President's Corner

Tons of Talent

by Randall H. Collins

A few days ago I was driving with my 5-year-old grandson, Curt, in the backseat of the car. As we came to a stop at a red light, he proudly announced without any humility, “I have tons of talent.” I responded, “You do!” He said, “Yes, I can stand on my head.”

Curt’s remark got me wondering: Do we honor and develop every child’s talent? All children should believe they have tons of talent, and it is our sacred duty to develop that talent and to ensure that when they leave us, they do so with the enthusiasm and self-confidence of Curt.

Many of us worked as educators in the 1970s to ensure all of the children in our care received equitable and fair treatment. In 1975, we hailed the passage of P.L. 94-142 (The Education of All Handicapped Children Act), which mandated a free, appropriate public education for every child “regardless of how, or how seriously, he may be handicapped,” in the least restrictive environment possible.

Yes, there were a great many naysayers among us, as there always are with difficult ground-breaking decisions. Ensuring every child received an equal education was hard to do and particularly hard to do well.

All students are welcome in our public schools. They need not qualify by aptitude, physical ability, race, religion or social station. And our students represent the full gamut. Some come from loving homes, some from homes with no love at all. Some are wealthy, while others have very little. Some of our students are brilliant, while others struggle with the simplest academic challenge. We have star athletes, and we have students who will never walk.

Ultimately, our mission, and that of AASA, is to ensure that the dreams of all of our children are realized. No Child Left Behind disregards our promise to bring each student to his or her potential. Rather, it establishes an artificial one-size-fits-all benchmark that, in fact, leaves many behind. In the meantime, it falls to us to protect all of our students and to ensure their right to a quality education is realized.

Today, I fear that in our struggle to accommodate NCLB, we are undermining that commitment made so long ago. Sometimes the very parents who should be insisting on inclusion are pressuring us as superintendents to, in fact, place their child outside that mainstreamed environment for which we advocate. Why? Because they believe, once again, we are failing to educate their children.

We are in a position to make sure children with special needs are included in our classrooms, in a position to recapture the spirit of the civil right accorded them by the Congress and the Supreme Court, in a position to prevent regression.

In 1975, we made the right commitment, and we must not allow that decision to be undone by an ill-thought-out legislation like No Child Left Behind, which seemingly ignores the needs of and the promises made to our most needy children. NCLB has, in effect, destroyed the intent, the goal and the promise of the original P.L. 94-142.

While it has been difficult, the 1975 Act is the very essence of who we are as a nation. Long ago, this country set itself apart from all others with its lofty democratic principles. Like each individual thread in a precious tapestry, every person is necessary to create the masterpiece. When we weave a tapestry that includes threads in all the colors, it is much more beautiful, much richer. This must be so in public education, as well.

Randall Collins is AASA president for 2008-09. E-mail: RCollins@waterfordschools.org