President Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan spoke some simple truth yesterday.
Put another way: The United States is not Lake Wobegone. All children are not above average.
This was the essential lie in George Bush's No Child Left Behind education initiative. With the carrot of money for achievers and punishment for failures, schools would be pushed to the point that all children would be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
There's blame aplenty to go around, but Duncan now admits this notion was "utopian." He says we're at the point that, with rising standards, some 80 percent of the country's schools will soon be judged failing.
It's reminiscent of the continuing alarm that many high school graduates score below average on standard tests and are judged in need of remediation for college work. Of course. Those proficient in arithmetic understand that an average derives from the sum of numbers above and below the average. Some will be below average.
Let's get real. Some kids won't get algebra or literature. Some schools cope with extraordinary numbers of disadvantaged students. The pass-fail model linked to test scores has already encouraged score manipulation even as it overlooks the special circumstances that put some schools more in jeopardy than others. I think of the Little Rock high school achieving with every category of student except a category for minority students. There, the school's performance failed because, by law, the test scores of kids packed off to an alternative school for disciplinary reasons had to be included in the originating school's "performance" under NCLB.
Duncan, a charter school friendly reformer that even the Waltons could love, doesn't want to water things down, I don't think, as Bush administration critics suggest. The law simply needs some fine-tuning.