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NCLB Outrages

Bush's No Child Left Behind Education Plan Gets Failing Grades

Ohanian Comment: The only thing missing in this article is what's behind NCLB. Readers to see who supports NCLB--and why. That, of course, is asking too much. Nonetheless, this article has plenty of meat.

Michael McGill climbs the terrazzo steps to a balcony above the newest wing of Scarsdale Middle School, part of a $22 million renovation that includes two-story tinted windows, a 31-classroom addition and a light-filled central indoor courtyard overlooking weeping willows.

The freshly tiled walls are lined with awards won by high achievers in the 4,569-student school district in Westchester County, New York, where McGill, 60, has been superintendent for six years. Almost every senior attends college, and one in three is awarded National Merit scholarships or academic honors based on test scores, McGill says.

With all of its honors and accomplishments, Scarsdale Middle School is failing to comply with President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which Bush, 58, describes as ``the cornerstone of my administration.''

One-third of the 90,000 U.S. public schools, from affluent suburbs like Scarsdale to poor cities like Reading, Pennsylvania, didn't make adequate yearly progress during the first year of the law, which has the practical effect of labeling them as failures, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

In high-achieving Scarsdale, where home prices range from $600,000 to more than $6 million, the middle school failed to meet the New York State Education Department's criteria under the 2002 law because 85 percent of the eighth-graders took the state's math and English exams instead of the required 95 percent participation rate.

Boycotting Tests

Fifteen percent of the students intentionally didn't take the tests because of a boycott organized by parents who believe excessive standardized testing stymies learning and limits creativity.

No Child Left Behind is the most comprehensive national education legislation since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which authorized grants to schools with a high proportion of low-income students.

The Bush law, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 13, 2001, by a vote of 381-41 and the U.S. Senate by a vote of 87-10 five days later, directs states to create grade- level standards on what students should know and to test their progress annually in grades three to eight.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, 60, a four- term U.S. senator from Massachusetts, voted to adopt the law. Educators and politicians hailed the law's mission to improve student performance and teacher quality.

Now, many of those who supported the law say it amounts to government demands without the money necessary to carry them out.

Disagreement on Cost

Funding has become a source of contention. The president says he's increased the federal budget for the poorest school districts by 52 percent since he took office, to $13.3 billion from $8.8 billion. He says his 2005 budget would increase spending by 49 percent for all elementary and secondary school programs, to $37 billion from $24.8 billion.

Kerry and the NEA say the federal government must spend an additional $27 billion to make the law work. Kerry says that if he's elected, he would roll back tax cuts Bush provided to the wealthiest citizens and direct more resources to public schools.

``Thousands of schools are falling short of the law's targets because the president has fallen billions short of his own promises to fund the initiative,'' Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer said in August. ``If George Bush were getting graded for his implementation of No Child Left Behind, he'd get an `F.'''

`Unfunded Mandate'

The bipartisan National Governors Association voted unanimously in 2003 to name No Child Left Behind an ``unfunded mandate,'' which means the federal government isn't supplying the money needed to make the law work. The Washington-based group called on Congress and Bush to fully fund the law.

All students are required by the law to make progress each year in math and reading scores. If they don't, the school district must take steps such as busing students to better schools, tutoring or, after repeated failure, replacing staff and re-opening under private management. The school districts must pay for these measures.

The federal government is supposed to fund the schools; most districts say they're not getting enough money, according to the NEA.

Twenty-nine states are considering resolutions requesting waivers or asking for more money to cover the law's mandates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. School districts in Connecticut, Illinois and Vermont have refused federal funds rather than comply with the law.

`It's Unrealistic'

Six other states are considering bills or resolutions that would allow them to opt out of the law's provisions. Wisconsin's attorney general issued an opinion that the U.S. government can't force states to follow the law without fully funding it.

In Belleville, Illinois, Superintendent Brent Clark, 35, says the law's punitive measures may unravel public education in the U.S.

He's already sent out 5,000 letters to parents letting them know the two high schools he oversees are failing under the law. Clark, whose district gets $450,000 in federal aid, estimates the cost of additional tutoring, paperwork and reading programs the law requires will be more than $1 million this year.

