Congress will soon decide whether to renew President Bush's signature education program "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), the goal of which is to bring every public school student to grade level in reading and math by 2014.
Though leaving no child behind may be a worthy goal politically and socially, some are questioning whether it is an obtainable one. Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA, recently told The Washington Post, "There is a zero percent chance that we will ever reach a 100 percent target." Maybe not, but the poet Robert Browning said that our reach should always exceed our grasp. By expecting more, we get more from our institutions and ourselves than if we were to "settle" for less and get less.
Still, after five years of NCLB, the statistics are not encouraging. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, between 1992 and 2005, there has been an increase in the percentage of 12th-grade students who read below the basic level (from 20 percent to 27 percent since the previous assessment). Only 23 percent of 12th-graders are performing at or above math proficiency levels. As usual, the figures are worse for black and Hispanic students.
I asked U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings about this. She told me that half of the states waited until the 2005-'06 school year to do an annual assessment, but that 70 percent of the nation's 90,000 public schools "are meeting the requirements of NCLB. But for 1,800, which are chronically year after year failing our kids, something more dramatic has to happen."
That "something more" has included local government takeover of some school systems. In New York and Chicago, as well as in the state of Florida, which Spellings describes as a "leader" in education improvement, interesting things" are being done. Washington, D.C., is also debating whether government should take over its poorly performing schools. Spellings said "the state of affairs" in Washington schools is "not encouraging."
Spellings cited one major reason for underperformance I had not considered. When I was in school, she noted, I was taught mostly by bright and accomplished women. As opportunities for women in other professions opened up, many of the best and brightest teachers - and potential teachers - left or chose other professions because they paid more. "The teachers' unions," she said, "always negotiate the same pay raises for everybody and the superstars say Œforget this, I'm going where I will be recognized as a superstar.'"
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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