Acton Commentary

Is ‘Adequate’ Progress Adequate?


In Alton, Illinois this past week, students, teachers, and administrators met to discuss the transfer of students from Lovejoy Elementary, a public school that is not making the “adequate yearly progress” called for by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), to the other two elementary schools in the district. Sadly, the students who did not make adequate yearly progress were African American third and fifth graders. Their reading and math scores were below the 40 th percentile on the Illinois State Achievement Test, a further indication of the failure of government schools to provide a quality education for all students.

This process of reviewing test scores, consulting with parents, and offering transfers is taking place in many school districts throughout the United States, as school districts begin implementation of the requirements of NCLBA. By way of review, NCLBA mandates serious consequences for those schools that fail to meet standards. A government school failing to meet standards consistently for two years must offer public school choice to its students, as Lovejoy School in Alton is now doing. Schools that fail three years in a row must offer low-income students supplemental educational services, such as private tutoring. After four bad years, schools must take a “corrective action”, that is, replacing staff, implementing a new curriculum, and/or expanding the school day. If a school fails to make “adequate yearly progress” for five years in a row, the school must be restructured.

These mandated reforms are a necessary first step in addressing the crisis that faces our government schools. As students all across America begin to return to schools, it is imperative for students, parents, and educators alike to know that those same schools are of the highest caliber possible. Education is not a privilege reserved for the relative few, such as wealthy individuals (including Congressmen and Senators), who exercise their right to send their children to the schools that they choose. Rather, education is a necessary tool for all people, regardless of race, creed, or financial status, to grow as an authentic human person. As Pope John Paul II said in a 1999 address to students and teachers of Roman schools, “the school and education in general have a decisive and irreplaceable task as ways of authentic human liberation from the slavery of ignorance.” By most accounts, the government schools in America are failing in this call.

The pope goes on to say that “the future of humanity and the social development of a nation depend to a great extent on the quality of its schools and their commitment to presenting themselves as an educational community for all their members.” The fact that, in many inner cities government schools constantly and consistently fail their students is a threat to the social development of our nation, as John Paul says, but also a danger to the development of mankind.

What is the answer to this crisis in education? One of the answers is tougher standards, such as those imposed by NCLBA, with credible consequences to back those standards up. But this is merely a first step. A more important and far-reaching response would be to initiate comprehensive parental choice in education. Evidence in Cleveland and Milwaukee, two cities in which this type of parental choice is available, indicates that all students benefit from the competition parental choice engenders. When private, parochial, and government schools compete for students on an equal ground, schools improve. Parents become more critical of, and involved in, their students’ schools; administrators become more responsive to parents’ and students’ needs and expectations; educators find that they must continually improve their instruction and their own education; and, in the end, students benefit from all of this.

Furthermore, parental choice will permit students to attend schools that reflect the values and mores of their parents. It will permit schools that address a basic and oft-neglected area of formation: spirituality. As the pope points out in the same letter, “the school becomes a community that teaches one to search for the truth and to understand one's own personal dignity; that transmits culture and values for life; that trains one for a profession in the service of society; that opens one to encounter and to interpersonal and community dialogue; that responds to the demands for the human and spiritual, cultural and social growth of children and young people.” As such, schools are not only about passing on knowledge, but also about formation of the character, culture, and spirituality of students, in cooperation with their parents, who are principle and primary teachers of their children. The formation of virtue in the young, by parents and teachers working in tandem, will go a long way in addressing the culture of violence that often inhabits even the best government schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act was a good first step in addressing the educational crisis in America. When parents are allowed by the State to remove their students from failing schools and enroll them in schools that are succeeding, such as is happening in Alton, Illinois, the problem of academic failure begins to be addressed. However, as Pope John Paul II pointed out so well in 1999, schools are about much more than pure academics. They are about formation of the whole human person. In this way, we must ask ourselves, is “adequate” progress adequate, or is something still missing? Education must foster the fullest possible personal development, intellectual, cultural, social, and spiritual. Without that, every child is in danger of being left behind.