``It's unrealistic to expect all students to pass annual exams in grades three to eight without money to pay for smaller classes, more individual attention for slow learners and intensive tutoring programs,'' he says.

``The costs are going to explode when the next round of test scores and sanctions come out,'' he says, referring to the end of the 2004-2005 school year.

`Really Insulted'

Joseph O'Brien, 54, superintendent of schools in Springfield, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, says that while he supports the goals of the law, his district lacks the money to carry them out.

Public school systems already reeling from state budget cuts and taxpayer revolts that curtail education spending now face punishing sanctions if test results don't improve, says Gary Orfield, a Harvard University social policy professor.

Orfield, 62, is a founding co-director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard Civil Rights Project, which is studying No Child Left Behind. ``People who work in disadvantaged schools and study education reform and testing are really insulted by this law,'' he says.

``It shows an ignorance and arrogance that's stunning,'' Orfield says. ``People who really care about schools being good for poor kids see it is doing damage.''

Give the Law Time

Corporate executives say the sanctions the law prescribes for lagging schools are needed to improve student performance and stem the loss of U.S. jobs to India and China, says Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based association of chief executive officers of the largest U.S. corporations.

``To be competitive, innovative and at the forefront of research and development, the U.S needs to upgrade the skills and knowledge of our future workforce, and we think this law is an important part of doing that,'' Traiman says. The group has urged Congress to give the law the time it needs to work.

Bush says the law is closing the achievement gap between minority and white students and improving student performance. ``We are already seeing hopeful results,'' Bush said during his weekly radio address on Aug. 21, saying fourth- and eighth-grade math scores across the country were up last year.

In 2003, 77 percent of fourth-graders met U.S. standards in math compared with 69 percent in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Grades Up Since 1990

Such gains shouldn't be linked to No Child Left Behind, says Dan Kaufman, a spokesman for the 2.7-million-member NEA. He says test scores have been going up for more than a decade because of smaller class sizes, more-focused training and early-childhood programs that preceded the law.

In 1996, 64 percent of fourth-graders met basic standards; in 1992, 59 percent passed; and in 1990, 50 percent met standards, according to the NCES. The law doesn't move education forward in any way, Kaufman says.

``The problem is that now NCLB, despite its praiseworthy goals, is interfering with this progress by adding rigid mandates, additional bureaucracy and standardized testing and narrowing the curriculum without adequate funding,'' he says.

Poor, minority districts can least afford the law's sanctions and remedies, says Richard Guida, 57. The lawyer is representing the schools of Reading, a former textile manufacturing city about 50 miles west of Philadelphia, in its lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

$18 Million Short

Median household income in Reading is $26,698, and 98 percent of the elementary school students are eligible for free lunches, meaning they live at or below the poverty level of $18,810 in yearly income for a family of four.

Two-thirds of Reading's 17,000 students are Hispanic, and in the 2002-2003 school year, 13 of 19 schools failed to make enough progress under the law, Guida says. This year, seven failed.

``We are $18 million short of the money we need to carry out the school improvement plans,'' Guida says of Reading, where tax revenue declined by 34 percent, to $22.3 million, in the eight years from 1995 to 2003.
Reading gets $8 million a year from the federal government for such improvements, and Guida says in court papers that its costs are more than $26 million.

Ron Tomalis, counsel to U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, says the role of the federal government in Reading and every school district is to supplement the district's needs, not pay for them. He says Reading received a 60 percent increase in three years of federal government grants.

`Testing, Blaming, Punishing'

The law's requirement that standardized test scores go up each year comes at the expense of original thinking and creative programs such as art, music, poetry and history, says Lisa Guisbond, co-author of a two-year study of the law by FairTest, a Cambridge-based nonprofit group that researches standardized testing.

``The law is based on testing, blaming and punishing,'' Guisbond says. ``Teachers feel threatened that they will lose their jobs if their students' scores don't go up, and then they end up narrowing their focus.''

That's why parents in Scarsdale say they're boycotting standardized tests.

