The left behind

Thursday, February 5th, 2004

Ever notice that you can’t make eye contact with a standardized test?

We forget this at our peril, or at the peril of the young, who are graded, measured and calibrated more than ever these days, at the expense of everything else that’s supposed to happen during the course of a school day, including learning.

I say this as the parent of a high school senior, who has spent the last dozen years fretting about the systematic squeeze, in the name of scientific rigor or whatever (always, always read: cheapskatism), of creative, heartfelt teaching from the American classroom. This was going on well before Bush Junior slipped into office, but he gave it steroids.

Last week I was assaulted by not one but two troubling stories about the nurturing of young minds. One concerned the two-year assessments of Bush’s educational reform law, the No Child Left Behind Act, which have started to congeal around a consensus: It’s a disaster.

“States and school districts face serious funding pressures and a lack of capacity to carry out the act,” the independent Center on Educational Policy put it, as politely as possible.

But Harvard’s Gary Orfield, who has consulted with Congress on education reform, was blunt enough to give hope to angry teachers skewered on the law’s testing-fixated mandate: “The act is ideological,” he said, and reflects “none of what’s known in education research.”

In the other story, lawyers for the Nashville, Tenn., school district may have done something right, but they did it clumsily and probably for the wrong reasons, and the result was national derision.

What they did was take on the sacred cow known as the honor roll. In response to complaints by some parents, who feared that their children would be ridiculed for not making the vaunted list, the school system’s legal department lowered the PC boom, warning that public release of academic records violated a state privacy statute.

And down came the honor roll lists from Nashville bulletin boards, to the loud complaints of the parents of kids who were on the honor roll. By the time the incident hit the national press, it had been trivialized into a tongue-in-cheek story about overly sensitive underachievers making suckers out of lawsuit-paranoid bureaucrats, at the expense of, well, you know, hard-working, ordinary Americans.

Lost in the tide of anti-PC sarcasm were serious issues about the value of grades, the suspect role of competition in the learning process and the cauterizing effect of humiliation on young minds — issues the media seldom addresses, unless some classroom loser brings a gun to school.

The critique of Bush’s showpiece law, which mandates proficiency testing at every grade level, is that it is sucking up precious class time and, predictably, causing panicked teachers to teach to the tests. And, oh yeah, it wound up costing the nation’s schools $6 billion in unfunded compliance and reporting requirements last year, with the shortfall in 2004 expected to be $8 billion.

No child left behind? This piece of shock-and-awe legislation is so cynically named and conceived, it might as well have originated with the ideologues in the Defense Department. We’re “rescuing” the nation’s children like we’re bringing democracy to Iraq: with bluster and coercion. What should we do instead?

“If you want all kids to be great readers, make sure they have great schools, with tons of good books, lots of money and time for field trips, plenty of materials, and the best-trained, highest-quality teachers to be found.”

So says Farin Houk-Serna, an elementary school teacher, whose essay on educationally disruptive testing requirements appeared on anti-testing activist Susan Ohanian’s Web site.

Houk-Serna also recommended, oh, things like good prenatal care, adequate nutrition, decent housing — the sorts of programs Bush carpet-bombed in his latest budget in order to pursue war and tax cuts.

Looks to me like the C-student in the Oval Office, the guy who doesn’t read, has figured out how to get his revenge on a system that failed him. See what happens when you ridicule underachievers?