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NCLB Outrages

How No Child Left Behind Fails Our Kids

"Once you're condemned to hell, you can't get out," says Dr. Robert Britto, the assistant superintendent who oversees Beardsley and Harding High School.

On the door inside her corner office, a student had made Amy Marshall, the new Beardsley School prinicipal, a construction paper cut-out of a candle on a dish. "Hope you belief [sic] in Santa" read the Christmas decoration "from Edwin." Since last August, when Marshall began steering the Beardsley ship, she's needed to believe in small miracles. Though she came into the role from the Department of Instruction, the district-wide school improvement facility in Bridgeport, and knew that running Beardsley would present a challenge, little could prepare her for overseeing a school bearing such a heavy stigma since the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act. The pressure is intense.
"There are constantly people from the district and the state in our school," says Marshall. As principal, she wants to focus on the positive, to talk about how suspensions are down, how the number of books kids are reading is up. But NCLB is only interested in one figure-- scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test.

Thanks to scoring errors by the testing facility, CTB/McGraw Hill, she may not receive this year's scores until April. While 80 percent of Bridgeport's elementary, middle and high schools are on the "in need of improvement" list, Beardsley and Columbus, another city elementary school, are currently in their third year of corrective action. Already they must offer public school choice, allowing parents to transfer students to other schools in the district (which only about 10 parents have done thus far at Beardsley) and provide free tutoring. Every day that passes, Marshall and her staff are left to worry about the possibilities facing them if they can't raise their test scores by 2005--a situation that could leave them facing the replacement of all or most staff members. "It's a concern that's always there," she says.

The label of "failing school," while not always spoken, is always present. "Once you're condemned to hell, you can't get out," says Dr. Robert Britto, the assistant superintendent who oversees Beardsley and Harding High School. Dr. Britto did his doctoral research in Texas, and knows well how Houston achieved its "Texas miracle" in test scores by lowering standards and narrowing its curriculum [see "The Texas Sham Goes National" on page, 9]. What bothers him most about NCLB, besides the legislation's shaky foundation, is the way the law ignores progress within the schools. He sees the yearly rules governing test score improvement as a way of "applying the rules and dynamics of the marketplace into the public structure." In layman's terms, to privatize schools by failing them out of existence. However, says Britto, people don't grow cognitively in a linear fashion. "Teaching someone to learn something," he says, "is at least as complicated as the workings of the human mind."

Until the legislation addresses the many indicators of school improvement, from attendance and class respectfulness to artistic progress and group problem solving, it cannot be considered anything but a random snap-shot of student performance.

But No Child Left Behind is not aimed at producing better thinkers, better learners, or better teachers, according to Britto and others. NCLB seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff, to punish poor urban school districts like Bridgeport, push promising students into other schools through voucher programs, and finally do away with teacher independence, teacher involvement in curriculum-forming, teacher unions and the public school system as we know it.

The biggest fallout from the test-score stigma happens in the classrooms. Teachers, suddenly more concerned with improving numbers on one standardized test than with tailoring their curriculum to individual students, are forced into narrower confines.

At suburban schools, where testing goals are met, teachers can afford to focus on broader lessons, on arts and cultural instruction and creative writing. Mary Beth Lang, president of the Bridgeport Education Association, the city's teacher union, and a literacy coach at Waltersville School in Bridgeport, says she's seen firsthand the new emphasis on "teaching to the test."

"In the fourth grade [on the CMT's] you do narrative writing," she says, "so starting in Kindergarten we practice narrative writing almost exclusively. As soon as they take that fourth-grade test they switch to expository writing because that's what they take on the sixth-grade test and they do it almost exclusively. Once they take the sixth-grade test, they quickly move again to persuasive writing because that's what's tested in eighth grade." While she says some teachers still teach poetry, letter writing and other skills, the punitive nature of NCLB has been "pretty narrowing on the curriculum."

A School Under the Microscope Opts for Innovation
On a windy, sun-bright morning on Feb. 10, four state evaluators sat across the table from Beardsley teachers, principal Marshall and Dr. Britto in the Beardsley library where bookshelves are topped with giant stuffed animals, a sombrero and other oversized toys. A small couch and rug form a cozy reading corner. The school has taken great care to make its library inviting and one can imagine students there, crowding around a teacher's knees as she dazzles them with an heroic adventure story.

