Silberman, other education leaders criticize 'No Child'

WASHINGTON — Though they spoke at separate venues across town from each other, Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman and Arne Duncan, President-elect Barack Obama's choice for education secretary, sounded near identical points on education reform Tuesday.

Silberman, one of four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year Award, spoke to a small gathering of reporters and education policy experts at the National Press Gallery. Duncan addressed a much larger crowd during his Senate confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

"We don't want to leave any child behind, but it is very rigid and inflexible," Silberman said of federal No Child Left Behind testing requirements. "I would ask the president to recognize the great work that is being done with kids."

Silberman should know.

He was selected as a national finalist from a pool of 50 state superintendents of the year from across the country. A national panel of judges will interview Silberman and the three other finalists this month to determine the winner, who will be announced Feb. 20 in San Francisco.

Just over four years ago, Fayette County Schools had weathered a number of short-term leaders. Under Silberman's guidance, schools such as Yates Elementary raised scores on state-mandated tests, and he helped boost public support to raise property taxes for school construction.

Still, like many who work in education, Silberman complains that NCLB is long overdue for an overhaul.

While Silberman, Duncan and education reform advocates applaud the law's attempts to track every student's achievement, education leaders also say NCLB takes a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores different education standards, challenges and practices among the states.

"Let's not take too blunt an instrument to an entire school," Duncan told the Senate committee Tuesday. "Those teachers are doing a Herculean job, and we need to recognize that. We need to reward that."

Educators are keenly aware that NCLB might radically change under the Obama presidency. As education secretary, Duncan, who headed the Chicago city school system for seven years, might spearhead that change, Silberman said.

"He's made some progress with achievement levels going up, and that's encouraging to me," Silberman said.

Obama should engage educators in dialogues about what the new administration must do to ensure all children will learn, Silberman said.

Fellow finalist Gene White, superintendent of the Indianapolis school system, agreed.

Obama "should not believe the hype" that government has blindly thrown money at education, White said. "You can prepare kids for Penn State or the state pen."