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No child left to learn
Public schools held hostage
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No one with or without children could argue against the obvious fact that schools across America need improvement.

And here in Chatham County, Ga. -- technically speaking, one of the lowest-ranked districts in one of the lowest-ranked states in the union, the bottom of the bottom of the barrel -- it’s clear that our schools need massive improvement.

But the way that public schools are held hostage to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is making an already bad situation worse. Contrary to its propaganda about raising every student to the same level, NCLB brings high performers down to the level of poor performers -- while making sure the poor performers are stigmatized for their lack of success.

In short, NCLB is a recipe for failure, therefore it’s no surprise that it sees nothing but failure all around.

Case in point: Last week the Savannah/Chatham public schools released their annual progress report on how well local schools are reaching NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards. Needless to say, the press release was titled, “AYP results show steady progress.” (Hopefully this isn’t like the press releases from Iraq also claiming steady progress.)

While incremental improvement was indeed made this past academic year -- 41 out of 48 schools made AYP, an increase of one -- the sad truth is that the Savannah-Chatham school system as a whole has never made AYP since NCLB’s inception in 2002.

Superintendent Dr. Thomas Lockamy, not being one to sugar-coat things, said, “We still have far too many students who are not successfully graduating from high school. We still have far too many children reading below grade level. We still have too many schools that are failing to meet academic expectations. Until those factors are resolved we will not be celebrating.”

I appreciate your pragmatism, Doc, but here’s the thing: You’ll never celebrate as long as you’re superintendent here, because those factors will never be resolved if NCLB has anything to do with it. NCLB is designed for you to fail, and fail miserably.

The superintendent is to be commended for his oft-repeated mantra, “All means all,” which of course echoes NCLB’s raison d’etre. But the truth is that many schools not meeting AYP failed to do so not because of some systemic school-wide brain rot, as the propaganda is clearly intended to infer, but because a particular sub-group didn’t meet expectations, thereby bringing down everyone else with them.

The books, in other words, are cooked.

For example, the much-maligned Spencer Elementary missed AYP because its disabled students had sub-par test scores. When you think about that for a minute, you see a certain “Lord of the Flies” sentiment going on. By making disabled students responsible for a school’s “failure,” doesn’t that just marginalize them even more than they already are? And what message does that send to those students that did well?

Please note I’m not trying to minimize the deep and serious problems of attendance, discipline and academic malaise that currently infect Savannah schools. These problems definitely exist and they definitely need addressing, and soon.

What I’m saying is that NCLB, by penalizing the group for the actions of a few, sends the wrong message about education -- and about success. In short, it blames teachers and students for the failures of society.

NCLB is a red herring that sends educators on a fruitless quest to hammer out all differences between wildly disparate groups while taking attention away from the real problems: Students growing up in homes where parents are disengaged, in a country where leaders aren’t held accountable, in an increasingly anti-intellectual culture that simply doesn’t value education.

It boggles my mind that a second grade teacher in Savannah, Ga., is held more accountable for their actions than any CEO or judge or elected official. Or any parent, for that matter.

Are we really to put the entire burden of raising the next generation on the backs of underpaid, overstressed schoolteachers? Are we really to tell all students, no matter how diligent, at a school that doesn’t meet AYP that their school is “failed,” to use NCLB’s weirdly nihilist lingo?

Seems like a pretty harsh sentence to hand down to teachers and their students, especially when most criminals in this country, both white-collar and otherwise, rarely seem to be punished for their actions.

History shows us that nations often display irrational, self-destructive tendencies. The human sacrifice of the Aztecs comes to mind, as does the mania of the Nazis, and Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Is NCLB and what it says about America’s attitude toward education our clinical 21st century version of the Aztecs’ ritual sacrifice of their own children?

When we judge schools not by the best-performing segment but by the worst, it sends the message to students that it’s futile to try and better themselves. Even worse, it sends the message that the rest of us, Pontius Pilate-like, are washing our hands of any responsibility for raising future generations.

Instead of “All means all,” No Child Left Behind’s true mantra seems to be: “Don’t bother.”

As far as I can tell, that’s the exact opposite of what the fabled American Dream was supposed to be.

E-mail Jim at