As war overwhelms the nation’s social agenda and Illinois political candidates continue to ignore the state’s failure to provide adequate school funding, a crucial conversation continues, largely behind the scenes. At first, President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education reform was seen as a Republican hoax, an unfunded mandate, a punitive approach to what should be everyone’s responsibility, a strategy with little chance of success. But now, four years into the law, former skeptics are starting, gradually and reluctantly, to embrace the concept, if not the law itself. Too many kids are being left behind. Children in poverty can learn. Poverty-stricken schools can teach. Educators are embracing even this: Test scores are reliable indicators of student achievement, and low scores mean that something is wrong. The education experts brought to Springfield for the March 23 panel on “Closing the Achievement Gap” all insisted that school changes should be “data-driven.” This was the second program in an education policy series co-sponsored by Mayor Tim Davlin’s Office of Education Liaison and the University of Illinois at Springfield. The panelists said not only that teachers and administrators but also parents and communities must learn to decipher what the data are telling them. By “data,” they’re referring not just to test scores but also to all kinds of classroom studies and school records that attempt to take the guesswork out of school performance. Seat-of-the-pants education has been left behind for a more scientific approach. I was surprised and pleased to learn that even data-driven educators have a remarkably human side. They said that schools need to not only hire good teachers and fire bad ones but also give teachers a professional atmosphere to work in, with plenty of in-service training and support, and then celebrate their successes. They said that parents have to be involved, even if it takes offering hamburgers and ice cream at school programs. “We were not going to allow parents to not be part of our program,” said Dr. James Rosborg of McKendree College, recalling his 11 years as school superintendent in Belleville. Parents must be made to feel welcome at school, but if they won’t come, educators must go visit them at home. “We have to get the chip off their shoulder so they’ll buy into their child’s potential for success.” Panelists said that educators need to take into account the problems kids face at home without letting those become an excuse for not teaching them. “Recognize poverty, student mobility, and alcohol/drugs as a negative impact upon student learning,” one wrote in a handout. “Make sure a student’s basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and safety are met every day before you start attempting to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.” Rosborg cares in the way many educators care: “I found something good in every kid — and I had some real dirtballs.” The NCLB law’s emphasis on reading and math test scores has prompted thousands of schools across the country to teach their low performers little besides those two subjects, a practice known as “narrowing the curriculum.” In some ways it makes good sense to concentrate on the basics until students learn to read and add, but it can make school, especially high school, boring. And high school is already boring enough. A survey released last month by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked 500 high school dropouts why they quit. Nearly half said that classes weren’t interesting, and 43 percent said that they’d missed too many days of school and couldn’t catch up. The dropouts said more “real world” learning opportunities and smaller class sizes might have kept them in school. Dropouts may not be the most credible critics, but professional educators are also saying that it’s important to look for better ways than the old text book-and-lecture method of teaching. “Instructional practices in high schools have not changed since 35 years ago,” says Sheila Stocks-Smith, the education liaison. “It’s an area where we can improve.” Pilot programs at Springfield’s Lanphier High School show promise, and the Chicago Public Schools are doing pioneering reform work by starting 100 new high schools. “There’s a lot of emphasis on smaller learning communities built around a theme,” says Stocks-Smith. All this is too important to be left to the schools alone, which is why it’s good to have a city education office, independent of the school district, to bring in outside experts and different perspectives. Even though it was heartening to see Diane Rutledge, the school superintendent, seated in the front row, and a couple District 186 school board members in the audience, they already know this stuff and have implemented many of the suggested reforms. This series of programs is really for the rest of us, who need to become more data-savvy and child-friendly and who need to have our faith in public schools renewed. Getting the community more involved is another key to closing the achievement gap and leaving fewer children behind.