Reports of the impending demise of public education owing to implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act are greatly exaggerated . . . . Well, maybe just exaggerated.

If these reports have not reached your receptors quite yet, they soon will, unless I miss my guess.

The fuss involves Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the shibboleth for the math and reading achievement that schools soon must demonstrate as a requirement of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001, known fondly around the Bush Administration as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA).

Starting next year, schools will have to show students making adequate progress in reading and math based on state assessments. If the schools fall short, parents will be able to ask that their children be transferred to better performing schools or receive supplemental education services, such as tutoring or virtual schooling. According to the new federal law, the AYP-deficient school district will have to pay for the transportation or supplemental instruction.

News accounts in Georgia, Illinois, and especially North Carolina have been whipping some educators and fellow travelers into a frenzy. Early indicators suggest schools—even traditionally well-regarded ones—will fail in droves.

Why? Because the performance of kids in all major demographic categories—including racial groups, low-income categories, students with limited-English proficiency, migrant status, and Special Education students—must be reported separately; their assessment results must be “disaggregated” as the feds like to say. If the average performance of any one of these groups fails to measure up, the whole school fails—or so it is reported.

Under NCLBA, gone are the days when even excellent average performance would win you an ovation at the Chamber of Commerce cookout. In North Carolina, where state officials track student test performance in a way similar to NCLBA, educators got a rude awakening last month.

Only 27 percent of all the schools in North Carolina would have made the grade. Or at least, that’s how the Charlotte News and Observer saw it. This development understandably caused a sensation among some North Carolina educators and among certain education journalists.

“I shudder to think what people are going to say when they see this,” Chapel Hill-Carrboro, N.C., Superintendent Neil Pederson told the Observer. “It’s so inflexible. If any group of kids fails to meet the standard, the whole school is labeled as failing.”

Don’t get me wrong. Having 73 percent of the schools fall short in an educationally progressive state like North Carolina would hardly be comforting news. But what keeps the report just this side of cataclysmic is the “Safe Harbor” provision of NCLBA, which the newspaper account didn’t mention.

Under that sanity preserver, the whole school does not fail if students in the under-performing demographic group demonstrate (1) a 10 percent gain in performance compared to the previous year and (2) adequate progress on any one of a number of academic indicators, such as the group’s graduation rate.

This safe harbor provision should moderate the failure rate, but it can’t entirely prevent the piccalilli from hitting the propeller. When headlines blare and news anchors bray about massive failures in school systems from Maine to Malibu, you’d better be ready.

To a great extent, I expect, the coming uproar is the first consequence actually intended by some authors of the NCLBA. At last, the shameful divide will be out in the open, too glaring to ignore any more . . . or so goes the theory at any rate. (But you know as well as I, Americans can be amazingly nimble when it comes to sidestepping the inconveniently obvious. But who knows, maybe it will be different this time.)

Fortunately, we have unprecedented technological resources available to battle education inequities. You can read about those resources in every issue of eSchool News. Just look at this month’s report on Reading Software, for example. To an extent greater than ever, we know the problems; we even have many of the solutions.

Critics of public education are preparing to lock and load with the plentiful ammunition that will be supplied by NCLBA. But let’s not panic. Let’s keep our heads down and our powder dry. Let’s work with due diligence in the months before the eruption. We still have some time.

Let’s find ways to anticipate the coming heat and use it to shed light on what’s ailing education and our society—and then seize the moment to fix those things . . . or at least, to scamper five or six steps forward before we’re knocked two steps back.