Reading is crucial to Beardsley's improvement, and the school is currently part of the CT READS (Connecticut Reading Excellence Act Demonstration Site), another state group that comes to evaluate the school's progress. But this group was gathered in the library to discover if the Beardsley staff has made adequate adjustments to the school curriculum to bring test scores up to snuff. "We need feedback from you," says Linda Kaufman, one of the evaluators with the School Improvement Team. "Our office doesn't get into the schools much."

Seated at one end of the table dressed in a navy blazer, Marshall tells the group about her "Marshall Plan." After nearly 200 discipline referrals had ended up at her office door, Marshall said she decided to hold a school assembly. Now the school office announces over the intercom the names of students who hold open doors and help teachers. They acknowledge teachers who help other teachers and recognize kids who have read 12 books. They announce birthdays. As emphasis has shifted to positive behavior, discipline problems have diminished.

Such innovations may not register on CMT test scores, but they are necessary to foster the overall culture in which learning can take place. At a meeting on Feb. 4 at Central High School, parent leaders and administrators gathered for a Parent Advisory Council meeting to discuss other non-traditional methods of improvement in light of NCLB. Ideas that were raised--such as sending parent and administrator teams door-to-door to talk with parents of problem children--would never be broached in a suburban setting. These are urban issues. In a city where 95 percent of school children are disadvantaged, where 67 different languages are spoken, where one out of three children have no preschool experience and where the dropout rate is 9 percent annually, these issues are paramount.

When Jeff Grice, a parent of two Bridgeport elementary students, complained that looking after other students was not his responsibility and that the tests were merely "backing up the truth," showing that schools are "not matching up to suburban neighbors," several in the room spoke out.

"As a parent leader," said Margie Powell, president of the district PAC, "that's why we're here. We have to do what the other parents aren't doing."

Arturo Rodriquez, the Madison School PAC president, spoke of helping other parents as a religious duty. "Those who know have an obligation to teach those who don't know," he said. "It's every parent's responsibility."

By the night's end, nearly everyone in the room had agreed they would be willing to knock on the doors of parents who weren't looking after their children in the hopes of pressuring them into participating in their children's education. Max Medina, president of the Board of Education and former candidate for mayor of Bridgeport, said he'd be willing to accompany parent leaders on these trips because "the test scores aren't going to improve unless we reach the families that are having a tough time."

Research has shown that test scores are most closely correlated with a parent's income and educational level. When test scores are low in urban areas, they point to the downfalls of economic difficulty where immediate concerns of food, clothing and gas bills supercede giving homework help. They don't point, as the public might assume, to poor teachers or shoddy administration.

"If I have time I can give to another child, I'm willing to do it," Powell said, at the meeting's close. "The old ways just aren't working."

Bridgeport Ain't Too Proud to Beg
When it comes to fixing immediate needs, Bridgeport schools need one thing: money. So tired were the School Board, superintendent and the city's nonprofit organizations of asking the state politely for its fair share of educational funds from afar that on Feb. 26, a group of 40 community leaders led an unprecedented charge on the state capitol. They descended for an all-day series of hearings and presentations during which they clearly and emphatically told state legislative leaders that Bridgeport has been short-changed for far too long.

Leaders of the charge were Marilyn Ondrasik and Barbara Edinberg, executive director and assistant director, respectively, of the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition. They brought with them Mayor John Fabrizi, Superintendent of Schools Sonia Diaz Salcedo, 11 city council members, five board of education members, three state reps, Margie Powell and other PAC members, a representative from the United Way, the Bridgeport Area Foundation and others. Even for those of us privy only to the press conference portion of the afternoon, the effect of so many community leaders standing elbow to elbow, five-deep, in one of the legislative offices was impressive.

As Edinberg flipped large graphs showing Bridgeport's standing in relation to Hartford and New Haven--with lower test scores, higher poverty, less English proficiency, greater classroom sizes--the unfairness of Bridgeport having a cap on Education Cost Sharing money while Hartford's and New Haven's have been lifted, seemed unequivocal.

According to BCAC members, House Speaker Moira Lyons and Senate President Kevin Sullivan vowed to find "creative ways" to come up with additional money for Bridgeport schools. Should this happen, it would hopefully encourage Bridgeport to better financially support its own schools, a task it has long neglected.

Bridgeport, like other large cities in the state, must adhere to the Minimum Expenditure Requirement in order to receive Education Cost Sharing money. BCAC has for years asked city officials to pay more than just the minimum requirement, as the other 165 school districts in the state do. However, year after year the government of Bridgeport treats MER like a maximum amount, regardless of the fact that the city budget has increased each year. "Last year," said Ondrasik, "the city cut its contribution to education by $4.8 million. We can't fix photocopiers and repair leaky pipes. If the city had simply kept the contributions level, even though increases are needed, we could have stayed stable."

