School reform moves to the suburbs

Despite all the talk about improving inner-city schools, the greatest promise of the No Child Left Behind Act was always in America's leafy suburbs. Unfortunately, that promise is in danger of being squandered.

Because suburban schools are the most likely to post high average test scores that mask large gulfs between students of different races or classes, the law's central premise - that schools be held accountable for the success of all students, be they white, black, Hispanic, low-income or with special needs - should have the greatest impact in them. The law made those achievement gaps transparent and put pressure on every school to focus on the children most in need, even if they represented a small part of the student population.

This suburban phenomenon posed a political challenge to President Bush from the very beginning. Affluent parents and homeowners in the suburbs - the Republican base - were not pleased to hear that many of their beloved local schools were "in need of improvement." This unease translated into outrage from Republican legislators around the country, most audibly in Utah, where the Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bill ordering the state to ignore key sections of the federal law.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the administration would have to bend to political reality. Now Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has offered states a string of exceptions and flexible arrangements that make it less likely that suburban schools will feel the heat of No Child Left Behind's spotlight.

What's wrong with giving suburban schools a break? After all, isn't the real crisis in American education in the inner cities? Not so fast. Nationwide, the average African-American 12th-grader reads and does math at the level of the average white eighth-grader - this even though one-third of African-American children and almost half of Hispanic children reside in suburbs, according to the 2000 census. These students, though learning more than their inner-city counterparts, are still performing much worse than their white and Asian peers.

No Child Left Behind was perfectly suited for the situation. Its primary mechanisms are sunshine and shame: gathering statistics and alerting the community when a school is not doing right by all of its students.

In urban districts, this shaming appears to have had little traction. City leaders are conditioned to hearing that their schools are low performing; poor urban parents have little power to do anything about it; and teachers' unions use their political clout to maintain the dismal status quo.

But in the suburbs, bad news about local schools captures the quick attention of politicians (and residents worried about their property values). These districts report to powerful parents who have the money to move to another town or send their children to private schools. Given the right incentives, suburban districts can achieve solid gains.

Look at Montgomery County in Maryland, just outside Washington. It has a rapidly growing population of low-income, minority and immigrant students. Diversity is increasingly the norm. Unfortunately, so is a yawning achievement gap, as was made transparent in the first year under No Child Left Behind, when one in five elementary schools in Montgomery County failed to make "adequate yearly progress."

So the district intensified programs in which extra money was given to schools with at-risk students; struggling children were given additional help; good teachers were lured to the areas where they were needed most. The result? This year reading scores were up 7.8 percentage points for African-American fourth-graders and 10.7 percentage points for Hispanics.

Or consider Chapel Hill, N.C., a community accustomed to having the best schools in the state. When state and then federal figures showed a big achievement gap, that spurred the community into action. The district now holds an annual meeting on equity and excellence, and it joined a network of suburban districts dedicated to raising minority achievement. The results are astounding: 80 percent of African-American students were proficient in both reading and math in 2003, as opposed to fewer than half a decade ago.

Of course, in a world of limited resources, efforts to help disadvantaged students might mean that affluent students might get less attention or lose their favorite teachers. A renewed focus on reading and math might cut into time for the arts. These trade-offs can become an explosive situation for a school board or a superintendent and some have had their states petitioned Washington for relief.

Unfortunately, Secretary Spellings has given in to their concerns. Exhibit A is Gov. Jeb Bush's Florida, where a whopping 77 percent of schools last year were deemed lacking under federal criteria. To be fair, Florida's schools are probably no worse than those in other states; the high percentage of low-performing schools reflected Florida's ambitious expectations under No Child Left Behind. Perhaps some tweaking was in order.

But Florida requested that the Education Department not hold its schools accountable for the achievement of subgroups that make up less than 15 percent of a school's population or that include fewer than 100 pupils. Federal officials assented.

Now a suburban, predominantly white middle school with 800 students will not be held accountable for the performance of its 90 African-American students, its 80 Hispanic students, or its 70 special-needs students, except as they affect its average scores. In other words, the system will go back to the way it used to be, when these children were basically invisible.

Secretary Spellings does not have an enviable job in keeping the bipartisan school-reform coalition together. Perhaps lessening the pressure on affluent suburban schools is an easy win. But at what cost? President Bush has often decried the "soft bigotry of low expectations." He didn't make an exception for the suburbs then, and we shouldn't start now.

This article originally appeared in the July 11, 2005 edition of the New York Times.

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