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NCLB Outrages

Flaws Mar Efforts to Hold Schools Accountable

Ohanian Comment: Now that she's no longer in charge of California's schools, Eastin acknowledges that the system of rewards was a bad idea. She's mum on what she thinks of punishments. Eastin is currently the Executive Director of the National Institute for School Leadership (NISL), which bills itself as helping "school districts prepare their principals to be outstanding instructional leaders in high-performance, standards-based schools. With the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Broad Foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund, and the Stupski Family Foundation, NISL has drawn on the best leadership-training practices in education, business, and the military to create state-of-the-art training for principals that combines face-to-face instruction in workshops, seminars, and study groups with interactive Web-based learning."

For more information on the Broad Foundation's influence on education policy, see Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? by Kathy Emery and Susann Ohanian (Heinemann 2004).

California policy has a way of affecting the nation. As the book shows, the tenets of NCLB parallel California Business Roundtable tenets of the 1980ies. A few people are now talking about the NCLB trainwreck that's about to occur in California. That's the plan nationwide: declare the failure of public education.

A few years ago, parents of school-age children were assured that drastic reform was about to sweep through public schools.

The keystone of that reform was the notion of accountability. Educators who raised student performance could expect cash rewards. Those who didn't could ultimately lose their jobs.

But today -- as parents await yet another round of reports on whether schools are improving -- the rewards-and-sanctions system is already badly frayed. There is doubt that many of the most serious sanctions can ever be enforced, and in California, mired in budget woes, the rewards program has dried up with no hint of replenishment.

``We moved so quickly,'' Delaine Eastin, state schools chief when the program was implemented, told the Mercury News. ``We did ready-fire-aim. We never should have given $1 billion in rewards. . . . It was a waste of money.''

Unforeseen outcomes

The accountability program has been in place in California for five years. Over that time, critics say, some glaring flaws have been revealed, including the following:

Expectations about raising student performance may have been unrealistically optimistic. Although schools have been forced to invest huge amounts of time and millions of dollars on testing, scores have not risen as hoped. In California, the latest round of test scores actually showed some surprising declines -- for example, second-graders scored worse this year than last year in math; ninth-graders dropped in English.

Thousands of schools are not even subject to the sanctions because their students come from relatively affluent families.

Of the schools subject to sanctions, thousands are failing to meet improvement goals and appear headed inexorably toward sanctions such as government takeover. But few believe government has the resources to mete out severe sanctions to so many schools.

How did it come to this?

California's school accountability system was introduced in 1999 with a hearty round of self-congratulations. After years of widely perceived decline in public education, here at last came the solution: a ``carrot and stick'' approach to reward schools that improved, and punish those that didn't.

Any school scoring in the bottom half of tests could get extra funding to boost scores, and advice from visiting experts. If that didn't help, they would face sanctions -- replacement of staff, takeover by another governing body, even closing.

``I don't want any student shortchanged,'' said then-Gov. Gray Davis.

Program cut back

But soon after the program began, the state's economy took a sharp downturn, and it quickly became apparent that there would be far too many schools to monitor. In 2002, the state restricted the number of schools eligible to seek help -- so-called underperforming schools -- to the lowest 10 percent.

Today 55 underperforming schools still are monitored. The state lists three in Santa Clara County: Brownell Academy in Gilroy, and Pala Middle and James Lick High in San Jose. As each year goes by, underperforming schools theoretically still face the originally outlined, most severe sanctions.

What will happen if some of these underperforming schools get to that point?

``We won't be there for at least another year,'' said Wendy Harris, director of the School Improvement Division of the California Department of Education. ``So we're basically not addressing that question yet.''

Although the state's underperforming-schools program still lurches along from day to day, it nevertheless has outlived its original counterpart -- the rewards program.

Under that program, almost $1 billion went to schools and teachers that made big gains on tests. Schools could get $75 per student or cash bonuses of up to $25,000 per teacher and administrator.

But funds evaporated after just a couple of years, and today it's hard to find anyone who will admit to having thought it was a good idea. ``It sent the wrong message,'' says Kerry Mazzoni, who was Davis' education secretary.

Many low-performing schools received cash because they were able to score the biggest one-year gains in test scores. But in numerous cases the rewards did not translate into sustained improvement.

For example, Brownell received $45,750 in rewards for its performance in the 1999-2000 school year. Just three years later, the school was forced to undergo a state intervention program because scores had dropped two years in a row.

Today the state is left with remnants of its accountability program, which it has tried to mesh with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, signed into law by President Bush in 2002. That law requires schools to show progress by all students -- including subgroups such as special education students, and those who still are learning English.

If even one subgroup does not meet improvement benchmarks in a given year, the school does not make ``AYP,'' or Adequate Yearly Progress. The state is releasing part of the progress data on Tuesday.

If a school does not make adequate progress two consecutive years in a particular subject, it undergoes a monitoring program similar to California's original system. In the fourth year of the program, the staff supposedly could be replaced, or the school taken over.

Slipping through cracks

However, there are major loopholes in this program. One of the most glaring is that it doesn't cover all schools. Only those that receive federal funds to subsidize the education of poor students fall under the rules of the No Child Left Behind program.

In California, fully 45 percent of schools don't get that money because their students aren't poor. In Santa Clara County, the number is almost 60 percent. In essence, this means six of 10 schools in the county are not subject to sanctions.

But the biggest question about the federal program centers, as it did with the California program, on enforceability. Because of the requirement that all subgroups of students improve on tests, schools are failing to make adequate progress in droves.

Of the 5,500 California schools that fall under the No Child Left Behind program, about 1,200 were in program improvement last year. According to projections by the California Department of Education, in three years that number will grow to 3,000.

Any expectation that the federal government will have the capacity or energy to mete out sanctions to so many schools is ``unrealistic,'' says Pete Goldschmidt, a senior researcher in education at the University of California-Los Angeles.

``It hasn't been thought through, because no one believed so many schools would come under sanctions so quickly.''

The way to fix the problem, says William Padia, head of the state Department of Education's Policy and Evaluation division, ``is to modify NCLB. That's the only solution.''

And if it's not modified, what will happen in three years, when 3,000 schools are suddenly subject to sanctions?

Says Padia: ``A train wreck.''

Contact Larry Slonaker at lslonaker@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5809

— Larry Slonaker
Mercury News


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