No Child Left Behind has simply thrown a huge financial burden (the cost of additional tutors, busing kids to other schools, bringing in professional development coaches) to an already woefully under-funded system.

"I'm in my 34th year of teaching," said union president Lang, "and since I came, the city has traditionally funded the absolute minimum. It might go literally a penny or two pennies over. You neglect a school system like that for years and years, it's going to be hard to turn that around. We haven't built a school in 20 years. Now there is such overcrowding and we've got schools that are so old and have such facility issues... It's going to take a lot of money to fix it as opposed to a little money to maintain it."

When asked her one wish to make learning easier in her school in an NCLB-free world, Marshall doesn't hesitate.

"Smaller class sizes," she says. "We need a bigger school."

But the world isn't NCLB-free, and the legislation's sole focus on testing has left urban schools with little choice but to scramble to fill in the gaps left by over-crowding, poor economic conditions, language barriers and teacher shortages. As these schools continue to face greater sanctions and greater scrutiny, it is certain that more teachers will head to other districts (158 teachers did not return in 2001-02 to Bridgeport schools; 139 teachers defected in 2002-03) and more vacancies will be filled by "temporary" uncertified teachers. More students will learn primarily how to fill in bubbles and write a narrative essay, and more tests will be inaccurately scored by part-time workers in a test-making factory.

The Texas Sham Goes National Why No Child Left Behind is good for nobody
Education Secretary Rod Paige made the news last week when he referred to the largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, as a “terrorist organization.” Perhaps his power over national education policy, the No Child Left Behind Act, has swelled Paige’s head. Before he wielded control over the act, what CBS News’ Dick Meyer calls “the most intrusive federal foray ever into public schools,” Paige held sway over Houston public schools as superintendent.

President George W. Bush, some may recall, was governor of Texas then and touted the success of Houston students on the state exam known as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. The TAAS scores were Bush’s rationale for making Paige Education Secretary and for pushing No Child Left Behind—a piece of legislation that, in effect, forces every public school across the nation to mimic the TAAS achievement results through their own state tests or face serious sanctions. If they want any federal money, that is.

The problem is, upon closer inspection by The New York Times last December, the TAAS scores were shown to be nearly worthless when compared with the Stanford Achievement Test, a national exam. While Houston educators beamed proudly over closing achievement gaps (blacks, Latinos and other minorities showing scores near to those of their white counterparts), such educational achievement vanished under scrutiny.

From 1999 to 2002, the gains made on the Stanford test were only one-third of the gains on the far easier state exam. Passing scores in reading on the state test were equivalent to scores below the 30th percentile in national ranking. On the Stanford test, unlike TAAS, the achievement gap was huge—the average white student performed 36 points higher than the average black student in 1999 and 24 points higher in 2000. Not only did the Texas Education Agency find “rampant undercounting of school dropouts” among administrators, but students who did attempt college were often vastly under-prepared.

The entire public school system is now riding on the back of this Texas sham. The No Child Left Behind Act, a 1,000-plus-page document signed into law in January 2002, sets deadlines for states to widen testing to include all sub-categories of students, from minority to non-English-speaking to special education, and insists that they perform at the same level. Each year, the number of students in each sub-category who must reach proficient or above scores in reading and math increases. By the 2013-2014 school year, 100 percent proficiency among all students is demanded. If one sub-category of students does not hit the percentage mark, a school is deemed “in need of improvement.” As the annual goals travel further from reach, “corrective actions” grow more severe. By the second year, schools must offer public school choice, allowing parents the option to transfer to other district schools. By the third year, they must offer tutoring and either replace certain staff members, institute a new curriculum or make other changes. By the fifth year, a school in need of improvement must reopen as a charter school (public-private institutions who can hire non-certified and non-union teachers), replace all or most staff members, institute new management or be subject to state takeover.

The federal government, which hands down these sentences, does not pay for their enforcement. The federal government, in fact, only pays a paltry 7 percent of national education costs. Cash-strapped states must make up the remainder. For the yearly testing alone now mandated for third- to eighth-graders, the National Association of State Boards of Education estimates states will need to spend $7 billion over the next seven years. Poor urban districts are the most apt to end up on the list, and already face the heaviest financial burdens—from bilingual and special education teachers to extra security to school breakfasts and lunches. Under Title I, the federal government gives money to states based on poverty needs that the state then distributes to needy districts. In Bridgeport this year, that amount totals more than $13 million. According to Marlene Padernacht, the state Title I director, with the No Child Left Behind regulations at least 20 percent of those funds must now be diverted to cover related costs, such as providing transportation to kids who chose to attend other schools. As more state schools are added to the list, poor districts worry there simply won’t be enough money to go around.

Not only is No Child Left Behind an unfunded mandate, its focus on high-stakes testing is rife with problems. Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, authors of Who’s Teaching Your Children?, write that standardized testing has “never been shown to have a positive effect on children’s learning and intellectual growth,” and that “Large-scale testing merely serves to rob students of precious hours of classroom instruction while enriching the large testing companies....”

Testing companies like Texas-based Harcourt lobbied to help pass the No Child Left Behind legislation and it alone will reap the benefits. The testing market is currently a $50 million market. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, it stands to double within several years. As demands for testing increases, so do wide-scale errors. Researchers at Boston College found that more than two-thirds of the 103 testing errors reported between 1976 and 2002 happened in the last four years. Just one in four mistakes was caught by the testing companies. When scores can mean everything from students graduating and receiving scholarships to schools receiving federal aid, a lot is hanging on accurate results.

Schools in Connecticut have been biting their collective nails over Connecticut Mastery Test delays. Employees from the testing company, CTB/McGraw Hill, with whom the state has a seven-year $46.8 million contract, inconsistently scored the writing portion of the test. The scoring company has also had software and technical glitches. The state could fine the company $300,000, but that will hardly boost confidence in test results. As in Texas, No Child Left Behind places far too much emphasis on questionable tests. To achieve the same results as educators did in Houston, state schools have two options left—lower standards or cheat. That should teach ’em.

The Beginnings of a Backlash
Democrats and Republicans can agree on one subject, even during a bitter election season: The No Child Left Behind Act is one big legislative headache. Republicans don’t like the act infringing on state’s rights, while Democrats decry the act for not providing enough money to implement the mandates. States, meanwhile, are fed up with having their schools labeled “failing” for as little as one student botching a test, and they are beginning to fight back.

Three Connecticut towns—Somers, Cheshire and Marlborough—were among the first to reject federal funds rather than comply with the law’s requirements. Marlborough rejected $8,000, Somers about $45,000 and Cheshire almost $80,000. How the federal government will respond to the towns’ resistance remains to be seen. In comparison with other municipalities, the amount of Title I money they receive (based on poverty levels) is low, but it is also the first time in history school districts have rejected the funds. For the state’s more burdened urban districts, including Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, rejecting Title I funds (which amount to millions of dollars) is not an option.

As states face budget deficits, the financial burden exacted by NCLB rules has been deemed so unfair that larger state initiatives are beginning to take hold across the country. Local governments in Utah, Vermont, Arizona, Minnesota, Virginia and Washington have been challenging the legality of NCLB’s unfunded mandates. In early February, the GOP-led Utah house passed a resolution 64-8 barring state educators from using local money to pay for NCLB requirements. The bill, now before the state senate, would refuse implementing any of the law’s measures that were not covered financially by federal funds. In January, the GOP-controlled Virginia House voted 98-1 for a resolution urging Congress to exempt its schools from the mandates. Across the country, at least 10 other states have enacted resolutions that criticize the law or ask for similar exemptions.

What started as a small groundswell of resistance in a few wealthy Connecticut suburbs has turned into a country-wide backlash that is likely to grow as more schools are added to the “in need of improvement” list without the funds to cover the law’s punitive measures. The embarrassment to the Bush administration, already facing political heat over no-show weapons of mass destruction, a jobless economic recovery and the president’s Air National Guard disappearance during the Vietnam War, has already made an impact. This past month, Education Secretary Rod Paige announced that NCLB would offer more flexibility for non-English speaking students, allowing those students to take an alternate test and granting a year to show adequate progress.

While the concession on the administration’s part is an important one, it’s hardly enough. According to a teacher’s union tally, 26,000 of the nation’s 93,000 public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress this past year. It raises the possibility that all schools could make the list as requirements increase, as Connecticut’s wealthier school districts in Fairfield, Greenwich and Westport did last December.

With more schools facing punishment, resistance will continue to grow, and state Republicans and Democrats will find themselves battling NCLB from the same united front.

— Brita Brundage
Fairfield County Weekly


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