THERE ARE a lot of negatives about the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal measure that has the schools of America scrambling. It has unrealistic rules, regulations and timetables. It's a huge financial burden for states and school districts. Even its title is negative. Why didn't they call it the "Every Child Progressing Act"?
But then you think about its purpose. That's what Kati Haycock does. She's the director and chief spokeswoman for the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization devoted to closing the disparities in American education that do, indeed, leave millions of children - mostly poor and minority - behind.
Haycock's message, which she delivered Wednesday to the State Department of Education's annual Principals Academy, is an uncomfortable one for educators. Essentially, she says the infamous achievement gap is inexcusable and that some schools, some districts, even some states have gone a long way toward closing it.
Her talk is laced with data, much of it drawn from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the "nation's report card."
For example, African-American and Hispanic students at the age of 17 perform in mathematics at about the same level as white 13-year-olds. For another example, by age 26, 60 percent of Americans in the top quarter of family income have a college degree. By the same age, 7 percent of those in the bottom quartile have a degree.
"Are children of the rich eight times as smart?" Haycock asked the principals, selected by their superintendents for the three-day academy, held this year at Turf Valley.
When she asks educators why so many kids are "trapped" - her word - they blame everyone and everything but themselves and their schools. Parents of the poor don't care. They don't get breakfast at home. No intellectual stimulation outside school. Not enough books. Too much television.
But if that's right, says Haycock, "then why are there poor and minority kids performing so well in some places? Why do Hispanic fourth-graders in Virginia read as well as or better than whites in 17 states? Why do black eighth-graders in Texas write as well as or better than white eighth-graders in seven states?
And why did the achievement gap narrow across the nation over the roughly two decades between 1970 and 1988. "That was a period of strong achievement gains for poor kids and children of color. But beginning in 1988, progress literally came to a halt," Haycock says.
The problem, she says, is low expectations in schools that enroll large numbers of poor and minorities, and it's particularly acute in high schools, where it's all too easy to allow kids to slide by without intellectual challenge. (The kids know it, too. Dropouts almost always say they left school because it was so boring, the teachers uninspiring.)
Real-life examples are horrific. In some middle schools, kids are doing more coloring than writing and math work. One high school English teacher gave this assignment: "Read To Kill a Mockingbird, and when you're through, color a poster on it."
Asked to comment on writing standards at her low-income high school in Philadelphia, an 11th-grade English teacher said: "Write? Not these kids, they're too poor. I think of it as a criminal act to assign these kids an essay of over three paragraphs in length."
"We think it's a criminal act not to," Haycock says.
What's needed to address this crisis? High expectations for all kids, says Haycock, a rigorous curriculum that's lined up with specific learning goals. Constant monitoring of student performance in "real time," not months after a test is taken. And, "High-performing districts leave nothing to chance."
After the Haycock talk, the principals turned to No Child Left Behind. I went back at the end of the three-day affair Friday and chatted with several of them. All said the Haycock talk had given them a greater appreciation of a federal law they had regarded as a royal pain in the behind.
They said the law is urgently needed in Maryland, where the achievement gap has been steadily widening for a decade (and shows no sign of narrowing under the new Maryland School Assessments).
"After our three days together, I think there was greater acceptance of [the act]," said Debra Munk, principal of Middletown High School in Frederick County.
"Maybe President Bush knew what he was doing."