Why Congress May Flunk High School

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.
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Posted: Aug 06, 2007 12:00 AM
Why Congress May Flunk High School

This fall, Congress will evaluate and potentially reauthorize the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. This will be tantamount to grading education. It is important for all Americans to remember that comprehensive reform is necessary to restore our international educational edge. This reauthorization cannot deteriorate to another referendum on President Bush’s popularity. We should not allow the fate of this landmark legislation to be guided by partisan political agendas.

The real question for Washington is whether our national leaders will have the courage to combine all the resources available to the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch of our government to solve our problems. Young Americans cannot read well. Young Americans are falling behind international students in advanced scientific studies. We lost our competitive edge. Something dramatic must be done!

But why start over? A key question that Congress must debate concerning in the NCLB is whether to continue increasing the federal government's authority over education or to turn the control of American schools back to local communities and their citizens.

I believe that there must be a savvy use of the following elements to improve our educational system:

1. powerful public schools

2. competitive charter schools

3. voucher programs where appropriate

4. world-class private education

5. teacher accountability

NCLB increased federal authority by giving Congress and the U.S. Department of Education new powers to set policies governing America's public schools. The Heritage Foundation (among other groups) cites that one of the unintended consequences of this legislation is the weakening of state testing and “academic transparency.”

Despite the fact the NCLB only represented 8.5% of the total funding for public education, some constituencies were accused of reaching for the dollars – while compromising effective educational processes. Some states lowered standards, others changed how tests were evaluated, and many regions attempted to keep parents from understanding what their children were actually learning. Some groups have dubbed these changes as a “race towards the bottom.”

As states respond to the pressure of NCLB testing by lowering state standards, parents, citizens, and policymakers are denied basic information about student performance in America's schools. The loss of academic transparency will hinder parents from knowing whether or not their children are learning and will prevent policymakers from judging how well public schools are performing.

Congress must improve NCLB while avoiding the typical Washington tactic of starting all over again when a “new sheriff” comes to town. While Congress is reflecting, the Supreme Court has already spoken concerning education. On June 28, 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that voluntary plans to create racial balance in schools should stop.

When I first heard the news I was upset, believing that this was a major reversal of one of the cornerstones of civil rights legislation. Upon reflection, however, I realized that the Supreme Court decision was an indictment against a system of forced, racial integration that is not truly serving the current needs the average kid. What is needed today is not just a Supreme Court ruling but a positive plan to urgently change the structure of education. Kids of all races are in academic danger. Black and Hispanic children are especially vulnerable.

The National Center for Education statistics tell us that the majority of white kids go to schools that are predominately white and large numbers of black kids go to predominately black schools. Today racial separation in various neighborhoods is not by government fiat or prejudice - it is by choice.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, where I pastor, we enjoy the status of being America’s wealthiest, predominately black county. Unfortunately, our school system is one of the worst in the region. In a community in which million dollar homes and Mercedes Benz are common place, quality educational programs in the schools are rare. The poor performance of students cannot be blamed on segregation alone.

In a recent meeting with Secretary Spellings of the Department of Education, she underscored the urgent needs of children of color. Citing the fact that 50% of black males do not graduate from high school on time, Spellings emphatically stated that her goal is to bring measurable results to inefficient schools. The achievement gap between black and white children is closing at the elementary school level, yet there remains a huge problem at the high school level.

During the days of the Brown VS Board of Education decision, only 24% of blacks under the age of thirty had finished high school. Today that number has grown significantly - 86.3% of black adults aged 25-29 have graduated from high school. Unfortunately this lags the 93.4% graduation rates of whites. Why are these numbers important? Educational standards have gradually been watered down over the years. Blacks and Hispanics who do not substantively progress beyond high school, will never achieve economic equality with whites.

Imagine an America in which teachers know how to deal with discipline problems, understand the culture, and help kids master basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. These are the changes that America needs. Unfortunately neither the Supreme Court, the Congress, or the President alone, can make American education competitive. We need a concerted team effort.

Let’s get involved in the education of the kids we love! And let’s refuse to support politicians without substantive plans to improve education.