``Testing does not make for good education,'' says Leslie Berkovits, a former corporate securities lawyer at White & Case LLP in New York and a mother of three Scarsdale students. ``This is not just about Scarsdale.
This is a philosophical and educational point of view.''

Parents in communities in California, Massachusetts and Michigan have organized similar boycotts.

Law Raising Standards

Under the law, each state must set standards, and schools have to separately report scores of as many as 41 categories of students, including minorities, those for whom English is a second language, disabled pupils and those who are economically disadvantaged.

If scores in every group don't meet state standards for two years in a row, students in schools that receive money for poverty programs might be forced by the federal government to get special tutoring or transfers; the schools would have to pay for both.

Bush says the tests are needed to measure progress and says the law is raising standards and improving accountability in U.S. public school systems. Education Secretary Paige, 71, has softened aspects of the law this year in response to complaints from educators, says Education Department spokeswoman Jo Ann Webb.

Achievement Gap

The department agreed to give school districts greater flexibility in the way they report the scores of special education students, she says.

``Every organization in this nation that is devoted to minority advancement and civil rights should be embracing No Child Left Behind,'' Paige said during a July speech before members of the National Urban League, a New York-based civil rights group.

The law that once seemed full of promise to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oldest civil rights organization in the U.S., isn't closing the achievement gap, says Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington NAACP office, which has criticized No Child Left Behind.

``We believe schools are being challenged to meet the mandates without the resources,'' he says.

Poor and diverse minority communities where a majority of schools have failed to make progress for two years don't have the classroom space to transfer students to better schools as the law requires, Harvard's Orfield says.

10 School Districts

That's the case in Washington, which has 33,000 public school students, says Carol Jackson, administrative officer for the city's public school system.

Of 15 high schools in the district, only three aren't listed as needing improvement, and students are not eligible to transfer because they have specialized admissions policies.

``You can't transfer them from one public school that isn't making progress to another,'' Jackson says.

The Harvard group studied 10 U.S. school districts -- including those in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York -- in the last school year and found that none of the schools could afford to pay for all of the transfer requirements and that no district was able to approve all transfer requests.

``If the transfers are to be really valuable, they should be to genuinely better schools, and to do that would require including suburbs and providing voluntary transfers across district lines,'' Orfield says.

In New York, where 1,049 schools statewide failed to make adequate progress during the first year of the law, high- performing Scarsdale found its middle school listed with a similar designation again this year.

`All About Excellence'

Berkovits says parents won't be deterred. Superintendent McGill, who says he supports the philosophy behind the parents' boycott, says failure to meet the law's requirements isn't a reflection on the quality of Scarsdale schools.

``This is a very rigorous place academically and a school district that is all about excellence,'' McGill says of the suburb, 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of New York.

Scarsdale, with a tax base of $6.5 billion, spends $21,712 per student compared with an average of $11,500 in the rest of the state. The average SAT score for Scarsdale students is 1,262 (1,600 is a perfect score) compared with the national average of 1,026.

``If this law says that our schools are failing, I think it means the system is broken -- or poorly designed,'' McGill says.

`Kid in a Corner'

Springfield, a community of 23,677 about 12 miles southwest of Philadelphia, is also fighting the law.

At a meeting with his administrative staff in July, Superintendent O'Brien broke the news that while scores rose in every school, the district would be cited as ``in need of improvement,'' a label that would make the district look like it was failing.

The label came because the collective test scores of students with disabilities didn't rise enough during the past three years, O'Brien said.

``This is like putting a kid in a corner for performing poorly,'' says O'Brien, a 30-year veteran of the Springfield school system.

The law has the potential to dismantle public education in the U.S., he says, and he raises his voice to explain how the district's failure under the law would be publicized in local newspapers. ``It's part of the public humiliation part of this law,'' O'Brien says. ``I think it's absolutely wrong.''

Appealing the Label

In his national radio speech on Aug. 21, Bush said the law is intended to remedy, not punish. ``We are leaving behind the broken systems that shuffled children from grade to grade even when they were not learning the basics,'' Bush said.

