Critics leave behind no alternative for education reform

April 26, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - My wife is sitting on a gold mine, I tell her. She's a part-time creative writing teacher in a District of Columbia public high school. She comes home with stories more shocking, poignant, bizarre, scandalous and hilarious than I have ever seen on Boston Public and other TV dramas about the traumas of high school.

I was particularly touched by what she heard one day from a 16-year-old girl from "Southeast," which is how Washingtonians refer to the poorest section of town. "Ms. Page, you come to every class, don't you?" she asked. "I never had a teacher who came to every class before."

No, the sad thing about some teachers is that they don't take their jobs as seriously as they should and their sloth is protected too often by their union, which is only doing what unions are supposed to do, protect their members.

Unfortunately, a system that rewards mediocrity inevitably penalizes those who encourage excellence. I applaud dedicated, self-sacrificing teachers like those who saved my life. Today, such dedication is often squashed by spirit-killing public school systems.

Such anecdotes come to mind as I examine the lawsuits and other objections that more than 30 states - including some Republican strongholds - have kicked up recently against President Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform law.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union and a leading critic of No Child Left Behind, and eight school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont, sued the U.S. Education Department last Wednesday. They accused No Child Left Behind of violating a federal law that forbids the federal government from requiring states to spend their own money to enforce mandates Washington has imposed on them.

Also last week, Utah's very Republican legislature passed a bill that requires educators there to spend as little state money as possible in carrying out the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Connecticut's attorney general two weeks earlier announced his state's intentions to sue the Education Department on the same grounds.

I also have criticisms of No Child Left Behind. The law's one-size-fits-all approach on setting national education standards is treacherously simplistic. It flies in the face of what just about every parent realizes: Every child learns differently.

And the law's standards for learning disabilities are unfairly narrow. For an administration that opposes racial or gender quotas, Team Bush is remarkably eager to impose quotas on how many of a school district's students can be judged "learning impaired."

But, imperfect as No Child Left Behind may be, I'd rather stick with it and try to improve it than replace it with nothing - and nothing is precisely what too many of its critics are offering as an alternative.

As much as I quarrel with some of Mr. Bush's policies, at least he took his own campaign promises about education seriously. He stepped up to the plate and set a clear, achievable goal: Make every student in the country proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Just as it took President Richard M. Nixon to open the doors to communist China, it may take another conservative Republican such as Mr. Bush to kick-start national education reforms.

After decades of fighting for equal educational opportunities for the poor, national Democrats and too many civil rights leaders have become extensions of the teachers unions, falling into a self-defeating pattern of lock step support of more funding without more accountability from teachers and administrators.

The result, too often, is a school system that spends more per student year after year and has less to show for it. Somebody could make a heck of a television series out of that. Unfortunately, as they say in Hollywood, tragedy doesn't sell.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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