Un-American Activities, Commuting in Comfort, and Lost Honors

By Anthony Rebora — April 15, 2005 3 min read
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Bowing to appeals from school leaders, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has announced her intention to give states greater—though as yet unspecified—flexibility in meeting the student-achievement goals set out by the No Child Left Behind Act. A new study suggests that this is probably a pretty good idea since what’s being done now doesn’t seem to be working for many schools. The study, by the Northwest Evaluation Association, looked at test data in 23 states (a “broad but not nationally representative” sample) and found that students are actually making less progress than before NCLB took effect. Part of the reason, the researchers speculated, could be that teachers feel compelled to concentrate on annual proficiency targets rather than on the individual growth of each student.

Meanwhile, the NCLB-propelled war of words between Spellings and Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg continued this week, with Sternberg demanding an apology from the secretary for remarks made during a televised interview. Appearing on PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Spellings characterized Connecticut’s attempts to modify parts of NCLB’s testing requirement as a way of avoiding the needs of low-income minority children, describing the state’s approach as “un-American” and as a prime example of what President Bush calls the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Sternberg, who says Connecticut wants to develop alternative tests to better address the problems of struggling students, took particular umbrage at the latter charge. “Not since the last episode of [former Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s] words about terrorist organizations have we been confronted by such name-calling,” she said.

An increasingly personal battle over education policy is also playing out in California, where the teachers unions are mobilizing against the Governator himself. The California Teachers Association and other groups have shelled out some $2 million on a public relations campaign opposing Governor Schwarzenegger’s education initiatives, which include a school budget that union members feel reneges on a promise to restore $2 billion in temporary cuts, as well as ballot measures to change the teacher-pay and -tenure systems. The CTA is now considering increasing dues to build up its war chest. “There has never been a period when the teachers’ organization was publicly picketing the governor, using various kinds of public demonstrations, and running ads ... of this length and intensity that attack the governor directly,” observed Michael Kirst, an education and business professor at Stanford University. Schwarzenegger’s supporters say the teachers’ unions just aren’t used to a politician confronting them so directly.

The Plaquemines Parish district in southeastern Louisiana has come up with an interesting way to treat its teachers a little more hospitably—or at least to get them to school in style. The district, which has had a hard time attracting qualified teachers because of its remote location, plans to buy a bus so it can offer a free round-trip commute from Belle Chasse, a New Orleans suburb about an hour away. Officials are prepared to spend around $50,000 for the vehicle, which will be equipped with air-conditioning, reclining seats, and a sound system. “We wouldn’t want them traveling that far in discomfort,” boasted Ben Fussell, the district’s finance director. Now all they need is a driver. Administrators are said to be in discussions with a teacher whose chief qualification appears to be that he or she works in the district’s most remote school.

Finally, this year’s senior banquet at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, promises to be a bit tamer—or do we mean lamer?—after the school’s principal revoked four of the awards students were planning to present. The prizes in question were to be given to classmates judged to have the “best butt,” “best body,” and “best legs.” The “dirty old man” award—something you probably don’t want on your résumé anyway—also was scrapped. Some Roosevelt parents apparently felt that the awards were inappropriate and violated the school’s sexual-harassment policy. Not surprisingly, students tended to think the parents were overreacting. Junior Hussein Yousif noted that he wouldn’t mind if he got the “best butt” award next year. “I’d say, ‘Yeah, sweet,” he observed.

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