By Dan Haley
By Monday afternoon, five families at Beye School had requested transfers to one of two other public schools in the village. This, of course, was the result of standardized test scores from last spring which indicated that one subgroup (unfortunate term) of Beye kids, had failed to hit this year's target under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Not a surprise that the underperforming group of kids were the school's African-American students. Obviously there is an academic achievement gap and that many, though by no means all of the students on the short end of that measure are black.
Perhaps a surprise is that the target they missed was an 85 percent marker to meet or exceed standards in reading and math. This would be the train-wreck conceit of George W. Bush's signature legislative accomplishment: Every year the percentage marker on achievement goes up. We are now reaching the delusional level. Eighty-five percent of African-American students, low-income students, and special ed students now have to hit the perpetually inflating mark or your school is labeled as failing.
Absurd. Impossible. And an approach that badly undermines the essential impulse of NCLB — that as a nation we had to layer genuine accountability onto public education and that the measurement system had to count every kid, whatever challenges they brought with them to school.
That much Bush got right. But ratcheting the targets up so high, so fast is destined to make failures of nearly every public school, no matter how much progress they log.
So this year, for the first time ever, an Oak Park elementary school is put in the humbling position of having to write to each parent and offer an alternative education option. In this case, District 97 officials told parents their students could shift north to either Whittier or Hatch Schools. Both of those schools are sort of in the neighborhood and both have room to absorb new students.
Will the transferring students get a stronger education than at Beye? Doubtful. I'll happily acknowledge my bias. Both my kids went through Beye. Both got excellent educations that met them where they were academically. And both were nurtured in a school community that was a blessing.
That just five families have requested a transfer to date is a testament to the Beye community — principal, faculty, parents, staff and students.
Some Beye parents have been frustrated that under the federal law, the "subgroup" had to be called out as African American. That, though, is the point of NCLB. Until you identify groups of students who are in some trouble — and standardized test scores are an inadequate measurement tool — you can't make a plan to help them. Clearly most of the black kids at Beye are doing well. But there is no advantage to disguising where the work needs to be done. And that work needs to happen within the school, within the families of the struggling kids, within our community to strengthen early childhood education options. No surprise, it is complicated.
Public school accountability is healthy and long overdue. But an overhaul of NCLB, already proposed by the Obama administration, is necessary if we are to avoid pushing the vast majority of all public schools into the dunce corner.
Years back, I'd have lunch twice a year with D97 Supt. John Fagan. Wasn't a secret that he wasn't a fan of Susan Gibson, the longtime and revered Beye principal. "Why," he said to me with some consternation, "are the parents at Beye so happy? The test scores aren't even very good." Then, as now, test scores are important. But they aren't everything.
I'd watch for the great and good Beye community to gather energy from this challenge and to move forward again.