No Child Left Behind an attainable goal?

Published 9:22 am Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The water balloon that hit me square in the stomach in the midst of a near-riot at Robert Lewis Middle School carried with it many messages.

If it was indeed aimed for me, perhaps I was supposed to take home the message of a hatred, distrust or general disdain for my newspaper and the work I do.

If the balloon simply found its own way to me in the crowd, maybe it was only meant to carry the message of overwhelming support for the school’s interim principal.

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To adults the balloon is a cry for help, an indicator of a bigger problem and something new about which to worry.

But in the grand scheme of things the balloon’s real message is about something very few people understand.

The phrase “no child left behind” started rearing its ugly head publicly in 2001. Tack on the president’s signature and a printed document with 1,076 sections, and the phrase warranted all capital letters.

The disturbances in our community last week have taken on many faces — some of which must be addressed — but the problem that started those problems is entirely wrapped up in NCLB.

Last Tuesday the district had a public hearing to discuss a federally mandated restructuring of the middle school. You see, for all four years of the No Child Left Behind Act, RLMS has failed to meet the “no child” bar set by the government.

But it’s not what you think. The students aren’t failing academically.

In fact, they are improving at a rate as fast or faster than any other students in the district. And though that doesn’t mean middle school scores are going up across the board, it does mean they aren’t going straight down. The state of Mississippi has labeled RLMS as a “level 3, successful school” on a 1-5 scale, with 5 as the highest.

But NCLB is about more than just academics. Schools must jump through the attendance hoop, too. A low average daily attendance can brand a school with a scarlet F. But RLMS has had pretty decent attendance in recent years.

It’s the last NCLB factor that’s been the critical blow to RLMS. And that factor — probably the simplest of all to fix — is the hardest to explain.

In layman’s terms, not enough students actually show up for school on test day.

State testing occurs for three days in May. Later a day is set aside for retakes for any students who missed a portion of the first three test days.

Every student gets two chances. But in four years, not enough have tested.

Go a step deeper and you’ll get knee deep in NCLB mumbo-jumbo.

Students are divided into subgroups by race, gender and economic status — sound politically correct? Not to me.

Each of those subgroups must test the required number of students. Let’s take the white subgroup for example. RLMS doesn’t have many white students. If one or two of those students miss test day they are going to greatly sway the percentage, penalizing everyone.

Seem fair for a majority black school? Nope.

But isn’t the very essence of an idea like “no child left behind” aimed at being fair?

It’s a wonderful dream. Our world could be near perfect if none of our children ever fell behind the others.

Think of the ideas society could produce. Think of the harmony.

If children were academically above the same bar they probably wouldn’t fight with each other as much. They wouldn’t envy the smart kids or make fun of the nerds. The slower kids simply wouldn’t exist, so teachers could pick up the pace in every classroom, teaching like they’ve never taught before.

No Child Left Behind is a beautiful goal, but an unreachable one.

We don’t live in a perfect world. Our children are not the same, nor do we want them to be. Face it; someone is going to be left behind every single time. It’s life.

But if the federal government refuses to see the truth, they set up our public schools for failure.

Teachers, students, parents and administrators are spinning their wheels against an unbreakable force —NCLB.

They’ll fail.

And all that will be left is a burst water balloon.

Julie Finley is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or