- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

The centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. How effective has the act been in transforming America’s schools and helping troubled low-income children do better in the classroom? In LeavingNoChildBehind?OptionsforKidsinFailing Schools (Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95, 303 pages), editors Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn, Jr. have compiled an interesting collection of analyses, most of which conclude that it’s too early to tell if the No child Left Behind Act is doing any good.

Mr. Hess, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Mr. Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, asked writers from a wide vareity of backgrounds to contribute papers. One of the most interesting is provided by National Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman, on a provision of No Child Left Behind which provides students in failing schools the opportunity to have extra tutoring, paid for with federal funds.

Since these tutoring funds go to the school and not directly to parents, they aren’t a voucher, but the tutoring fees (over $1000 per student) could prove as much as $2 billion for all sorts of companies, ranging from well-established ones such as Kaplan (the most profitable division of The Washington Post Company) to entrepreneurial startups such as Club Z. But the author shows that no one knows how large the tutoring business will be or how much of it will be siphoned off by school systems offering their own after-school tutoring programs so that they can keep the federal funds to themselves.

Another provision of No Child Left Behind allows students in federally-funded failing schools to move to better ones. But several chapters show that relatively few students are changing schools. Part of this is due to the difficulty of arranging transportation for what could be up to a 10-mile trip to the new school. But another reason is that school districts require parents to leap through endless bureaucratic hoops before their child can be transfered.

As a result, only the most determined parents switch schools. In Montgomery County, MD, for example, 10 elementary schools were eligible for No Child Left Behind funded public school choice. But Brookings Institution guest scholar Douglas S. Reed found that in the 2003-04 school year, just over 100 students switched schools, less than two percent of those eligible. Ironically, most of these students were white students, whose transfer made Montgomery County Public Schools less integrated than they were before.

“Leaving No Child Behind?” is a very preliminary report. But the book shows that the No Child Left Behind Act has a long way to go before it fulfills its goal of helping troubled students do better in school.

A proven method for reporters to learn what’s going on in our public schools is to spend a year at a high school and write a book about it. An excellent example of this genre is Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23, 209 pages) by Michael Bamberger. Mr. Bamberger, a writer for Sports Illustrated, spent the 2002-03 school year observing students and faculty at Pennsbury High School, located in the Philadelphia suburbs. He has produced an excellent — although peculiarly incomplete — report on what life in high school is like today.

“Wonderland” is unusual in that it is a book about a high school that does not actually tell its readers most of what happens in high school. The reader will learn nothing from this book about what courses Pennsbury High School students take or how well they do in them. Instead, the entire book is devoted to what Pennsbury High’s students and faculty do after school.

One narrative thread concerns efforts to create the school’s annual prom, and one determined student’s efforts to get a mid-level rock star to play at the event. Another thread is about another student’s wild successes as a reporter for the school’s television station. A third thread describes a student’s tragic death in a drunk-driving accident in Florida.

Mr. Bamberger does not explain why he doesn’t talk about teaching or learning. But he has a sharp ear for dialogue, and has produced a book with a strong narrative drive. Within its limits, “Wonderland” is an excellent book that superbly limns the hopes and dreams of today’s teenagers.

Talk to a parent of a gifted and talented child who attends public schools, and you’re likely to hear a story of intense frustration at a school system that is geared towards the mediocre. Most of the complaints of gifted chidren and their parents are justified. In Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds (Simon and Schuster, $23, 187 pages) Jan and Bob Davidson show parents’ frustration, but fail to provide adequate solutions for what to do with America’s brightest children.

The Davidsons are the founders of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a Nevada-based nonprofit which helps gifted children. In “Genius Denied,” written in collaboration with Laura Vanderkam, they describe case studies of smart students being confronted with red tape and bureaucracy, as well as descriptions of a few innovative school systems that have tried to help smart children through charter schools and other more flexible approaches to learning and teaching.

This book also has an accompanying website, www.geniusdenied.com, which provides far more information than the book does about specific programs and courses that might help gifted children. In fact the authors are so proud of their website that they mention it at least once (and sometimes twice) per page.

The Davidsons seem to have used their book for case studies and their website to provide a directory of resources. But the parents of gifted students know that the system is failing them; they’re likely to be frustrated at a book that fails to provide useful information. It doesn’t take a genius to see that given a choice between an uninformative book which costs $23 and a website that offers more useful information that’s free, that parents would be advised to ignore “Genius Denied” — but to take a look at the Davidson’s website.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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