What about the Babies?

A child's education should begin at least one hundred years before he is born. - Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

The debate in Congress over whether to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is underway.

What's with these politically-calculated, brand-name, PR-speak, Orwellian euphemisms? Clear Skies Act. Operation Enduring Freedom. USA Patriot Act. No Child Left Behind. Who, other than Hal Lindsey fans, would want a child to be left behind?! What unenlightened creature, harboring "the soft bigotry of low expectations," in the words of the President, would be opposed to legislation that promotes "academic excellence?"

Loaded terms aside, the Repubs are ready to march in line behind Bush while the Dems say they have issues with the law's mandate that state's rely on standardized tests to measure "adequate yearly progress" in reading and math.

The most obvious problem with NCLB is the gap between the lofty sounding rhetoric coming out of the President's mouth, and the money. Since the law came into effect in 2002, it's been under-funded by an estimated $56 billion.

Last month, Bush held up New York City as an example of how to improve "under-performing" schools. "If New York City can do it, you can do it," he said.

Two weeks later, the New York press is reporting how "the feds are cheating the city out of $3.3 billion in education funds - money promised to help kids pass a slew of new standardized tests."

In 2007, for example, Bush promised $1.8 billion to Big Apple schools, but only delivered $834 million - a 54 percent shortfall, according to U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-Brooklyn and Queens.

Despite the under-funding of NCLB, student test scores have generally increased and the so-called achievement gap between ethnic groups has narrowed somewhat since the law was enacted. But, no one can say whether those gains are because of NCLB or other factors.

And there doesn't seem to be any discernible relationship between standardized test results and good grades, class rank or other measures used to predict success in college or the job market.

Ben Sears of Political Affairs magazine captures the situation succinctly. "This is resulting in narrowing the curriculum as schools focus on preparing for the tests and are forced to reduce instructional time for 'non-tested' subjects."

"All this forces one to wonder. Could NCLB as presently written be part of the long range plan of the Administration to undermine public education? If the law's harsh provisions result in more schools being branded 'failures,' could that lead to an exodus from the public schools in to the proliferating charter schools or religious or other private academies?"

"And could the law generate such frustration with the federal government's clumsy attempt to influence education policy, that it causes a 'backlash' movement opposing any federal role?"

Of course, high standards and accountability are worthy ideals but the public appears to be growing weary of this over-reliance on testing. A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll in June found that 52 percent of public school parents felt there's too much testing - up from 32 percent in 2002. And, 75 percent of public school parents said the focus on testing was forcing teachers to teach to the test, not the subject matter.

This growing skepticism is based on more than just gut instinct or warmed-over Dr. Spock feel good-ism. A survey conducted by the Center on Education Policy shows that 71 percent of America's 15,000 schools had cut instruction time at the expense of other subjects like history, art and music.

But, even more basic than these concerns are those coming from the scientific community. "Contrary to traditional notions...emotions, not cognitive stimulation, serve as the mind's primary architect," Dr. Stanley Greenspan details in his book The Growth of the Mind.

So while we're obsessing over high-stakes testing and focusing on the minds of teenagers, there's not much attention being paid to what's in the babies' heart - the foundation of theirs (and ours) educational future.

And not just the babies but their mothers too. I think Abigail Adams was onto something when she wrote to her husband and Founding Father, John: "If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women."

"If much depends...on the early education of youth and the first principles which are instilled take the deepest root, great benefit must arise from literary accomplishments in women."

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com.

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