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Marc Fisher

Law Leaves Better Schools In Worse Spot

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page B01

Anthony Fears, principal of Anne Beers Elementary School in the Hillcrest section of Southeast Washington, should be the kind of school leader who swears by the No Child Left Behind revolution.

In each of the last three years, Fears's students have produced marked increases in math scores on the tests that determine whether their school is a success or failure in the eyes of the federal government. Reading scores at Beers have lagged, but Fears is determined to turn that around; this year, he requires every class to spend two hours each morning on reading instruction.


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By avoiding the stigma of failure that No Child Left Behind has slapped on more than half of the District's public schools -- and all but two high schools -- Fears has achieved something worth celebrating.

But he has a problem.

Suburban schools tend to rebel against No Child Left Behind because it strips creativity from their classrooms. In tough urban areas, there is another problem. The law that seeks to liberate children from failing schools ends up threatening the relatively few schools that are classified as successes.

The rhetoric of No Child Left Behind envisions a vibrant marketplace in which children once sentenced to failing schools win the right to choose good schools. Kids who weren't learning now will, the theory goes.

But in the real world, "failing" schools tend not to be isolated losers in a sea of fine institutions. Rather, failure tends to be concentrated in places where test scores are low in part because schools are lousy but also because the students are recent immigrants or come from poor families or have parents who are absent or dysfunctional.

So when Beers Elementary, which serves poor and middle-class sections of Ward 7, develops close ties to NASA, offers students the chance to learn science in a space shuttle simulator, adds a full-time science teacher and makes strong gains in math and science achievement, the school becomes a refuge for families who want to get their children out of failing schools.

"People are calling constantly who want to take their kids out of [nearby elementary schools] to come to Anne Beers," Fears said. "They say, 'You have to take me because of No Child Left Behind.' I say, 'Yes, but tell me what this child is going to bring to the table.' Because we got this infusion of NCLB students, and it drastically changed the climate in our school."

"With No Child Left Behind, we have students coming here who don't necessarily fit in because they don't have the same kind of parents," said Beers guidance counselor Kaye Henson. "That has worked to our detriment. We see a lot of parents now who have problems themselves, who are not educated."

The transfer into Beers of children who are fleeing schools tagged as failures threatens his achievements, Fears said. So Fears -- like other principals in the same boat -- tries to screen those students. "Let me see the report cards, the SAT-9 scores," he tells parents of those who want in. "What do you do with your child at home? If you aren't reading to your child, you can't come to Anne Beers."

Fears is required to accept students who live in his school's home area, but he has leeway in selecting children from outside those boundaries. One result is a sad new game in which principals who have worked hard to get a handle on discipline problems and build up academic expectations find themselves fending off transfers generated by No Child Left Behind.

Those principals may be accused of cherry-picking students to boost test scores, but it's the law that pushes them to do so. Tests are coarse instruments, and any system that measures success by test scores is first and foremost measuring the socioeconomic status of its students.

Fears, formerly an assistant superintendent in Baltimore, wants to add foreign language and art classes to his curriculum. He hopes to continue an ambitious musical theater program. And he wants to attract families who are moving into the $300,000 houses springing up in the area.

But to do that, he has to find a way around a law that not only leaves children behind but also restrains schools from leaping forward.

Is Sen. Mark Dayton, who closed up his office for fear of terrorism, a cynic or a seer? Talk about it at noon today on "Potomac Confidential" at

www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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