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Top Educators Need Partnership Lessons

By Stan Simpson
April 9, 2005

Richard Blumenthal has done it now.

With his threat to sue the federal government over George W. Bush's well-intended but misfiring No Child Left Behind education law, the state's attorney general has escalated a national hissing match between Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Connecticut's Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg.

For those of you not following the rhetoric and posturing, it is going something like this:

Sternberg to the feds: You guys are truly clueless about how to improve the test scores of poor and minority students.

Spellings to Connecticut: Ya'll have your affluent heads in the sand and are writing off African American and Latino kids.

While the retorts get sharper, it sure doesn't instill any confidence that No Child Left Behind will complete the ambitious course that Bush charted.

Give Bush credit - yeah, I said it. Three years ago, he became the first president to not only make high expectations of minority students public policy, but to sanction, and possibly close, those schools not meeting those standards.

Whether you question his motives, or believed this was a guise to gut the public school systems in favor of private schools, the president put it out there. No more excuses. The "soft bigotry of low expectations" would no longer be tolerated.

Who could argue with that, right?

Well, many educators did, saying the penalties were punitive and the funding puny. Some sounded like they were already building in excuses before they even took on the challenge of raising test scores of poor and minority students.

In November 2003, it was encouraging to see many of the nation's African American and Latino superintendents sign a letter to Congress. They asked lawmakers to uphold the accountability standards of No Child Left Behind, but find a way to give them more money to help make it happen.

"We need to be held accountable. We should not be making excuses like, `Oh, this kid is from a poor neighborhood,"' Hartford schools chief Robert Henry said at the time.

Danbury School Superintendent Eddie Davis is one who supports the Bush effort, but finds the process misguided.

Morris Street School in Danbury is a 360-student elementary school with 56 percent of students coming from impoverished backgrounds, and many English-as-a-second-language students. It was put on the fed's watch list and given a "needs improvement" in reading.

The school, according to Davis, was given a paltry $14,000 to address the problem.

"The goals are on target, but the strategies are disastrous," Davis said. "The law is so focused on being punitive, that it does not do anything to support you toward reaching the goal. Sooner or later, we've got to have some balance in this law."

This leads us back to the rancor between Spellings and Sternberg.

The government wants standardized tests for students in all grades. Sternberg and others are saying there are enough standardized tests to inform teachers about deficiencies. Additional money should be invested in programs, they say, not more testing.

Connecticut's scholastic test scores are among the highest in the country, but it also has one of the widest gaps in achievement between white students and their African American and Latino peers.

Sternberg says the state has invested $600 million over the last five years to expand preschools and summer schools, increase reading enrichment in early grades and provide additional money to poor districts.

The result, she says, is that from 2000 to 2004, Connecticut's African American and Latino test scores are improving at higher percentage rates than whites in math, reading and writing in the early grades.

The state also has one of the best charter schools in America - Amistad Academy middle school in New Haven. Amistad's efforts in significantly improving the grades of mostly poor minority students have become a national model.

Spellings' office has the cash and the desire to dramatically reduce what really is a preparation gap among racial groups.

Connecticut is showing it might have some answers.

Rather than being rivals, Sternberg and Spellings ought to be partners.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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