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Effort by Bush on Education Faces Obstacles in the States

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - At Madison Park Elementary, a high-poverty school whose students have failed to make enough progress year after year, the momentous consequences threatened in President Bush's landmark education law, No Child Left Behind, should come crashing down any month now.

At this stage of disrepair, after improvement plans and other "corrective actions" have failed to raise test scores enough, the law calls for a wholesale restructuring of Madison Park and similar public schools, the educational equivalent of a hostile takeover, with the possible elimination of principals and teachers and the installation of new management.

But Michigan has another idea.

Instead of the Bush administration's formula, Thomas D. Watkins Jr., the state superintendent, will try something less drastic: dispatching coaches to advise teachers and principals, importing new curriculums and monitoring school progress. Mr. Watkins likens state takeover of troubled schools to a dog chasing a bus. "What do you do with it once you get it?" he asked.

As events in Michigan and many other states suggest, all is not going as planned with the administration's goal.

Four years ago, No Child Left Behind served as candidate George W. Bush's banner domestic issue, showcasing his claim to "compassionate conservatism." At campaign stops, Mr. Bush attacked the "soft bigotry of low expectations" in public schools, and once in office, No Child Left Behind became his legislative initiative. It aimed for nothing less than ending the achievement gap between whites and minorities, by threatening public schools with dire punishments unless they improved the academic performance of all students. The law is intended to ratchet up the quality of teachers at high-poverty schools, steadily raise student achievement in reading, math and science, and use student test scores to dictate whether a school should survive. It also promises students in underperforming schools a way out, through transfer to better schools or private tutoring.

Faced with the challenge of raising all students to academic proficiency by 2014, however, some states simply lowered their standards, while many others came up with statistical devices to exclude whole groups of children from the law's umbrella.

Critics and supporters alike agree that since Mr. Bush signed No Child Left Behind in January 2002, the law has imposed deep, undeniable changes on public education.

Margaret Spellings, a White House domestic policy adviser and an architect of the law, says that No Child Left Behind is already showing results. "The trend is absolutely in the right direction," she said.

Even some of those who are uneasy with the provisions of the law applaud its ambition. Jack Jennings, the director of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, calls No Child Left Behind "a bushel of trouble" for schools, but nevertheless credits it with training a spotlight on the achievement gap between middle-class and disadvantaged children.

"There will be greater results under this law than any previous education law, because the time lines are so short and the demands so great, and the schools will respond," Mr. Jennings said. "The question is, will this emphasis on testing really better educate kids, or is it an artificial thing?"

Critics contend the law gives schools dozens of ways to fail, but does little to help them tackle the causes of low achievement among poor, minority and disabled children. Others complain that the law's reliance on standardized tests is unsound, that its strict rules conflict with existing state efforts and that its remedies for struggling schools are largely punitive. As a result, in the two and half years since Mr. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law, a political backlash has curtailed its reach.

Though the law passed with strong bipartisan support, Democrats, civic groups and teachers' unions complain that federal spending consistently falls short of the amounts authorized when they signed on - an accusation that Republicans reject, saying that spending on the nation's poorest schools has risen by more than 50 percent on Mr. Bush's watch.

Earlier this year, opposition to the new law spread to the right, as Republican lawmakers in a dozen or so states passed anti-No Child Left Behind resolutions. The discontent first boiled over in Utah, where the House attacked the law as an infringement of states' rights. A team of federal officials turned up in Salt Lake, reminding Republicans that the state stood to lose $100 million in federal education aid if they followed through, lawmakers recalled.

"For a state the size of Utah, that's a hard hit," said Kory M. Holdaway, a Republican legislator.

Though largely quelled, the revolt that began in Utah prompted the Bush administration, whose education secretary, Rod Paige, had once dismissed critics of the law as "guardians of mediocrity," to adopt a new, more conciliatory stance.

The law's reach was also curbed by ideological priorities on the part of the administration. In a swipe at colleges of education, for example, the administration deemed neophytes enrolled in alternative teacher training courses "highly qualified," thus lowering the standards already in place in many states. States also took steps to soften the law's effect. But most of all, No Child Left Behind's impact has been tempered by the ability of states to carry out its many promises.

