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Real choice

THE OFFICIAL Desktop Reference to the 600-plus-page No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 tells us that the Act ''represents a sweeping overhaul of federal efforts to support elementary and secondary education in the United States'' and asserts that the Act's provisions represent ''a landmark in education reform designed to improve student achievement and change the culture of America's schools.''

The target of the federal government's concern is proper. There is truth in the charge that public education is ineffective as currently pursued. Too many of our schools, stuck in practices going back almost one hundred years, have failed all too many children, especially those of the poor. We ''deliver'' our programs; if the kids do not learn, it must be their fault. Not surprisingly, students in wealthier districts ultimately perform better than their urban and rural counterparts: Their schools are better financed; the youngsters get much of their education beyond their school buildings; and, given their wealth, families can move into districts that have richer programs, smaller classes, and staff and community stability.

While NCLB aims to better the opportunities for the children of needy Americans, its provisions remain extensions of the existing bureaucratic system. Along with the compensatory money, it adds to the burdens on schools and families. Worst of all, it is astonishingly unimaginative. There is no hint that there may be a better, more interesting way to school our young citizens within a community's public schools. Inconveniently, no two children and no two schools are ever quite alike. There is no obvious quick fix. A mix of state, school-level, and strong parental influence needs to be braided together.

Message Board MESSAGE BOARD: When it comes to education reform and closing the ''achievement gap,'' what's a progressive to do?
 UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Real reform (By Mark Roosevelt, Today's Globe)
 UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Real choice (By Theodore R. Sizer, Today's Globe)

No Child Left Behind is the most recent reauthorization of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), which was passed by the 89th Congress to channel moneys into districts serving poor children, thereby narrowing the financial gap between districts serving the poor and their wealthier, usually suburban cousins. That Congress was highly sensitive to the expectation of local control of public schools; the federal moneys disbursed would not carry with them substantial federal requirements for any particular educational plan.

NCLB retains the 1965 focus on schools serving low-income populations, but for the first time it mandates the scope and ''standards'' of the schooling it supports (or affects policy by means of the lure of grants in specified areas). It focuses on a few critical areas (reading, writing, civic education for example), demands that the states set standards that meet federal expectations, and requires regular mass testing and reporting of progress toward these standards. NCLB advocates parental choice among schools (implying differences among them) but, paradoxically, it trusts that the states will insist on common, state assigned and federally approved curricula and assessments for the students' work (which implies consistency).

Few Americans can responsibly disagree with the ends. The rub is in the means, especially for middle and high schools. How can Americans assure all families that their children have access to effective public schools? And just how do we measure whether a school is succeeding?

NCLB and many of its state counterparts, like Massachusetts' own Education Reform Act of 1993, answer these questions primarily with increased top-down regulation that leads to standardized practices imposed on populations that are not themselves standardized; and with assessments that sharply narrow the goal of a serious education to the ability to pass common standardized tests at a prescribed level. Not surprisingly, there has been a howl of legitimate protest-and a dramatic private-sector increase of test-prep activity.

The system is stuck. If poor children are to benefit from public schooling, something has to give. However, it does not necessarily follow that higher government has to take an ever-increasing role. On the contrary, more power at the lowest level-that of families and individual schools-might break the logjam.

What if government were to give warrants-commonly called tuition vouchers-to families, each scaled to the financial needs of the family, to cash in at a public school of their choice? If a family lived in a thinly populated area served by a single public school, that school would receive this added money. In any and all cases, the receiving school would decide how that money will be deployed.

''Privatization!'' many critics cry. ''The end of public education! This cannot be a progressive idea!'' Ironically, in fact, it is just that.

There is a clear precedent here: the so-called GI Bill of Rights program created after the Second World War to assist men and women leaving active military duty to pay for their college or technical training. It continues to this day. The money, in the form of a warrant, goes to the veteran. He or she takes it to the publicly accredited institution of his or her choice. It is used to cover all or much of the tuition cost charged by that institution. Everyone wins, including the American people: Its educated workforce expands.

Paradoxically, many progressives (as well as the guardians of the bureaucracies) have been hostile to the idea of applying this logic to the primary and secondary education system since it was first introduced nationally in the late 1960s as a ''Poor Children's Bill of Rights'' (a recommendation of a task force on cities appointed by President Johnson, of which I was a member and for which I shaped the education policy).

''Poor parents don't know what their kids need,'' the critics within the system say. ''Poor parents do not have the time to make sound decisions. We know best. If there is to be more money coming into public education, we must control it.'' What's more, they curiously argue that the analogy to the GI Bill is faulty: Choices by the twentysomethings leaving the military and choosing colleges and trade schools, they claim, are more likely to be sounder than those made by twentysomething parents on behalf of their children, especially those who happen to be poor and who may not speak much English.

But the idea of a Poor Children's Bill of Rights is that choice among public schools could create an incentive for each school to be sensitive to the needs and expectations of its constituency. Americans have seen the good effect of this policy in big cities among enterprises such as the Pilot schools within the Boston School Committee's and Boston Teachers Union's contract and in the now citywide small-school choice programs in New York that had their origins in East Harlem during the 1980s.

Of course, government could allow for school choice and still control some of the crucial aspects of schooling by means of curriculum frameworks and high-stakes assessments-as has happened in many states. True ''choice,'' however, implies responsible variety. And yet most systems continue the well-intentioned but indefensible practice (as a matter of serious research) of ranking students, schools, and states on the basis of student scores on a few highly circumscribed standardized tests. States generally demand strict adherence to the familiar school routines of age grading (which defy common sense as any parent of two or more offspring knows), of sharp distinctions between and among subject matters (which fail to reflect the way that most citizens actually think in the real world), and of overloading the schools with so many duties beyond academic learning (from counseling to recreation to arrangements for students with special needs) that they must struggle to do any one of them well.

All that granted, if the federal government gave its sanction and some financial support to the primary consumers of free schooling-the affected families-it would give leverage to a more democratic, more progressive, system of public schools than that reflected by the status quo.

A truly public-sector Poor Children's Bill of Rights, given supportive conditions, would be an expression of democracy: It would push authority down the political hierarchy. It would authorize to the greatest possible extent legitimate choices among reasonably varied public schools. It could help to attract professionals who want to shape their work places, to have authority, and it could hold these precious folk within the system. It would allow room for schools to progress, to change, to alter their routines as times and communities change. (Some voucher proposals, however, set the cash levels so low that they provide no incentive whatever save, ultimately, for certain non-public schools, thereby becoming a means for funneling moneys primarily into the private religious and for-profit sectors.)

I know from long experience that this idea provokes instant and furious opposition from almost every quarter. I also have learned to be warmed by all that heat: It suggests that the idea hits vulnerable nerves. It is a shame that NCLB is the extension, indeed the expansion, of the existing bureaucratic system, now stiffened with imposed rewards and punishments. Americans deserve better.

Theodore R. Sizer is founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and teaches at Harvard and Brandeis Universities. His latest book is ''The Red Pencil: Convictions from Experience in Education'' (Yale).

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