- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

The resident political sage at the Hitching Post, a “Cheers”-style hangout on Upshur Street NW, is Frank Hollis, a civil rights and labor lawyer who chalks off the curious comments of certain commentators to “whose bread I eat, whose song I sing.”

Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams is a frequent lightning rod for Mr. Hollis’ harsh observations about pundits who pass themselves off as independent thinkers when, in fact, they are little more than paid pied pipers.

The emphasis is on “paid” in Mr. Williams’ case, in light of his recent troubles for accepting $240,000 in federal funds to promote the contentious No Child Left Behind Act while pretending to be a pundit. Excuse me, Mr. Williams said his public relations company was paid by a larger public relations firm to produce advertisements aimed at the black community to sway their skeptical opinions of the confusing educational reform program.

Few people in the black community had doubted that Mr. Williams was little more than a paid hack for conservative Republicans, so this disclosure generates little surprise or reaction from them. His credibility with the black community was lost long ago.

Nonetheless, what is most disheartening in the scrutiny of Mr. Williams is that the debate about the merits and shortcomings of the No Child Left Behind Act has gotten lost. As usual, we get easily distracted by the sideshow.

Parents and people who care about the quality, or lack thereof, of the public education this nation’s children are receiving should not miss this opportunity to focus on the real issue here — improving instruction for all children.

After the November elections, I attended the annual conference of the Trotter Group, which is made up of black newspaper columnists who submit themselves to four days of intense seminars on prevailing public policy issues led by national experts. Mr. Williams has yet to attend one of these teach-ins. Had he attended the conference held at Harvard University, he would have heard from no fewer than four education experts who offered their research findings that highlighted the flaws and fallacies in the federal act.

In addition, Kansas City Star columnist Lewis W. Diuguid provides an unbiased examination of the program in his book “A Teacher’s Cry: Expose the Truth About Education Today.” After his research with urban teachers, he suggests that platitudes are not enough. Teachers don’t object to standards, but they need more help and resources.

Most challengers and critics of No Child Left Behind, such as Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard and author of “Raising Standards or Raising Barriers,” agree that the federal legislation — which was designed to forge performance accountability standards — is doing more harm than good for students, especially in the urban areas it was designed to help.

At least 30 states — including Virginia, where the Republican-controlled legislature passed a critical resolution against the act last year — have sought waivers to the requirements, primarily because they contend it is an unfunded mandate and they have established their own accountability programs.

However, President Bush denied that notion when he appeared last week at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church to seek even more testing at the high school level as he looks to expand No Child during his second term.

Frequently, teachers and administrators are under so much pressure to raise standardized test scores in reading and math that they “teach to the test” and shortchange other subjects.

Mr. Orfield, whose studies include students in Richmond, calls this a “testocracy” culture, in which the focus is on scores rather than on what works. Educators suggest that “one size fits all” testing is not a clear barometer of learning and achievement and does not provide insight on how to approach an individual student’s problems. They seek multiple forms of evidence of student learning, not just tests.

Earlier this month, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (www.fairtest.org) offered a list of substantive reforms to the well-meaning act in the form of a letter sent to Congress, which was endorsed by 30 social agencies. Topping the list are hiring and developing good teachers and principals and providing students with necessary tools and resources in addition to intense tutoring programs. No Child encourages educators to “drill the narrow content of the tests, ignore untested subjects, manipulate statistics, and push low-scoring students out of school,” wrote FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill.

Earlier this month, FairTest released its third annual report card, “Failing Our Children,” which gave No Child a flunking grade “for failing to stimulate real improvements in educational quality and discouraging the use of high-quality assessments.”

A “D” was given for the law’s confusing and contradictory system of school accountability based on the arbitrary “adequate yearly progress” requirement. The act, however, was awarded an “A-” for “public relations,” with the center noting the Bush administration’s effort “to name and promote the law with high-sounding rhetoric.”

Is it for this crumb of the bread of knowledge that Armstrong Williams sang his song?

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