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Real or Bogus School Reform

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By Marian Wright Edelman

Children who cannot read or compute are sentenced to economic and social death in our country. Yet only 41 percent of the nation's White, 15 percent of Latino, and 12 percent of Black 4th graders can read at a proficient level. Only one-third of White, 12 percent of Latino, and 9 percent of Black 8th graders can do math at a proficient level.

The Administration's No Child Left Behind Education Act promises America's children that we will ensure that every one of them is able to achieve at high levels and can leave high school prepared for college, work, and adulthood.

But the President's budget turns this promise on its head by actually cutting K-12 education funding. As of mid-June, the Department of Education's own estimates showed the President would cut spending on major "No Child Left Behind Act" programs from last year's levels by an estimated $680 million, which would mean 39 states will see significant reductions in federal funding for education next year.

For Title I, the main source of federal aid for low-income students, the President offers over $6 billion less than promised to American children who desperately need a decent education.

These federal cuts come at a time when states and school districts are already in major fiscal distress. The Council of Great City Schools surveyed districts across the country and found significant cuts to educational services in most major cities.

Birmingham, Alabama is eliminating 550 teaching positions, closing nine schools, and reducing the number of summer school sites from 68 to 12. Boston is increasing class size by three students at every level and will cut each of its schools' funding by 10 percent. Oakland, California sent out over 1,000 notices for possible teacher layoffs.

By dramatically underfunding his own education reform, the President risks reducing what should be real reform to a system of measurement and punishment. I fear, too often, classroom teaching will be reduced to trying to prepare students for the questions on the tests rather than real learning. This is not the education we want for any of our children.

Education should offer the opportunity to transform young people into thoughtful adults who have not only mastered certain content, but who have also gained lifelong skills to help them understand and become engaged more deeply in the world. This means providing a curriculum that allows them to discover and use their many talents, hiring and retaining high quality teachers who can make subject matter relevant and exciting, and modernizing our schools so children feel safe, valued, and able to learn.

Yet President Bush has proposed cutting teacher quality budgets by more than $250 million, and has refused to fund school modernization programs-although the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the quality of America's school facilities a "D-" compared to all other public works projects. Faced with mounting pressure to perform and reduced budgets, many schools are narrowing their curricula to focus on the subjects covered by the performance tests -- reducing or eliminating time spent on subjects like science, social studies, art, and music.

Money isn't everything when it comes to education reform, but schools sure need it to provide the things that are. No standardized test will reduce class size, provide teachers with majors or minors in the fields they teach, fix the air conditioning in the summer and the heat in the winter so that children can concentrate on what is being taught, or bring back a library that was closed in the last round of budget cuts so that low-income children have the opportunity to read at home.

Testing and accountability are necessary, but it is cynical to ask for improved performance on assessments if we don't also give students the opportunity, through expanded resources, to do better on those assessments. It makes no sense to say that we are going to test students so that we know who is failing, but then after we've identified those failing students, deny them the resources to do better.

Education needs to help all children discover all of their talents and strengths in ways that endure far beyond test day. The No Child Left Behind Act purports to believe that all children can succeed in school and in life.
But the current accountability system won't get us very far if superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents don't have the tools to provide every child with real learning opportunities. After all of the rhetoric and promises, millions of children across the country are still going to be left behind without the education they need to succeed.

Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind* and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

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