Columns » Ernest Dumas

Learn or else


If you're young and eager to have children, hold off a while because in 10 years they can enter any school in Arkansas or the United States and be guaranteed to be proficient in reading and mathematics. It is a requirement of the No Child Life Behind Act that teachers in every school district will see to it that every single child is proficient - or else. That veiled threat is the meat of No Child Left Behind and the other tough high-stakes testing laws that a few states, like Arkansas, are piling on the schools, soon to become the most heavily regulated institution, by far, in America. The law sets up a system of punishment for every school that does not begin to bring all its children up to a standard of proficiency in reading and math. Originally, President Bush and the men who wrote the law wanted any school that failed to bring a few of its children up to snuff to give vouchers to the children to go to private academies but even a few Republicans balked so it had to be scrapped. Privatization is still the goal. Most teachers think it is wrongheaded and destructive to force battery after battery of standardized reading and math tests on children and teachers and pin the whole future of the school on the minute results. But all these educators, say the fans of No Child Left Behind, are shiftless people who aren't interested in giving kids a good education and they are racists to boot. See the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial savaging Sid Johnson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, for writing a letter criticizing the act. It accused him and the AEA of not wanting poor blacks and Hispanic children to learn and of impeding school change. The AEA over the years has been the No. 1 advocate of high mandatory standards, school consolidation and equality. Usually it was alone. Here is the basic premise of No Child Left Behind and the state laws, like Arkansas's, that link standardized tests to sanctions: Teachers know how to make all children learn and have the resources to do it but they just won't do it, out of meanness or laziness or God knows what. So when the test results are published and the schools have to pay for children to go elsewhere or for private tutoring or they're threatened with the school being turned over to private charter groups, teachers will throw in the towel and start teaching right. It's the nature of competition. It's how business works, and education is just another form of business. Now does any unmedicated mortal really believe that all that is wrong with schools is a willful refusal of teachers to educate children correctly and that a federal threat of reprisals will fix it? The educators who doubt it are accused of believing that poor minority kids can't learn or aren't worth educating and so should be left behind. But the opposite is true. Those are the children who will in the end be left behind by No Child Left Behind. Without a single standardized test being administered, we all know which schools will fail. In Arkansas and throughout the South, they are the rural, small-town and central city schools with sizable percentages of poor kids, primarily African-American and Hispanic. The highest imperative of public education - no, of all state government - is to start educating them because in the changing social and economic order they form the future civil society and the predominant work force. A study by Paul E. Barton, Parsing the Achievement Gap, identified 14 factors in the home, community and school that are linked to achievement and the failure of poor children. A paucity of standardized tests was not one of them. Terrible home conditions that did not prepare kids to learn were the prevalent ones. Lack of good teachers was one. The state must do something to attract gifted people into teaching again. There was a time when most of the brainpower of the country - women - had few places to go but teaching. Now every professional or technical career offers better rewards. Too few of the good teachers, by choice or school policy, are in schools with high numbers of poor and hard-to-teach youngsters.. The Arkansas legislature deserves a little credit for addressing the real problems that No Child Left Behind did not - raising taxes to make teaching a little more attractive, particularly in poor schools, and to provide early childhood training to at least a few poor children. Had they provided small kindergarten and grade-school classes for those kids it would have helped even more. Notably, the fans of punitive tests and privatization, like the Democrat-Gazette, were on the other side.

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