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"No Child" Vexes Superintendent

Ohanian Comment: Three cheers for an educator willing to speak up. Her words will be enshrined in our 'quotes' section.

POLSON - State Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch said Thursday that the federal Department of Education has made some concessions to the needs of rural states like Montana in rules implementing the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

But she said she is still concerned about the expense of testing to comply with the act, and the inflexible federal measurement of a school's success, which seems to doom many Montana public schools to a failing grade, no matter whether the students' proficiency improves or not.

"It still makes no sense to me that we have a federal education law, and I'm spending 80 percent of my time on this law, while the federal government funds only about 12 percent of our school budgets," Montana's top elected education official said during an interview at Polson Middle School.

"I've got other important things to do" than work on No Child Left Behind, she said.

McCulloch was in Polson for a tour of the Polson Migrant School, a federally funded program for children of migrant workers that serves the children of workers harvesting Flathead cherries each summer. It, too, is accountable under the act.

Last year during a state Board of Public Education meeting in Polson, McCulloch threw down a challenge to the federal Department of Education.

She said she would not comply with provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act that required vastly increased training standards for many teachers in Montana's rural schools.

Under these rules, every public school classroom must have a "highly qualified" teacher - one who has been certified or licensed in the subject he or she teaches. Rural schools with small enrollments and small staffs often rely on teachers who teach courses outside their licensure in order to meet student needs.

Many of these teachers would have to go back to school to receive certification to teach these subjects under the federal requirements, or pass a rigorous test. "Broad-field" majors in several disciplines of an academic subject, which are offered in Montana's teacher-education schools, were not acceptable.

The federal agency has backed away a little on this requirement, McCulloch said.

Now, rural school science teachers who have broad-field training will not have to have return to school to get training and certification in each and every discipline of science they may be required to teach - physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

But the verdict is still out on social science teachers in disciplines such as world history, government and U.S. history.

McCulloch said she is disturbed by the federal law's insistence that every child, no matter what his or her academic potential, and regardless of disabilities, gain "proficiency" in academic skills, otherwise a school will be punished.

The whole idea is that by 2014, every student has to be performing at this "proficient" level for reading and math.

"That's a great goal. But it doesn't make sense to punish a school that doesn't make it," she said. In fact, it seems to set up some schools for failure, especially those schools that serve many low-income students, or students without English proficiency, or those on Indian reservations, where academic progress is typically behind other schools, and the dropout rates typically are higher.

What happens if a school continually fails? Then the law directs McCulloch to move in and take over the school district.

But that is not constitutionally permissible in Montana, where local schools are controlled by local school boards, and impossible, anyway, since she doesn't have staff or budget to do so, she said.

The No Child Left Behind Act was passed by Congress in 2001 as the centerpiece of educational reform promised by the Republican administration of President Bush. But it has come in for stinging criticism from some Montana educators, and from those in many other rural states, because of its inflexibility, its insistence on expensive testing ($3.6 million annually in Montana alone), and the way it scores schools in their progress toward meeting federal educational goals.

"I'm still committed to the goals of No Child Left Behind. But I'm also committed to working with the Department of Education to make sure they understand what we in Montana need," she said.

For starters, the law should acknowledge local control of education in those states like Montana where local control is the law. Local and state governments still pay the bills for education, with the federal government contributing only about 12 to 14 percent of Montana's educational budget while still demanding that inflexible federal rules be followed to the letter, she said.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at jstromnes@missoulian.com.
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— John Stromnes


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