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They never learn

“Sesame Street” popularized the lyrical phrase “one of these things is not like the others,” and it carries an important message for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Recently she’s made smart, consistent decisions to bring the No Child Left Behind Act into the real world.

She called for a standardized way for school districts and states to measure and report dropout rates.

Sounds good.

States use a variety of methods to calculate the rate and most of them understate the problem. The feds need a way to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Spellings created a pilot project in 10 states that will allow the most aggressive interventions at schools with the highest risk of failing to meet annual progress targets. In return, schools that are doing decently but aren’t meeting targets in all categories (ethnicity, special needs, income) would not be punished.

Makes sense.

Then on Tuesday, she announced that schools will be expected to graduate minority and low-income students at the same rate as their peers. Schools that can’t clear the bar will face sanctions.


That requirement repeats mistakes the pilot project is designed to correct.

It’s fine to break down graduation rates to see how various groups are faring. But using that as a basis for punishment presupposes that schools have it in their power to overcome broken homes, indifferent parents and grinding poverty.

Schools certainly have a role, and many can improve in the ways they help at-risk students. But taking away money and resources from schools that need them the most is not the answer.

At an Our Kids: Our Business luncheon on Thursday, Dr. Robert Anda, a senior researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, laid out the challenges faced by a depressingly high number of children.

He explained the powerful impediments to healthy development. A parent in jail. Alcohol or drug use in the home. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, including neglect.

Each factor is a “trauma dose” that affects the brain, making it more difficult to lead a happy life, let alone excel at school.

Spellings, it seems, hasn’t quite learned that lesson. Goals for students are beneficial, but we need to be careful about turning those into unrealistic expectations. Educators will find ways to meet rigid, unrealistic targets, even if those efforts don’t benefit the kids.

Establishing guidelines that reward improvement is better than setting up schools for failure.


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