"No Child" May Shortchange Bright Students
Even its detractors admit that the federal No Child Left Behind Act has yielded some positive results.
It has forced schools and districts to focus on groups of students that might otherwise be overlooked: students in poverty, students with disabilities and those from racial minorities.
But critics say one group of students is largely ignored by the federal law. Advocates for Vermont's gifted and talented youngsters say they are concerned that NCLB requirements may force districts to spend even less time with their brightest students.
"The No Child Left Behind Act essentially ignores gifted children, which is not unusual from the federal perspective," says Carol Story, president of the Green Mountain Center for Gifted Education and an adjunct professor of education at Johnson State College.
"For a number of years a very small part of the (federal) education budget, something like $8 to $10 million per year nationwide, has gone to gifted and talented education," she said. "That's less than a drop in the bucket."
That lack of federal commitment has been mirrored to some degree around the state.
"About three years ago now, we did a statewide survey and a quarter or less of Vermont schools provided anything for gifted and talented students," she said. "And I hear lately that even those are being curtailed to some degree."
Some of the shifting of emphasis may be because assessments for measuring "adequate yearly progress" since the last testing period now give no credit for students who exceed state require-ments on standardized tests.
That change was made so schools with high performing students couldn't use their average results to compensate for other students who fall behind, but it has also forced some districts to consider cutting nonacademic offerings, Story said.
"I see it happening as schools have to spend more money on assessment and the requirements of NCLB," she said. "Tests and things cost a lot of money, so something has to go: gifted programs, the arts, some schools are talking about cutting physical education. … Something's wrong here."
Winton Goodrich, associate director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said questions about funding gifted-and-talented or enrichment programs haven't really risen to the state level yet.
"I don't know that it's had enough time to have much of an effect yet," he said. "Schools are working very hard to make sure they don't get caught by the adequate yearly progress.
"Anecdotally I've heard that there's not enough time for enrichment, not enough time for arts, not enough time for P.E., so (perhaps) it does have some effect," he said.
Some schools are responding by expanding after-school offerings, both for remedial programs and for gifted students, Goodrich said.
"There are some very neat programs in crafts, arts, music and sports that students are doing from 3 to 5 p.m., but not all students participate, so there is an equity issue," he said.
So far at least, enrichment programs are intact at Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington – which has been flagged as needing corrective action for not making adequate yearly progress for several years.
However, the school, which is having difficulty with students who have disabilities but is meeting adequate yearly progress overall, has been forced to consider cutting those programs.
Mount Anthony Middle School has a dedicated enrichment teacher who teaches in general classrooms as well as pulling some gifted students aside for extra attention, said David Adams, the principal.
"The enrichment program faced some scrutiny in budget talks this year," he said. "Should we be doing this rather than providing remedial teaching. … Is it a diversion of time and money away from all students?
"The enrichment class falls on the elective side, and the budget the board adopted continues to have funding for it, but there was concern about the cost of the programs and concern for the need to have programs for all learners," he said.
Adams emphasized that the ability to bring groups of the brightest students together outside of the regular classrooms can have a big impact for bright students.
"Enrichment programs respond to the emotional needs of gifted and talented learning. It helps for them to be together and get the emotional support from kids who are equally talented," he said. "You can clearly see the kids are happier, more confident in their abilities. … That does not happen in the regular classroom. There just isn't enough time, as much as teachers try to incorporate enriching programs."
For Mary Cassarino, who teaches enrichment at the Rutland Intermediate School, the concern is less about the budget for her program than the time requirements. She said she's concerned because so much classroom time is devoted to the mathematics and language arts requirements of NCLB that there isn't much left over for other activities.
"Almost all of the work I do is whole class enrichment, instead of pulling out groups of students," she said. "It goes back to the emphasis on NCLB work. Trying to do that is a real driving force … and it's hard to fit in some of the other things."
But Vivian Tomasi, a member of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Montpelier's Union Elementary School, said the shifting focus on providing enrichment activities in regular classrooms isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"My perspective is we should be inclusive," she said. "Creative children need to be challenged, but we should focus on offerings open to all children. The concept can get kind of negative when you become exclusive.
"There are a variety of ways to challenge students and it can take away some of the sting parents sometimes feel when somebody's child is selected and somebody else's isn't," she said.
In fact, Tomasi, who has two children in Montpelier schools, said one of the best aspects of the district's Continental Math program is the way it includes not only children and teachers, but parents as well.
"The program is really quite wonderful. It has a lot of potential to help kids develop problem-solving skills, and families can do them together," she said. "One of my kids is stronger than the other, but I'm thrilled that they're both gaining access to this and I am also.
"You can learn a lot about where your child's strengths and weaknesses are. … The Continental Math program is whipping up the whole community, getting everyone excited about math," she said.
Contact Brendan McKenna at email@example.com.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES