Officials address No Child Left Behind

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Despite recent leaps and bounds in the field of education across this nation, much work is left to be done, according to an official with the United States Department of Education who addressed local educators Thursday morning.
   Dr. Richard LaPointe, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. D.O.E., spoke at a conference in Kingsport Thursday morning that detailed the No Child Left Behind initiative started by President George W. Bush and what that plan entails for northeast Tennessee.
   "In spite of our modern, techno-savvy culture, in spite of an education budget in the billions, in spite of state-of-the-art facilities and cutting edge computers, an astonishing number of American children have yet to experience their own awakening to the power of the word to inspire and empower and unlock their lives," LaPointe said to those in attendance. "In present-day America, two out of three fourth-graders cannot read proficiently. In the inner city and throughout rural America, seven out of 10 fourth-graders cannon read at even the most basic level.
   "At the other end of our educational system, the reports are quite alarming. Of our graduating seniors, 80 percent of them -- 4 out of 5 -- are not proficient in math or science. Even of those who go on to college, over one-third will need remediation of some kind before they can handle entry-level classes."
   LaPointe stated that improving education is vital to improving the lives of the children of this nation because education affects every aspect of a person's life. "I don't need to paint a full picture for you of the devastating toll behind these numbers. Countless individual lives are blighted by both real and virtual illiteracy," he said. "Reading skills in our society are essential to economic success, but to much more besides. The most fundamental rights asserted by the Founding Fathers are utterly contingent on basic educational attainments. That is why we have long considered it an obligation of government to assure every human being the right to an education.
   "Because we know that life has no dignity, liberty is an empty abstraction, and the pursuit of happiness but an exercise in futility for an individual who cannot read to his child, decipher a ballot or fill out a job application."
   According to LaPointe, the main focus of the No Child Left Behind program created by the President is to reform education in such a way as to ensure a quality education for every child in America.
   The first premise in the program is to initiate school accountability for the quality of the education they offer students. "In the past, students brought home report cards. In the future, schools will get them too," LaPointe said.
   Under No Child Left Behind, schools will be required to report graduation rates, qualifications of instructors, and how well students are reporting, both as a whole and in subgroups such as gender and race.
   The second theory of the plan, according to LaPointe, is to raise the standards of education across the nation. "Experience is showing that too little challenge, not too much challenge, is the bane of American students. We have been selling them short," he said. "And amazingly, increasingly, they are aware that they are suffering from our misplaced compassion. Because under our old system, an astonishingly small 23 percent of our students are satisfied that the educational standards they labor under are rigorous.
   "The underprepared, not the overchallenged, will suffer in the world and economy of the 21st century."
   The third aspect of the plan allows for more control of education dollars and programs at the local level. "This legislation recognizes that local people know what works best for their schools and their children," LaPointe said.
   The fourth and final aspect of the plan will put an emphasis on using research-based teaching methods that have proven successful in helping students to learn. "When the education of our children is involved, the stakes are too high for us to ignore the time-tested methods that do work," LaPointe said. "So these new reforms re-center education on the basics. Reading programs that emphasize phonics work. Regular testing works. An emphasis on teacher quality works."
   Despite the dim picture nation-wide statistics paint, LaPointe said that Tennessee has much to be proud of in the field of education.
   "Your eighth grade students were already performing above the national average on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) writing assessment in 1998; only four states performed significantly higher, in fact. The number of your fourth graders scoring at the proficient or higher level almost doubled between 1992 and 2000, from only 10 percent to 18 percent. Your achievement gap on that test between white and African-American fourth-graders was smaller than forty other states in 1998," LaPointe said. "In math, the achievement gap between Hispanic students and their counterparts has significantly diminished -- almost disappearing between 1992 and 2000. The achievement gap between African-Americans and white students remains a challenge."
   In order to achieve the progress called for in the No Child Left Behind initiative, one of the main focuses will be placed on hiring and retaining "highly qualified" teachers. "In general a 'highly qualified teacher' is one with full certification, a bachelor's degree and demonstrated competence in subject knowledge and teaching," according to a report by the U.S. D.O.E. released earlier this month.
   Luckily, for states which, like Tennessee, are facing hard economic times, funding from the federal government is being allocated to help schools across the nation attain goals set forth in the program. "All told, the president's budget would increase federal education assistance to Tennessee to more than $829 million. It was $673 million in 2000," LaPointe said. "Clearly, this administration is committed -- fiscally committed as well as morally committed -- to helping states achieve the kinds of educational success we have been describing."
   In addition to a commitment from the federal government and local and state educators, the success of the children of this nation will also require the commitment of their family as well, according to LaPointe. "Parents have to be willing to work with their children," he said. "They have to be willing to put them on their laps and read to them."