- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

When Education Week released its findings that sent Maryland public schools to the head of their class, one Baltimore County mother said to me, “You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t believe it; not in the high school in my neighborhood.”

And this suburbanite hardly lives in shabby surroundings.

However, Chantal Alcema, who enrolled her children in Prince George’s County public schools after their private-school tuition became too expensive, tepidly agreed with news reports she heard about Education Week ranking Maryland’s public schools as No. 1 in the country, up from No. 3 in 2007.

“Yes, I’d say they have good programs,” Mrs. Alcema said with a caution. “But the parent has to be an advocate for their child to find them.”

Mind you that although Education Week ranked Maryland the No. 1 spot based on criteria including dropout rates, student achievement, academic standards and accountability, the state still only received an overall grade of B. The overall national grade was a pathetic C, and only one other state — Massachusetts — received a “B.”

These disparate responses from Maryland parents reflect the vastly different educational experiences encountered by the nation’s students that President Bush attempted to tackle with what may be remembered as his signature domestic program, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act.

Clearly, Mr. Bush hopes the bipartisan program will give him a legacy to offset his current unpopularity, based on wars and deficits. With little fanfare, the president and first lady Laura Bush appeared in Philadelphia on Thursday to tout the initiative for having raised standards and improved student achievement, particularly in minority and poor school districts.

Those accountability standards “forever changed America’s school system,” Mr. Bush said. “I firmly believe that, thanks to this law, students are learning, an achievement gap is closing.”

Maybe not all students, but establishing a national baseline regardless of geography or income, where none existed, was definitely a critical step forward.

While there is wild disagreement on the sporadic results of NCLB in eight years and on whether additional federal resources were needed to make the mandates more successful, even detractors must admit that the initiative forced public educators to step up their game.

Standing with Mr. Bush was Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of Philadelphia schools, who held the same post previously in San Francisco and Washington. At Thursday’s gathering, the president called her “a reform-minded leader … who was willing to challenge the status quo.”

In the nation’s capital, which has chewed up dozens of system heads in as many years, Mrs. Ackerman fell out of favor with some well-heeled parents and their political backers for implementing a weighted funding formula that shifted resources and programs to underachieving schools that had traditionally been allocated little.

By the way, the District scored last in the Education Week report despite the overrated reforms implemented by cover girl Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who unlike her Maryland counterparts, seeks to intimidate teachers rather than provide tools and the supportive atmosphere for their improvement.

During his Philadelphia speech, Mr. Bush urged President-elect Barack Obama to continue NCLB with little changes to its rigid testing requirements because “measurement is the gateway to reform.”

Mr. Obama, a rare Democrat who favors charter schools, pledged during the presidential campaign to make sweeping improvements to NCLB and vowed to fund early-childhood education.

Improving test scores in reading and math became the holy grail in public education with the implementation of NCLB.

“How can you possibly determine whether a child can read at grade level if you don’t test?” Mr. Bush said in a transcript of his speech.

There’s the rub. That very paradigm shift, to “teach-to-the-test” in public school curricula, is what has unnerved educators and parents who argue that the rote “one-size-fits-all” method hampers critical- thinking skills.

Other subjects such as history and humanities were ditched to prepare students to get higher scores to meet annually increasing requirements. If a school does not meet its benchmark, there can be consequences including a takeover, and parents can yank their child and enroll them elsewhere, although many found the alternatives wanting.

Worse, a questionable cottage industry of self-serving organizations, pseudo-public schools and experts was spawned as a result of those looking to cash in on experimental “reforms.” Detractors contend these entities, supported mainly by conservatives, were designed to dismantle public education and destroy unions in favor of a for-profit school system.

Improving education is the key to improving the economy not only for the individual, but for the country. A disturbing report released by the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 32 million American adults, about one in seven, continue to have low literacy skills. That figure remained unchanged from 1999 to 2003.

“They really cannot read … paragraphs [or] sentences that are connected,” Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department told USA Today last week.

How can an economic-stimulus package be successful if the very people who need the work most to jump-start the economy are functionally illiterate and cannot be trained for the 21st-century work force?

Maryland officials attributed much of their state’s academic improvement to their annual funding mandates, which pumped more than $1.3 billion into schools in recent years, and their testing requirement for all high school students.

For Mrs. Alcema, that increased funding provided a number of new special programs that she is trying to take advantage of for her daughter, who attends Phyllis E. Williams Elementary School, and her son, who attends Largo High School.

“I don’t have a problem with the academics as much as I do with the administration,” Mrs. Alcema told me.

For example, she has not been able to get necessary assistance to correct her son’s incorrectly recorded grades or transfer him to the science academy, despite repeated attempts since November.

Did Mr. Bush’s NCLB help or harm American students? Educational reform, with NCLB as the lightning rod, can spark as much impassioned debate among parents, politicians, practitioners and especially pundits as the war in Gaza.

But allow the unpopular president this: As Mr. Bush is wont to say, “At least I tried.”

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