More Fall-Out From the NCLB Bomb
Gatewood Elementary in Minnetonka is brimming with the sights, the sounds and the confidence of a great school.
Its Peace Wall, festooned with the art and artifacts of dozens of nations, also features the school's 2001 Blue Ribbon Award of Excellence from the U.S. Department of Education, touting it as one of the nation's best. Nearby is the framed newspaper story about Barb Stoflet, Gatewood's own Minnesota Teacher of the Year for 2001. Last week, the school's foyer was filled with clay and cheer as Principal Donna Montgomery, a local sculptor of some renown, spent the day helping fourth-graders create bowls and art and pride.
But Gatewood could soon be in trouble. Over academics, of all things.
The Hopkins district school fully expects to be tagged this summer as a school that hasn't met its academic goals. And next summer it could be placed on "the list" of underperforming schools that will come out as part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind.
In fact, Hopkins Superintendent Michael Kremer said that as many as nine of the district's 11 schools could wind up on that list, depending on how small subgroups of students perform.
Gatewood is among hundreds of Minnesota schools -- including suburban Twin Cities schools with high average test scores -- that are expected to come up short.
"I think it would be devastating," said Stoflet, a first-and second-grade teacher honored for her ability to listen and give kids individual attention.
No Child Left Behind requires more tests on top of the ones Minnesota kids must already take and requires that all students meet specific academic standards. For most of the schools whose kids don't perform up to snuff, there's the threat of sanctions.
The law also requires schools deemed unsafe because of violence to allow students to transfer to other schools. It mandates that teachers and teacher aides meet strict licensing and qualifications guidelines. It gives teachers more latitude to discipline students by protecting them from some lawsuits.
But it's the testing -- and the way schools' performance will be graded -- that's giving educators heartburn.
That's because schools are now responsible for improving not only their overall test scores, but those of various groups of students -- black, Hispanic, poor and special-education students -- whose scores have lagged behind the majority. And not only schools, but school districts, will be graded.
With federal deadlines approaching, school district testing officials are scrambling to figure out how their schools might fare. Many fear the worst.
David Heistad, Minneapolis schools director of research, evaluation and assessment, thinks more and more schools will wind up on the underperforming list as the years go by because schools are expected to show continuous improvement. By the 2013-2014 school year, every student in every group must reach at least a threshold score showing a solid grasp of reading, math and science.
"It's almost by chance that you would avoid being identified [as an underperforming school]," Heistad said.
Not only is there the stigma of winding up on the list, but real sanctions kick in once a school gets listed. Those range from having to pay for student transfers to other schools to the ultimate penalty -- state takeover.
Minnesota has until Friday to file a preliminary report explaining how it's going to comply with the new law. A task force comprising superintendents, legislators and others came up with a plan earlier this month. But that plan is in flux because a new governor and new education commissioner are now in office. Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke has taken the task force's recommendations back to her home in Virginia to study before sending them to her old bosses at the federal Department of Education.
Yecke said Thursday that the initial Minnesota report will probably be a bare-bones effort, arguing that because of the transition, more time is needed to devise a comprehensive plan. The final product is due in May.
Yecke's boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, supports the law. He said he figures the state can meet the goals. Yecke has repeatedly said that the No Child Left Behind requirements are "not set in concrete" and that the Department of Education would probably be willing to bend some rules. That could ease some of educators' biggest worries.
Even principals and superintendents who see the new law's rules as impossible stress that they applaud its goal: to ensure that every child, regardless of race, economic status or disability, is proficient in the basic areas of learning.
Striking a balance
At Gatewood, Stoflet breaks her second-graders into small groups for reading: crouching and whispering here, questioning and opening a dictionary there. She tries to teach children through their own questions, their own curiosity, rather than stand at the front of the class and talk.
She thinks Gatewood may need to beef up how quickly it assesses each child's abilities.
"Curriculum is easy for me. Getting to know kids is harder," she said. "If we know their strengths, we can sneak their weaknesses in the back door."
While some parents will echo teachers' lament that their schools will somehow be deemed less good by No Child Left Behind, others say that it's time schools were judged on their work with all children.
