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NCLB Outrages

The 'stick' approach

The number of people who claimed to have written NCLB is almost as high as the number of pages in the law. Musante is wrong about the pressure groups: Both Republican and Democratic leaders were bowing to corporate interests, not liberal and conservative.

It's a nice touch to bring up the fact that the $960 spent on postage could have bought library books.

by Fred Musante, In the Catbird's Seat

When President Bush named his proposed educational reform initiative the "No Child Left Behind Act," (NCLB) the Children's Defense Fund protested and threatened to sue for copyright infringement of its motto, "Leave no child behind."

Senators Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) originally wrote the law, each doing his best to incorporate the wishes of conservative and liberal pressure groups.

As initially conceived, NCLB was to be a "carrot-and-stick" approach to improving the public schools, but somewhere along the line the carrot was left behind.

Congress "forgot" to approve the extra federal funding to pay for its new national mandates. That was okay with Bush, who was preoccupied with his plans to invade Iraq by that time.

The extra money that Congress forgot was supposed to reimburse local schools for the cost of tutors and the extra rounds of standardized tests that NCLB inflicts on the students.

Call it the "stick" approach to school reform.

Considering its genesis, there's no wonder that NCLB is a mess.

Earlier this month, Stratford School Supt. Irene Cornish spoke at a monthly District 2 community meeting in the South End, and she took the opportunity to blast away at the federal stick.

She is particularly irritated at NCLB because of a provision that forced her to send out about 7,500 letters to parents this fall informing them that Stratford schools are listed as a district "in need of improvement" and inviting them to serve on committees working on improvement plans.

Postage cost $960, and stuffing the envelopes took three weeks. "And that's an unfunded mandate," she said. Stratford won't be buying books for school libraries with that money.

She also had to send out letters to parents of Wooster Middle School students informing them that the school also was listed as "in need of improvement" and offering them the choice to send their children to Flood Middle School instead.

The reason was for the improvement-needed status was that a group of special education students at Wooster failed to meet the minimum state standards and qualify as making "adequate yearly progress," a phrase from NCLB that is known as "AYP."

It was a bizarre exercise in futility, because Flood has lower average test scores than Wooster and didn't make AYP either, although it managed to evade the "in need of improvement" designation.

About 10 parents switched their children anyway. Cornish said all of them had already applied for waivers to send their children to Flood for non-academic reasons.

Wooster tripped an NCLB trip wire because it is a Title I school, receiving extra federal funds for tutoring programs, though not enough to cover more than a fraction of the tutoring cost.

What infuriated Cornish most of all was that Wooster's African-American students made substantial gains on their math scores on last spring's Connecticut Mastery Tests, after disappointing scores from the previous year's CMTs.

This was a major victory, requiring a lot of hard work by the students and their teachers. "You'd think they'd get credit for that," said Cornish. Instead, because the special education cohort missed the AYP mark, the whole school flunked.

And, like some perverse Rube Goldberg device, because Wooster missed, NCLB lists the whole district as "in need of improvement."

Another important thing to understand is that the test scores of the special education students who failed on the 2006 CMTs aren't being tracked to determine whether they are improving. Next year, NCLB will measure their scores against those of a different group of special education students instead.

"These scores are just a snapshot in time, and not a measure of whether a school system is good or bad," Cornish said.

Some educators have argued that special education students shouldn't be tested at all, but Cornish isn't one of them.

School officials in the past, not necessarily in Stratford but in other districts for sure, have evaded responsibility for scores of minority students by labeling them as special education students, something Cornish called a "subterfuge." The NCLB's testing requirement is supposed to prevent that trickery.

"The basic intent of the law was to make sure we close the achievement gap," she said.

Cornish is worried that NCLB's Rube Goldberg machine might impose new punitive measures on the Stratford schools. If schools can't make AYP consistently, the law provides for state takeovers of them and their districts. State officials can then impose new curriculums and replace administrators and teachers without any accountability to local parents, school boards or taxpayers.

"Technically, that could happen," Cornish said. "I don't think Connecticut has an appetite to do that, but they could be forced by the feds.

"On the federal level, it is very adversarial, and that's not helpful," she said.

The threat alone is stressing out administrators and teachers, while the central office is distracted and funds are diverted by the additional reports and notification letters that NCLB demands, but doesn't pay for.

I suppose you could say the NCLB is "in need of improvement."

This column reflects the opinion of Editor Fred Musante and does not necessarily represent the views of Hometown Publications.

— Fred Musante
Stratford Star


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