Mack Johnson, a school administrator in Springfield and a parent of children in grades four and 10, says he dislikes both the law and the failure label. ``It's a shame this will tarnish good intentions, good people and a good district,'' Johnson says. ``I am absolutely offended that we are on this list.''

Springfield -- a community where brick homes with landscaped yards bear American flags and the median household income is $75,000 -- is proud of its schools and on top of what needs to be done to improve student performance, O'Brien says.

He estimates he and his staff spent more than 90 hours at the end of the 2003-2004 school year appealing the failure label, only to be told by state officials in July that the district hadn't made adequate progress a second time under the rules of the law.

O'Brien says the law is costing the district $800,000 to $1.6 million for additional staff, tutoring, special education teachers, classroom materials and data management.

Less Science and History

On an 86-degree July day, Springfield third-grade teacher Sandy O'Connor packs up summer school books and describes the stress she and her students feel during the week-long tests that are now mandatory under the law.

``It takes a lot of time away from other subjects,'' O'Connor says. She says she can't work individually with students in small groups and has to cut back in areas such as social studies, geography, science and history. ``The test should not be driving classroom instruction, but it is,'' she says.

Frank McNight, principal of Springfield's middle school, says that the law is a sincere effort to increase student achievement and that he doesn't believe it's aimed at districts like Springfield, where the vast majority of students are doing well.

``What I think is unfair is that students with learning disabilities are held to the same standard as students without disabilities,'' he says.

Not a Failure

Rina Vassallo, director of teaching and learning in Springfield, fears that consecutive ``needs improvement'' labels could shut down Springfield's public schools and open the door to private management.
``This system has been around since the early 1900s; I went to these schools,'' she says.

In March, six Pennsylvania superintendents testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on behalf of 138 of their colleagues, outlining their opposition to the law and their need for more funding. A total of 336 of 501 Pennsylvania superintendents signed a request seeking changes to the law, says James Weaver, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Francis Barnes tried to soften the stigma of a school district's being considered a failure under the law in a news release on Aug. 24.

``It's important to point out that if a school does not meet annual yearly progress, it is not necessarily a failing school,'' he said.
Barnes said that in the 2003-2004 school year, there was a 20 percent increase in Pennsylvania schools meeting the No Child Left Behind standards.

Limited English Speakers

Tomalis says educators have misinterpreted what the law says. ``Even our best schools have room to improve,'' he says. ``We are not saying these schools are failing.''

In Reading, most of the buildings are aging and overcrowded, and with so many schools deemed in need of improvement, there is no place to transfer students, says Superintendent Melissa Jamula, 51.

In August, after a three-judge state court panel ruled against the district's appeal of the state's decision to label six schools as ``needing improvement,'' Jamula found herself scrambling to offer parents choices where none exist.

Because the district has just one high school, Jamula instead will try to satisfy the law by offering extra tutoring. ``Neighboring districts are not going to want to take our kids, who are the poorest and scored the lowest,'' she says. ``They'll pull down their scores. The question is, How is this law going to help these kids when they have nowhere to go?''

Smaller Classes

Unless an appeal by the Reading School District to the state Supreme Court is successful, the ruling guarantees years of failure for Reading students, where 15 percent of the students are limited English speakers, Jamula says.

The district had asked the state to allow the newest immigrants to take the exams in Spanish. ``We've had kids taking these tests who are in tears, because they don't understand what is on this test and are barely speaking English,'' Jamula says.

Jamula credits the school system both she and her parents attended with providing an excellent education for her son, a graduate of Pennsylvania State University in College Park, and a daughter, a senior at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

She says she knows what is needed to improve student performance: all-day kindergarten, smaller classes, an extended school year, better technology and money to make teacher salaries more competitive. She says those goals aren't easy to accomplish with a budget of $132 million for 17,000 students.

In Scarsdale, the same students who boycotted the eighth- grade exams are applying to the most-competitive colleges in the U.S., including Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Yale.

In Belleville, Reading and Springfield, school officials are more concerned with the stigma of failure, along with a sense that the law is undermining public education and hurting the students it's intended to help.


— Liz Willen
Bloomberg News Service


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