Bleak Outlook for Schools with "No Child"
Brookline "No Child Left Behind" forum called the law problematic, but some called the education discussion unbalanced
Few had anything good to say about the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal education accountability program in Brookline last week.
"It's almost as if someone who's drunk has designed the system," said Dr. Ron Fitzgerald, superintendent of Minuteman Regional High, a
vocational-technical school in Lexington. Fitzgerald insisted that school and student accountability is necessary; however, he said, "NCLB is going to be one of the most destructive things that's ever happened
in public education."
Fitzgerald was part of a forum principally sponsored by Brookline C.A.R.E. (Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education) Wednesday at the
Lincoln School. He and three other speakers painted a bleak picture of the future of public schools under the auspices of the NCLB program.
Decrying the lack of national standards, Fitzgerald claimed that Texas and some other states have less difficult tests than the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or comparable exams. Fitzgerald also
told the audience filling the Lincoln School that children learn and should be tested at varying speeds.
"For God's sake," he pleaded, "let us give the test when the youngster's ready for it," adding, "There isn't an experienced educator in the country who wouldn't tell you that that's the way it's gotta be."
NCLB mandates that students be tested each year in grades three through eight, and again in tenth grade. Students who fail to pass as sophomores must take the test during subsequent years.
While Fitzgerald emphasized he is a strong proponent of accountability, he called his version "constructive" and said the NCLB is creating,"clear lack of fairness to some learners with harm to their lives."
Dr. Jennifer Fischer-Mueller, Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning for Brookline, introduced the basic facts of NCLB.
Within each school, students are broken into categories based on race, income level, whether the student is deemed proficient in English or
categorized as special needs, Fischer-Mueller said.
If any such category contains 20 or more students and does not meet standards of performance, improvement, participation in MCAS, or attendance (or, for the high school, graduation), then the category - and therefore the school - garners both a label and a series of consequences, Fischer-Mueller said.
Using the Lincoln School as an example of a school that did not meet the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals last year, Fischer-Mueller was later asked by an audience member if the school could wind up being run by the state.
"The short answer is 'yes.' Five years from now it could be a 'school in need of restructuring,'" she said.
According to Fischer-Mueller, a "school in need of restructuring" would face possible layoffs and a new curriculum - and could potentially be
turned it into a state-run institution.
Dr. Kevin Lang, vice-chair of the Brookline School Committee, told the audience that for Lincoln or any school in the country, "the way you show improvement is to have a really bad year the first year."
Like Fitzgerald, Lang emphasized the need for an accountability system other than NCLB, but he also broached a conversation about the NCLB
categorization of students.
"The more groups (a school has) the more targets," Lang said, "and the less likely you are to make AYP." In other words, according to Lang, a school with fewer racial categories containing twenty or more students would have less a chance of failure.
According to the forum's fourth speaker, Dr. Larry Ward of FairTest, situations like that actually provide incentives to dissolve programs
like METCO because of the racial diversity that it brings into a school system.
Ward claimed that in Chicago, schools started to wonder if a program urban to suburban student transfer program should be kept around that is similar to METCO after the introduction to NCLB.
"Schools start to say, can this group make (NCLB goals)? No? Then let's get them out of here," he said.
"There's fights in the school system - these are the real tolls," he said.
Though all the forum speakers, along with all of the audience members who asked questions or made comments, spoke out against the NCLB act,
there was a sense that a pro-NCLB opinion should have been represented.
According to Lisa Guisband of C.A.R.E., forum organizers attempted to arrange such a guest appearance. The representative from Sen. Edward
Kennedy's office who specializes in education was scheduled to attend, but did not make it. Kennedy voted in favor of NCLB.
Guisband said later, "What we thought we would do for balance was to have Jennifer (Fischer-Mueller) give just the facts of the law."
A Kennedy aide did attend to report on the forum to the Senator.
Kennedy could not be reached; however, he was quoted the day before the forum at a Democratic news conference as having had a change of heart in Congressional Quarterly's CQ Today, "Kennedy Criticizes How 'No Child Left Behind' Law is Being Implemented." The NCLB rules and regulations are "in conflict with the law and are ideologically based. That is going
to have to change or I am going to, with others, introduce legislation to change it legislatively," Kennedy reportedly said according to CQ, which covers U.S. legislature.
An aide for Sen. John Kerry also took notes at the forum but the presidential candidate himself could not be reached for comment.
"I was disappointed that we weren't able to get a rep from Senator Kennedy's office," said Linda Schwarz at the forum. "I thought that that
would have provided some balance that would have been missing."
While she is critical of NCLB, Schwarz said she hoped there might be an explanation of whatever benefits the senators saw in the act - perhaps,
she said, it would raise the bar for everyone.
According to the U.S. Department of Education web site, President George Bush pushed for the act because, "Too many of our neediest children are being left behind."
"It is built on four common-sense pillars, accountability for results; an emphasis on doing what works based on scientific research; expanded parental options; and expanded local control and flexibility," his statement said.
As for Brookline Public Schools, educators hope to institute the town's own program of accountability.
At the School Committee meeting the day after the forum, Fischer-Mueller unveiled a "program review," and said it was designed to "improve
student achievement" and ask, "How are we challenging students?"
The committee lauded Fischer-Mueller's work. Lang, however, cautioned members on the budgetary repercussions of both the analysis portion of this project, as well as the implementation of its recommendations.
Bleak outlook for schools with "No Child"
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES