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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind part of reason for staff cuts

Ohanian Comment: Ross Wiener, principal partner of Education Trust, supports NCLB based on the notion that strong legislation is needed so students of all walks of life are educated properly. Why doesn't he care that they are housed and fed properly, that they have proper health care?

PLYMOUTH - Former Plymouth Community Intermediate School home economics teacher Debbie Yingling spent 29 years teaching students who struggled in algebra, geometry and other subjects.

Every day her hands-on lessons about nutrition, crafts and cooking helped students gain a better understanding of math and different concepts on high-stakes tests such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams (MCAS).

Plymouth's fourth consecutive year of school staff and program cuts wasn't the only reason Yingling was among 19 teachers laid off this spring.

According to school Superintendent Barry Haskell, as Plymouth schools face increasing pressure to meet the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) deadline for every student to be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014, school administrators have realigned the curriculum so students spend more time learning core subjects, such as reading and math.

Four-and-a-half home economics positions were eliminated as the department was phased out at North High School, PCIS and South Middle School.

Elsewhere at the middle school level, five world language teachers, three art teachers, five computer teachers, two gym teachers, a shop teacher and others were laid off.

To place more emphasis on the subjects of the high-stakes tests, students went from taking two periods, or a total of 90 minutes, of fine arts and applied arts daily, to one 55-minute period per day.

Reducing the time students spend in fine and applied arts classes will provide an extra 50 minutes a week in the core subjects and four more hours of labs and workshops.

The Plymouth school district is not alone in realigning its curriculum to devote more time to meeting the federal government's reading and math standards.

Recent news reports reveal schools across the state and the nation have scaled back funding, cutting time away from art, music, gym, languages, home economics, drama and business classes as well as field trips, lunch and recess.

NCLB supporters argue it's vital to hold schools accountable for providing a well-funded, high-quality education and to close the achievement gap for students such as minorities, the disabled and the impoverished.

But NCLB detractors think the goal of educating students properly is lost in the law's many nuances, a lack of uniformity in testing standards throughout the country and an arbitrary standard of reading and math proficiency for all by 2014.

Some teachers like Yingling simply wonder why increased class time in math, English and other core subjects is automatically assumed to be a good way to improve students' test scores.

"Students may learn terminology for algebra or geometry or other subjects, but for a lot of kids it doesn't compute until they do hands-on things," Yingling said.

"Brain research shows a multi-sensory approach to education imprints lessons on the brain more effectively because students can create an isosceles triangle with cheese, make calculations measuring fabric, roll out a pie crust or dough to a certain circumference or diameter and work with fractions mixing ingredients," she said.

In the end, a problem almost as big as the challenges of providing a quality education for all is educating the supporters and critics about NCLB.

Understanding MCAS and NCLB

One common misconception is that MCAS exams were created as part of NCLB, yet MCAS exams predate NCLB by four years.

MCAS tests started in 1998 and are the result of the state's 1993 education reform act.

Heidi Perlman, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Education, emphasizes MCAS exams are "standards-based tests" as opposed to more rigid or formulaic "standardized" tests.

"In Massachusetts the standards-based test is based on curriculum frameworks written by educators, or guidelines, updated every five years, that all teachers use in our public schools for class lessons," Perlman said.

NCLB on the other hand, was approved by a bipartisan Congressional coalition including Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2002 as one of many modifications of an earlier federal law.

NCLB is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It's next up for renewal in 2007.

ESEA was the first federal act to give aid to school districts with a large percentage of impoverished students.

The last version of ESEA before NCLB, the Improving America's Schools Act, dates to 1994.

That act, like NCLB, also required standards, assessment and identifying schools needing improvement, but that wasn't enforced as rigorously as NCLB.

When President George W. Bush took office, only 11 states were in compliance.

NCLB sets the goal of adequate yearly progress (AYP) for all school districts. All students are to be proficient at reading and math by the 2013-2014 school year.

States must set minimum levels of improvement, mainly measured by student performance on each state's math and English tests given to third through eighth graders annually and at least once between 10th and 12th grade.

Schools report AYP for overall achievement and subgroups of students including the major racial categories, impoverished students, disabled students and those with limited English skills.

Students must also take standardized tests in various subjects and only those who meet special appeals process criteria are exempt from the proficiency standard or able to meet it without test scores.

Schools that miss an improvement target in even one subgroup, even if the group improves but not as much as the government wants, are labeled "Needs Improvement."

In Plymouth schools, certain subgroups - free and reduced lunch students at PCIS and special needs children at Nathaniel Morton - didn't improve enough, so those schools were labeled "Needs Improvement."

