The case for practicality

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 3, 2007

“Throughout our schools and communities, the American people have a very strong sense that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair, not flexible and is not funded. And they are not wrong.”
ó Rep. George Miller
The Rowan-Salisbury Schools are simultaneously rejoicing and bemoaning. On the positive side, three schools labeled with “corrective action” or “school improvement” under No Child Left Behind guidelines a year ago reversed the trend this year and made adequate yearly progress ó the holy grail of federal education accountability.
But several other schools did not make that level of progress on reading and math standards, and three more schools now bear the scarlet letter of “school improvement.”
Meanwhile, debate on Capitol Hill throws into question the validity of No Child Left Behind to begin with, and the state is doing away with school improvement teams like the one the Rowan-Salisbury schools so urgently mustered up for this spring. So we have local educators shaping their classroom instruction ó and being considered successful or unsuccessful ó based solely on testing standards that are themselves under scrutiny.
This is beginning to feel like a Gordian Knot, the mythical rope tied so thickly and tightly that the only way out was to slice it with a sword. Before anyone axes No Child Left Behind, though, it deserves a chance to adjust and prove its worth.
Regardless of changes that may be coming, the staffs and students at the schools that improved their status ó China Grove, Granite Quarry and North Rowan elementaries ó deserve kudos for reaching all targets for all student subgroups, a very demanding standard. So do three other schools that reached all targets: Cleveland, Enochville and Faith. As it is now, No Child Left Behind is unforgiving; a school that misses one of its targets gets the same label as one that misses all of them. This is one of the faults lawmakers have vowed to fix.
Meanwhile, the public must recognize the impact No Child Left Behind has had on the public schools. Teachers and administrators have been put under great pressure to make all children succeed, which has caused great stress. In the long run, that push can be good for students ó especially disadvantaged or handicapped children who might not have been expected to succeed in the past ó as long as they themselves don’t get too stressed out. In some cases, teachers say, it is virtually impossible to meet targets.
No Child has helped the system in a backhanded way. Rowan-Salisbury’s mediocre showing last year put a spotlight on problems that might have remained in the shadows: teachers not following the state’s standard course of study, for example, and other signs of a decentralized system that imposed few standards. Under Dr. Judy Grissom’s leadership, that is changing. Given time and resources, the system as a whole should be able to improve its showing under No Child Left Behind.
The trick for Congress is making the federal program’s standards fairer and more flexible without rendering it meaningless. Fairer should not be weaker. Public schools need a realistic model, not an escape hatch. Ideally, No Child would make educators continue to strive for higher goals without feeling they’ve been asked to do the impossible.