Monday, March 20, 2006

Clinging to the Status Quo on Education

The following article appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune but was posted on Real Clear

March 01, 2006
Clinging to the Status Quo on Education
By Ruben Navarrette
SAN DIEGO -- You have to hand it to critics of No Child Left Behind. In trying to preserve the status quo, they're wrong. But at least they're persistent. In fact, they're persistently wrong.

Made up of teachers, administrators, school board members and anyone who turns a blind eye to the mediocrity of public schools, the critics are relentless in their attempts to discredit the education reform law.

They'll get another chance to blast away over the next several months as a bipartisan commission holds public hearings across the country to get an earful on what works with the law, and what doesn't. The commission will send recommendations to Congress, which is expected to renew the law in 2007.

It's easy to see why those who prefer the status quo detest No Child Left Behind. Under the law, children in every racial and demographic group in every public school must improve their scores on standardized tests in math and science. No excuses. Schools that fall short of that goal can be shut down, and their students can transfer to another public school.

The critics hate requirements like that for one reason -- because good tests not only tell you if kids are learning but also if teachers and administrators are holding up their end. If the truth comes out, disgruntled parents might go from demanding accountability from schools to demanding it from the individuals who work in them.

The critics are nothing if not versatile. First they insisted that No Child Left Behind was unfair to schools because it was a one-size-fits-all approach with no flexibility. Then they said the law was unfair to teachers because it tied them to student performance when not all children learn at the same pace.

Now they're insisting the law is unfair to some students because it benefits middle-class white kids and hurts Latinos and African-Americans. At least that is the conclusion of a troubling new study by the deceptively named Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Troubling because the agenda it advances is dangerous and the thinking behind it is backward. Deceptively named because if this group cared about civil rights, it would push in the opposite direction.

It goes back to the flexibility the critics requested and eventually received. Now that 49 states have either amended the law or waived some of its provisions, the critics have the chutzpah to insist that the thing they wanted has produced a result they find unacceptable. They claim that schools that educate white and middle-class students are more likely to take advantage of loopholes and dodge accountability than those that teach poor kids and Latinos and African-Americans. As a result, they say, schools with poor and minority kids are more likely to report low scores on exams and are thus more likely to incur sanctions. That is, according to the critics, an education law intended to help black and brown kids is, in fact, racist.

That criticism is half-right. There is racism here, but not in the law. Rather, it is built into the educational system that the law seeks to reform.

It begins when a teaching corps that is three-fourths white approaches minority students with what President Bush calls the soft bigotry of low expectations. It continues as those teachers, at a loss to explain why these students don't do as well in school, cling to the racist assumption that minority parents don't value education. And, finally, it is compounded when those who want to preserve the status quo do everything they can to undermine testing -- not to protect black and brown children but to protect the adults who are disenfranchising them.

The No Child Left Behind law didn't create racism in education. But it just might be helpful in exposing it.

I suspect that the Harvard study is right about one thing -- that some schools, including those that educate white and middle-class children, have come up with creative ways to skirt the law by taking advantage of waivers and the like.

But so what? The schools that resort to such maneuvers are only hurting the kids they're supposed to be teaching. Minority students, far from being disenfranchised, are much better off for being held accountable with no exceptions and no excuses.

That can be messy. But whom are we kidding? It's nothing compared to the mess that the special interests have made of the educational system.

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