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North Carolina & Feds Clash on Measure of Success

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C.

JACQUELINE McLEOD didn't ask to be principal of T. C. Berrien Elementary. She had been a principal twice before and was at a point in her career when she didn't need the credential, nor the pressure. But once she agreed to take it on last year, as a favor to Dr. William Harrison, the county superintendent, Ms. McLeod gave it her all.

Her first several months at the poor (90 percent free lunches), African-American (99.9 percent) school, she spent her days in classes observing teachers. "How else was I going to know who could do the job?" Ms. McLeod said. "I was learning."

"She was figuring out which teachers to keep," said Don Jones, a fifth-grade teacher. "Teachers who could not get it done, she told them, `You need to find another home.' "

Several outstanding teachers from other schools, like Blanchie Pone, a veteran kindergarten teacher who knew Ms. McLeod from Lewis Chapel Baptist Church, transferred to Berrien for the chance to work with the new principal.

The school is on a year-round schedule, with nine weeks of classes followed by three weeks off, but Ms. McLeod would not let students take a fall break. They had scored poorly on the state tests the year before she arrived, and Ms. McLeod told them they needed extra work. "That Monday, just 50 showed up," Ms. McLeod recalled. "I told the bus drivers, `Find the rest.' We spent the morning calling homes. By Thursday I had them all.' " She used the break for reading, math and a theater trip.

North Carolina has one of the nation's most demanding accountability systems, but it also provides substantial resources for troubled schools. The state gave Ms. McLeod extra money to reduce class size to 16 and sent a three-member team to spend a year mentoring teachers.

And Ms. McLeod provided the juice. When Shardai Cook was not doing her homework, Ms. McLeod told the second grader there'd be a surprise if things improved. Sure enough, one morning, during the notices, Ms. McLeod announced, "Special congratulations to Shardai Cook for handing in her homework every day this week."

"I was amazed it was me," said Shardai. "My teacher said, `Good for you, Shardai.' My mother said, `I'm proud, Shardai.' My cousin hugged me hard."

And Ms. McLeod got results. In June, test scores jumped 11 points, to 66 percent proficient in reading and math. The state cited Berrien as a high growth school, awarding teachers $1,500 bonuses.

"It was a wow," Ms. McLeod said. But short-lived. Within a few weeks, the results of the federal No Child Left Behind assessment system were announced. Under a totally different federal formula, Berrien barely missed its goal. And since this was the second year in a row, the school was sanctioned under federal law.

Ms. McLeod, who had just held a school party to celebrate the state award, now had to send letters offering parents the right to transfer children out of Berrien, a failing school, according to the federal system.

To local and state officials, Berrien is a school on the upswing and a prime example of how out of touch with reality the No Child Left Behind Law is. "This school is the best I've ever seen it," said Mr. Jones, who has been teaching eight years. "The feds are sending the wrong message to teachers, parents and students."

Nor is Berrien a statistical oddity. Half of North Carolina schools have been cited for failing to make adequate progress under the federal law; and yet hundreds of these same schools will receive bonuses from the state for excelling. Here in Cumberland County, 22 schools that failed in the federal system, excelled in the state system; while 9 schools that failed to meet their state high growth goals met the federal goals.

Confusing?

"Very confusing," said John Dornan, director of the Public School Forum, which aids North Carolina educators. "We've been making presentations for months, and it's still confusing."

Last year, Lou Fabrizio, a North Carolina education official, sat on a federal panel that discussed meshing state and federal rating systems. "It was discouraging," Mr. Fabrizio said. "The first thing we were told is the federal method for calculating adequate yearly progress was not on the table for discussion."

Some states, like Michigan and Texas, dodged this problem by lowering the proficiency score they used as a starting point for measuring progress and instantly saved hundreds of schools from federal sanctions. But North Carolina had a system in place for a decade that state officials didn't want to dumb down. It uses a two-tier assessment that rewards schools with a high number of proficient students, as well as schools like Berrien, that started far behind but made major growth.

In contrast, the federal system uses a single yearly proficiency goal for North Carolina, 68 percent of students reading on grade level this year and requires all schools to make that number. The problem, Mr. Fabrizio said, is it's too high for Berrien, but too low for upscale districts. "We could have a school drop from 86 to 75 and still be great under the federal system," he said.

State educators are upset that federal officials have made rigid demands and yet finance such a small share of public education (8 percent in North Carolina compared with 70 percent by the state). "We need after-school programs, we need skilled personnel," Mr. Dornan said. "The federal intent is not backed by resources." President Bush budgeted $12 billion for No Child Left Behind, $6 billion below what the law allows.

Ms. McLeod, who, like almost all of her students, is African-American, took the job because, she said, "you come to a point in life when you know you have the skills to make a difference." She helped raise $50,000 for a playground, persuaded Mr. Jones, "a superb teacher," to stay another year. She was disappointed by the federal sanctions. "It didn't reflect the work we did last year," she said. "I can show you how far I've brought them. They grew. They grew."

And they know it. "Last year I could read chapter books a little," said Lamont Lyles, 9. "Now I'm reading an 18-chapter book."

Ms. McLeod said, "Just awesome."

— Michael Winerip
A Star! A Failure! Unmeshed Yardsticks
New York Times
2003-09-03


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