A couple of days ago, I happened to stumble upon a documentary on HBO. By the time I found it, the first 30 minutes or so had already aired, but that didn't matter at all; it caught my attention immediately. Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card re-opened my eyes to what I see as the most utterly dismal domestic policy failure in decades.

Frederick Douglass Senior High School, an historic African American school in Baltimore, loses nearly half of its incoming class of freshmen by 10th grade, a loss that only grows through the 12th grade. Disciplinary issues, student apathy, and a lack of parental involvement or supervision all contribute to the problem. But Douglass High wasn't always like this; Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway are just two of the many famous graduates from this icon of black history. So what has changed? What has contributed to the transformation of an historic school with a roster of distinguished graduates to one whose students perform so poorly on standardized tests that, more than once, the state of Maryland has prepared itself to take over?

Never understimate the importance of location, location, location! Douglass High is an inner city school where the tax base is nearly non-existant and funding for schools is hard to come by. In the film, one teacher explains to the principal how she called in a favor from a teacher at another school to get some much needed textbooks for one of her classes. Hers, it turns out, is not the only class without the necessary materials. Despite ever dwindling funds and resources, the teachers at Douglass High are faced with the daunting task of preparing their students to meet the standards mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Students who enter Douglass High as freshmen are already performing far below grade level. According to one of the school's counselors, approximately 80% of the freshman class of 2004, the year the film was made, had a 4th grade reading level. Only 10% of the freshman class passed the standardized reading test, and less than 1% of them passed the test for math. By the time the academic year is over, half the students in the freshman class will not return to school as sophomores. And as these students fall off the radar, the school as an institution is punished by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Taking away the funding needed to provide resources to an already cash-strapped school system in an area where so many of the residents live at or below the national poverty line, seems absolutely criminal to me. What is the logic, the rationale, behind cutting off the funding necessary to purchase textbooks and supplies while still requiring students to pass standardized tests based on the information contained within them? Beats me!

As an educator, I would agree that our school system needs a major overhaul. But in a society as dynamic as ours, placing the blame for our youth's failure to pass standardized tests on teachers who aren't given the tools needed to perform their jobs effectively is not a solution to the problem.
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