The Christmas season is a reminder that perfection is so hard to achieve that only one person has done it, which probably makes Dr. Benny Gooden wonder why he is expected to become the second.

The Christmas season is a reminder that perfection is so hard to achieve that only one person has done it, which probably makes Dr. Benny Gooden wonder why he is expected to become the second.

Gooden is the superintendent of the Fort Smith School District, and, like every other superintendent, he is expected under No Child Left Behind to do the impossible: guarantee that 100 percent of his students score proficient in math and literacy standardized tests by 2014.

That includes students who enroll in school unable to speak a word of English and even those with severe mental challenges. All are held to the same standard as other students.

According to Gooden, it should be obvious that’s a problem. “Anybody that has enough sense to get through traffic knows that we don’t get 100 percent of anything,” he said in an interview.

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001 under President George W. Bush, set up a stairstep approach that at least gives schools time to reach perfection. Every year until 2014, schools are expected to ensure a higher percentage of students are proficient. Those schools that do are said to be making “adequate yearly progress.” Those that don’t are listed as being in “school improvement,” a label that comes attached with strings and eventually can result in a school being restructured and staff replaced.

No Child Left Behind not only includes difficult to reach subpopulations such as special education students, English language learners and children living in poverty, but it singles them out. Even if a school’s overall student body is making adequate yearly progress, it still can be punished if one of those subpopulations doesn’t score well enough.

Which makes it almost impossible for a school like Tilles Elementary to succeed. According to Gooden, Tilles is the “perfect storm” almost guaranteed by No Child Left Behind to fail. It has high concentrations of every subgroup. More than half of the students have limited English skills. Ninety-five percent of students receive free or reduced-price school lunches, and families served by the school are highly mobile, which means many don’t stay at Tilles that long.

Under No Child Left Behind, it’s entirely the school’s fault if those students don’t score at proficient levels.

In Fort Smith, half of the district’s 26 schools are in school improvement, a situation common in other communities. By 2014, most if not all schools in the state will be as well.

According to Gooden, being listed on school improvement costs the district more than $1 million a year in federal funds that it must send to various educational services companies chosen by the parents of underperforming students at $1,200 to $1,400 a pop.

That provision in the law gives more power to parents in deciding how to improve their own children’s performance. But according to Gooden, it’s a “shotgun, random approach,” and there are charlatans out there taking the district’s money. A million dollars out of a $140 million annual budget won’t break the district, but it’s a lot of money nonetheless.

Worse, he said, is what he calls being “held up for public ridicule.” It looks to Gooden’s patrons like half the district’s schools are completely failing.

For all of No Child Left Behind’s flaws, it did accomplish one very important goal: It made ensuring every student succeeds a national priority. It did this by holding educators more accountable, which should have happened at the local and state levels, but didn’t.

And while everyone knows the 100 percent standard is unattainable, it’s understandable why that number was chosen. Nations sometimes are moved more by noble pursuits than realistic requests. Bush calling for, say, 85 percent proficiency by 2014 would have been rhetorically similar to President Kennedy calling for the United States to “get pretty close” to the moon by the end of the 1960s — the obvious difference being that many believed we eventually would reach the moon while no one believes that the 100 percent achievement level is possible.

Bush and lawmakers no doubt expected Congress to revisit the law and create something more workable before 2014. That should have happened in 2007, when Congress was supposed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes No Child Left Behind.

Unfortunately, Congress can’t agree on how to order a ham sandwich, and so the law stands as written in 2001. The Obama administration is granting waivers that would give states some leeway in complying with the law, but those waivers come with strings attached.

Arkansas is applying, but not all states are. Gooden is skeptical, but what choice does the state have? Congress is going to have to come up with a solution before 2014. Perfection is hard to achieve, especially when you have only two-and-a-half years to get there.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas.