No Child Left Behind sounds good on the surface

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 9, 2004

Commentary by Hank Sanders

My mother used to say, “Son, not everything that looks good is good and not everything that sounds good is good.” I have lived long enough to appreciate her wisdom. I am too often reminded of her truth in the legislative arenas -“local, state and national. We sometimes make that which is bad sound so good.”

“No Child Left Behind” is such a legislative creature. When I first heard of No Child Left Behind, I immediately supported the legislation because I liked the idea and I liked the sound. Then seeds of reservations were planted. I can now see the fruits of No Child Left Behind, and my mother was right – not everything that sounds good is good.

I have worked most of my life to see that no child could be left behind. Far too many children are left behind, and that’s one reason I was so glad to see my mission become national policy imbedded in law. For that moment, I forgot that the devil is in the details. I also forgot that not everything that sounds good is good.

No Child Left Behind legislation requires that every child receive instruction from teachers who are highly qualified. It sounds so good, and I truly want that for every child. A good or bad teacher affects us for life. Then I discovered that some of our very best teachers will not meet the highly qualified standards while some of our worst teachers easily meet those standards. Last year, two National Teachers of the Year did not meet the highly qualified standard. Not everything that sounds good is good.

No Child Left Behind allows children to transfer from schools that do not perform well to high performing schools, even out of county. At first blush, that sounds like a great thing for students. Upon closer inspection, we discover that this policy destroys schools without helping schools or most students. In fact, it hurts more public schools because it leaves even less to work with for schools already strapped for resources. Not everything that sounds good is good.

No Child Left Behind raises standards for all schools. This sounds very good, particularly for rural and/or poor schools. However, these higher standards bring additional responsibilities and increased costs. Yet, less money is provided. Therefore, many schools will end up worse off rather than better off. Not everything that sounds good is good.

I loved the idea of standard measurements for all students advanced by No Child Left Behind. It sounded so good, like everyone is on a level playing field. Then I realized that schools that have been neglected for years must perform as well as schools that have been well provided for. I also realized that only reading and math will be tested. Therefore, a school could be doing great in every other area and yet be declared low performing, causing some of its students to transfer out, leaving even fewer resources for those remaining. Worse yet, teachers could concentrate almost solely on reading and math to the detriment of a broader and wiser education. Not everything that sounds good is good.

Alabama already has a comprehensive set of standards to determine how well schools and school systems are performing. Lowndes County, a school system whose students have a background of high poverty and is almost 100 percent African American, has worked successfully enough so that not one of its schools is being remotely considered for state takeover. That is a great accomplishment. Yet, No Child Left Behind will put the schools in great danger of being branded as low performing. Not everything that sounds good is good.

When I look closely at No Child Left Behind, I see that it does not address the real causes of poor student performance. There is clearly a strong cause and effect between poverty, neglect and other social disadvantages and school performance. Yet No Child Left Behind does not even acknowledge these challenges, not to speak of addressing them. Not everything that sounds good is good.

No Child Left Behind sounds uplifting. Yet when we examine it closely, we see that it is punitive and casts a weight rather than being supportive and providing a lift. Instead of building school capacity, it rushes to judgment, tearing down schools in the process. Not everything that sounds good is good.

No Child Left Behind sounds so good. I just love the sound of it. Yet, if we listen carefully, the real sound is one of leaving even more children behind. And that’s a terrible sound.

Oh how I wish the reality of No Child Left Behind was as good as the sound. This is one instance I truly wish my Mama was not right when she said not everything that sounds good is good

Little and Kaia Burke. I again talked to various leaders and signed books. I returned to Selma and worked on many matters, including Sketches.

EPILOGUE – Words are powerful. Good-sounding words are especially powerful. Even when we know better, we are still affected by good-sounding words. That’s why flattery is so impactful. I just wish our children did not have to suffer from good-sounding but deceptive words.