NCLB doesn't just affect so-called Title I schools, which receive federal anti-poverty funds for having a 40 percent low-income student population, according to Haskell.

All school districts that accept any federal poverty aid - Plymouth schools will get about $1 million next year - are subject to various remedies if they fail to make adequate yearly progress.

States must give parents school performance report cards, and schools must be able to provide information about the curriculum, testing requirements and the academic progress of each subgroup and student.

Schools receiving Title I anti-poverty funding that fail to show progress for two straight years must pay for student tutoring, after-school programs and other services.

And schools receiving the federal funding that don't measure up for three consecutive years must pay parents to have their children bused to higher-performing schools.

When schools accepting those funds continue to perform below the government's academic progress expectations after more than three straight years, they can be taken over by the state.

During takeovers, staff can be fired and schools can be reorganized - even reopened as charter schools.

Under NCLB, the state must ensure by 2006 that teachers in core subjects are "highly qualified," meaning they must have a college degree in the subject they're teaching and/or, in certain states, pass special government exams.

The case for NCLB

Ross Wiener, principal partner of the independent nonprofit education reform organization, the Education Trust, is not letting schools off the hook for cutting non-core subjects like art or home economics.

Wiener insists most state accountability systems prior to NCLB did not focus on closing achievement gaps.

"People are sort of blaming whatever is bad on NCLB as a way not have to take responsibility, but the NCLB doesn't force anyone to cut art or music or any other subject," Wiener said.

"NCLB does say the most basic responsibly is to be literate and to be able to do math, and while there's [sic] a whole lot of valuable things we want public schools to be able to do that also warrant community support, none should be done at the expense of students learning the most fundamental academic competencies needed to be responsible citizens who earn a living wage," Weiner said.

Wiener's support for NCLB is based on the notion that strong legislation is needed so students of all walks of life are educated properly.

A 2002 U.S. Department of Education study revealed 15 percent of 12th grade African American students were at or above grade level and 48 percent were below.

The study also found 41 percent of 12th grade Latinos reading below grade level, as were 22 percent of whites and 28 percent of Asians.

By income, 41 percent of impoverished high school seniors were below grade level and 21 percent were reading at or above that grade level compared to 24 and 38 percent for non-poor seniors respectively.

The National Association of Educational Progress serves as the official national report card for U.S. schools. According to a 1999 NAEP long-term trend summary table, nearly 50 percent of all African American and Latino 17 year-olds read at same level as white 13-year-olds.

Christopher Swanson's "Who Graduates? Who Doesn't? A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001" revealed 50, 53 and 53 percent of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans graduate compared to 75 percent of whites.

A greater percent of students who graduate go on to community college (26 percent) and four year schools (45 percent) within two years of graduation.

Yet, studies from 1992, '94 and '97 from the U.S. DOE and other sources, show low achieving students are half as likely to go on to two or four year colleges.

The argument for NCLB extends to studies suggesting some schools may not prepare students properly for college and employment.

No matter what a student's background, more students enter college in need of remediation. That includes 45 percent of African Americans, 44 percent of Latinos and nearly 20 percent of white students, according to a 2004 USDOE study.

A 2004 national educational longitudinal survey revealed 36 percent of students needing any remediation and 51 percent of students with two or more remedial courses other than reading don't earn a bachelor's degree at four-year schools.

"The real issue here is that historically, every state and local resource we have for public education has been systematically distributed to discriminate against students of color and the poor," Wiener said.

Wiener cited several studies indicating students of color and the poor are assigned to less rigorous courses and are less likely to have experienced teachers certified in their field.

"Now Massachusetts is one place where at least the funding gap is actually the reverse," Wiener said. "When Massachusetts began education reform in 1993 it really did increase the public investment in targeted education needed most, and that's paid significant dividends to the state."

Case in point: Between 2001 and 2004 the number of African American students passing the MCAS exam on their first try rose from 37 percent to 60 percent. Latino students jumped from 29 to 52 percent.

The percentage of disabled students passing on their first try jumped from 30 to 50 percent, and those with limited English skills improved from 7 to 36 percent. White students' first-try passing percentage rose from 77 percent to 86 percent.

In 2005, 78 percent of Latinos and African Americans passed the MCAS high school exam by their third try, compared to 95 percent of white students, 70 percent of students with disabilities and 56 percent of students with limited English skills.

Locally, 100 percent of Plymouth's high school MCAS exam takers passed by their third try.

What do the critics say?

During Yingling's lessons on the origins of clothing fabrics, students matched the labeling on their clothing tags to countries on a map.

Class discussions led to subsequent lessons about U.S. history and economics to explain why products are manufactured and imported from around the globe.

