February 7, 2006 — The policies in President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education legislation are intended to raise the bar of academic achievement for all school children and hold schools accountable. But most crucial, according to Henry L. Johnson, U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, is how teachers relate to their pupils and get them excited about learning.
Johnson, the first speaker in the inaugural Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Lecture Series at the University of Virginia, described a lofty vision of the ideal educational environment and also provided nuts-and-bolts examples of the flexibility the federal education office is willing to extend to states implementing No Child Left Behind requirements.
Speaking to a full house in the Rotunda’s Dome Room on Feb. 6, he said the national data shows increases on standardized test scores, and that shows the program is working. “The achievement gap between blacks and whites is at its narrowest since 1990,” Johnson said. “But more needs to be done,” he said.
If — and when — every level from students to teachers to administrators to society enjoys intellectual development and success, “then we will realize the dream behind No Child Left Behind,” Johnson said.
“Although laws and policies are necessary, it’s what happens in the classrooms that matters,” Johnson said. The keys to success include well qualified teachers who know their subject matter using a rigorous curriculum that gives students challenging tasks and engages them in high-level complex thinking, preferably in small-group settings, followed by proper assessment.
Johnson added that schools make the greatest improvement when these and several other administrative factors, such as providing professional development and using resources effectively, are aligned.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, whom President Bush appointed in January 2005, and her staff are willing to be flexible and negotiate with states in new ways to implement the federal policies, he said.
Examples of recent changes in implementing NCLB include a new set of pilot programs looking at alternatives to schools’ passing or failing grades in making the required “adequate yearly progress” and the recent approval of a Virginia plan to offer supplemental services in schools rather than having to offer school choice.
Johnson echoed some of the points President Bush made about education in his recent State of the Union address, especially on the need to give math education more attention. Johnson said a national math panel is being established to research ways to improve learning in that area.
Prior to joining the Department of Education in 2005, Johnson was the state superintendent of education for Mississippi. Having more than 30 years of experience as a professional educator, he also worked in superintendent offices in North Carolina and New Jersey.
The Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Lecture Series, sponsored by the Curry School of Education, the Office of the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity and the Walter Ridley Scholarship Fund, honors Walter N. Ridley, the first African-American student to receive a degree from the University of Virginia. Ridley graduated in 1953 with a doctorate in education and had a distinguished career in higher education administration. See the Web site www.virginia.edu/oaaa/ridley.html for more of Ridley’s life.