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Nevada Educators Give No Child Left Behind Act a Failing Grade

After struggling with the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act for more than two years, Washoe County schools Superintendent Jim Hager has concluded the law is clumsy and causes a defeatist attitude among teachers and principals.

One of Hager’s misgivings deals with the law’s main premise — that all students in all districts must show annual yearly progress in math, English and eventually science by the 2014.

“It will never happen,” Hager said during a two-hour interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal last week.

“While I think the goal is very laudable, there has to be some realism put into it,” said Hager, a former high school dropout who oversees about 60,000 students in the nation’s 51st largest school district.

“Not all the kids are going to get there in that time,” Hager said. “The kids are not coming into schools on a level playing field, either because of handicapping conditions, language barriers or exposure to experiences due to socio-economics.”

Many in Washoe County’s teaching community have become demoralized while trying to meet the many requirements of the federal mandate, signed into law two years ago by President Bush, Hager said.

“(Teachers and administrators) are not against the concept but are against what it is doing to them,” Hager said. “We took a voluntary survey of our principals and what they told me was: ‘Look at all the reporting and all the paperwork we have to do. We don’t look at the total child anymore. We’re looking at, ‘Did we make our numbers?’ So I think it has changed our demeanor for the worse.”

Many teachers agree, said Lynn Warne, the president of the Washoe Education Association. The mandate has had a profound effect on early retirement of teachers, said Warne, whose group represents teachers in contract talks.

“This year, there are more than 80 teachers who are going to retire early,” Warne said. “That is more than double the number of teachers we have ever had do that before. I know several of them, and they have told me that it is because of the additional stress of meeting this annual yearly progress.”

Those concerns are shared by Congress, said U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Reno.

“First of all, we set the goal high (at 100 percent) so that we could get our schools to do the very best to get to that 100 percent level,” Gibbons said. “If we set it at 50 percent, for example, we would be failing 50 percent of our children.

“We will continue to modify the bill, but the goal should remain that we get as many children up to those expectations as we can,” he said.

Until then, Washoe County must follow the law or risk losing much of its federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education provides $15 million to $18 million a year in Washoe County to finance school lunch programs, special education and increased aid for poverty-level schools.

“We have very strong marching orders from the federal government,” Hager said.

No Child Left Behind fears

Problems with the No Child Left Behind Act might get worse before they get better, Hager said.

Now, each school must show adequate yearly progress in each area of a 45-criteria list dealing with growth in core subjects among student subgroups such as black, Hispanic, poverty-level learners and special education. Schools can be placed on a one-year Watch list or a more serious two-year Needs Improvement list — the scarlet letter for educators — for failure to meet goals in just one criteria.

Two of Washoe County’s 62 elementary schools — Anderson Elementary and Desert Heights Elementary — are on the Needs Improvement list.

Those schools must allow parents to send their children to other schools if they wish and provide transportation for them. If those schools remain on the list, they eventually could be forced to change the administration and teaching staff. Ultimately, they could be taken over by the Nevada Department of Education.

Currently, 25 Washoe schools are one the Watch list. Many of those probably will end up on the Needs Improvement list next year, Hager said.

“If Congress doesn’t change some of the participation rules for English language learners and special-education kids, the majority of those schools will probably move on to the second level,” Hager said. “It’s because the requirements are so unreasonable that it will be impossible to get everybody on a straight line of progression.”

Warne said the federal law also has changed the way teachers work.

“It has taken all the fun, all the spontaneity out of teaching,” she said. “Teachers now have been very much forced to teach to the tests because so much emphasis has been placed on meeting this annual yearly progress.”

Losing electives

To meet the No Child Left Behind requirements, some students might have to give up electives and extracurricular activities to get enough time to study core subjects such as math and reading, Hager said.

“If a student is not proficient in, say, math, his principal may say to him, ‘I am going to put you into two math courses.’ Some of our middle school principals are already doing this,” Hager said. “Unless you get those fundamentals, those other things can’t be made available to you.”

School trustees have yet to require this policy throughout the district. It would be a sad day for public education if their decision is forced by the federal legislation, Hager said.

“Our liberal art education is what has made America great.” Hager said. “It has allowed us to give kids all of those exposures and through that, they can find their rare talent — as a profound musician or athlete or mathematician.”

More time needed for education

A longer school year or an extended school day might be needed to balance a liberal arts education with No Child Left Behind requirements, Hager said.

“With all these new requirements and all these new expectations, what have we changed?” Hager asked. “We are still in the basic box of 180 days and from 71/2 to eight hours a day that the students are with the teachers.”

Yet expanding the school day or school year are expensive propositions, Warne said.

In Washoe, it would cost $1.8 million for each extra day or $240,000 for every hour added to the day, according to district estimates.

“The teachers have suggested both ideas, but it would be an expensive proposition,” Warne said. “They are feeling the squeeze, too, because there is just not enough time to get all the things done.”

“Teachers may want to see it, but they don’t want to see it without compensation,” Warne said.

Students’ reaction to more time in school would depend on how much is added, said Uptin Saiidi, 17, a senior at Reno High School.

“From my freshman to sophomore year, we went from getting out of school at 2:10 p.m. to 2:30,” he said. “Some people were mad but after a couple of weeks, they got used to it.

“If we added 10 days to each semester, I don’t think students would like that because it would really cut into summer vacation. But if it is just a couple of days, I don’t think that would make much of a difference. I don’t think students would complain about going to school for a few extra days,” Saiidi said.

— Roy Hagar
Reno Gazette-Journal


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