No child should ever be left behind (Times Argus, op-ed)

Commentary by Angelo Dorta, President of Vermont NEA

On Tuesday night, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders asked teachers, other educators, and citizens to tell him what they thought of the now 5-year-old federal education law known as the No Child Left Behind Act. Not surprisingly, more than 150 people turned out to express their frustration over a law that has lofty ambitions but gravely flawed means of achieving them.

First, as a career classroom teacher and now the elected president of the 11,500 members of the Vermont-National Education Association, let me be clear in my support for excellent and accountable public schools. To expect otherwise from our public schools is unfair and unreasonable. On that front, Vermont educators are delivering.

But in its zeal to place a one-size-fits-all system of measuring student achievement - not to mention a set of perverse sanctions on schools that are deemed to have fallen behind - the No Child Left Behind Act as currently written does a grave disservice to teachers, parents, taxpayers and, most of all, our public school students.

Vermont-NEA believes that all children have a basic right to a great public school that provides them with the tools they need to be responsible, engaged and happy citizens. We believe that all schools should teach essential 21st century skills; should create enthusiasm for learning; should close the achievement gaps among groups of students and raise achievement for all of them; and, just as importantly, give educators the resources they need to get this vital job done.

The No Child Left Behind Act is currently in limbo - President Bush vetoed the education spending bill sent him by Congress, a move that could wipe out 45 federal education programs and severely cripple others. To some, that may seem like a good move. It isn't. What was cut will have an adverse effect on our students by reducing available resources while still maintaining federal mandates. In other words, all taxpayers will have costs shifted onto their state and local property taxes. Now is the time to let our members of Congress know what needs to be fixed.

The current version of the No Child Left Behind Act is fundamentally flawed. It undermines local control of our public schools, under funds and shifts public dollars away from those schools, and measures success solely on the basis of performance on standardized tests. It robs schools deemed most in need of improvement by taking money and resources away and unjustifiably weakens community confidence in their schools.

We need to turn this law on its head and make it one with common-sense flexibility that supports educators, encourages programs to improve student learning, rewards success and provides meaningful assistance to schools that need help.

In Vermont, we are pleased that our students perform as well as any in the nation on these standardized tests, but that is no reason to endorse the law in its current incarnation. We know that most Vermont students receive the benefits of a quality public education, yet we know that some students are, indeed, being left behind. This cannot continue.

The stated goals of No Child Left Behind - to improve student achievement and close the achievement and skills gaps that exist in Vermont and the rest of the country - are important to Vermont-NEA and to society in general.

But students - and the professionals who educate them - are much more than test scores. Any reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act must recognize this fact, and return to professional educators the dignity and respect they have earned by letting them do what they do best: teach our students to be responsible, productive and happy adults.

For Vermonters, that means a national law that recognizes what we have known for centuries: that allowing people closest to our schools to make their own, informed decisions about their most significant public investment offers a layer of accountability that is effective, powerful and, most importantly, fair.