Education secretary visits rural Alaska schools
Note how the corporatized politico ignores how NCLB rules relate to his state and votes the party lines. People should give Senator Murkowski a strong nudge about nixing NCLB.
By Jeannette J. Lee, Associated Press
SHISHMAREF, Alaska (AP) -- U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings toured schools in two remote Alaska towns on Wednesday as part of a Bush Administration campaign to tout the successes of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization this year.
The widely criticized education law is the cornerstone of Bush's education policy. Spellings is traveling extensively this year to drum up support among members of Congress and see for herself how the legislation plays out in the nation's classrooms.
"I really wanted to see the challenges that this part of Alaska faces as it relates to attracting and retaining teachers and providing opportunities to kids," Spellings told The Associated Press. "We're on the eve of reauthorizing No Child Left Behind and want to make sure it's workable in all sorts of settings."
Accompanied by U.S. Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, Spellings visited schools in the Eskimo communities of Bethel, on the mouth of Kuskokwim River, and Shishmaref, in the Bering Strait.
Officials in the isolated communities were eager to share their opinions with the secretary, who helped craft the legislation that outlined strict guidelines for student achievement and qualifications for teachers and aides.
Agatha John-Shields, administrator at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik School, said she's frustrated with testing for proficiency in English at a young age.
The school teaches elementary students exclusively in the Yup'ik Eskimo language and phases in English at the fifth grade level.
"We're having to add more English at the primary grade level, and we don't want it," John-Shields said. "Our focus is Yup'ik language revitalization."
Alaska Education Commission Roger Sampson said the law has worked for the state on some fronts, but not on others.
"We think NCLB is improving accountability and bringing attention to the importance of education for a lot of communities," Sampson said. "But it doesn't completely take into account the fact that no other state is looking at the challenges Alaska has."
Class sizes are so small in dozens of rural Alaska villages that teachers routinely take on subjects they are not officially qualified to teach. The situation pushes down the state's rating when it comes to tallying the percentage of teachers who can demonstrate sufficient mastery of their subjects through testing.
According to Department of Education statistics, 64 percent of core academic classes in Alaska are taught by what the law terms "highly qualified teachers." The national average is nearly 91 percent.
Adding to complications, rural villages are dozens, if not hundreds of miles apart, and cannot be reached by road, making student transfers from underperforming districts virtually impossible.
Spellings said Alaska has done well under the law, pointing to federal data that shows 326 of the state's schools, or 65 percent, made adequate yearly progress in the 2006 school year, compared to 62 percent the year before.
Spellings, who has spent the last few months visiting dozens of schools, was circumspect about whether she thinks the law will be reauthorized.
"It's a challenging time in Washington," Spellings said. "I think we have the makings of an agreement sooner rather than later and we're going to push hard to get it done."
Stevens, R-Alaska, said he was inclined to vote in favor of reauthorization, but Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she wants to see changes in the 5-year-old law to accommodate the unique needs of rural schools before voting to renew it. A member of the Senate Education Committee, Murkowski introduced a bill this year proposing several changes to the act.
Among other things, the bill would require rural teachers to prove expertise in one academic subject rather than the four or five they may be responsible for teaching.
It would also allow underperforming districts to offer tutoring or distance-learning classes rather than transfer students to other schools, which is currently allowed, and push English language proficiency testing, now required in third grade, to sixth grade.
Jeannette J. Lee, Associated Press
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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