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Editorial Opinion : Leave no child behind


Fri, Jan 24th, 2003
Posted in Columnists

Governor Tom Pawlenty announced his choice for Education Secretary two weeks ago. New administration, new Education Secretary; new Education Secretary, new plan.

Cheri Pierson Yecke, I wish you the best of luck, but pardon me for being a little less than exuberant. You see, one major reason for Secretary Yecke’s appointment was her work on the "Leave No Child Behind" legislation. Still in the process of unfolding, the legislation itself may not frighten me as much as its slogan.

Say it aloud: leave no child behind.

What kind of image does it create in your mind? Do you, too, see the child, ashamed of her clumsiness, dragging her feet as the other first graders run to the playground and quickly climb the slide? Or do you see the third grader, looking at the blurred worksheet as he cries silently because he cannot understand what he should do next and he’s too embarrassed to ask?

Perhaps your left-behind child looks "different," or talks "different." Any way you picture it, you’re bound to conjure up images of the lonely child (maybe it was you), lost in the shuffle in an elementary school in Anytown, USA. It’s a tearjerker.

The test of a truly great slogan occurs when those images remain whenever you hear or read those words. The difficulty lies in going beyond the images to understand what this directive means, for a directive it is. Make no mistake here, the bill is an "education" bill, meant for educators.

Couple this with the image of a forlorn child, and who can help but nod and say, "Absolutely! Our educational system should leave no child behind!"

Look closer. Do you notice that although we can readily understand what comes at the beginning of the slogan, recognizing what should follow the slogan doesn’t come as easily? Leave no child behind....hmmm. Behind in what? Behind whom?

If these questions had easy answers, the slogan might read differently. Leave no child behind the Japanese in mathematical skills; leave no child behind in music education; leave no child behind in physical fitness. Though educators may not accomplish those goals, we know the goal.

Visit any school in Fillmore County for any length of time and you will find amazing stories of students who face challenges each day and conquer them repeatedly, class after class, exam after exam, project after project; you will also find students quite content to simply pass the course and get on with their lives; and you will find students for whom the challenges that semester are too much. I challenge you to find any teacher (including parents or other important adults) associated with those students, engaged in plotting to "leave that child behind."

If you’ve ever felt as though you’ve failed a friend or family member by not realizing that you should intervene, you know what it feels like to think you didn’t do enough for a student. For many educators, one "failure"—to teach Hermione to come to class each day; to teach Edward to turn in his assignments on time; to teach Wilma phonics—overshadows all of the successes.

Each year, senior high teachers receive requests for recommendations from students who hope to attend colleges or win scholarship awards. I always ask students to create a list of high school achievements for me, so I won’t forget anything important. Recent achievement lists astounded me: literally pages of single-spaced records of participation and leadership opportunities and awards received lay on my desk as I struggled to find something else to say besides, "Hey! What can I add to this? What more do you need?"

These students had obviously not been left behind—but, like most educators, I cannot take the credit.

Each year, approximately half of my students misuse the following words: to/too; there/their/they’re; know/now. I circle it on their papers; I write it on the board; I have students write sentences using each properly; and, in many cases, the next paper comes in with the same errors. Have I left these children behind?

Soon, the federal bill will be interpreted completely, and Minnesota’s Profile of Learning may be revamped. Students’ tests will become data which beget funding for some schools; other students’ tests will become data which condemn their schools, probably in front-page headlines.

I hate to break it to you, Mr. Governor and Ms. Secretary, but though we are all created equal under the law, we are not all created with the same abilities; nor are we carbon-copy clones, nurtured in precisely the same environment, experiencing the same feelings or memories. Place thirty such creatures in one space based solely upon birthdate; give them one adult in charge of teaching whatever revamped standards are in vogue this legislative term; add illnesses, hormones, growing pains, fire drills, forgotten assignments, bus safety, and stranger danger; mix in the after-lunch lethargy, pre-game anxiety, and TGIF fever, and you will have created one tenth of the everyday school life of a student. But the day doesn’t end there: play practice, sports, work, going to the babysitter’s or just going home affect what occurs in class and vice versa. And we haven’t even included the speeding ticket on the way to school, the fight Mom and Dad had this morning, the fact that Grandpa has cancer. Can we equalize these elements in each school so that each child has an equal chance to learn?

When the new legislation takes effect, and the new tests have all been given and each school district has been "graded," remember to look at more than the numbers. It may be difficult to do because each child is rightfully entitled to data privacy, and in our small schools, when educators casually mention that two students moved into the district three weeks before the reading comprehension test, nearly anyone can pinpoint who’s who.

School districts have mission statements. Educators have standards. Taxpayers have expectations. Parents have hopes. Children have dreams. We are so much more than the data which can be gathered on any given day.

JoAnne Agrimson is a teacher at Rushford-Peterson Schools and a regular columnist with the Fillmore County Journal.

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