Holt: School law may become election issue

No Child Left Behind
raises hackles in good
schools deemed

Staff Writer

Holt: School law may
become election issue
No Child Left Behind
raises hackles in good
schools deemed ‘failing’
Staff Writer

U.S. Congressman Rush Holt recently told a group of area high school students that he agrees with many of the gripes being raised about the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The congressman, a Democrat representing much of Middlesex County and parts of four other counties, was asked about the controversial act during a recent visit to Manalapan High School. The three-term member of Congress was addressing advanced placement government and history students when Freehold Regional High School District Superintendent of Schools James Wasser broached the No Child Left Behind law.

"You are [standing] before some of the brightest students … in the state of New Jersey," Wasser told Holt. "Their advanced placement scores exceed all state averages. They’re award-winning students and so on, and you’re in a [so-called] failing school."

Recent reports showed that many schools in Central New Jersey, including Manalapan, failed to meet a strict set of student achievement criteria set forth by the No Child Left Behind legislation. By law, those schools are failing.

"I really see this as an attack" on education, the superintendent said, asking Holt to address the issue. "Just like you said there are people in Washington that may have had a motivation for going to war, I also think there are people in Washington that are motivated to destroy public education in this country and I am very concerned."

"Public education is one of the great accomplishments of the United States," Holt said. "It has allowed us to become the country that we’ve become and it will allow us to become the country that we can become. But there are those who think it will be better if the government would just get out of this and give people a voucher [to] let them decide where they want to go to school. They can make better decisions than the government can. They can [also] spend the money better than the government can. The result would be excellent education for some and a terrible education for others."

Holt said the nation has had an ideal for about 150 years of public education to provide an excellent education for all.

"We don’t weed out people early and say, ‘You’re not college material, get out of the way,’ " he said. "We give lots of people second chances and we figure that the public schools are for everyone and should offer everyone an excellent education."

Holt said leaders sometimes fall short of that ideal and have to ask themselves how they can make things better.

"One of the problems in the last 10 or 20 years is that people have hidden behind averages," the congressman said. "A school will say, ‘On average, we are providing an excellent education to our students.’ Then there would be 10 or 20 percent of the students [in a particular identifiable category] that just weren’t getting a decent education. But on average, the school was doing just great."

Holt said No Child Left Behind was legislation that was intended to get behind the averages and insist that every identifiable group had to be making what is called "adequate yearly progress."

"What do you mean by adequate yearly progress, and is adequate yearly progress defined the same way for all students?" he asked. "How do you measure it?"

One way to measure adequate yearly progress is by using a test, Holt said, adding that there may be other ways to measure a student’s achievement.

"The idea was to see that no child was left behind," the congressman said. "Every student was [to] make adequate yearly progress and a school couldn’t sweep that 10 percent under the rug."

Holt said there are several problems with the legislation. Some of the questions that need to be answered are: How do you measure using a test? Do you end up teaching to the tests? Do you add expense to the schools in order to comply with this legislation, and who will pay for it?

"The expectation was that the federal government would pay for the additional expenses," he told the students.

The congressman addressed the term "failing school."

"The federal government never used the term failing schools," said Holt. "That was not part of No Child Left Behind, but that’s the way it has come to be described in New Jersey, which is certainly unfortunate."

Holt said he thinks No Child Left Behind will have to be reworked and said it may become a political issue this year.

"It’s something the president pushed for very hard," he said. "It was his first major piece of legislation. Education was to be his signature issue, particularly elementary and secondary education, so he is tied to that."

Holt said many Democratic candidates are finding fault with No Child Left Behind and he predicted it will turn into a political issue.

"It hasn’t yet, and I may be wrong, but I think it probably will. If it does, it will probably mean that some changes will have to be made," the congressman said.

Holt said it will stir up the general sense of disappointment and resentment among the millions of school families and teachers who are unhappy with the way No Child Left Behind is implemented.

"That was a brief summary of a very involved problem," he said.