Guest Column

A Hard Goodbye to a Favorite Assessment

by JAMES F. SIMPSON

My penchant for organizing, planning and even leading surfaced at a young age. I vividly recall my zeal for creating elaborate dirt roads with my prized Tonka bulldozer, constructing miniature bridges engineered with care using twigs and twine and building realistic-looking cottages, schools and churches complete with moss-covered roofs and pebble-covered sidewalks.

In a tree-shaded corner of my parents’ backyard, my friends and I could design, create and operate our own village, one that would rival an early settlement of old or a contemporary machination created in Sim City, the popular computer software. We would spend hours and sometimes days consumed with the passion of moving our toy cars and trucks in and around our village--that is until my older brother would decide he was ready for a more physically invigorating game of softball or tag at the local playground.

I struggled emotionally when our village was abandoned. After all, we had worked tirelessly to design and create something that reflected a team effort and commitment. What if our collective effort was destroyed in one fell swoop by the family dog looking for a new burial ground--or worse, if siblings or neighbors would mischievously decimate our creation in our absence?

Customary Ways
I’ve been reminded of these childhood experiences and feelings a good bit lately as our schools and states struggle to comply with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In states like Kentucky, our struggle is exacerbated by the fact that school reform swept across the Bluegrass State over a decade ago. The reform ushered in standards-based curricula and an accountability system designed to drive schools to ensure that the majority of students achieve at high levels in various subjects over an extended time.

Over these years, Kentuckians have become accustomed to doing reform their way, winning national recognition for their efforts and seeing progress in locales across the state, including former bastions of recalcitrance that seemed to take pride in their standoffishness even when their schools languished.

Our state’s progress has not been without contention. Many child advocates, including elected officials and appointed leaders, have battle scars to show for their protective stance on pursuing reform initiatives that were mandated by state legislation in 1990.

Federalism Rules
I am finding it extremely difficult to let go of what we have known and supported for over a decade in order to conform with the mandates of the federal act. No Child Left Behind will revamp our accountability system, the most salient change being the replacement of a school index score based on a variety of student performance indicators with an exclusive focus on all students in a school reaching the performance level of proficiency.

Americans recognize, respect and appreciate our representative form of government. However, when issues and times call for compromise we often romanticize individual democracy and lose that appropriate balance between an individual state’s rights and the heavy hand of federalism. This is particularly true in the present instance, even though the federal legislation enjoyed bipartisan support among our elected officials.

The humanness in us battles furiously with letting go and opening our minds to the possibilities of improving educational achievement for all of the nation’s children. In so doing, we struggle with abandoning what we have known and defended. For me, this is much like the childhood trauma of moving on from playing in the backyard with toy cars and trucks to a different yet necessary activity involving sports and games.

Although change and acceptance of change will not come easily, we must be willing to work cooperatively with the U.S. Department of Education over the next several years as we labor to implement the provisions of NCLB. Kentuckians, in particular, may have to spend a lot of time reminding ourselves of the great contribution of our most famous statesman, Sen. Henry Clay, who is remembered fondly and respected for promoting the importance of compromise.

James Simpson is superintendent of Grant County Public Schools, 505 S. Main St., Williamstown, KY 41097. E-mail: jsimpson@grant.k12.ky.us