Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A medal, or a kick in the rear, for school

Okay, enough is enough. The state is considering penalizing Storm Lake Middle School for having failed to meet certain earmarks for the third year, as dictated by the federal No Child Left Behind ideal.

Tell me if this makes sense:

A school is struggling under trying circumstances, so, to solve that, we consider withholding educational resources from it!

This is a good example of why we haven't suffered to let the Washington politicians run our schools.

Don't get me wrong - the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind is a well-meaning effort to bring accountability to the schools.

Yet in the case of Storm Lake, it may be about to do just the opposite of all that is just and appropriate.

The huge, gaping, irreparable flaw in No Child Left Behind is that it fails to recognize that while all children may be created equal, all students are not.

You simply cannot compare a class of children one year with a class of different children the next. You cannot compare the kids in one classroom at one school in Storm Lake with those elsewhere in the state and nation. Every child is a work in progress, as unique as a snowflake, much more complex than a few test scores on a table of statistics can portray.

We know the issue in Storm Lake schools, even if the politically-correct minds behind No Child Left Behind are afraid to say it out loud.

An influx of immigrant children, many poorly educated elsewhere, can hold test scores down for a time. Both Storm Lake and Perry, the two schools facing sanctions, have this issue.

I'm willing to bet that if you check the list of other schools now being listed as not meeting benchmarks, they will not be whitebread bastions, but communities with ethnic diversity and socioeconomic change. It stands to reason.

It is not that Hispanic students or any other ethnic group are any less capable of learning than anyone else, absolutely not. It is that it takes time once we get them - and with a high turnover among immigrant students, we don't always get that time.

Time to catch a student up in language and culture, time to get a family that may be disadvantaged to where they have the resources and involvement in the schools that is needed. Time to know the school and staff, to feel safe and belong.

You want to make schools accountable? There's only one way to do it - follow that student from year to year, see if they are progressing and learning as human beings, not statistics.

Don't compare apple kid to orange kid, compare 8-year old Joe and 12-year old Maria to 10-year old Joe and 14-year old Maria. Then you'll have something real with which to judge.

I'd like to go on record with the Iowa Department of Education and federal officials here: You can give the Storm Lake Middle School a swift kick in the butt if you like over that test score, and it will achieve nothing positive.

You should be giving that school a medal.

Before you apply any penalty, go spend a week in the classrooms there, I dare you. See the challenges that are coming into our classrooms every week, and the wonderful things that a very talented community of teachers is doing to help them learn and grow and progress, in time. One local classroom reports out of 20-some students, children go home to households where five different native languages are being spoken.

I would like to hear Mr. Bush tell us how such a class is supposed to instantly record high test grades - in the first year for many students in the district or perhaps even in America?

Frankly, test scores will only tell so much about what it going on in a school building.

An educator who teaches to the tests is no complete teacher. What we want is a teacher who can nurture, challenge, ignite curiosity and confidence. Over time, that teacher's inspiration will blossom into a successful man or woman, I truly believe that.

This year, the kid may stumble on a test. Next year, and down the line in high school, that same child may be using the basic tools they were given back in Storm Lake Middle School to become something extraordinary. This is the opportunity for all that our public school are built upon.

If there are places such opportunity is not happening, by all means, chain the doors shut, send the teachers to work in the packing plant, string the school board up by its thumbs for a public flogging with wet algebra II texts.

That is not, and never has been, the case at Storm Lake Middle School.

Faced with multicultural, multilingual, socioeconomic and transiency challenges that would make similar schools elsewhere in Iowa faint and throw up their hands, Storm Lake schools have done an exceptional and innovative job, and it will pay off.

Penalize them? That's insane. Celebrate them.

Put the state's education officials in there for a while, and let them learn how we are dealing with education in a remarkably diverse environment - because other communities are going to find themselves facing the same things eventually.

Those in Storm Lake who have spent time in the middle school, and seen what the teachers, staff, and programs like before-and-after-school efforts, fine arts and sports are doing in the lives of our children, are not going to panic or misread this state action. We do not seeing the "failure" that the faraway experts may see.

Storm Lake should appeal any decision that harms the school in reputation or resources. In doing so, they may make a point about how a school and its children should really be judged, and that will help all of Iowa to learn an important lesson in the process.