09/26/2011 03:25 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2011

The Courage of Convictions in the Era of NCLB

There are moments that leave you shaking your head in demoralized confusion, just as you feel like you're making a difference.

Over the last few weeks, I've been mired in a debate against standardized testing. A recent correspondence-turned-column with education columnist Jay Mathews at the Washington Post was a good way to crystallize my opposition to test-based reforms. Yet, the strength of my convictions can be so easily dashed.

I was on my way into Washington, DC the other day from my home near Annapolis. There's this God-awful stretch of the city as route 50 turns into New York Avenue replete with vacant lots, an enormous empty factory, and a mishmash of other abandoned buildings. Interestingly enough, this road is adorned with more economical hotel options for the legions of tourists that visit the city and is likely the first view they get of our nation's capital.

At one point, I noticed a rather curious building that previously escaped my attention. The bulk of the structure taking up roughly an entire city block appears empty at first glance; in fact, the organization in that part of the building has never shown any signs of life in my experience. Bleached and tattered posters are never good signs. Stuck on the very far end of this withered façade is a charter school, identifiable by a small sign and newer, redder bricks that are starkly contrasted to the rest of the building.

This is what you've given us: a small "school" haphazardly slapped onto a pre-existing structure that appears abandoned? When Jay Mathews and others press me for alternatives to test-based reforms, of which I'm highly critical, I can barely contain my irritation. For a brief time, one that will likely continue, the modus operandi has been to discipline, punish, and eventually close neighborhood schools. That's right. In areas with a surfeit of empty structures, more empty structures.

There certainly was a time when local schools were pillars of communities, and perhaps that can happen again one day. These buildings, built to withstand a test of time, could serve as community centers, meeting places, and provide valuable parkland within concrete jungles. In some cases, schools house outpatient health clinics or job-training centers.

I know nothing of the school I'm speaking of and, to be honest with you, I can't remember the name of it. However, even if I did, I wouldn't reveal it here. For all I do know, it could be a great organization that has been a boon to the local community. But I can't help but to think of all the large school buildings, right smack dab in the middle of certain communities, that lay either in ruin or disrepair. And for all of the fuss over "no excuses" and "accountability," permission is willingly granted for fly-by-night organizations to slap a few bricks onto a side of a building and call it a school.