A reader writes … By Brian McNeece

June 11, 2001

George W. Bush has chosen a high-minded slogan for his educational plan: No Child Left Behind. In his plan, Bush calls for higher standards, and he offers rewards for schools that achieve measurable improvement and punishments for those who don't. Unfortunately, nowhere in the plan does it say, "If a child falls behind …" and then give suggestions for what to do.

Throughout Bush's plan plays an undertone that schools have not cared for disadvantaged students, that teachers have not done their jobs. Although I teach in the community college system and not the K-12, Bush's plan also points a finger at me and judges that I'm a failure.

Along with my traditional college students, I teach other classes to less-prepared students. "Less-prepared" means they are poor readers. Some are poor readers because they're recent immigrants and they're still learning our puzzling language. Others don't read well because of a lack of reading in their families.


I work hard at my job, as do my colleagues at Imperial Valley College. We offer supplementary reading lab exercises. We have meetings to pick appropriate textbooks for skill and vocabulary development. We discuss our methods and our students in the lunchroom. We have an early warning system to catch students before they fail. And we have tutors and note-takers and accommodations for students with disabilities.

I implemented an individualized reading program so my students might choose books at their level and of interest to them.

Despite my commitment to teaching, only 48 percent of these less-prepared students showed any improvement on our assessment test. By measure of the test, I'm a failure.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that my students learned. Many did make remarkable progress on the assessment test. For others, the test doesn't do justice to what they've learned — I don't "teach to the test."

Other lessons that George W. calls "character" lessons — the courage to ask questions, persevere and take charge of their own lives — are not measured on any test. Still, most of these students do not lead the academic race they have chosen to run: they are behind.

Will George W. Bush's lovely slogan: "No Child Left Behind" change things for these students? I doubt it.

As a parent and site council member in the El Centro Elementary School District, I recently observed administrators and teachers scramble to implement new state math standards. Without suitable texts, teachers had to cobble together materials from various sources, including texts that teachers wrote, bits from other books, and photocopies of exercises invented on the fly.

Now for the accountability. With the standards come those assessment tests. Students take four math tests throughout the year to see if they're learning. Unfortunately, in one fifth-grade classroom, 87 percent of the students failed the first test.

If no child should be left behind, an 87 percent failure rate means that material should be covered again, right? Not really. Students need to be prepared for the next test 10 weeks later. And test No. 3, 10 weeks after that. In this case, higher standards mean more students falling behind, not fewer.

The trouble is that the ideas of higher standards and "No Child Left Behind" pull in opposite directions. If you want higher standards, more kids will be left behind. And if you don't want them to be left behind, you'd better get some good people to stay with them.

The truth is that few students want to drive on the superhighway of learning. Most are content to cruise the surface streets of neighborhood wisdom. And some simply want to find a good fishing hole or meander down pleasant indoor paths lined with video games and TV. You can't take people where they don't want to go.

The danger is that as we raise standards, the lead pack will keep getting further ahead and the stragglers will not just be left behind. They'll be left out completely.

If the goal is really "No Child Left Behind," someone will have to stay with them. As Mrs. Linda Hamby in Westmorland says about the success about her private school, "One advantage we have with such a small school is that we keep teaching them till they get it. If we have to teach them 10 times, we do."

In the recent San Diego Marathon, the winners finished in just over 2 hours, running 26.2 miles at a pace that I can't manage for two blocks.

Others finished the race in three times as long. For those six-hour finishers, the course still contained water stations, first aid and people applauding and cheering. Is our educational bureaucracy ready to do the same for students?

Even further, does Bush's educational plan provide for those who don't want to race? Don't look for real answers any time soon.

BRIAN McNEECE is an El Centro resident.

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