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In educating, one size does not fit all
Arizona Daily Star
December 11, 2003

By Reg Weaver

In the words of President Bush: "One size does not fit all when it comes to the education of the children in America."

But as parents and teachers have learned this fall, that's just the approach taken by the so-called No Child Left Behind Act.

The 2.7 million-member National Education Association shares the goal of the law: to close the achievement gap between the affluent, predominantly white student bodies of suburban schools and the poor, non-Asian minorities of our inner-city schools.

But we dispute the administration's premise that we can test our way to educational excellence. And we are outraged when anyone dismisses the $11 billion shortfall in federal funding for education as a "bogus argument."

The so-called No Child Left Behind Act declares that in 10 years - 2014 and forever after - every single child in America will be "proficient" in reading, math and science.

Every child. Children with disabilities. Children who don't speak English. Children who live in poverty and move every two months.

The law decrees that the sole measure of "proficiency" is performance on standardized tests. Although the tests themselves vary widely from state to state, the reporting requirements are the same: Scores must be broken down by race and ethnicity and for students with disabilities. If any of these groups is not up to snuff, the entire school fails.

With this one-size-fits-all approach, some of the best schools in America have been declared failures.

One is Princeton High School in Princeton, N.J., where 100 percent of the students graduate and 79 percent go on to four-year colleges, including seven National Merit semifinalists this year alone.

Another is ethnically diverse Midwood High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., nationally renowned as an incubator for the Intel Science Talent Search, five of whose winners have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize.

In Maryland, the failures include more than 3,000 third-graders and 30 elementary schools, including eight in affluent Montgomery County.

The grounds for declaring these schools "in need of improvement" illustrate the absurdity of the so-called No Child Left Behind Act.

At Midwood, less than 1 percent of the population performed poorly - 33 students with disabilities out of a student body of 3,500.

Some of the Maryland schools failed because teachers read questions aloud to students with limited English skills or disabilities - not because they were cheating, but because these children have special needs.

Other Maryland schools failed because fewer than 95 percent of the students in a reporting category were present on the day of the test - an automatic "F."

To close the achievement gap between white and non-Asian minority students, we need high standards as well as common-sense measures of accountability that go beyond a single test score - not mindless paperwork and bureaucracy.

Poor and minority students in inner-city schools need what students in more affluent suburban schools already have: small classes, highly qualified teachers, involved parents, up-to-date books and materials, and access to 21st century technology.

It's not sexy. It's not the latest gimmick. Just plain common sense.

But it doesn't come cheap. Bush has asked Congress to provide $87 billion in supplemental funds to rebuild Iraq - one-third more than the budget of the entire U.S. Department of Education.

Rebuilding Iraq is important and necessary, but so is investing in the education of the children who will shape America's future.

The so-called No Child Left Behind Act may be the most massive unfunded mandate ever imposed on the states by Washington.

Congress must put an end to the absurdity and appropriate the funds needed to ensure great public schools for every child.

* Reg Weaver is president of the National Education Association, 1201 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036-3290; www.nea.org. This commentary was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.