You’ve heard of the No Child Left Behind Act (search). Here's an official overview and Education Gadfly’s analysis:

The law requires states to test students in grades 3-8 annually in reading and math; states pick their own exam. In 10 years, all students are supposed to test as "proficient." (Look for the definition of "proficient" to drop.) Test scores at individual schools must improve for all students and for minorities, low-income students and other subgroups.

If a school receiving federal Title I funding (search) misses the target two years in a row, students must be offered a choice of other public schools to attend. (If there’s a good school nearby, it’s unlikely to have room for transfers.) If a school fails to improve three years in a row, students must be offered vouchers good for extra help, including private tutoring.

Teachers in core content areas must be "highly qualified,"certified and knowledgeable about the subject matter taught. (Look for the definition of “highly qualified” to drop.)

The law funds "research-based" reading programs for elementary students.

Despite shortcomings, NCLB is forcing schools to focus on their weakest students. The promise of tutorial vouchers for students in failing schools has the potential to make a difference: There are plenty of companies with experience helping middle-class students; they're eager to tutor low-income students who have a voucher to pay for extra help. Poor parents will have choices.

In Slate, Alexander Russo worries that too many schools can't meet NCLB's standards.

What's more, the law unintentionally creates a situation in which NCLB is pretty much all bad news, all the time. Parents who thought their children's schools were doing fine are told the schools are lagging. Parents who were supposed to get the chance to transfer their children to a better school find out that there's nowhere to go, or decide they'd rather keep their kids in a failing neighborhood school than ship them across town. Parents at schools that are required to take in transfer students worry about the impact of the transfers on the school. The press has frequently taken side with the teachers, progressive reformers, and education officials who generally dislike the law.

This is a very real concern.

Genes, Environment and IQ

What determines intelligence: genetic inheritance or environment? According to a new study, environment is the key factor for poor children; for middle-class and wealthy children, it's mostly a matter of genes. The Washington Post reports:

Specifically, the heritability of IQ at the low end of the wealth spectrum was just 0.10 on a scale of zero to one, while it was 0.72 for families of high socioeconomic status. Conversely, the importance of environmental influences on IQ was four times stronger in the poorest families than in the higher status families.

"This says that above a certain level, where you have a wide array of opportunities, it doesn't get much better" by adding environmental enhancements, (Sandra) Scarr said. "But below a certain level, additional opportunities can have big impacts."

Researchers want to figure out what factors might raise poor children's intelligence. Will quality day care make a difference? Mark Kleiman writes that Head Start, as is,won’t be enough.

Head Start was a nice idea, but the execution was lousy and the measured results have been uniformly disappointing. The emphasis is social rather than cognitive, and staffing tends to be "community" members rather than the skilled teachers needed to to do the job of helping kids from poor families overcome the heavy handicaps they carry as they enter school.

Kleiman notes that everyone cites the success of Head Start's precursor, the Perry Preschool Project (search), which raised graduation rates and lowered crime and welfare rates. But Perry was "much more intensively academic and much, much more expensive than Head Start itself: it cost about $4000 (in 1967 dollars) per kid, or about $20,000 per kid in today's money."

Perry also involved home visits; teachers encouraged mothers to provide a more stimulating environment for their children. And the greatest gains came for the children of mothers who were hired to work as pre-school aides. In other words, it's likely the program worked by changing mothers' behavior, not merely by exposing kids for a few hours a day to marginally better trained caregivers.

President Bush wants Head Start to stress language development, which is critical to helping children learn to read. The Head Start establishment is opposed, claiming children will be pushed beyond their readiness level.

Well, nobody's proposing to drill little kids on their ABC's. But what's so awful about trying to develop vocabulary -- or even reading an alphabet book? Middle-class kids don't stress out when they're shown a picture of an apple next to an "A."

Back-to-School Bodywax

Girls just want to preenfor the first day of school, and some girls have the money for highlights, waxes, nose jobs and custom clothing, reports the New York Times.

"It's like the new start of everything," Samantha said. "Everyone will say they don't care, but they do. Everyone's trying so hard. Everyone's at the tanning salon. Like seven kids I know got nose jobs just this week."

...According to Irma Zandl, a Manhattan consultant who studies trends among teenagers, this year it's Japanese hair straightening, Brazilian bikini waxing, teeth whitening at a dental day spa and eyebrow sculpturing.

Of course, most teen-age girls can't afford back-to-school makeovers, much less a nose job. They're satisfied with a few new outfits and a hair cut.

In my day, girls would appear in September with a new name: Cindy would become "Cindi" or perhaps "Cyndi." The dot over the "i" would be a heart. As a "Joanne," this route was not open to me.

Letters

Tony Zito of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., writes:

As to whether we should "view America as a problem for mankind rather than its best hope," I'd prefer to let history decide and stick to a curriculum with less editorializing all the way around.

Finally, pity the poor right-wing children at Chapel Hill who can't win an argument in the class room or the cafeteria. Good idea for them to run to the administration for protection. Chances are pretty darn good in 2003 that the suit at the top will be sympathetic.

Still, it leaves me wondering why the people who actually study deeply in disciplines seem to end up predominantly on the left, whereas those who dedicate themselves to sitting in offices and shuffling money lean to the right.

Erin Bangert of Colorado Springs, Colo., says:

As a social studies teacher, I was painfully moved by “The Decline and Fall of Social Studies.” article.

Educators, state curriculum and textbook committees and university education departments demand that teachers apologize for slavery, discrimination and all other social ills, and teach students to mistrust their country and government. I’m not saying it’s wrong to discuss the parts that Native Americans and African Americans have played in American society. I’m saying that these groups take precedence over learning, for example, how America got its start and the workings of American government. Liberals seem to believe it’s more important to learn about a Buddhist sand painting than about the factors that contributed to the Great Depression.

Many, like myself, are afraid to challenge the establishment because we do not share their beliefs.

Students need to know the broad picture of events, people and ideas and the places that have been shaped by them.

Paul Johnson writes:

The only people who can fix education are the people who have a vested interest in fixing it: Parents. And the only way to put parents in control is to have them control the money. Which in turn means vouchers. The nay sayers will start screaming about the "wall" between church and state in the case of church schools, so then the vouchers can simply only be used for secular instruction and none of the religious portions included. If parents want their children schooled in religion, then let them pay for it separately.

In Oregon, the public schools spend about $6,500 per year, per student and private schools charge about half of that. This tells me that about half of the education dollars are wasted and that does not even count the disparity between the quality of private vs. public education.

The "market" has built this country into the richest and most powerful country in the history of mankind. Why are we unwilling to let the market work in education? It's simply because the teachers unions and bureaucrats control education, instead of parents.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at JoanneJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

Respond to the Writer