Nowhere has this been more obvious than the laws pledged to give children the right to transfer out of struggling schools. In Los Angeles, with its chronically overcrowded classrooms, students who had the right to transfer had to largely stay put. In Chicago, of 270,000 who were eligible to transfer, 19,000 signed up to move. Through a lottery, 1,097 students won the right to transfer, half of them ultimately did. In New York City, where 7,000 students transferred last year, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said that only 1,000 would do so this year.

Across the country last year, more than 67,000 students, of 1.2 million eligible, transferred out of underperforming schools, according to the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights. An additional 113,000 low-income students received free tutoring in 2002-2003, according to the federal Education Department.

Madeline Talbot, head organizer for Illinois Acorn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said that she had initially seen great promise in the law, but had concluded the right to transfer was not real. "In a district like Chicago, there aren't enough good schools to go to," she said.

Many states have also found ways to transform No Child Left Behind into something closer to Some Children Left Behind, particularly for disabled children and immigrants. More than a dozen states have adopted higher threshold numbers for counting these students in school ratings, so that they are frequently excluded from accountability systems.

Some use high threshold numbers for all subgroups, like blacks, Latinos and children in poverty, with online report cards for all but the large urban schools yielding no information about minority or poor children. In assessing schools, California and Texas include subgroups of 50 or more students only if they account for 15 percent of the school's enrollment. Otherwise, there must be 100 of them in California. In Texas, there must be 200.

In part through such devices, but also because schools made genuine efforts to improve, some states are showing progress, with fewer schools coming up short this year than last. Ms. Spellings said early returns prove the education law is working. In Georgia, the gap in reading scores between white and black students shrank to 8 points this year from 13 points in 2002, she noted. In Maryland, 25 schools improved enough to exit the ranks of low performers.

But Nancy Grasmick, Maryland's schools superintendent, has warned that as more grades are tested in coming years and higher proportions of students must pass, the ranks of floundering schools will balloon in Maryland and around the country. By 2014, when the law aims to have all students reach proficiency, nearly all schools in all states will fail under the law, researchers predict.

For now, the federal law requires testing of reading and math only once in elementary, middle and high school. But beginning in 2005, schools must test children annually in grades 3 to 8 in reading and math, and once in high school. By 2007, they must test students in science as well. Each expansion of the testing regimen creates a new opportunity for a school to fail. In some states, like Florida, nearly all schools have already failed to meet academic targets.

Here in Michigan, which had some of the nation's toughest standards for judging school performance, state and district education officials are turning away from the sweeping solutions that No Child Left Behind charts for chronically failing schools.

It is not that Michigan or Grand Rapids disputes the law's goals. While No Child Left Behind aims for 100 percent proficiency among students by 2014, Grand Rapids set the same goal for itself by 2007, said its superintendent, Bert Bleke.

Instead, the state and local school districts like Grand Rapids plan to work closely with existing staffs and principals at the 50 or so most troubled schools, training them in new teaching methods with a tight focus on reading, writing and math, student assessments every three weeks, and monitoring by district officials. In a sense, Grand Rapids is trying to carry out the solutions that could ultimately fix academically broken schools, without emptying them first.

Mayda Gunnell, the principal of Hall Elementary here, illustrates the possibilities, and the complexities, of the job ahead. Since taking over in 2002, Ms. Gunnell has reversed three years of sinking test scores at Hall. She said she did it by retraining teachers and monitoring them closely, switching to a new districtwide reading program that delivered startling gains and giving the children diagnostic tests every month or so, to catch their weaknesses. She insisted on high expectations, and remembers telling teachers, "You could either be here and do the job, or leave," she recalled. Inevitably, some did.

She supports No Child Left Behind, but says that school takeovers are too drastic at this early stage. "You have to give people a chance," Ms. Gunnell said. "Once you establish new criteria, you have to give them a chance to make it work."

And if that does not succeed, said Vert Trice, director of specially funded programs for the Grand Rapids schools, "Then we have to have some very tough conversations."

— Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times


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