Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Spellings Report: The Road To La Raza

Earlier this week, in Philadelphia, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings gave a speech to a Hispanic group called La Raza. Spellings was there to crow about certain gains made under the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as continue the Administration's on-going efforts to woo support in the Hispanic community: (Other speakers at the conference included Howard Dean. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was in attendance while the Secretary made her remarks.)

Last Thursday, we learned the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend data. In other words, the grades from our Nation's Report Card are in, and they are encouraging. As we say in Texas, "Good on us. Good on America." Que magnifico!

The report card shows how students have fared in reading and math over the last three decades. And my younger daughter said the results settle a longtime argument between children and parents. They show students today know more than kids when we were growing up. And I couldn't be happier about that.

It's big news because we're not talking about just any old test. The Nation's Report Card is the gold standard of assessment. This long-term data, along with the state data, is the yardstick that the experts use to measure how well we're serving our children. As I like to say, "In God we trust- all others bring data."

And with this data, we can see we're moving in the right direction: The achievement gap is closing, and No Child Left Behind is working.

Nationally, reading scores for nine-year-olds increased more over the last five years than in all the years between 1971 and 1999 combined! Hispanic scores alone increased by 12 points!

In math, the achievement gap between Hispanics and whites narrowed significantly. Hispanic student achievement fueled gains that helped nine-year-old and 13-year-old math scores reach all-time highs. In fact, the average Hispanic nine-year-old's math score increased by 17 points over just the last five years!

These results didn't come out of thin air. They come from a commitment to doing something that's never been done before- a commitment to giving every single child a quality education. They are the results of hours of hard work and determination by students, teachers, parents, and people like you here today. Thank you.

Perhaps one of the secretary's advisors suggested to her that one way of "connecting" with hispanic parents was to "personalize" the message with an anecdote involving her own children: (This was what I was taught in the Education courses that I was required to complete in order to earn my bilingual teaching credential in California.)

We need everyone's help to make No Child Left Behind work- teachers, community members, and families. As a mother, I know parents need to feel welcome in schools.

Around the time I was confirmed by the Senate in January, my youngest daughter- typically an A or B student - brought home a D in science. What did I do? I went up to her school and met with her teachers. I wanted to tackle the problem head-on.

Afterward, my daughter said, "I hated that you were in my school." I told her, "You get your grades up, and I'll get out of your school." And guess what? She got an A in science during the next grading period.

I know Hispanic families want to get involved too, but sometimes language and cultural barriers make it difficult, especially with all the educational acronyms like AYP, HQT, and SES flying around. To a lot of people, it sounds like mumbo jumbo. We need to help families make sense of it all. That's why No Child Left Behind requires schools to regularly reach out to families. And the law makes it easier for parents to get information in a language they can understand.

Having said that, The Secretary then went on to say that when the schools, "Fell short of their responsibilities," No Child Left Behind mandates that free tutoring be available to help kids catch-up with their peers. Schools are also required, in the Secretary's words, to "Regularly reach out to families."

It's good that the law provides after-school tutoring to help kids, but please notice that the Madame Secretary referred to schools as falling short of "their responsibilities," and being "required" to reach out to families. As usual, Ms. Spellings said nothing about parents and students themselves being at least partly responsible for any lack of academic success. When things go wrong, it's the school's fault.

Of course, when things go right, Spellings gives credit to the efforts of parents, students, and the school.

Here's an idea: How about if I used a variant of the Secretary's remarks with my junior high school students? I could say, "In God we trust- all others do your homework and study for your exams." (I can just imagine all the parent complaints to my school's administration and possibly the superintendent and governing board as well.) Students are not required to do anything in school, and parents aren't held accountable when their offspring come to school unprepared to learn.

That's one of my major concerns with NCLB. When students don't do their homework or study for exams, or even attempt to do classwork, it's still considered to be the teacher's fault if the students don't achieve their federally-mandated level of proficiency in reading, math, and science.

And yet NCLB doesn't give me, as a teacher, the authority to require student's who aren't even attempting the work to stay after school and complete their assignments. Unless the kid has committed some breach of the school's disciplinary policy, I can't keep them any later than the school regular dismissal time.

The No Child Left Behind Act holds me solely accountable for my students' academic progress but doesn't give me the authority to help make that happen, especially for children that are considered to be "at risk" of failing to meet minimal standards of academic progress.

Sadly, under the law as it is now written, a large number of children are going to be left behind.

A final thought about the Secretary's choice of venue for her remarks:

The organization that the Secretary made her remarks to, La Raza, translates as "The Race," in Spanish. (I've never cared for this name. What would happen if any English-speaking group dared call itself The Race?) The
group is opposed to, among other things, federal legislation which would require all applicants who apply for a driver's license demonstrate that they are lawful residents. The law would be applicable nationwide. Check out La Raza's website here.
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