Michael Gerson: Still leaving our children behind

BY MICHAEL GERSON Modified: September 29, 2012 at 1:07 am •  Published: October 1, 2012
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The new movie “Won't Back Down” is to public education what Upton Sinclair's “The Jungle” was to the meatpacking industry — a needed spotlight, but not for the squeamish. In this case, the product unfit for human consumption is, unfortunately, the instruction of children. The movie chronicles the struggles of the mother of a dyslexic child in a failing school. The villains are clock-punching teachers, apathetic parents, change-resistant union officials and unreachable administrators. The movie adds a happy ending, which seems the most unrealistic portion of the script.

Union officials naturally find this portrait offensive. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, calls the movie “divisive” and a presentation of “stereotypes.”

This argument would be more compelling if it were not for another recent little drama, played out in Virginia. The Commonwealth is one of those states granted a broad exemption by the Department of Education from No Child Left Behind's “unrealistic” requirement that all schools dramatically improve educational performance for every ethnic group.

The state's replacement targets, in the manner of such documents, were expressed in educational jargon so thick that few understood them. But eventually it came out that Virginia was codifying the goal of having 57 percent of black students proficient in math by 2018, compared with 78 percent of white students. (Currently, 52 percent of black students in Virginia are proficient.) It is an educational objective so “realistic” that it is difficult to distinguish from racism. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called these new standards “insulting and narrow minded,” involving the categorization of children “in a way that harkens back to Virginia's inglorious past.”

Once exposed, Virginia and the Department of Education were forced to backtrack. A do-over is now in the works. But this is the general direction of “flexibility” in No Child Left Behind waivers, which now cover most of the country. Few states have been as blatant and controversial as Virginia. But most have adopted new expectations that are lower, sketchier, less binding and less connected to real accountability.

In most cases (with a few notable exceptions such as Florida and Oklahoma), the new expectations are more difficult for parents, teachers and principals to understand — the mystification that often hides mediocrity. In some instances, the worst-performing schools will only be designated for intensive intervention every two or three years, which is not particularly useful if your child attends a failing middle school. Some states are trying to get around rigorous graduation reporting requirements and are downgrading their importance in accountability decisions.

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