In Fairfax's 'No Child' Fight, A Refusal to Leave Children Behind
Jack Dale is no anti-testing zealot, shielding the little ones from the reality of a competitive world. He's not out there with the activists who believe the No Child Left Behind revolution in American schools has turned education into a grim, mechanistic culture.
But the superintendent of Fairfax County schools, who presides over one of the highest-achieving systems in the land, has taken a stand at the schoolhouse door: "The last thing I'm going to do is subject some third-grader to tears because someone's standing over them saying, 'You must complete [this standardized test], you must complete.' That's not happening. Let them fire me for it."
In the next couple of weeks, either Dale or the U.S. government will blink. Until then, threats and counterthreats are flying across the Potomac. Dale, backed up by his school board and several other Northern Virginia superintendents, insists he will not require newly arrived immigrant children to take the same reading test that other kids take. And the feds reply: Oh, yes, you will -- and if you don't, you'll lose $17 million in federal dollars.
This is not about accountability; Dale's all for that. In fact, the children at issue are already tested twice a year on their English skills. When they reach a decent level of proficiency in their new language, they take the same test everyone else takes. But Dale refuses to make a kid who has just arrived in the country sit at a desk and be humiliated by a test that can only make him feel like a moron.
The federal approach to No Child Left Behind is what you might expect from an administration whose response to a failing strategy in Iraq is to throw good bodies after maimed ones. "We need to stay the course," Raymond Simon, the U.S. deputy secretary of education, told The Washington Post's Amit Paley. "The mission is doable, and we don't need to back off that right now."
No Child Left Behind is built on a mirage. At some point that's always just over the horizon, the law assumes, all children in the nation will miraculously read and compute at grade level, simply because they have been tested and tested and tested again. The theory is that somehow, when told the exact number of children who are lagging in achievement, teachers will agree to render the magic that they have thus far withheld and -- poof! -- those kids will become smart, cooperative and productive.
As we get closer to that utopia, it's becoming ever more clear that Some Children Remain Behind and that, gadzooks, Not Every Child Is the Same. Oh, and this: Staking everything on a test doesn't produce a flowering of inspired teaching, but rather what Dale, a former math teacher, calls an "obsessive focus on tests."
"You focus obsessively on multiplying two-digit numbers," he says, "as opposed to how to apply that knowledge in the real world and how to play with mathematics in a creative way."
The flaws in the nation's new education regimen continue to elude the Bush administration. Dale has met twice with senior officials in Washington to push for enough flexibility so schools are not condemned as failures -- even if 500 kids took and passed the tests, "two Hispanic children or two special education children didn't pass, and the rules say that makes the school a failure." Both times, senior Education Department leaders told Dale there would be no exceptions to the rules. (Virginia's two U.S. senators jumped in on Dale's side yesterday, filing a bill that would force the feds to give Fairfax schools and others a year's reprieve.)
In most of the country, the children in classes for non-English speakers were born in the United States, and Dale agrees that by third grade, they should be tested in English, as the law requires. But in Fairfax, 63 percent of children in such classes were born in other countries. Those children, Dale says, deserve a little time to soak in the language before they are subjected to high-stakes tests in English.
What this is really all about, the superintendent thinks, is an unresolved debate over whether there should be national education standards. Remember, the same people who now mandate Testing Uber Alles were pushing two decades ago to abolish any federal role in education. Under the No Child law, designed by a purportedly conservative administration, the amount of time that a superintendent such as Dale must spend satisfying the federal bureaucracy has skyrocketed from hardly any to hours and hours each week.
No Child Left Behind is built on a lie. Not every kid will go to college, no matter what you do. So you can either lower the standards enough to pretend that everyone is succeeding, or give up on the lie.
But the feds won't talk about that; they just repeat "Stay the course," and any school system that balks is threatened with punishment.
"I've been warned that to speak frankly in this area is not wise personally or professionally," Dale says. But he's speaking anyway, because, as a good teacher, he knows that "we don't succeed well when we go punitive. You need standards, but they should be aspirational; it needs to be about incentives, not punishment."
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