Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation

Paige Finds Schools Act a Tough Sell

Parents, teachers and state officials are chafing under the requirements of No Child Left Behind. The Education secretary defends the reforms.

March 29, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

CLEVELAND — The Whitney Young Middle School faculty was nothing if not polite when Education Secretary Rod Paige stopped by recently on a two-state trip to pitch President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

But Susan Wander, the seventh-grade social studies teacher whose class was the first visited by Paige, said the educators were merely trying to be "good soldiers" -- and trying to avoid criticizing a distinguished visitor in front of the students. In truth, she said, "there is a great deal of frustration" with the law, which many educators resent for forcing them to change their approach to teaching.

Little more than two years after Congress gave Bush his first major domestic policy success by overwhelmingly passing the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers, parents and state officials across the country are balking at the law's requirements. What figured to be an unquestioned accomplishment for Bush now looks like it could be a liability.

Conservatives attack it as a big-government approach to education reform. Liberals scream about what they call inadequate federal funds to meet the law's requirements. Legislatures are considering opting out of the law or refusing to comply with any requirements not paid for by Washington.

And Paige, who has traveled to 46 states since taking office, primarily to promote No Child Left Behind, is finding it harder than ever to make his case.

The law was designed to close a long-standing academic achievement gap, primarily between African American and Latino children and their white peers, and enable all children to meet high academic standards. The goal is to wipe out what the president calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations" by holding schools accountable for setting high standards for all students and testing to measure whether each student -- and the school -- has made the grade.

From Wander's perspective, the law has gone too far in forcing schools to focus on the children at the bottom. "I've only got a certain amount of time and energy," she said, "so it's to the detriment of someone else."

In Wander's case, that means her strongest students. Giving them short shrift, she says, seems doubly wrong at Whitney, which was designed for gifted and talented students.

"Here's a kid who is making an effort, and he doesn't have access to my time and energy or the resources at the school," said Wander, who has spent 10 of her 25 teaching years at Whitney.

To Paige, such complaints show that the law is working, making schools change the way they do their jobs, particularly with the kids who perform poorly.

"It's an unbelievable change in the way we do education in the United States," Paige said. "It's a revolution."

Those resisting it, he said, were clinging to the status quo -- a world in which 12% of black fourth-graders, 14% of Latino fourth-graders and 39% of white fourth-graders read proficiently at grade level last year, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"Let's see what has resulted from what we had before -- there is an achievement gap, and a large portion of kids are left behind," Paige said. "Defending the status quo is not what we want."

But rather than making the case for narrowing the gap, Paige often finds himself responding to criticism about the level of Washington's financial contribution. Democrats say Bush's 2005 budget would provide $9 billion less than the $34 billion needed for states to comply with the law.

Paige, who was superintendent of schools in Houston for seven years before becoming secretary of Education, says he understands that money is scarce at many schools now because of state budget crises and the rising costs of energy and healthcare. But he rejected accusations that the president had abandoned his commitment.

"It's not fair to say the bill isn't properly funded, because we're in an environment where dollars are tight," Paige said.

He also spends a lot of his time responding to questions about whether he became a liability to Bush by calling the National Education Assn., the nation's largest teachers union, a "terrorist organization" during a private White House address to the nation's governors last month.

In response to questions in Cleveland, Paige did not sound apologetic. His comment, he said, was "specific to the organization."

"The organization is not the teachers," Paige told reporters. "I have the highest respect for teachers."

But many teachers across the country who have close ties to their union took the comment personally.

"Our members continue to be terribly outraged and insulted by the comment he made," said Gary Allen, president of the Ohio Education Assn., the 131,000-member state branch of the National Education Assn. "I think he certainly damaged any credibility he may have had with Ohio Education Assn. members."

In an interview, Paige conceded that "in today's context, it was a poor choice of words." But his animosity toward the group and its efforts against No Child Left Behind was palpable.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|