Washington Post Metro page columnist Marc Fisher last week used the stories of two excellent elementary schools to trash, once again, the No Child Left Behind Act. I was delighted to read his columns because they were not only well-written, but gave me a chance to expose, once again, Marc's ill-considered bias against giving kids standardized tests and making the results have some consequences for the school.
Marc and I both mourn the passing of that era in journalism when columnists picked fights with each other all the time, if for no other reason than to have easy topics they could type up fast and get to their favorite taverns before noon. So let's start:
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
Marc's first column was about Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Fairfax County, a well-run magnet school where 54 percent of the 912 students are poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies and 77 percent are from immigrant families. Marc congratulated the principal, Jean Frey, for sending a letter to parents last spring saying that even if the school failed to meet its No Child Left Behind achievement targets this year, she would not, as Marc puts it, "shutter her science lab, pull the plug on theatrical productions or tell teachers to scrap a literature discussion to drill kids on test facts."
The second column introduced readers to Anthony Fears, the principal of Anne Beers Elementary School in the Hillcrest section of Southeast Washington, who worries that his good program may be swamped by too many students transferring from less successful schools. Under No Child Left Behind, if a school is labeled "needs improvement" for failing to raise test scores sufficiently, it can be forced to provide tutoring to students who ask for it and let students transfer to better-performing public schools.
I spoke to both Frey and Fears and was happy Marc spotlighted such fine educators who are doing so much for their students. Frey is serving not only immigrant families in the school's neighborhood, but 200 out-of-boundary students, mostly from English-speaking middle class families, who have chosen Bailey's because of its good programs, and some middle-class families in the neighborhood who have stayed for the same reason. Fears, who used to be an assistant superintendent in Baltimore before deciding to get closer to kids, has given a once poorly disciplined school new focus and energy with firm rules and lots of love.
Marc is right to point out that No Child Left Behind is a clumsy instrument. Some schools have reduced arts classes to make more time for reading and math. Some schools have been hurt by getting too many transfer students from low-performing neighbors. But Bailey's and Beers are not those schools. Nor do there appear to be many schools in the Washington area suffering from these alleged bureaucratic outrages. If anything, both Bailey's and Beers have been helped by the new federal law because its accountability rules give good principals such as Frey and Fears power they never had before.
Many critics of No Child Left Behind hint darkly of monstrous educational practices about to devour the best schools. But when asked to point them out, they have trouble coming up with examples. Marc says in the Bailey's column that "many schools hack away at the arts to focus on test-taking skills." I am willing to buy him a new Washington Grays baseball cap if he can find any such schools in Fairfax County, a very well-run system whose principals and teachers have been preparing students for the new tests without wringing the joy out of learning.
Frey herself acknowledges that Bailey's teachers would spend time reviewing and assessing with or without the worries of No Child Left Behind, because they know that review is a vital part of the learning process and that a variety of assessments are invaluable to ascertaining what parts of the lesson have or have not been absorbed. All she wants is an assessment system that gets results back to her more quickly, and a reduction in the number of tripwires in the federal law so Bailey's isn't labeled as "needing improvement" just because a few too many of her Spanish-speaking students could not pass their English tests. When Congress tries to revise the law next year, such good suggestions are likely to be heeded.
As for Beers Elementary, the most interesting story there is not transfers flooding in because of the new law. Fears admits there were only 20 of them this year, in a school of 402 students. What has actually happened is a 23 percent reduction in the size of the student body, from 525 to 402 kids, since Fears arrived three years ago.
The Beers principal said he found a school that was not enforcing many rules, including those limiting enrollment by students from outside the neighborhood. Previous principals seemed to think that the more students they had, the better off they were, since that meant they could hire more staff. But Fears thought the crowding was hurting the learning, and began to deny many transfer requests.
How was he able to do that, and why has he been able to keep the number of transfers this year to 20? Part of the answer is No Child Left Behind. Fears was recruited by former D.C. superintendent Paul Vance, who knew from the administrators grapevine what talent Fears had. And Fears, an adept office politician from his years as a headquarters administrator, knew that the emphasis on achievement under the new law meant that if new policy threatened his test scores, he could say no. His math scores are up to 18th place in the District, and he is working on similar progress in reading, where the scores are in 44th place. As long as student achievement gets better, few people are likely to try to mess with him.
When you look at the actual numbers, you discover the threat of massive transfers from the District's many underperforming schools is a non-issue anyway. Post Staff Writer Sewell Chan reported Oct. 10 that "of an estimated 25,000 to 33,000 students eligible to change schools, only 106 applied for transfers, and 68 of them were accepted." People still prefer their neighborhood schools, a phenomenon educators throughout the area have noted.
Frey, for instance, said she had little fear that her immigrant families would transfer out of the school if it did not meet the No Child Left Behind requirements. She just wanted to assure the middle class parents who knew of the law that, no matter what they heard, their kids were doing well. And in the end, Bailey's reached its testing targets after all.
No Child Left Behind is not the best accountability system ever invented. But, most policy makers and educators say, it has the right idea. Learning should be measured with tests. Standardized tests are in many ways better than the teachers' tests that have ruled schools up to now, because teachers can quietly decide not to test concepts that they have failed to teach well. Other forms of assessment, such as collections of work and conversations with teachers, have potential, but nobody has yet shown a way to make them work well with elementary school children from low-income homes.
Good educators such as Frey and Fears need a standard to guide them, a target to shoot for, so they can convince teachers to spend more time helping struggling students, convince parents to make sure homework is done and convince administrators at headquarters not to choke them with red tape.
To borrow an example from the little world Marc and I inhabit, many people at The Post are concerned about the recent drop in circulation. Everyone is talking about finding more subscribers. You may have noticed our new advertising campaign. But what Marc and I don't do is brag about our energetic reporting and deft metaphors and denounce the whole idea of measuring our sophistication as journalists by something so mundane as how many copies of the paper are sold.
Helping kids learn requires knowing each year how much they haven't learned, and using those numbers to do something about it. The educators at Bailey's and Beers know that, and I suspect the skeptics out there, particularly those as smart at Marc Fisher, will figure it out soon enough.