Let’s take care not to break our teachers in the process.

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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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