Give states a roadmap so no child will be lost

January 16, 2003|By Gary Ratner

WHEN THE No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 became law a year ago with the important goal of raising all children to academic proficiency in challenging subjects, the public may have believed that finally there was a complete roadmap for dramatically improving public schooling. But recent experience reveals the opposite.

The chasm between the law's goal and current student achievement is huge. Among the some 8 million African-American and 7 million Hispanic students nationwide, about 90 percent are below "proficient," or grade level, in reading and math. About 8 million poor students (50 percent) lack even "basic" or rudimentary skills at their respective grade levels.

The act essentially mandates that states receiving federal Title I funds test students annually and publish results, offer limited transfers and tutoring, train teachers to meet state certification requirements, certify all teachers as "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-2006 school year and annually improve learning so all students are academically proficient by 2014.

But it does not advise states how to change their educational systems to profoundly improve learning for the majority of public school students, especially the poor and racial minorities. As Judith Rizzo, former deputy chancellor for New York City's schools, recently stated: "If you don't know how to get it to the classroom level, [the law] is a waste of money."

Governors such as Jennifer Granholm of Michigan have exactly that concern. She doesn't know what Michigan should do to improve achievement, and the law does not help her. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico is worried that his state's rural schools will not be able to meet the federal standards.

Ignorant of what to do differently and fearful of having to disclose publicly that a large percentage of their schools are failing to educate kids to grade level, states have already begun to seriously weaken their criteria for what constitutes academic proficiency.

Louisiana will now deem students "proficient" under the law even when their achievement is actually only at the state's "basic" level. Colorado will label its students "proficient" even when they only achieve at "partially proficient." And Connecticut will call its students "proficient" under the law even when they fail to meet the state's own reading and math performance goals. Experts expect other states will follow suit.

Experience reveals that the law's purpose is already being turned upside-down.

The law was intended to induce states to figure out what changes would be required to raise virtually all students to academic proficiency and to institute those changes. Instead, the states, not knowing how to comply, have begun to nullify the act by deeming its goal of academic proficiency to be met by whatever low level of learning they provide with business as usual.

The states, by their actions and words, are, in effect, pleading with the federal government to give them a blueprint for how they can dramatically enhance schooling. To enable the states to institute the necessary fundamental changes and avoid their self-protective evisceration of the law's purpose, President Bush and Congress need to honor their plea.

Experienced educators know what the roadmap needs to include:

For existing teachers, intensive training in subject matter; individualized mentoring in teaching skills; regular, scheduled preparation time with colleagues; and refocusing traditional professional development workshops onto meeting participants' immediate teaching needs.

For new teachers, supplanting widespread 10- to 12-week education college student teaching programs with at least 30-week, academically integrated and closely supervised field placements so all candidates are competent to teach upon graduation.

For principals and superintendents, intensive case study and experiential postgraduate programs in how to lead their teachers, parents and communities to vastly raise their expectations and students' learning; financial and mentoring incentives to recruit and retain only academically skilled teachers and administrators, especially for poor urban and rural areas; and replacing with capable personnel all teachers and administrators unable or unwilling, after training, to perform effectively.

Federal comprehensive literacy and other public or private programs, including adult education and parenting skills, should be offered to all needy families so they can motivate and assist their children to learn, and should include surrogate mentors and tutors where necessary.

Only the federal government has the authority to lead states to adopt this roadmap and the capacity to fund its implementation nationwide. The government's publication of such a roadmap is essential to prevent leaving millions of children behind.

Gary Ratner is executive director of Citizens for Effective Schools Inc., a national nonprofit organization based in Bethesda.

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