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Federal standards put schools in quandary

Florida's education chief might defy the No Child Left Behind law unless federal officials take a more moderate stance on school accountability rules.

By Matthew I. Pinzur

More than 500 high-poverty Florida schools could be forced under the federal No Child Left Behind law to privatize, become charters, replace most of their staffs or make other major changes -- even though some have repeatedly received A or B grades from the state.

A handful of low-performing schools have already faced that choice under Florida's own education accountability laws. But it could become far more widespread next year unless those schools make unprecedented gains on the state's high-stakes standardized test.

''This calls for a drastic change of culture, an entirely new environment,'' said Rod Paige, the former U.S. secretary of education who oversaw the creation of No Child Left Behind in 2001.

But Florida's education commissioner suggested in an interview Friday that he may defy the federal law -- and risk losing millions in funding -- if he cannot convince Congress or federal education officials to take a more moderate stance.

''My first duty is to the state of Florida's accountability system; I will act accordingly,'' Education Commissioner John Winn told The Miami Herald. ``I'd be hard pressed to demand an A school make wholesale restructuring.''

No Child Left Behind created a ladder of penalties for schools that fail to meet federal standards. The strongest sanction forces a school to plan for dramatic restructuring if it falls short for five consecutive years. If it fails a sixth time, that plan must be immediately implemented.

In Florida, 535 public schools have missed the goal -- known as Adequate Yearly Progress -- for four years. And because AYP standards become more difficult every year, the percentage of schools making it dropped this year from 36 to 28 percent.

It will likely drop further as the targets soar toward 100 percent proficiency. Within a few years, Paige said, huge numbers of urban schools will confront restructuring.

''It would seem the day of reckoning is coming,'' said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, an independent public-school advocacy group in Washington.

The federal government's jurisdiction over schools is limited. The No Child penalties apply only to the high-poverty schools that receive federal money under Title I. But that list includes hundreds of South Florida schools. Seventy-nine schools in Miami-Dade County and 32 in Broward have already missed AYP for four consecutive years.

HIALEAH SCHOOL EYED

Among those is Palm Springs Elementary, a Hialeah school of more than 900 students that has received A grades from the state since 2003.

''A staff that's been successful and helped maintain an A school -- why would you restructure it?'' asked Roxana Herrera, who recently became Palm Springs' principal.

The apparent disconnect between Florida's school grades and federal AYP is rooted in the two systems' completely different way of interpreting student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The school grades are determined almost entirely on two factors: what percentage of students scored a 3 or higher that year on the FCAT's five-level scale and what percentage improved their score since the prior year.

No Child Left Behind measures what percentage of students in various demographic groups are scoring at least a 3 on the exam, which is considered proficient. The target percentage increases every year until 2014, when 100 percent of students must be proficient.

If any one of the nine demographic groups misses the target, the entire school fails to make AYP. At Palm Springs, for example, the school failed to make AYP in 2004 because only 28 percent of special-education students had proficient reading scores -- the goal that year was 31 percent.

''You've got A or B schools that out of 39 criteria has missed one,'' Winn said. ``To restructure that school based on that, I'm going to be hard pressed to get on the bandwagon regarding that.''

There are a handful of loopholes in the rule, but the basic message never changes: Within the next decade, all public-school students in the country must be proficient at reading and math.

''There's a lot of states that aren't yet focused on it, and that's because the numbers have [not] been overwhelming, but they're building,'' Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Tom Luce said, speaking June 2 at an education reporters' conference in New Orleans.

HOPING FOR A CHANGE

Indeed, Winn has pinned his hopes on changes to the law. No Child Left Behind needs congressional reauthorization in 2007, and Winn said he hopes the rules will be changed to account for differing levels of achievement instead of the yes-or-no system that now exists.

But the law will not be changed in time for next year's exams. Without a quick change, he said, the 2007 results will be ``a train wreck.''

To avoid it, Winn wants federal officials to approve a ''growth model,'' which would allow schools to make AYP even if they fall short of the goals, as long as their students are on pace to catch up. Such a model was rejected this year, but Florida was encouraged to tweak its plan and reapply.

Without it, Winn said, many schools will fall further and further from the federal goals.

''It's like me playing golf -- I throw up my hands and say I'm never going to make it,'' Winn said. ``We've never raised [Florida's system] to the level of hopelessness, but I think we're on the tipping point of that for No Child Left Behind.''

Gov. Jeb Bush has long insisted there is no contradiction between the two systems, but this spring he said Florida's system was more effective.

''That's no disrespect to anybody in Washington, D.C,'' Bush said June 14. ``I believe our system [school grades] is the most comprehensive system of measuring how schools are doing based on student learning.''

Local districts, meanwhile, are left with little guidance about what to do if federal law tells them to restructure dozens or hundreds of schools.

''This has always been a problem, the idea of putting public school systems in a vise between their own state requirements and No Child Left Behind,'' Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew said. ``If the state and federal government will get on the same page, it will avoid districts being at risk of being in this conflicting environment altogether.''

A few states began measuring AYP earlier than Florida and have already breached restructuring. California recently dealt with 271 schools, and Michigan had 133.

But according to Jennings' group, the vast majority elected for the vaguest of the law's requirements: ``Undertaking any other major restructuring of the school's governance that produces fundamental reform.''

In Michigan, for example, those plans included reorganizing the school's governance and changing the curriculum -- strategies often used in Florida for schools that repeatedly earn F grades.

While those plans seem less drastic than the law's other options, the Center on Education Policy's study of Michigan suggests they work: Eighty-five percent of the state's restructured schools made AYP the following year.

TOUGH TALK

''What happens with politicians is that they talk tough when they sign laws and pass laws, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's how the law is going to be implemented,'' Jennings said.

But as AYP becomes more difficult to achieve, internal reforms may not be enough. Moreover, the law says little about what happens to schools that continue to miss AYP after the sixth year.

Paige said policy-makers and public pressure will likely force those schools to confront the more draconian options.

''I'm not surprised they're looking first to these kinds of steps,'' said Paige, now chairman of Chartwell Education Group, a consulting firm. ``But eventually, I think it is going to go to the kinds of things conceptualized in the legislation.''

— Matthew I. Pinzur
Miami Herald
2006-07-02


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