Anita Inamagua, who is Hispanic and American Indian, grew disenchanted with the Minneapolis schools after learning her daughter, then in fifth grade, was doing third-grade work as part of a Minneapolis special-education program. Now her daughter is a seventh-grader thriving at St. Louis Park Junior High School. Her children are participating in a voluntary west-metro area desegregation program called The Choice Is Yours. Inamagua supports letting students transfer out of underperforming schools, but wonders if it takes too long to kick in: "After a couple years, the damage is done," she said.
And she would test twice a year, to gauge a student's progress through the year.
But educators worry that the act's focus on testing may diminish other learning opportunities. By the 2005-06 school year, the new law requires all kids in grades three through eight to be tested in reading and math. And that doesn't count additional science and high school testing requirements.
Coming up with tests is one of many complications. It's likely that Minnesota's current academic standards -- including the controversial Profile of Learning -- will be rewritten by Yecke and her staff before the May deadline. If that happens, new state tests would probably have to be devised and years of old test data could get thrown out the window.
Another possible sticking point is the task force recommendation that the tests be given in October. The current testing season begins this week and runs through July. Some testing directors say October testing would give schools more time during the school year to adjust their teaching based on test results; others say it wouldn't measure what kids have learned that school year.
"It doesn't make any sense to give a test at the beginning of the fourth grade and call it fourth-grade material," said Mark Davison, director of the University of Minnesota's Office of Educational Accountability.
No time for fun
Some lessons aren't measured by tests.
Montgomery, who also teaches basket-weaving at Gatewood, said handiwork such as pottery and basket-weaving enhances children's creativity and quiets them.
As she spoke, Marta Slobodyanhuk, 10, sculpted an alligator from clay to decorate a bowl she was making. When Marta was done, Montgomery exclaimed: "Look at that! What a great job! I go away for a little while and look how far you've come."
Test scores at Gatewood are among the highest in the Hopkins district. And Hopkins, where parents take pride in quality education and have been generous in funding their schools, has among the highest scores in Minnesota. But the school has a growing group of special-education students. And this year, 65 students -- about 10 percent of the school's population -- come from homes where English is not spoken. While those groups at Gatewood do well on tests, if just a handful of them aren't at school on test day, Gatewood could be labeled.
The school also is vulnerable because it has a growing number of low-income students who have posted mixed results on tests. Gatewood now is classified as a Title I school, meaning it gets more federal funding because of its concentration of poverty.
Although any public school in Minnesota can be put on the list, it's those that get federal funds for educating poor students that are subject to sanctions. According to the state Department of Children, Families and Learning, that's 90 percent of the state's elementary schools.
Particularly chilling to educators is the rule that 95 percent of a school's students -- including its subgroups -- must be tested. That makes Gatewood most vulnerable, said Montgomery.
In 2002, for example, only 91 percent of the school's fifth-graders took the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests -- a figure that would put Gatewood on the underperforming list if it happens two years in a row.
In addition, reading performance among the school's immigrant population -- third-graders did well, fifth-graders did not -- could put the school on the list as well. And that has Kathryn Waldusky worried. She works with Russian, Somali and Spanish-speaking students at Gatewood. And while she has seen them make tremendous gains, she wonders how realistic it is to expect them to perform at grade level.
"Frankly, I do feel pressure. Very much," she said, as she worked with Katya Kaourova, a Russian girl who has lived in the United States only four months. "We feel so much pressure to get them reading, get them writing, doing their required projects. We've lost some of the time for fun. We used to take time to bake cookies, carve pumpkins. No more."
Superintendent Kremer said he is concerned about how parents will react to seeing their schools on the list. And he worries about a backlash against diversity.
"If people look around and see the reason a school is failing is because of a group . . . people may start looking at diversity as a problem, not as a gift," he said.
Montgomery, who has been Gatewood's principal for 10 years, said that if her school is listed as underperforming, she and her teachers will look at where they need to do better and do it. Simple as that.
List or no list.
James Walsh & Norman Draper
'No Child' may leave even good schools feeling bad
Jan. 26, 2003
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES