Paige Reads Half a Book to Tout Summer Reading Program
Between a tour of classrooms loaded with smiling faces and an enthusiastic all-school assembly, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige heard some pointed questions about federal education policy.
Paige, appearing Thursday at Lyndale Elementary in Minneapolis, was in town to announce a new summer reading program. His schedule included a roundtable discussion with 15 educators and parents, some of them skeptical of No Child Left Behind, the federal accountability law for schools.
Lyndale was able to get off the state's list of underperforming schools last year after improving its test scores. But Ruth Woods, a teacher of English language learners at Lyndale, told Paige that the pressure of testing and the school's experience with the "failing" label "demoralizes staff and students."
Paige countered that the No Child law classifies low-scoring schools as "needs improvement." Drawing an analogy, he noted that the Minnesota Timberwolves could soon be playing the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA playoffs, and cited Shaquille O'Neal's problematic free throws as something that needs improvement. Schools may be strong in some areas while needing improvement in others, he said. But they shouldn't be called failing.
"We think people in the schools should not be disrespected that way," he said.
The program Paige announced Thursday, called the No Child Left Behind Summer Reading Achievers Program, will have all Minneapolis students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade reading at least 10 books this summer. Private sponsors, including Target Inc., will provide one book for all the district's students in those grades — about 30,000 — with library visits making up the difference.
Paige, the former superintendent of the Houston public schools, started his visit with a tour of Lyndale led by Principal Ossie Brooks-James and accompanied by Minnesota Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke. He also read to a small group of third graders, who took the opportunity to ask some questions, including "Do you work for the president?" and "How'd you get your job?"
He got about halfway through the book "Thank You, Mr. Falker" before being whisked off to the roundtable discussion.
There, Minneapolis Interim Superintendent David Jennings raised the issue of unfunded federal mandates, mentioning the $25 million Minneapolis spends on special education. The federal government originally promised to pick up 40 percent of the cost back in 1975 but currently covers about 20 percent.
"Do you think I will live long enough to see full funding?" Jennings asked.
Paige said federal funding for special education is increasing. President Bush has added $1 billion to special education funding each year of his term in office, he said. "We were so far from that (40 percent), it couldn't be achieved in one fell swoop," Paige said.
Another part of the solution, he said, is that schools need to reduce the number of kids who are inappropriately diagnosed as needing special education services. Students labeled "learning disabled" is the largest category of special education students, but many of those kids' "real problem is they never learned to read properly," he said.
To coincide with Paige's visit, U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., put out a release questioning a $2.7 million cut in federal Title I funding for Minnesota's low-income students next year. Dayton's release also put the federal contribution to the Minneapolis summer reading program at $5,000.
"As you proclaim the good news today of one $5,000 award, for which I thank you, please also address this much larger financial travesty," Dayton wrote in a letter to Paige.
A similar question about Title I cuts came up in the roundtable discussion, where Paige said that Title I is supposed to supplement a state's resources, not replace them. Yecke, also at the roundtable, said that the cuts are not fair and that she has written to the state's federal representatives about the need to restore the funding.
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