No Child Left Behind Presents Set of Impossible Standards
Ohanian Comment:Hat's off to Tom Jobst, who isn't taking the atrocities lying down. We can only hope other educators stop toadying up to power and lend their voices to protest and resistance.
Of all the students she’s taught to speak English, Veronica Scheri is most proud of 9-year-old Jesus Corona.
Jesus came to Northwest School two years ago speaking no English but now reads as well as any fourth-grader.
“He’s my pride and joy,” said Scheri, a bilingual aide. “He’s done beautifully, but it took him two years.”
Unfortunately, Jesus and other Spanish-speaking children are causing La Salle schools to fail — according to the federal government, that is.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, American schools must improve on reading and math scores every year or risk losing Title I funds or worse.NCLB looks not only at a student body but also at “subgroups,” comprised of as few as 40 students, whose performance can drag down a school. There are no exemptions for special education or ESL students, who generally don’t fare well on the standardized tests used to gauge NCLB compliance.
“You know they’re not going to do well, and they know it, too,” Scheri said. “Soon their self-esteem is pushed down — and they need to feel good about themselves.”
What comes out of Springfield and Capitol Hill has far reaching consequences for children’s education in the Illinois Valley. The decisions made by senators and representatives can breathe life into or cripple school districts.
When children don’t test well, NCLB ensures that everybody loses. Schools with even one under-performing subgroup first get a warning. Funding is jeopardized, and, over time, the state can seize control of a district.
Tom Jobst expects that he and his staff at Ottawa Township High School could all be fired by 2008.
Within four years, Ottawa will be so irreversibly in violation of NCLB that they’ll have merited the worst sanction: restructuring and designation as a charter school.
“The whole thing is a sham,” said Jobst, Ottawa High’s superintendent. “It’s about breaking up local control of schools. Congress couldn’t get vouchers, so they settled for this.”
Not all of his peers share the belief that Congress designed NCLB to privatize “failing schools.” All those interviewed agreed: It’s a matter of a time before they follow Ottawa’s lead and fall short of the act’s lofty goals.
NCLB requires that 95 percent of students meet basic math and reading standards and another 40 percent exceed them. Another 88 percent of students must meet attendance standards. Schools must make “adequate yearly progress” toward reaching the goal of 100 percent compliance.
Jobst said national standards are unrealistic because children don’t learn at the same pace, and unfair because single-day testing decides whether they pass.
“What if we say to Sammy Sosa, ‘We will base your contract on how you bat on July 5,’ and what if he has a bad game that day?” Jobst said. “The problem is the system is based on a single, high-stakes test, and it does not even test what we are teaching.”
Waltham superintendent Kristen School said NCLB doesn’t even gauge progress within a particular group.
Suppose third-graders do well in 2004. Whether a school makes adequate yearly progress in 2005 depends not on how those same children do in the fourth grade, but how the incoming third-graders do.
“Every year you’re giving this test, you’re testing a different group of kids,” School said. “It’s not apples-to-apples.”
Former La Salle elementary superintendent Al Humpage said he believes in accountability, but said Congress devised NCLB to apply business principles to education, linking test scores to sanctions as a means of punishing poor performance.
Uniform standards might work for producing lumber or wristwatches, Humpage said, but manufacturers have the luxury of sending defective materials back to the vendor.
“A public school has to accept every child that comes through the door, no matter what the defects,” he said. “We’re not able to say, ‘Sorry, you don’t fit our criteria.’
“The business model does not work in the real world,” he said. “Children are not widgets.”
Jobst sees two ways out: turn down Title I money and avoid NCLB requirements altogether, or sue the federal government to reverse the act.
Jobst has considered spurning $80,000 in Title I money despite a tight budget.
Filing a lawsuit also is an attractive option, but Jobst hopes that other schools would join in any litigation.
With an election to win in 2004, lawmakers were unwilling to correct flaws in NCLB. Once George W. Bush was re-elected, lawmakers were free to make changes.
U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Peoria), a former teacher whose district includes Spring Valley, said he plans to seek more funding.
Most school districts would welcome that. Princeton superintendent James Whitmore said the district only receives 4.9 percent of its funding from the federal government. Princeton spends $6,800 a year to educate a child, but just $400 comes from Washington.
“Our test scores are continually above state averages,” he said, “but the federal government only gives us $419,000 a year.”
LaHood also plans to re-evaluate the 100-percent goals that schools eventually would be held to.
“This is a very unrealistic standard for students,” LaHood said. “It certainly can’t be met by special education students, special needs students and by students who, through no fault of their own, miss a lot of school.”
U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) whose district includes La Salle County and most of Bureau County, identified two areas for altering NCLB.
First, Weller would consider amending teacher qualifications to let people continue teaching even if they don’t hold a bachelor’s degree in a particular subject.
Weller also believes NCLB should allow students to pursue career and technical education programs even if their test scores are bad, provided they receive further instruction in those subjects.
Don’t look for NCLB to be repealed, however. Accountability remains a buzzword in the Bush administration and any action is unlikely to extend beyond tweaking NCLB. Plus, legislators reject the notion that they set up schools to fail.
“I don’t buy that argument,” LaHood said. “That’s pretty far afield of what the intentions were.”
Voters may find that NCLB is a paper tiger, however. Though students would have the right to transfer out of “failing” schools, nothing in NCLB requires “successful” schools to take them.
Peru has a comparatively strong tax base and might attract transfers, but superintendent James Bagley said Peru would reject most, if not all, transfer requests.
“We’ve gone to referendum twice now for crowded school conditions,” Bagley said. “We just don’t think we have the luxury of taking students from other school districts.”
And what about state takeovers? Would the state seize Ottawa High when it comes down to it?
“You and I both know it’s not going to happen,” said Humpage, shaking his head. “The state doesn’t have the manpower or the resources to take over the schools.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “they can tar and feather you in public long before those sanctions take place.”
Tom Collins and Sean Thomas
(Illinois) News Tribune
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES