Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of Education and chief enforcer of the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind" federal law, recently described herself as a soccer Mom, not as someone trying to terrify anyone. However, the Education Secretary has made it very clear that since taking office in January 2001, she sees the federal law as the nation's best bet for bridging the achievement gap between minority and white students. She states that her mission is to help states raise student scores and expand standardized test scores.
There is probably no levelheaded adult in America that does not want the quality of American education to improve. Every community wants their local school to be competent and excel in academics.
The desire for academic excellence and quality schools, where all of our children are afforded equal, quality opportunity to soar, is not the question. The real question is how do we provide these opportunities in a cost effective, competent and holistic way, so that genuinely "No Child Is Left Behind?"
The problem is not the goal of our federal education law, but rather the funding and strategies employed to reach that goal.
First of all, American education is not a priority and is not valued by a growing number of Americans. We may pay lip service to the importance of education, but we don't practice what we preach.
In our own community, look at how many high school students drop out or get forced out. Don't be misled by county statistics. There are a growing number of students who are misrepresented. There are students who are on home tutoring for a variety of reasons, primarily because of discipline and behavior. They meet their tutors once, if we are lucky, and then get lost in the system. More often than not, their names stay on the rolls until they are sixteen and can be dropped out.
Academic excellence is a primary concern because too many high school seniors are graduating as functional illiterates. It is bad enough that their reading and writing skills are impaired, but too often they have underdeveloped critical thinking skills. How many first year college students across the country end up repeating "Freshman Composition" and have to take a "Reading Class" as part of their schedule? My informal observation is too many!
Our schools are becoming wastelands of human potential. "No Child Left Behind" is interesting rhetoric that seems to be missing the point. Academic excellence is important. Developing a student's intellect and basic academic skills should be the building blocks within all of our schools. But that is not the complete equation.
If no child is to be truly not left behind, then we must re-commit ourselves to the total development of the whole person. Our obsession should not be merely with raising standardized test scores. Standardized test scores are only one part of a very important continuum.
High Iowa basic test scores in a vacuum are useless if the student is not growing and developing as a whole human being. Are our children learning how to critically think, problem solve, deal with conflict resolution, peer pressure and the daily stresses of living?
Looking at the increased violence in our schools, cutting, drug and alcohol use and misuse would suggest that we may not be effectively preparing our children to survive in the world of the 21st century.
In too many school communities, our system of education is antiquated. It is hierarchical not collaborative. The rhetoric may be modern, but the practice is 1950.
Our schools are not being held accountable. That has become evident with the recent financial scandals that have emerged in our bi-county community. Finances are an important part of the educational process. Unfortunately, they tend to consume us and we fail to address some of the other basic questions that are equally vital to a school's competence and effectiveness.
What about morale? Are our schools safe places for our children? Does the environment protect them from the external as well as internal forces of violence?
It is important to keep every school safe from the violent elements of their community that infect their spirit and livelihood. However, we need to address the internal forces that perpetuate violence and hate. The bullying that goes on, the name calling, the discrimination between the haves and the have nots, the students with special needs, the students who tend to hover on the fringe for a variety of reasons - all of these un-addressed concerns create a violence that is sometimes more damaging to morale and spirit than a fistfight.
Is every student in our school important and treated accordingly? Or do we have a class system? There seems to be abundant opportunities for the brightest, the athletic and those with clearly defined special needs, but the average and borderline student seems to get lost in the shuffle, especially when finances are tight.
It is budget season. People are panicking. Increases in our taxes are inevitable. As taxpayers, you should scrutinize and ask questions about every line. You should hold your school boards and administrators intensely accountable and responsible.
However, if cutbacks are necessary, be sure they cut the fat from the budget first and not the vital services and personnel that will empower our children to wholeness and academic excellence. It is reckless and irresponsible to cut support staff like social workers, nurse teachers, attendance teachers, guidance counselors and school psychologists. In this day and time, they are the soul of our schools and will insure that "No Child Is Left Behind."