Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


NCLB Outrages

Making Leaps, but Still Labeled as Failing

Such inconsistencies have caused widespread anger toward the federal law, recently prompting 14 states to ask the Bush administration for an exemption. (While the disparity between rating systems is most dramatic in Florida, the state was not one of the 14 to protest, proving once again that blood is thicker than state report card ink.)

LAKE ALFRED, Fla.

AT many schools, the principal is a gigantic, distant figure, and when she enters a classroom, little children leap to their feet and recite, "Good morning, Ms. mumble-mumble." At Lake Alfred Elementary, students do not even turn their heads when the principal, Eileen Castle, walks in. That's because Ms. Castle visits every class three times a day. How does Ms. Castle know that teachers are doing the mandatory 20 minutes of silent reading every afternoon? "Eileen walks into your room every afternoon," says Anita Miller, a teacher.

Ms. Castle is constantly adjusting to make her school better. She created a 90-minute morning reading period with children assigned to classes by reading ability, rather than by grade. So Vicki Pellegrino's third-grade reading level class has second, third, fourth and fifth graders. It means a teacher can spend the entire 90 minutes working on the same material with everyone, rather than break her class into three reading ability groups and give each group just 30 minutes of her time.

Ms. Castle has been a principal for 19 years and seeks to meld the best of the old with the new. This year, there was trouble when the school introduced a first-grade basal reader, the Harcourt Trophies series. "After several weeks, kids still couldn't read the stories," says Lakisha Scott, a first grade teacher.

"They couldn't read the weekly tests, either," says Monica Stephens, another teacher. Teachers feared that it was their fault and were hesitant to say anything, but Linda Munroe, the assistant principal, noticed while making her daily rounds and did not blame the teachers. As she told the principal, "Eileen, we have a vocabulary crisis on our hands. This is an emergency."

The Trophies series focused on just four or five vocabulary words per story, and Lake Alfred children, who are mainly poor, needed help with more of the story's words. So Ms. Castle decided to revive a vocabulary curriculum that had been used here in the 1980's, a 15-minute daily unit developed by Richard Culyer, a South Carolina researcher, that teaches children to decipher words from their context. The principal had Heather Winchester, the school reading coach, create new vocabulary lessons that pulled 30 words from each story. And for three weeks in November while the curriculum was reworked, first graders reviewed instead of pushing forward. "It was a risk slowing down," she says. "But we thought once we had a good system in place we'd make up the time."

It worked. This spring, 76 percent of first graders scored proficient in reading, compared with 55 percent last year.

This is Ms. Castle's style, to strive to find a way to help her children soar. It is a challenge; 73 percent get subsidized lunches. Many parents commute 45 minutes to cleaning or cooking jobs at Disney World or work in nearby orange groves.

Every day, Ms. Castle compromises her educational principles to help her children meet state standards. She does not believe in Florida's mandatory retention policy for third graders who can't pass the state reading test. But to give her third graders an extra 50 minutes of reading daily, she has eliminated music, art and gym. "I believe children need to play and sing and draw," she says. "But I also believe I have to do everything in my power to make sure they're not held back."

Last year, Lake Alfred improved to a B from a C on the state report card system, showing gains in all six categories: 53 percent met the reading standard versus 43 percent the year before; 69 percent of the bottom quarter made reading gains, versus 45 percent the year before. When Ms. Winchester, the reading coach, heard about the B, she did a "Yes!" dance.

The joy was short-lived. Weeks later, the school learned that it had failed to meet the federal adequate yearly progress standard under the No Child Left Behind law. Lake Alfred had lots of company; 87 percent of Florida schools failed to meet the federal standard. More than 1,400 schools like Lake Alfred that scored an A or B under Gov. Jeb Bush's state system and won cash bonuses were rated failing under President George W. Bush's federal system.

Such inconsistencies have caused widespread anger toward the federal law, recently prompting 14 states to ask the Bush administration for an exemption. (While the disparity between rating systems is most dramatic in Florida, the state was not one of the 14 to protest, proving once again that blood is thicker than state report card ink.)

Lake Alfred's schoolwide reading and math scores met federal standards. But the federal law also breaks scores into subgroups - special education students, blacks, the poor - and if a school misses in just one subgroup, it's failing. In Florida, a subgroup is 30 students. Ms. Castle has 34 special education students, and most did not pass. However, if Ms. Castle could pick up Lake Alfred and move it to Texas, her failing special education subgroup would disappear. Texas officials negotiated a larger minimum subgroup size of 50 with federal officials.

At Lake Alfred, 36 percent of those in the poverty subgroup scored proficient in math, just missing the 38 percent needed. But in Texas, which negotiated with federal officials for a lower math standard of 33 percent, Lake Alfred's subgroup would have passed math.

Ms. Castle has pored over the federal standards and says that unless she moves her school to Texas, meeting them is "unattainable."

IN recent months federal officials have eased a few provisions, but the changes will not help here. Ms. Castle's biggest obstacle is special education, and federal changes apply only to the profoundly retarded. Most of her 34 special ed students are the mentally slow learning disabled, and only three scored proficient in reading. That's despite the fact that some had three hours of reading instruction a day. The slowest nine students in grades two through five have their own group with two teachers. "Most can't decode on a first-grade level," she says. Will they ever be proficient? "You can always hope for a miracle," she says.

Ms. Castle wants to leave no child behind and has given her career to working with poor children and minority children (half here are black or Hispanic). She'd love it if someone in Washington or Tallahassee could show her how to make her special education children proficient. "The teachers work so hard; the kids work so hard," she says. "It's discouraging to be told you're failing.''


E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

— Mike Winerip
New York Times
2004-04-28
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?tntget=2004/04/28/education/28education.html&tntemail1


INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES


FAIR USE NOTICE
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.