Even the science curriculum was covered as students sewed diagrams of bugs and creatures onto quilts, and teachers discussed nutritional principles such as calories and topics such as how space age fabrics work.

"Besides the fact that other classes can enhance MCAS instruction, there are so many different areas of intelligence, and NCLB is only emphasizing verbal and mathematical skills. But there's more to a person than just those," Yingling said.

Yingling is in the camp of those who claim NCLB over-emphasizes standardized tests.

"We have so much MCAS testing now, and you don't want to over test the kids," MCAS coordinator Mary Madden said.

Madden said teachers don't teach to the test because the test is based on Massachusetts' educators curriculum guidelines, so test lessons reinforce what's already taught.

But Plymouth's MCAS coordinator is among the NCLB critics that think standardized tests provide an incomplete glimpse of a student's achievement, and other methods should be used to judge students.

Dr. Irwin Blumer is chairman of the Educational Administration and Higher Education department at Boston College's Lynch School of Communication.

"Any expert in the field of testing will say it's not reasonable to use any one data point as a basis to make high stakes decisions," Blumer said.

Blumer wrote the forward for a June 2005 report by the MassPartners for Public Schools, a joint venture of several administrators' and teachers' organizations.

The report supported another criticism of NCLB. Different states have an array of tests of varying difficulties and measure adequate yearly progress differently.

"It's recognized that Massachusetts has some of the toughest assessments," Blumer said.

The MassPartners report concluded, even under the most optimistic scenario, 74 percent of Massachusetts schools will fail to make the federal government's adequate yearly progress standards by 2014.

Further, at least 86 percent of schools with a low-income student population of more than 40 percent are projected to fail to make AYP. And 77 percent of schools with more than one minority, special needs or low-income subgroup will fail to make AYP.

"The state is using linear projections in terms of progress," Blumer said. "Students don't progress in a straight line; they learn, then they plateau; teachers look at what to do differently, then students learn and plateau again as the cycle is repeated."

National Education Association officials, who represent the largest union and professional association in the country, with 2.7 million people in education, think NCLB is radically flawed.

The NEA highlights the lack of uniformity among the states.

"Florida had 75 percent of its schools labeled failing, while other states had 10 percent, and that's because Florida has different tests, different cut-off scores for passing, different requirements for accountability in terms of which size subgroups are counted, and none of that has anything to do with judging academic achievement," NEA spokesman Daniel Kaufman said.

NCLB critics also think 2014 is an arbitrary deadline for students to be proficient in reading and math. They attack the notion all children can meet that goal and question the logic of putting special needs students on the same timeline, despite the fact most of those students are at least two grades below grade level.

Further, some argue adequate yearly progress should be based on individual progress.

Schools are labeled in need of improvement based on the test results from two different years of students passing through a grade. Some say it's not fair to compare two different groups of individuals.

Who should pay for all this?

Some NCLB protesters claim it's unfair to cut remediation funding to schools that have fewer students failing tests because that funding is often why there are fewer failures.

The formula by which aid is distributed is a common target. Many say schools shouldn't be punished when slight decreases in census data indicate fewer low-income students.

"You have to have a certain number of kids, like 5 percent, at poverty level, to keep getting money," Kaufman said. "If you drop to 4.9 percent you lose money."

Meanwhile, a recent Harvard study came up with similarly low projections of the number of schools with a high population of minorities, low-income students and other subgroups that won't make AYP.

The study claims NCLB discriminates against large schools with a lot of subgroups, because it's more difficult for them to meet the AYP standard.

Others think AYP is inaccurate because a school's successful progress helping large groups of students can cover up potential weaknesses at helping individuals excel.

Some simply say NCLB has too many punishments and not enough rewards.

NCLB's host of critics acknowledge the government's efforts to tweak the legislation with exemptions nationally and for individual states. But they argue the changes aren't always fair.

"Rather than providing a fair and consistent standard across the country, you have the secretary of education negotiating agreements and compromises with states to make sure they don't rebel," Kaufman said.

Recent changes to NCLB include granting more leeway to measure test results for students with limited English skills, providing more ways and time for teachers to become "highly qualified" and letting some states soften adequate yearly progress formulas.

Also, schools now have a longer amount of time to get subgroups up to par before the entire school is labeled in need of improvement because of one or two groups.

The Education Trust's Wiener disagreed with most of the criticisms, particularly that NCLB is unfair because it's a one-size-fits-all solution.

"It's overly simplistic to use catch phrases like 'one size fits all,' " Wiener said. "I say every student counts. We've had a system of public education that operated on the mentality that teachers taught and students either learned or didn't learn, and then they went on to the next grade whether they actually learned or not."

— Daniel Axelrod
MPG Newspapers


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