Monday, June 23, 2008

Hard Times at Douglass High

HBO's documentary Hard Times at Douglass High : A Report on No Child Left Behind, is a must see for everyone who is skeptical about the wisdom of the policy itself. The movie follows a group of ninth graders in a school with a long history but little hope of meeting the adequate yearly progress requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Ironically, for a school that led the way in non-segregation the student body is entirely composed of underprivileged African American kids.There are many ways to apportion blame for the "c
hronic problems of attendance, lateness and apathy among students" and an abysmal success rate of 3 out of 25. Ghetto like living conditions, grinding poverty, broken homes, dysfunctional parents and sub-standard and uninspiring teachers form a daunting set of hurdles that only the exceptionally determined students can overcome.

There are a few occasional glimmers of hope - a great basketball team, a couple of passionate teachers (some of whom are not able to withstand the pressure of seeing their class fail despite their most impassioned efforts to help them succeed) the Cab Calloway music program and the few kids who are able to beat the terrific odds and actually go to college. The teachers and the principal do what they can to help the kids in their charge and meet the demands of bureaucracy and legislation that are clearly out of touch with reality.

The most compelling argument against No Child Left Behind comes towards the end of the movie where teachers allow all manner of latitude to the graduating class so they can meet their "quota" of successful graduations. Tests can be retaken any number of times and be substituted by essays written at home - it is a win at any cost operation that does tremendous disservice to kids by arming them with a diploma that has no real-world value.

The premise of No Child Left Behind is that somehow the school system and the teachers are responsible for academic success of kids when in fact they are least empowered to control that outcome. Sanctioning a school for under-performing, instead of remediating the circumstances that conspire against these kids is absurd beyond belief as the story of Douglass High proves.

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