Marc Fisher, a Washington Post Metro columnist, recently used the story of an excellent elementary school in Fairfax County to trash, once again, the No Child Left Behind Act ["Leaving No Child Behind at Bailey's," Metro, Oct. 23].
I was delighted to read the column because it not only was well written but also gave me a chance to expose, once again, Fisher's ill-considered bias against giving kids standardized tests and making the results have some consequences for the school.
Fisher and I 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, then get to their favorite taverns before noon. So let's start.
Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences is a well-run magnet school in the Falls Church area where 54 percent of the 912 students are poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies and 77 percent are from immigrant families. Fisher 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 Fisher put 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."
I am happy Fisher spotlighted such a fine educator as Frey. She is serving not only immigrant families in the school's neighborhood but also about 200 out-of-boundary students, mostly from English-speaking middle-class families who have chosen Bailey's because of its good programs. There are also some middle-class families in the neighborhood who have stayed for the same reason.
Fisher 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 is not one of those schools. Nor does it appear that there are many schools in the Washington area suffering from these alleged bureaucratic outrages. If anything, Bailey's has been helped by the new federal law because its accountability rules give good principals such as Frey power she 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. Fisher 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 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 the threat of student transfers from underperforming schools to those that meet the federal requirements, 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 policymakers 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 conversation 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 need a standard to guide them, a target to shoot for, so they can persuade teachers to spend more time helping struggling students, persuade parents to make sure homework is done and persuade administrators at headquarters not to choke them with red tape.
To borrow an example from the little world Fisher and I inhabit, many people at The Washington Post are concerned about a recent drop in circulation. Everyone is talking about how to find more subscribers.
But what Fisher 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 know that, and I suspect the skeptics out there, particularly those as smart at Marc Fisher, will figure it out soon enough.