President’s Corner

Our Role in These Defining Times

by John R. Lawrence

Paul Houston and I often use the phrase “defining times” to refer to the current landscape of our profession. We believe the term is appropriate for as the economy cascades nearly universal funding reductions upon America’s schools, the concurrent mandate for unprecedented performance accountability looms by an act of Congress.

The bottom line is that our nation’s schools are being asked to deliver more during fiscal times in which we are receiving less. The dichotomy brings to mind one of Paul’s better sound bites: “Everyone says you can’t solve education’s problems by throwing money at them, but maybe we ought to try it once.”

Yet these times that challenge us also strengthen us. The collective voice of school leaders buoyed by AASA’s Stand Up for Public Education initiative is gaining momentum as we share and celebrate the abundant “good news” stories that occur every day in America’s schoolhouses. I may be criticized for Pollyannish thinking, but I believe we are succeeding in our efforts to stand up for the profession with the litmus test for this analysis ironically being the most devilish of the details—the adequate yearly progress provision of No Child Left Behind.

As a practicing school administrator, I had etched in my mind and starred on my desk calendar the media release date of our state’s AYP report. I braced for the worst, for although all of our elementary schools made it in my home school district, none of our secondary schools did. In each case this was because the special education subgroups in our middle and high schools failed to meet our state’s proficiency standards. These standards, as you know, must be precisely the same for students who receive special education services as for students who do not.

In targeting this I do not wish to send a negative message about the need and value of special education. Conversely, I fully support the spirit of IDEA and the work educators have done to address its tenets have certainly helped a lot of students. But because the NCLB guidelines relate to a “one height for all” achievement bar, special education subgroups were often the reason otherwise high-performing schools failed to meet AYP. As Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday used to say, those are “just the facts ma’am, just the facts.”

However, if, as some would hold, the AYP provision of No Child Left Behind is a Machiavellian effort to derail public confidence in public education and place the nation on a quick track to school vouchers, the game plan has apparently failed. Across the country an informed general public is concluding that the federal law is flawed much more so than the public schools. Accordingly, the crafters of this benchmark legislation may be taken aback by the unanticipated public outcry. The creators, however, remain empowered, and to sell their resiliency short would be a serious error. Moreover, they are not our enemies but people with different ideologies.

To that end AASA is facing a defining decision in these aforementioned defining times. On the one hand, your association took the gloves off in a very public challenge regarding the law’s language on schools in “need of improvement.” To reduce the flame of our passion would be both unjust and unwise.

On the other hand, those that molded our newest federal mandate have shown recent signs of cooperation as well as a willingness to discuss what was not discussable in days leading up to the law’s passage in Congress. They are extending an olive branch. Our response needs to be statesmanlike for these are indeed defining times and we are assisting in their ultimate definition.

John Lawrence is president of AASA.