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NCLB Outrages

Critics, supporters, debate the impact of NCLB

Ohanian Comment: I can personally attest to what a good educator Bill Mathis is, letting his teachers know that the rating system is what's corrupt, not their pedagogy. We could wish that every teacher had such a superintendent, one putting blame where it should be--with the Feds, not with teachers.

That said, the article also reveals the heavy pressure from "choice" advocates to upend public education.

By Molly Walsh

When the Vermont Education Department announced that small, rural Leicester Central School had reached targets on standardized test scores and thus exited the state's list of underperforming schools last week, even William Mathis was pleased.

As the superintendent of Leicester and six other schools in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, Mathis has been an outspoken critic of the state's assessment system and the federal education reform driving it, the No Child Left Behind Act. He has frequently argued that both are deeply flawed and that the school ratings they produce are all but meaningless.

Still, Mathis was pleased to see Leicester leave the list, partly because he hoped the news would boost teacher morale.

Mathis has advised teachers not to worry too much about bad ratings under No Child Left Behind. They do anyway, he said.

"This is them. This is their personal life. Their feeling of professionalism is being attacked when maybe their only sin was having a classroom of very poor children who didn't have a strong home environment," Mathis said. "It's personal to them."

The Education Department's latest round of school ratings, issued last week, showed 97 percent of schools meeting adequate yearly progress goals. Three percent, or 10 schools, didn't make the grade. Scoring was easier this year because the state's testing program is in transition and, as a result, some schools were judged on attendance rates rather than math or literacy scores.

This fact prompted fresh criticism of the scoring system in some quarters and renewed calls for examination of the law and its impact on Vermont.

January will mark four years since President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act and billed it as a sweeping reform that would improve public schools and give historically low-performing groups of students a better shot at education and the upward mobility it often confers.

To that end, the No Child Left Behind Act gives states the authority to take over chronically underperforming schools that receive federal Title I funds targeted to help low-income students. The law also allows parents to transfer their children in some instances from failing Title I schools and use federal funds for private tutoring.

These are among the most controversial sanctions No Child Left Behind can dole out. They are also largely invisible in Vermont, despite the fact that 23 Vermont public schools have missed performance targets at least two consecutive years and are listed on the state's roster of underperforming schools.

Only a few schools have offered tutoring, and few students have taken advantage of it. State education officials say they know of only one student statewide who has exercised school choice under NCLB, a student who transferred from Burlington's Edmunds Middle School to the city's other middle school, Hunt, this year. No schools have been closed, and Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate has said repeatedly that this is unlikely to happen on his watch.

"We're taking a pretty, I believe, rational approach to this thing," Cate said Wednesday. "This is about improving the performance of all students. That's what matters. It isn't about putting school districts on a list and saying 'You're not as good as the other ones.' We have to create the AYP (adequate yearly progress) list, but to me, I have to tell you, that is not the important part of this."
More bark than bite?

No Child Left Behind sanctions are being felt around the nation.

During the 2003-2004 school year, at least 32,000 children transferred to different schools under the NCLB school choice provision. At least 226,000 students took advantage of supplemental services such as tutoring, according to the U.S. Education Department. Some schools have been shut down or restructured, with state governments installing entirely new staffs.

If the impact of No Child Left Behind on Vermont appears to be less dramatic than in some other states, the law continues to spark strong feelings here.

Joel Cook is executive director of the Vermont-NEA teachers union, which opposes No Child Left Behind as a massively underfunded mandate. That said, Vermont's implementation of the law is not as bad as it could be, Cook suggested.

"Do I think that the law is punitive in the way it's written? Yes," Cook said. "Do I think that our Department of Education is implementing it in a punitive fashion? No."

Despite the relative lack of sanctions in Vermont, the law is having an enormous impact, Cook said.

"The sanctions are almost unrelated to whether the law is having an impact. Every student, every teacher, every school district, every community is being affected by this law by virtue of the rigid testing system that is associated with it. It's changing the way that teachers teach and students learn."

Others disagree. They say the law is not having enough of an impact on Vermont.

"Is it having the impact I think it should be having? No. I don't think it is," said Libby Sternberg, executive director of Vermonters for Better Education.

She supports No Child Left Behind. "I think that kind of scrutiny is good. Because when you know people are watching you, you tend to perform better. It can bring out the best in you, it can bring out the ability to achieve that you didn't realize you had."

The sanctions in the law are not punishments on schools, Sternberg said. They are opportunities for parents and children who shouldn't be stuck with no options at a low-performing school.

"What is so wrong with that -- with trying to help these students -- when the school has shown that it is perhaps not doing enough to help these students?"

Vermont state leaders have found a way around some No Child Left Behind sanctions, particularly the school choice option, Sternberg said.

The state could have chosen to allow school choice within a multi-town school supervisory union but instead chose to allow it only within a district, she said. In a rural state such as Vermont, where many districts have only one school at a given grade span, there is often no place to transfer. Thus, Vermont families are missing out on choices they deserve, Sternberg said.

Cate said the state wasn't trying to get around anything and that other states also limit NCLB choice to schools within a given district. This makes sense in Vermont because district school boards and not supervisory union boards govern schools, he added.

Parents, meanwhile, often wonder what No Child Left Behind means for their children. Dorothy Jerome, mother of two students at Leicester Central and a member of the school's board, has mixed feelings about the law. "I'm still kind of on the fence," she said.

It was a wake-up call when the school was listed as underperforming, but probably a good wake-up call. Since then the school has genuinely improved, Jerome said, and she's glad to have the data that testing provides. But at a small school, just a few bad scores can drag down overall scores and this isn't necessarily fair, Jerome said. "You have one kid that's having a bad day and that drops the whole grade, the whole level."

She also worries that high-achieving students are not being challenged. "We're working so hard to bring these lower kids up to level we're forgetting these kids at the top end."
Contact Molly Walsh at 660-1874 or mwalsh@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com
What is No Child Left Behind?

The No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2002. The law requires annual standardized testing in math and literacy for public school grades three to eight and one grade in high school with public reporting of the results. These results must include break-out scores for numerous subgroups, including children who are poor, children who are racial minorities and children who are special education students.

All students are supposed to meet reading and math proficiency goals by 2014.

Schools must make regular progress toward that goal. They are measured in terms of overall student progress as well as performance of student subgroups. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years and receive federal Title I funds targeted at low-income students are labeled schools in need of improvement. They face sanctions that increase the longer the school is identified. Sanctions include school choice and redirection of federal Title I funds from schoolwide programming to tutoring for individual students. Eventually, state governments can take over failing schools.

— Molly Walsh
Burlington Free Press


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