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Education Reform and the Children Still Left Behind

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Statewide test day and Damian was psyched. He didn't sleep much the night before from worrying. Still, he was there on time, ready to go. Now he sat hunched over his desk, head down, lips moving as he read, his pen carefully inching across the paper.

He was like any other kid in his grade taking the mandated English exam. The only difference was that he was locked up in an adult county jail in Westchester, NY where I taught high school for ten years, and he was reading -- and barely writing -- on a fourth grade level, which was up from the second grade level he came in with.

Damian was a tall, thin 17-year-old with a bushed-out Afro who had been in and out of juvenile placements since childhood -- foster care, group homes, detention centers, jails. As a result, he had as many gaps in his education as he had in his mouth from missing teeth, most prominently his front two. The list of his educational diagnoses was almost as long as his rap sheet. Mentally Retarded. Learning disabled. Behavioral disorder. ADD/HD. Oppositional personality. Yet as badly as he'd done in school, a part of him always valued education.

Over the months I had him in class, something clicked for Damian. He never missed a day. He worked hard, asked for homework -- and did it. His progress was daily. Soon, his reading rose from that humiliating second grade level to third to fourth grade. The kid was on the move. But something else was happening. When Damian first came to class, he never looked anyone in the face and hid what he called his "baby work." Now he was more self-confident. He was proud of his improvement and suddenly saw himself as a learner.

Then the mandated end-of-year state tests came round.

When I was told that Damian had to take the English exam I was as uncomprehending as he must have felt sometimes trying to decipher a page of print.

"It's got to be a mistake," I said to our on-site test administrator. "The kid's reading on a fourth grade level. Maybe on paper he's an 11th grader, but he doesn't have the credits or the skills for the 11th grade."

"It's not a mistake," she explained. "He's enrolled in high school. Technically, he's 11th grade; so he has to take the test."

Then she tried to soften the regulation by explaining the reasoning behind it: a student was required to take the test and fail it in order to be eligible for remediation classes. I didn't bother to interpret back to her what I heard: Damian had to fail a test we all knew he would fail in order to prove that he would fail it so he could get "remediation." Kids, especially kids like Damian, don't think like educational pundits. It was easy to imagine the damage this latest failure would do to his burgeoning self-confidence as a learner.

Unfortunately, he'd already been told that he was scheduled to take the exam before I talked to him. When I suggested that he might not feel ready to take the test, that it was okay if he didn't show up, he could take it another time, he looked at me as though I was every white teacher he'd ever had who'd told him that he'd never succeed so why bother. After that I knew he'd be there on test day.

The Comprehensive English exam is two days, a total of six hours. Damian was there both days, for every minute of those six hours, doing the best he could. It was painful to watch.

I wish Damian was the only example of such mandated failure. But there are lots of Damians in classrooms across the country in places as diverse as jails, psych hospitals, rehabs, juvenile detention centers, special ed classes who find themselves in similar situations. Now that Obama's educational reforms are continuing where Bush's left off with their reliance on standardized test results as the prime measure of educational success, I'm afraid that there will be many more kids, and teachers, facing similar struggles.

I am not recommending social promotion. Nor am I suggesting "feel good" education. I wouldn't insult kids like Damian. Students should be held to rigorous academic standards. However, teachers -- and there are many of who are fiercely dedicated to this hard-to-reach population -- should be allowed some flexibility to evaluate their students' readiness and plan accordingly. That local flexibility can't happen under the present reform blueprint. And given all that is at stake -- money, autonomy, prestige, reputations -- superintendents, principals, and supervisors will adhere, perhaps reluctantly, to these lock-step standards rather than advocate for the needs of these vulnerable kids and their teachers in their districts.

Certainly gains have been made nationwide. But all of us -- teachers, parents and school administrators -- should share, on a local and national level, the concern many civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition have recently expressed: that the very students these reforms were meant to keep in school -- poor, disaffected, disenfranchised, minority kids -- will continue to be left out and left behind.